Written by Elizabeth Eilers Sullivan, Visitation Alumna
Princess takes a deep breath as she looks at the floor. She is sitting in a low to the ground armchair to my left. Her long dark braids cascade around her face and her hands are clasped at her mouth as she gathers her courage. After a silent pause she asks her friend, Constance, to share her story first; “I need to collect my thoughts,” she smoothly states.
The chairs in the living room at the Girard Monastery are in a circle. There are candles lit on the coffee table in the center. I went to north Minneapolis this Friday, May 27, 2011, for an impromptu visit to the monastery with my four-week-old son, Seamus. I wanted to see the destruction left behind from the tornado, and to witness the rebuilding of the community. However, Sister Katherine invited me to stay to hear these two mothers, Constance and Princess, tell their stories; I witness another kind of rebuilding in the wake of devastation.
With Princess’ request, Constance begins to speak with honesty and eloquence — if one can speak eloquently about what it is like to have her oldest son, Dante, murdered. On October 2, 1994, at 10:30 a.m. Constance lost her son at the tender age of 16.
Dante was born June 29, 1978; if he were still alive today he would be celebrating his 32nd birthday this month. Constance talks about the anger she harbored at God and others with the loss of her son. She describes the downward spiral she fell into: drinking and doing drugs to deal with the pain of her son’s death. Later in a phone conversation I have with her, she says, “My then 12-year-old son came to Dante’s funeral in handcuffs and shackles, handcuffs and shackles,” she repeats. She tells of the grace she found when she finally turned to God and realized that she does not have control over the things that happen in life, much less her son’s death.
The room is silent; a sacred hush blankets it. “I need to stand otherwise I won’t look you all in the eye while I tell my story.” With that Princess rises.
She speaks about what life was like before July 4, 2010, just ten months ago- when both of her two sons were living. She shares how the fourth of July holiday, her mother-in-law’s birthday, was a ritual of celebration for anyone who happened to have a birthday on or near her mother’s. A cake was ordered for the event with the words: “Happy Birthday all Cancers and PHAT PHAT!” Her son, Anthony, was the only one that got mentioned by name on the cake, his endearing nickname, “Phat Phat.”
Anthony asked permission back in March to attend a party scheduled for the fourth of July, his friend’s graduation. Permission granted, Princess gave him bus money to go to the party and quizzed him like any protective, good mother would do, “What are you going to do if one of your friends does not have bus fare?”
His reply, “I’ll take the bus ma, I won’t walk with them.”
Their plan: for Princess to pick Anthony up after the fireworks.
There is a before and after to her story, to each mom’s story–in this group From Death to Life.
However, there is no “after the fireworks” that night, not as they plan. As Princess’ family gathers around to watch the fireworks display, Princess’ phone rings. It is 8:50 pm.
At 8:49 pm her son is shot, by 8:50 pm he is dead.
“When I hear this. I drop my phone and began to sing,” she says as she sways slow and steady, lost in that memory:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
Dead. Within a minute.
This fact settles, as I hold my four week old son, sitting next to Princess. He begins to fuss and root, he wants to be nursed. I can’t bring myself to do it. Not here. It seems wrong that here I hold my fourth son who I can touch and feed, but I just can’t bring myself to nurse him while she talks about the excruciating pain of losing her son. I pacify Seamus with my pinky finger and he sucks readily. I am relieved that he’s quieted. My heart aches as she continues to speak, tears brim in my eyes.
Dead: her son, her Anthony. Against all the plans, the permission, the preparation, Anthony just becoming man, the bullet enters his body leaving no mark of blood on his shirt. Anthony dies from internal bleeding. His t-shirt is clean, no blood, the only evidence of his murder is the deadly hole left behind from the bullet.
“I am not going to talk about what it is like to deal with the hurt and anger at losing a son because Constance covered that well, but I want to talk about what it is like to lose two sons. I lost two sons that day.” Princess continues to explain that while one was murdered, her other son, Jessie, while still living and breathing, is also dead. Jessie no longer talks to her, no longer hugs her like he used to, nor looks her in the eye. He will be close to a friend one week and then won’t return calls the next week. The only way she knows how Jessie is doing is by listening to his spoken words and songs he composes late into the night. And with heart wrenching memory she shares some of his songs that speak about being no longer here.
Princess shares: “My son, Anthony, who is dead, is here spiritually with me, and my son, Jessie, that lives, is here physically – but gone spiritually.”
And while Princess has Constance and other mothers who are part of the Death to Life group to garner support and to pray with, these young men that remain have no where to go to make sense of their lost brother, cousin, friend. “What do we do for them so that they can heal?” Princess muses. Her son who is alive is afraid. Rightfully so. Princess aches, and yet, she courageously shares her story shy of her son’s anniversary.
I cradle my son, Seamus, closer. I want to offer for her to hold my baby, but this isn’t what she needs. My arms ache for her as she talks about wanting to hold her son. She prays to God to let her see, touch, hear Anthony again—God answers her prayers and she sees Anthony in her dreams. Jessie she hopes to hold again. She wears their clothes to feel close to them, to cope. She pulls up her pants to reveal mismatched socks as evidence that she is barely holding it together. A tell tale sign that their feet once slid these socks on with a casualness she longs to have back. Princess ends by encouraging all of us to go through our pain.
“Please do not harbor [your pain] and hold onto it, because it will eat you alive — but let it out.” She clenches her fist and releases it and says, “When we feel our emotions it is like a spiritual massage,” and her fist opens and closes a few times more reminding me of a heart that pulses.
As I drive home that night, I drive by the hardest hit areas from the tornado; I see the fallen trees, destroyed homes, displaced people. I see the crews of volunteers, the donation spots, and wonder how much destruction can manifest itself in one neighborhood. How much more can a community take? I hold the tornadoes of the heart that Princess and Constance share by having the courage to tell their story.
Sister Mary Margaret says, “The long term wear and tear of the tornado is very nerve-racking. Keep the prayers blanketing the area….”
And so our prayers blanket all that is lost and all that remains to be rebuildt, but people can never be brought back, and this is our sobering heartbreak of a reality to accept.
To read more posts that cover more From Death to Life stories.
To watch CBS Evening News coverage of Mary Johnson & Oshea