THE PICTURE AREN ALMON CARRIES in her tiny gold heart-shaped locket is of a cheerful 6-week-old girl with black hair and blue eyes, wearing pink. This is how Almon, 23, wants her daughter, Baylee, to be remembered. "As a person who lived and breathed," she says, her voice breaking with grief and anger. And as a little girl who was crazy for Miss Piggy and birthday cake, who was so curious about her mother's camcorder she'd snuggle right up to the lens and kiss it.
Of course the lasting image the world has of Baylee Almon is a far different one, drawn from a photo seen across the world, showing a firefighter cradling the baby's lifeless body. Snapped just after the April 19 bombing of Oklahoma City's Murrah federal building, the picture has become a sort of icon for the tragedy, a memorial to the children whose lives it claimed. But for Baylee's family, it only brought more distress. "You kind of wish someone else would get the attention," says Aren's father, Tommy Almon, 46, a barber. For Aren, the picture is a constant reminder of the unremitting pain of losing her only child. "I take a lot of grief over that picture," she says, "and it's made my tragedy a lot harder."
Yet the photograph was also what gave her the comfort of knowing that the baby had been in caring hands within moments of her death. And it brought another source of solace: Aren has forged a close friendship with the firefighter who carried Baylee's body from the disaster, Chris Fields, 31, who has spent countless hours helping her to cope with her hurt-"I talk to him about two or three times a week," says Aren, who has also struck up a friendship with the firefighter's wife, Cheryl. "I think it affected him really hard," Aren says, "but I think I've been a lot of help to him, as much help to him as he has been to me."
Fields—who was so affected by that day last April that he keeps Baylee's photo on his fire-station locker—isn't sure just why he and Aren share such an unusual bond. "Some people have said that maybe it was because I was the last person to hold Baylee," he says. "There may be a little bit of that."
Despite their closeness, Almon has never asked him about the moment when police sergeant John Avera—who has also become a friend—scooped Baylee out of the rubble and handed her to Fields. Just the night before, the baby's family and friends had celebrated her first birthday, complete with a chocolate cake featuring Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. "She was hauling up to everyone, and when they'd go 'Smile!' to take her picture, she'd take their cake," Aren remembers. April 19 had been Baylee's first day back at the daycare center after six weeks at home recovering from pneumonia. It was also Aren's second day on the job as a lockbox operator at an insurance company 10 blocks from the blast. After hearing the explosion—she thought it was thunder at first—she made her way to the building, where she frantically searched in vain for Baylee, finally discovering her daughter's body at St. Anthony Hospital, the very place where the little girl had been born just a year earlier.
"It's been a never-ending nightmare," Tommy Almon says of the past year. "Just when we think it's about smoothed out, something else happens." At first, Aren, Tommy and her mother, Debbie, 45, had to deal with the consequences of the media's focus. Over time, Aren says, she has endured sniping from the survivors of other children killed, who have expressed resentment that government officials have paid so much attention to the Almons. "They're afraid that their children are going to be forgotten," Aren says, "and that Baylee's not." Coming on the heels of Baylee's death, the spotlight and criticism have taken a toll. "Our daughter nearly lost her mind," Tommy says of Aren, who is no longer working and is seeing a therapist.
Even aside from losing her daughter, Aren has had her share of troubles. Though she had been dating Baylee's father for nearly three years before she became pregnant, he left her before Baylee's birth. "He chose not to see her," says Aren, who won't talk about the man. Nor is she prepared to enter into another relationship before she's able to heal her psychological wounds. "She has so many problems that she doesn't think it would be fair to get with a man," says her father. But that doesn't mean she's isolating herself, thanks to a much-needed bit of happy news in the Almon family. Two weeks ago, Aren's sister Abby gave birth to her third child, a little girl named Kiyra Lynn. And when Abby goes back to her job at the county clerk's office, Aren will be taking care of the child. Says Tommy, who lives with his wife, Debbie, in the same apartment building as Aren—which overlooks the site of the bombing: "We're kind of ready to have another baby around again."
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