Walking to the bus stop yesterday morning with all three of my children we talked about bugs and the blooming hibiscus that Myles described as looking like purple plums with tongues. He has a burgeoning love for poetry and I just love looking at and describing the world in creative and beautiful ways with him. It’s the last week of school and we’re all anxious for it to be over, so we walked slow to the bus stop through the thick humid air. None of the children have their book bags with them anymore. They’re just going to school to watch Disney movies for a few hours, run around on the playground equipment while their teachers fan themselves in the shade, and spend their last days joking around with their friends.
We arrived to the bus stop at the same moment as Xavier and his mom. Xavier is a little kindergartener, the same as my Owen, who lives 2 blocks away from us and he ran in circles and smiled with the other kids, oblivious to his mom’s crying. I asked her if she was okay and she said “No. I’m really down this morning. My little nephew was killed last night in a shooting.” My first response was oh my god. i’m so sorry. This isn’t news that I hear in my circle of neighbors and friends very often. The last time I received this kind of news was two years ago when a woman in my church shot and killed her 7 year old daughter and then herself at their home while her husband was at work and her older daughter was at summer camp. It rattled our community to the core.
But the gun violence that found its way into my neighbor’s life is something very, very different. When I asked her how old he was his life flooded out from inside of her:
He was 17 but he lived an uncontrollable life. He wouldn’t listen to us and there was nothing we could do. He was just out of control and we’re all just so sad. We saw this happening but I just still can’t believe it.
When the bus pulled up all of the little kids lined up and piled up the steps. Xavier was full of smiles and waved back to his mom and she just stood there staring at him. Her eyebrows furrowed and new tears filled her eyes and she watched him. On the bus, the kids poked their heads out of the windows and waved their goodbyes and there she stood. Eyes staring. Tears streaming. Watching her 5 year old drive away from her.
Her watchful, crying eyes haunt me this morning. I keep picturing her happy, smiling son waving at her. And she stands there. Tall. Strong. Staring. Crying. There was so much worry, fear and sadness locked on her face. There is a knowing in the creases of her eyes that I don’t have. Her understanding of our city, our people, and our communities are etched much more sharply and deeply into her body than mine, and so she looks at her son in a way that I will never be able to or have to look at my own. When she sees her son, does she see the statistics? Does she see the images of her nephew holding guns? Does she see handcuffs, crime tape, and police cars? Does she see the bullet holes in cars and hats laying in the street? What does she see? Because I see a smiling, waving child. When I look at my sons I see them making silly, innocent poems and chasing fireflies. And then I feel almost foolish. The lens and view that I have of my city is so small and so naive. I read the posts on NextDoor by my neighbors about black boys on bikes that might be casing the neighborhood, car break-ins, burglaries, muggings, and people feeding raccoons and they are just like me. They see our city from a vantage point that doesn’t see their sons and daughters as a statistic. Our special little children write poems and go to swim lessons and we never worry that one day they might have a gun in their pocket and end up as a hat in the street. We worry that those are the kids that will harm us and ours.
And I cry. Because I’m so naive. Because my city is not how I know it and see it. Because there are mothers who can’t wave back at their children. Because how do we control uncontrollable lives? I’m sitting here in my whiteness, the skin that I was born in, the skin that protects me and my children from statistics and crime tape, and I want to help, I want to say and do anything to help Xavier’s mom wave at him. To keep him innocent and smiling. To keep the guns out of his pocket. To keep him writing poetry about the blooming hibiscus. And still I cry because I can’t. I can only hug his mom. I can only cry with her and walk next to her. Invite them over for dinner. Be their neighbor. What else can I do? This city is not mine. It is ours. And our city needs us to not be afraid of our black children and their parents and their schools. It needs to us sit with them and eat with them and learn with them and not be afraid of the guns. It needs us to love each other and talk to each other. And so, I’ll write. I’m writing to you. How will you love our city and the people in it?
These are images of my kids, Don Demetrius Jr., the 17 year old shot and killed on Sunday night, children at the PB Young school garden, and our city where we all live. So many images of hopes, dreams, and violence that shape our communities in so many different ways. How do we confront them in meaningful and purposeful ways? How do we live together in love and not in fear? They’re all our children.