I flew to Chicago early on a recent Thursday morning but rode the train home the next day. I needed the space, the spotty WiFi, the long, lonely stretch of eight hours on the Amtrak Empire Builder to steady myself after the whirlwind of the past week.
The shocking news came initially via voicemail and text message and, later, in person amid sobs of disbelief. Then there was the rearranging of schedules, the packing and the journey, the reunion with familiar faces, and finally the funeral of a young woman I have known since her toddler days.
Numbers best describe this memorial service, in a funeral home filled with the sweet smell of flowers and the bittersweet concoction of tears and laughter that always accompanies death.
- 37, the age of the gunshot victim struck in the back by a bullet intended for someone else on a street in Chicago, during the early evening of Juneteenth.
- 5, the number of people who asked me in the immediate aftermath whether the violence occurred on the city’s largely Black south side. (For the record, it did not.)
- 125, the number of minutes the victim’s mother — my oldest friend — had to walk past or sit directly in front of the open casket that held her only daughter.
- 50, the estimate by my friend’s older brother of how many people traveled to the funeral from New York City, where the victim began her career in the food-and-beverage industry, lauding her in tributes as a caring and generous friend and manager, a vibrant woman who had other people’s backs. Other friends came from the victim’s hometown of Mankato, Minnesota; from her time in college in Rhode Island; and from her three years in Chicago. “It was very clear that this community lost a shining light,” her uncle said, “a term many used to describe [the victim’s] impact on their lives.”
- 2, the number of times the young widower stood at the podium during the service, visibly stunned, audibly grieving, and described how a bullet had shattered his life, too.
I quit counting the number of sniffles, air gulps, flowing tears and outright sobs by Millennial-age adults too young to be memorializing one of their own.
‘I don’t know what to say” was the most common attempt at condolence that my friend heard in the days following her daughter’s murder. For me, a wordsmith, words ceased to matter. My husband and I drove to Janey’s house in a torrential rainstorm, four hours after hearing the news. I didn’t give a thought to how I would greet her. Instinct took over, and I hugged my friend tightly — wordlessly — till she let go.
- 52, the number of shootings in Chicago over the course of that stormy Father’s Day weekend in June.
- 15, the number of friends and family members my friend texted the day after the funeral to say an arrest had been made, the detectives had done their work, the omnipresent video cameras in our daily lives, for once, had served their purpose.
- 5, the number of charges — one count of first-degree murder of my friend’s daughter, four counts of attempted first-degree murder for shooting into a car of visitors from Milwaukee — against the young man who has been arrested as a suspect.
- 1, the number of times that random, unintended but horribly consequential gun violence previously had pierced my circle of friends and colleagues. My safe middle-class bubble. “This violence is close to home now,” a friend wrote on Facebook. The day we heard the news, the Star Tribune carried a banner headline: “Rising Gun Crimes Defy Answers.” The story described the May 22 death of Charlie Johnson in downtown Minneapolis, a graduating senior at the University of St. Thomas, where I work. Shot in the back, like my friend’s daughter; caught in gang violence, like my friend’s daughter; white and middle-class, like my friend’s daughter, with a promising life ahead.
- 5, the number of letter writers who decried the easy sale and exchange of guns in our society and “the culture of poverty that produces the despair that fuels violence.”
After a suburban cop shot and killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man and school cafeteria supervisor, during a traffic stop in 2016 only miles from my home, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I wanted to comprehend the particular anguish and protectiveness that Black parents feel for their Black sons, a fear and an urgency that I don’t have to experience — even though my older son, the tall blond one, the rebel who sees the underbelly of American society for what it is, was arrested protesting Castile’s murder. Several years later, an officer from the same police force pulled over my son for speeding along the same road. No guns were drawn this time. In fact, the cops apologized for having to impound his car.
Reading isn’t action. It doesn’t change anything. I understand that. But as a college-educated woman reared to revere books, and employed in higher education for the past 20 years, reading is my starting point.
Three days after the funeral, safely home from a city I have vowed never to visit again, I dog-walked by Next Chapter Booksellers, my neighborhood bookshop in St. Paul, and saw historian Carol Anderson’s latest book in the window: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. I came home and ordered it online, for same-day pickup.
Then I read my friend’s keenly felt message of hope, in a text exchange that has been ongoing since she broke the news to me of her daughter’s death.
“This has nothing to do with politics, religion or anything else but a senseless murder,” my friend Janey said. “My platform now is grief. I’m going to get the word out about gun violence. I’m not sure how, but it is being clarified in my mind today.
“I’m not angry,” she went on, with an eloquence anchored by a mother’s unconditional love. “Nichole’s murder will not go unnoticed. This violence has to stop. Any murder of a son, daughter, mother, father or grandparent has to be honored and noticed by people.”
We notice you, Nichole. We grieve the loss of you. Rest in peace; because the people who loved you — who invested in you, who cared and care about you — will never rest until the streets of our cities are safer for everyone, and until everyone in America, of every color, has a home, an education. And a chance.