For every person shot in the Chicago area, family, friends and community members must deal with the effects in ways large and small physical, emotional and financial. This occasional series examines how violence tears at the community fabric after the initial shock. In this installment, multimedia reporter Jessica Koscielniak looks at how four mothers are dealing with losing their children to gunfire.
"She told me to move, I had the money to move. She told me she was scared to die. How you know you scared to die, when you ain't lived yet?"
Ashake Banks sits on her bed, iPhone in hand, watching and listening to her daughter, Heaven Sutton, singing a kid’s pop song.
The 7-year-old had taken her mother’s phone and made the video of herself in the bathroom.
For a brief moment, Banks smiles. She sings along. She is proud of her little girl.
When the music stops, Heaven applauds herself, and thanks the “crowd.” Then she steps closer to the camera and says: “Do you love your mom? I love my mom with all my heart. She is in my heart.”
“And I love you too, baby,” Banks replies.
Heaven was fatally shot on June 27, 2012, while standing at her lemonade stand outside her home in the West Side Austin neighborhood.
Heaven’s gym shoes. Her pretty clothes. Her stuffed animals. Her pictures. The video.
This is all Banks has left.
Banks’ heart is shattered. She feels like “less than a mother.” She has contemplated suicide.
“I told Heaven I would protect her, I told her we was super heros or something. I failed her. I did,” Banks says.
“She told me to move, I had the money to move. She told me she was scared to die. How you know you scared to die when you ain’t lived yet?”
These days, little consoles her. A drink, sometimes, especially before she tries to sleep.
Reaching out to other mothers suffering the loss of a child seems to help.
“I go by to see the other mothers because I really just want to hug them and let them feel the energy,” Banks says.
At a recent vigil for Julius Campbell, the 14-year-old found stabbed to death in Marquette Park, Banks wrapped her arms around his mother, Christine Campbell, and held her trembling body as they walked to the edge of the lagoon.
“I tell her, ‘Cry. It’s OK, cry. We ain’t never going to see them no more,’ ” she says.
Heaven’s murder tore Banks apart. She didn’t have enough time with her baby.
“I did not name Heaven Heaven for someone to shoot and kill her at the age of 7,” she says while looking down at a blanket with her daughter’s angelic face staring back.
“I am living hell on earth,” she says. “This is hell.”
"After losing my son, now I got to deal with the fact my mom will be leaving me next ...," she explained. "It's taking every being in my body to hold the family together."
Alease Davies gave up her home and her car to bury her eldest son.
Still, she was short until a friend handed her a white envelope with the remaining $1,000 she needed.
Davies could not imagine leaving her son in the morgue.
Rashaun Stephany, 22, an aspiring rapper known in his community as Kamakazi Mazi, was shot on June 8, 2012, outside the home his mother rented in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the South Side. He was on his way to the recording studio to cut a song to show his pride for his little sister who was graduating high school.
Since that tragic night, Davies has spent the last year trying to piece together her shattered life.
She returned to work, but every morning on her way to the bus, she passed the tree where Rashaun was shot. Standing there, she’d imagine how his legs were tangled as he lay in the street moments after bullets struck him down.
Those were Davies’ final moments with her before he was taken by ambulance to Stroger Hospital. Paramedics would not let her ride with her dying son.
Spontaneous moments of grief found her at work. She took a leave of absence.
To start over, Davies moved to Calumet City to live with her parents. She helps care for her mother, who’s gravely ill.
“After losing my son, now I got to deal with the fact my mom will be leaving me next,” she says. “It’s taking every being in my body to hold the family together.”
Davies just wants to be near her three remaining children and four grandchildren. So she borrows her mother’s car or her youngest daughter will drive down to collect her. Life is too short. That has already been proven to her.
Last November, the call no parent should hear came again to Alease: Her youngest son, Lavelle, 20, was shot while walking to the corner store. Thankfully, the shooting was not fatal, but it only added to a mother’s fragile state of mind.
Davies can’t bring herself to discuss the loss of Rashaun with people outside her family and she feels alone.
“In my heart, as a mother,” she says, “I don’t want to accept it.”
Saturday will mark the first anniversary of Rashaun’s murder and for the first time since his funeral Davies will return to his grave. She has survived a year of firsts without her oldest son. Her birthday. His birthday. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Mother’s Day.
Eventually she’ll get her life back. But not this weekend.
“It’s like it happened yesterday to me,” she says. “[I am] burying him all over again.”
"I don't know how comfortable I am in my new skin," said Murray, "It's growing on me."
Carolyn Murray first met Barack Obama when the former community organizer was in his campaign push for U.S. Senate. She never thought she would spend time with him later after he became president — at least not under these circumstances.
Her son, Justin Murray, 19, was shot on Nov. 29, 2012, while standing near his grandmother’s house in Evanston. He had been living in San Diego, and had been back in the city for only a matter of hours.
In January, Carolyn Murray accepted an invitation by Rep. Jan Schakowsky to attend the State of the Union Address, where she stoically held Justin’s picture as the president spoke of the toll of gun violence nationally and “on the streets of Chicago,” pushing for firearms reform.
Three days later, she listened again as Obama addressed gun violence at the Hyde Park Career Academy on the South Side.
After the speech, she waited patiently for the president to walk the line and when it was her turn, she quickly told her story.
“Carolyn, how are you doing?” Obama asked.
“It’s been hard,” she said.
“If you need anything, I want you to call me,” she recalls him saying with the sincerity of a neighbor talking over a fence. “You know how to reach me, right?”
Before Justin died, Murray said she played two roles in her community. She was a busybody — an activist that was sick of seeing children with nothing to do and one that was tired of hearing gunshots in her neighborhood. More important, she was a single mother raising her children.
With Justin murdered, her activism is now personal.
On June 29 she is planning a gun buy-back in Evanston. It will mark seven months since Justin’s murder. She also is planning a youth rally and march against gun violence.
“I don’t know how comfortable I am in my new skin,” Murray says. “It’s growing on me.”
She is trying to get a political figure to attend the rally, but is exasperated because no one will commit.
“If it was an election year, this wouldn’t be a problem,” she says after hanging up the phone with a state official’s office.
Later she remembers one offer.
“I will ask the president to be there.”
"Once you pull that trigger you can't pull that bullet back."
Donna Hall’s favorite spot is the left corner of her brown couch. From that spot, she can see the urn that holds her murdered son’s ashes. She can talk to him and tell him she is all right. She feels safe there.
Her son, Marshall Fields-Hall, 21, was fatally shot in the back on Jan. 18 while sitting in a Popeye’s restaurant on North Avenue in the Austin neighborhood.
The urn lives in the middle of the coffee table, next to an open Bible. The table is covered with family photographs, candles, poems and prayer cards — momentos of mourning in an alter of personal tragedy.
This is what Hall looks at every day.
“It’s like I have no will to do anything,” Hall says.
Before all this, Hall walked the streets of her North Austin neighborhood as a mail carrier.
Now the thought of leaving the house makes her nervous. The thought of working again in her neighborhood terrifies her.
“When I say I am not ready to go back to work, it’s because I might deliver mail to these people’s house that had something to do with it,” she says. “I delivered mail to Popeye’s many days.”
When she musters the courage to leave, it’s a quick trip to the store, then right back home. The outing might last longer if she is meeting other mothers, who, like her, have lost children to violence. Among them is Ashake Burns, who took Hall her under her wing. Their children were cousins.
Though they cry, Hall feels her best when she is with them. They know the pain of losing a child to a gun. The heartbreak returns when she remembers Marshall.
“Once you pull that trigger, you can’t pull that bullet back,” she says.
The group of mothers — her new friends — tattooed their fingers in solidarity. She displays her right pinkie finger to reveal her script, “Promise.”
“Promise to always be there for each other no matter what.” Hall says.
Hall wonders where she will go from here. She is frustrated police haven’t found her son’s killer.
Maybe then she can return to work, to a normal life, whatever normal is now.
She requested a job transfer to South Haven, Miss. She has had enough of the violence.
“I just don’t want to deal with Chicago,” Hall says while packing her car full of clothes for her first drive south to Mississippi over the Memorial Day weekend. “I just can’t deal with it.”
This week the Bible on her alter to Marshall is opento John, Chapter 3, verse 16:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
That will be the final verse the Bible is opened to before Hall leaves Chicago behind for a new life in Mississippi.
The new beginning she has been craving starts Friday, when Hall packs Marshall’s urn in her car and leaves behind the only city she has ever known.
Hall feels she must leave Chicago. Forever. She can’t imagine burying her son in Chicago ground, leaving him here alone.
“Whenever I leave,” Hall says, “I can take him with me.”