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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

Two people, two lives, two tragedies, two memorials.

The first memorial is at the on-ramp to the I-190 from Niagara Falls Boulevard near 66th Street. It was there, on the afternoon of Oct. 6, that 21-year-old Mark Kirkpatrick was killed when his motorcycle collided with a van. The second is on the 66th Street pedestrian overpass above the LaSalle Expressway. On Dec. 14 of last year, three young males murdered Jennifer Bolender at that location.

For Mark Kirkpatrick's family and friends, some closure was afforded when his body was laid to rest. Jennifer Bolender's family took a big step forward this past week when two of her killers were sentenced, and the third convicted. He faces sentencing next month.

For the families and friends of Jennifer and Mark, that may have been the easy part. Having something to focus on -- a funeral or a trial -- occupies the mind. Nothing can prepare a young person to face the reality of his or her own mortality by dealing with the death of a friend. And nothing can truly comfort a parent who must bury his or her own child -- as these words from Shakespeare's "King John" attest:

Grief fills up the room of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me all of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

Flowers and crosses deck each memorial. Three candles burn at Jennifer's memorial and someone has carved a pumpkin with the words "We Love You, Mark" at Kirkpatrick's.

There is a poem on display at each. A friend of Jennifer's tries to create couplets that will make sense of her brutal murder, while a relative of Mark's laments the fact that she didn't say "I love you" the last time she saw him.

It is not uncommon for people embroiled in grief to turn to religion for insight and comfort. It is not uncommon for religion to offer little in the way of either, at least in any tangible fashion. What the world's major religions have to offer us in trying to understand such senseless loss is one important and powerful five-letter word -- faith.

And that's just as it should be. The understanding of such events is far beyond the comprehension of man. What can be understood is the healing effect that a heartfelt memorial can bring.

My family and I visited the memorials for Jennifer Bolender and Mark Kirkpatrick. It is difficult to describe the emotions that overcame me. As I watched my 2-year-old son lean in to smell the flowers, I was reminded of how fleeting life and youth can be.

"There but for the grace of God go I" is an oft-quoted phrase, and for good reason. It could just as easily have been my child -- or yours -- that hopped on his motorcycle to go for a spin from which he would not return. It could have been one of our daughters that went moonlight bowling and did not find safe passage on an overpass that she'd traversed hundreds of times before.

In fact, it was.

Niagara Falls, which was once a mid-sized city, has become more of a large town. With large-town sensibilities. One of a town's greatest attributes is its sense of community. We shop at the same stores, read the same newspapers, watch the same television channels, eat at the same restaurants and vote for the same politicians. Is it too much of a stretch to think of our children as a shared asset, as well?

When Hillary Clinton wrote the words, "It takes a village," she could have been speaking directly to Niagara Falls about the importance of the two memorials that shadow 66th Street. Two tragic events took from the soul of this village, and it is the soul of this village that will aid in the healing of two grieving families.

We cannot turn back the hands of time, but we can help preserve the memory of Jennifer Bolender and Mark Kirkpatrick.

When you pass those memorials, let them remind you to hug your kids and tell them that you love them. Let them remind you that there are people on the streets of this city who need your charity. Let them remind you that a simple act of kindness pays dividends more valuable than money. Let them remind you that each day provides opportunities to prove yourself better than you thought you could be. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, good can arise from tragedy.

Two people, two lives, two tragedies, two memorials. Both taken too young, too soon.

Frank Thomas Croisdale is a Contributing Editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter. You can write him at NFReporter@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 11 2003