We moved to Trenton, New Jersey, from Puerto Rico when I was four. It was completely different then. You could go outside and play, everybody knew one another. But then, I guess in the ’80s, when the drugs came, the drug infestation in the city, there were a lot of lost families, a lot of lost communities. . . . There’s a lot of violence now, gang activity and shootings. People don’t really know one another; that sense of community isn’t there anymore. Even before my only son, Benjamin, was killed, I worked part-time at the local hospital, and we would get trauma calls, high-alert calls, and I’d call Benjamin: “Benjamin, where you at?” “I’m at home.” “Well, you got to be careful because they are shooting at such-and-such street; make sure you’re in the house.” My mom still lives in the neighborhood, and she says, you know, “Oh, they were shooting up the street.” People have become desensitized to it. I live about 25 minutes away these days. It’s a completely different world.
I started talking to Benjamin at the age of 10 about making the right choices, not being involved with guns or gangs. I would tell him, “I work to take care of you. I don’t want you ever to feel like you need to go on the street for anything.” And I was always threatening him, like, “I’m not visiting if you do something wrong. That’s not what I’m going to do. I’m not going to put any money on your books.” And raising a young man is very difficult as a single mom, but I did instill a little fear in him about the streets, how we didn’t approve of that. Constantly saying, “Look how I live, look at how I set an example. I went to school. I chose to have a job. And I worked hard for what I wanted. I didn’t go out and do anything illegal.” He was very aware of his surroundings. I would always tell him, “It’s not where you live, it’s how you live.” I always instilled that in him. Even when he was in high school, they tried to have him join a gang and he told them no, he would rather fight them than fight me.
At about 8:00 p.m. on October 10, 2012, Benjamin was in front of his grandparents’ home, sitting on the porch, listening to music, as they drove down the street shooting. The one bullet that hit him went to his heart and then his right lung, so he basically suffocated in his own blood. My dad told me Benjamin came running into the house and woke him up, saying he’d been shot and to call the police. And then he collapsed in the doorway, almost barricading my dad in the bedroom. My dad held his hand as he passed, and that always gave me a little sense of peace because I know he didn’t suffer, and I know he didn’t die alone.
It was a long night, waiting for the police to let me see him. Because I worked at the hospital, they allowed me to spend as much time as I could with Benjamin prior to them taking him to the coroner. I wanted to make sure that they treated him well, so I stayed. I watched them put him in a body bag. I watched them roll him down the hall. Sometimes I regret doing that because I still remember it, but I had to make sure that he was okay. You’re always a mom, you never lose that. I still worry about him. Is he okay? Is he cold?
I took a long time off after Benjamin’s death because I didn’t know what else to do. My mind was all over the place, thoughts racing everywhere. I went through panic attacks, things of that sort. I would stop at 8:47 p.m. on the dot. That was the time he was pronounced dead. I didn’t have to look at the clock—I knew it was 8:47.
I couldn’t drive through the tunnel in Trenton, which was my normal way to work, because it reminded me of that night. My dad ended up staying with me for two years after the shooting because he couldn’t go back inside the house where Benjamin had passed. It’s not a natural process. You don’t ever think that you will be burying your child. And then the unexpected, the unimaginable happens, and your life is completely torn apart. My husband and I were just talking about it because it’s been almost five years and he said, “Oh, we used to spend more time together” or “You used to want to go out; I want you to be how you used to be.” And I said to him, “I’m never going to be like I used to be. It’s not possible. A big part of me has gone.” He was my only child, my only biological child. I raised Benjamin to do good. You expect to see the fruits of your labor. He was maturing. He was going to school. He had found out he had a son, so he was really motivated to do right by him, because his own father wasn’t in his life. So you saw him grow into a young man, and then he was taken . . . for no reason. And it doesn’t go away. So you just learn to live with this missing piece of yourself. The world goes on, unfortunately.
Benjamin’s son, Tykir, lives with me. He’s been a blessing. It’s almost bittersweet because I see Benjamin in him so much. He really favors his father. Sometimes I smile and sometimes I cry. He asks me about his dad now that he’s getting older. He was only a year and a half old when his dad passed away. He knows who his father is from photos, but he doesn’t have any memories of him. He always asks me, “Did my daddy like this? Did my daddy do this when he was younger?” He knows his dad was killed. He knows his dad is in heaven. I try to talk to him about that. I try not to be bitter and angry because I don’t want him to see that. I want him to know that his dad was loved.
I started B.E.N.S. Way, an organization dedicated to providing support and financial assistance to minority males in the community, about two years after Benjamin was killed. I had been saving money to put up a billboard and offer a reward for information regarding his death. Benjamin was an unintended target and there were no leads in the case. The police didn’t have any information, and I wanted answers. And then my thinking changed. To know Benjamin was to know that he was a very forgiving person. He had a good heart. He never held a grudge, unlike his mother. He always wanted to help.
I thought, Why don’t I start something to help other boys in the community? I should help those who don’t have the opportunities that Benjamin had, to give them something that they can use, to help them see that the world is more than just Trenton, New Jersey. And if I can change one life, prevent one of them from turning to a life of crime or violence, or tap into the potential they have and assist them in fulfilling their goals, doing something more with themselves, then I think Benjamin would be pleased. And when Tykir gets older, he’s going to look up his dad’s name on the Internet and see all the good that was done because of him.
But with all the gun violence that’s going on, unless we do something to curb the spread of gun violence and advocate for safer gun laws, we’re not going to have any young people left to give our scholarships to. It’s not going to happen because there is constant violence taking innocent lives. Seems like every day you read about another child being gunned down or suffering from gun violence.
That’s the reason why I speak out even though I’m not comfortable speaking. I’ve never been one in the forefront, but in order to bring about some type of change in our society, in our community, we have to come together and create a culture of gun safety because it will save lives. It will. And another parent won’t have to remember their son or their daughter being taken from them due to this senseless gun violence.
Benjamin is resting in peace, but we’re still living with that loss. I tell people it’s almost like you had a fractured leg and they tried to cast it but it didn’t heal correctly. You now walk with a limp. Every day now, you feel pain when you walk, you feel that discomfort, and you continue on. But that pain and that limp are still there. They don’t ever go away.
Gun Safety is a series about gun violence in America, with a new essay appearing each day until National Gun Violence Awareness Day, on June 2. To learn more about what you can do to prevent gun violence, and to participate in the Wear Orange campaign, go to WearOrange.org.
Ten years ago, on May 10, my 15-year-old son, Blair, was taking the bus to his grandparents’ house after school. They ran a small grocery store, and Blair used to help them out. The bus was crowded—packed with students. A teenager boarded and pulled out a gun. Later we found out that he was trying to kill a rival gang member. Blair jumped in front of a young lady. She lived, and he died. The four other people who were also shot survived.
I had just gotten home from getting my hair done, when my cousin called. “I hear Blair’s been shot.” I called the firehouse where I worked and asked if they heard anything. The person who answered hadn’t, but something just felt wrong. I called another friend who’s a fire chief, and he called around.
I started heading to the closest hospital and called Blair’s dad. He was picking up a Mother’s Day gift Blair ordered for me. I had just been promoted to captain and Blair wanted me to have a replica of my badge. He said, “Annette, calm down.” I called my mom, and she was like, “Calm down, he’s okay; he’s a good kid.” Then I drove past one of the kids Blair knew and he told me: “He’s been shot.” My heart sank. I got to the trauma center where a group of people had gathered to support Blair. We were all praying for him. The doctor came out and said, “He’s fighting. He’s in surgery now.” When he came out again, he told us Blair didn’t make it. I remember running through the hospital screaming. I couldn’t believe what had happened.
People ask: Was he in a gang? Did he do drugs? No, no. Blair was an honors student. He was adorable and smart. My God, that boy was so smart. And he was a good kid; I can count on one hand the number of times I ever had to get on his case about anything. My dad was in his 80s and had dementia, and Blair would take such good care of him. They were so close, they would dress in matching blue jeans and Air Force Ones.
Blair was aware of the gun violence problem in Chicago. My parents’ store was in the Roseland neighborhood where there was a lot of violence. He used to write poetry about how bad it was and how education was the way to get out. He had so many journals; he would sit and write and write and write. He wrote about how young people stand on corners and sling drugs, and he was like, “You’re selling drugs; you don’t even know what a gram is. You know nothing.” He wrote about how the government doesn’t care about what’s happening to black youth.
He wrote raps, too. He always loved music—we both did. When I was pregnant with Blair, I used to put headphones on my stomach and play him songs. When he got older, he told me he wanted to be a rapper. I said, “Baby, most people don’t make it because they don’t learn about the business.” He said, “Okay, I’ll study business administration and get an M.B.A.” He and his friends would sit in his room chatting, listening to music, playing games and talking about going to college. They had it all planned out.
I still live in the same home, and I’ve kept most of Blair’s stuff. I can honestly say that 10 years later it’s still hard to live in a house that is so silent. I was used to noise and loud music and his friends messing up my kitchen.
The day after Blair was killed, his father and I hit the ground running. I’m a chief in the fire department and he’s a commander in the police department. We knew the violence that was out there, and we always tried to shield Blair. Saving lives was our job, not his. A child should never have to be put in the position of giving his life to save another.
We knew if this happened in spite of everything we did to protect our son, it could happen to anyone else’s child. We started a group for other parents who’d lost their children to gun violence, called Purpose Over Pain.
We have a birthday party every year in June to celebrate Blair’s life. We rent out a hall and feed everyone, and we raise money for a scholarship fund in his name at Percy L. Julian High School on Chicago’s South Side, where Blair attended school. June 1 would have been Blair’s 27th birthday.
And we have Peace Week at Julian High, in which students from different schools come together and talk about problems in the community. On the final day, we plant flowers around the school and write positive affirmations on the pots.
I have been trying to go back to school to finish my master’s in public administration. I was in school when Blair was little and I stopped so I could focus on raising him. Our time was filled going to sporting events and taking trips. Blair would have wanted me to finish my degree.
When he performed in a play, I’d be sitting there crying. I was so proud of him. I was looking forward to what Blair would have been. I knew it was going to be something great. I never thought it would be losing his life to save someone else’s.
Gun Safety is a series about gun violence in America, with a new essay appearing each day until National Gun Violence Awareness Day, on June 2. To learn more about what you can do to prevent gun violence and to participate in the Wear Orange campaign, go to wearorange.org.