GUEST OPINION: Make Sure it Ends Before it Begins

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By Theresa O’Neal

I was giving my place a special cleaning yesterday in preparation for Christmas and New Year’s and I threw the windows open to let some fresh air in as well. It was a typical Saturday before the holidays, busy washing, cooking, cleaning and I was about to run my errands. As I cleaned, my Martha Stewart-like focus was interrupted by wailing and screaming coming from outside my home. It was somewhat far away but too close to ignore. The sounds were gut-wrenching and piercing, and in an instant I grabbed my stomach. I knew that wail… it was a mother. Instinctively, I knew. I KNEW something had happened to HER child. Only a mother could howl like that. I ran to the front door and from what I could see, a half-a-block away, a commotion in front of a distant house with neighbors and family members circling and screaming. But it was her cry, “Oh God have mercy on us”, in a distinctive, West Indian voice that confirmed in me that something had happened to her child.

An ambulance, then two. A police car, then two. My son begged me not to go outside, but I couldn’t help it. I threw on my coat. We have rules in Brooklyn. You don’t run to the scene of a crime, you run from it,
because the trouble may just be starting. But it was that mother’s scream…. I stood at my corner, still trying to figure out what had happened, a half-a-block away. An older man holding a little girl’s hand walked past the situation and then in my direction. As they approached, I asked him what happened, and he replied in a thick Haitian accent, “You see! This is America! They raise their children to do anything they want! One son beat up his mother, pushed her down and then the other brother beat him to death! He is laying in the street! Jaw broken, everything! I would have done the same thing! You don’t touch your mother!”

I immediately began to weep. I couldn’t believe it…. Another man who passed by could only shake his head as he approached, mumbling “terrible, just terrible”. But he continued on. Christian, my 15-year-old, begged me to come back inside as the howling continued. I went in reluctantly, but I knew, in that moment, there is nothing I could do for them. I grew up in Brooklyn and there was always some domestic scenario to be leery about, or some days you would have to “mind your business” and simply call the police if it seems like it’s getting too out of control. But what else should be done?

I began to think how ironic it was that a 20-year-old young man had just killed his mother and others in Connecticut and yet again my neighbors were in peril and there were no news trucks. And everyone, just like me, went back inside to go on with our lives. I felt guilty because I felt helpless.

The police were there and what seemed to be other family members. And believe me, the scenario isn’t unfamiliar. Whatever went wrong in that family happened a long time ago. The deed was done. Or was it? Was he really dead? I still don’t know. But yet, it was still another mother’s child. A senseless tragedy. Was he on drugs? He had to be mentally ill to have assaulted his mother. What happened beforehand? Did he suffer from mental illness like Adam Lanza? Were they going to care enough to find out “why”? And talk about how WE as a society “failed him” as we did certain others? Or would the powers that be disregard him like another inner-city thug, juvenile delinquent who went down a path that was inevitable? As for the other brother who beat him, what was his fate? My God, what is next for their family?

What was also striking was the indifference I witnessed in both of the men who passed by. Maybe it was purely instinctive, for survival sake to condemn the situation and just keep it moving. But when something happens to a child any mother may grab her belly instinctively as I did, feeling the pang of a womb drop. For me, right then, there had to be something more, much more to do. But what?? Whether it was 26 in Connecticut, 433 in Chicago or just one more in Brooklyn, WE MUST react differently when it happens. Even better, we need to make sure it ends before it ever begins.

I know one thing we can do.

If you plan to gather this week with family and friends, please talk with your loved ones and ask them how they are doing. For real. Not via tweet, text or post. If possible, call, show up and tune in. Let him or her know that if they need someone to share a concern with, you are all ears.

We can make a difference by checking in with each other, especially with our young people. Beyond the requests for electronics and gift cards, try and find out what they really need. Take a break from the family dinner and do something simple like taking a walk to the corner store together for more ice and perhaps, “a dollar and a dream”. That trip to the corner store may not yield a winning lotto ticket, but hey, you never know.