Patricia Middleton talks about celebration and pain in the same sentence. She has become a kind of griot, a genealogist of street history. From her living room on Jefferson Avenue, she calls the names of victims of violence, recounts the last chapters in their lives, and relates how the mothers are coping.
In one long sigh, she describes cruel ironies: a child was beaten and killed. The officer claims he suffered an epileptic fit and his gun went off.
As President of Families of Victims Against Violence, formed in 1992 by Reverend Herbert Daughtry at House of the Lord Church on Atlantic Avenue, she knows the tragic stories and obituaries of many families. They share them the second Monday of every month at 6pm at the church.
There is nothing maudlin here. Pat has a great sense of humor. It’s a mix of that rare southern homespun and urban kickbutt. But along with the laughter there is always the sense of commitment to her mission to help families who are suffering from the loss of a loved one to a violent act. She files the bleak stories about homicides unsolved and unnoticed. And there are other poignant stories: the late Randolph Evans is remembered through a scholarship fund established in his name; Francine Davis lost five family members to separate apparently unrelated acts of violence. At FOVAV’s ADay of Remembrance event last March, Ms. Davis lit candles for three sons and two nephews. And there are many more –hundreds–on life in the war zone, where there are no winners. AHow many do you want to hear? At any given moment I feel the pain.
There can be no pretense of understanding the pain a woman like Pat feels when the child she labored with soul, body and heart to bring into this world and raise, is brutally wrenched from life. Wade Denson, Pat’s 17 year-old son, was killed in the Red Hook projects during Labor Day weekend in 1995. She was told he was slain by a friend who is now in jail. Wade had graduated from Paul Robeson H.S., that past June, and was looking beyond the streets to higher horizons.
After her job and her union refused to help pay for Wade’s funeral, Pat called Reverend Daughtry. AIf it wasn’t for FOVAV, I’d be lost somewhere in space. I went to the union. They said it was drug related and they couldn’t give me money. But no drugs were found on my son’s body. I called the House of the Lord Church and spoke to Debra Dawkins, coordinator of FOVAV. I went to heal, to cry and laugh. No one said, AStop crying. Now I’m ready to help others recover.
Like Pat, Ammie Council, Vice President of FOVAV, values photographs that bring back moments in time.
A week before Mother’s Day, Ammie searched for photographs of her son, at the urging of this interviewer. From stacks of albums, she showed us photographs of her son Kevin Moshe Council in the arc of his shortened life: Kevin as toddler, bright-eyed, ready for the world, six months after his birth at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. Kevin, as an elementary school student, just at the point when science and art stirred his imagination; Kevin, as teenager, a Sterling H.S. student, at that point in a young man’s life where he says he knows the deal, but the eyes reveal something totally different, and one of her favorites: a polaroid of Kevin taken with Ammie and his supportive godfather, Jerome Payne, on Easter Sunday morning. Then, there is Kevin’s marble headstone monument at the family gravesite at Sweet Rose Cemetery in Estill, S.C, Hampton County, where he was laid to rest in a second funeral at the request of his great grandmother. Bring my great grandson home’.
Five months after that last happy Easter Sunday, Ammie, living in Harlem, filed a Missing Persons report at the 79th in Brooklyn on her son. She had not seen him in several days. He attended Sterling High School in Brooklyn, and sometimes stayed with his grandmother, Catherine Council. But she had not seen him. She turned to the 32nd precinct in Manhattan for help, and they in turn contacted the 79th precinct. At 2am on a Saturday morning in late September 1988, she was awakened by a phone call. A young man matching the description of her son had been shot and killed, his body lay in the morgue. Earlier that day, Ms. Council had one of those feelings, a premonition, that mothers of African descent know so well. She went into Kevin’s room and dropped to her knees and prayed and cried. When she stood up she was ready for whatever was to come. And that’s how she found the strength to take the long subway ride from 145th Street all the way to Brooklyn, alone. She met her partner Rodney McBain and Kevin’s godfather at the hospital; they had already identified the body. AI went in. His eyes were open. It was as if he was trying to say, why? The hospital did not want her to see the body, but she insisted. He had died of bullets causing mortal wounds to the heart, kidney and lungs, the report said.
Information was not forthcoming so she conducted her own investigation into her son’s death. Although there were witnesses to the shooting, to this day, no one has come forward to report on what happened to Kevin one block from his grandmother’s home the night of September 20, 1988. All that is known is a young man ran out of a building on Andrews Place across from Kingston Park, and shot her son, then again point blank as he lay on the ground.
AI don’t know what transpired in the park. The case is still open. Maybe someone will come forward. One moment he’s leaving to go to Brooklyn, the next moment, he’s gone.
This June 30, Kevin would have been 27. That’s a day when Ammie becomes more silent than usual. It is a day she wonders what if.
She misses birthdays, but she longs for the hard times, too. AI had my problems with him, trying to get him to stay on the straight-and-narrow but I miss raising my young man. I miss worrying where he is; when is he coming home; scolding him about grades, about picking up his room. All those things. Don’t take any of those moments, for granted, she tells parents. AYes, you are struggling, but you are struggling with children who are very much alive. Be careful what you wish for. I used to wish for peace, peace of mind.. He is not here, but that is not the kind of peace I meant.
Losing a loved one to violence is devastating to any family, she said. The affect is so unbearable – they can’t even begin to see beyond the hurt and pain. But when you have God in your life, and a supportive group like FOVAV (which has become my extended family), it makes it easier to bear the loss.
As Mother’s Day approaches, greeting cards and telephone calls and dinners out do not come so easily, said Ammie. Some observers with good intentions tiptoe up to her and other bereft mothers offering this advice: Get over it. Get on with your life.
What they don’t understand is: this is your life, says Ammie Council. AI look at these photographs. I have these moments. It is something and I am strong about it. Sometimes I get choked up. Sometimes people don’t know how to deal with me. Especially on Mother’s Day. They do not wish me Happy Mother’s Day. He was part of my life. He is my son. I am a mother. I can be smiled and hugged and wished, Happy Mother’s Day.