By Joan Leotta
July 15, 2024
The analyst we saw when they released my precious eight-year-old granddaughter, Jenna, from the hospital said that keeping a journal would help us both. I am not sure what she is writing in hers, but here is mine. And it is helping.
Yesterday, Jenna went to the place along the wall to the center where her mother, father, and younger brother were sprayed with bullets in a drive-by shooting ordered by a local gang. Lagging behind the three of them, Jenna had been only partially “tagged” by the carnage, resulting in a months-long hospital stay that had ended two weeks ago.
“I want to see the memorial, Grandma,” she asked me every day after coming home, as we practiced her walking alone again. I held her off for a while but then, after calling the analyst about it, we decided going to see it might bring her, “closure.” As hard as it was to revisit the spot where her a gunman massacred her family, she felt drawn to it. The fireworks on the Fourth of July had upset her greatly. Noise like gunfire.
But today was just an ordinary day. In the morning, I drove her to the pyramid of flowers and stuffed animals against the wall. I had shown her pictures of it, and she said it made her glad to see that their lives had meant something good to some people, that they were remembered. She wanted me to park away from it a bit—where her parents had parked. She wanted to walk to it as they had. I was not sure about that, but we did.
A lot of the memorial stuffed animals and flowers were damp, ruined. One looked new. Jenna picked up the new one, looked at me and said, “It doesn’t really matter, soggy or new. Tony can’t hug those bears now.”
My own heart almost broke when she said that. I had not wanted her mother, my daughter, and father to take her and her little brother to the soup kitchen with them. It made me nervous enough that she and Tony senior ventured into that part of town on a regular basis. But every Saturday, they went. “Mother, I recall her saying, it’s an effective way for Jenna and Tony to learn to serve others.”
Now I have no daughter and just one grand child left to me. I still remember her dear little voice telling the detectives how it happened:
We were walking from the car—we parked away from the center that day, like the Director asked. I stopped to tie my shoes and the three of them walked a bit ahead of me. Then I heard mother shout, “Run, Jenna, Tony!”
Bang! Bang! Then a jumble of shots, quick, fast, like a hailstorm.
“I heard my brother scream—then Mama and Papa. I felt a sharp something against her leg and a searing pain. Then, the hospital.”
Her father and mother felt that working at the parish soup kitchen was more than just serving food. They stayed after the meal to talk with area folks, to read to the little children, to play basketball with the teens. “It’s how we fight gangs,” her father, who had grown up in a similar neighborhood, had told her, “We help provide positive influences.” But I always worried.
Even today, with increased police patrols, increased community sensitivity, well, I tried to get Jenna back in the car as soon as I could. That afternoon I still didn’t like being there.
As she got back into the car, Jenna pointed to a word above the little mound of flowers and teddy bears. “Rejoice.”
When we got home, Jenna asked me, “Who would paint the word REJOICE in that spot?”
“The Minister who ran the soup kitchen painted the words. He wants it known that known they are in heaven, and we will see them again.”
Jenna cried, “I don’t want to wait for heaven. I want to see Mama, Papa, and Tony, NOW!”
I answered truthfully but could not give her much comfort. “Of course. You miss them now. So do I.”
Jenna went upstairs. I heard her cry herself to sleep.
After breakfast, Jenna asked me why she had not died. I reminded her that her testimony about the phone call helped the police track down and arrest the person who pretended to be the soup kitchen manager, the man who told her dad to park far away so the four of them would have to walk by that wall.
I reminded her, “The police told us that the gang didn’t like the good work your family and the mission were doing—their work kept young people from joining gang.”
I reminded her that many in the neighborhood had risked their own safety to identify the gang members responsible so they could be arrested. Fruit of the love her family had poured into their work in the neighborhood. Still, my heart ached.
“ I want to go again, Grandma.”
So, we drove over again.
ON the way over, Jenna told me, “All I can think about is those awful people. I hope they get the death penalty. I hope they die and go to hell for what they did to Mama, Papa, and Tony. For killing almost all the people I love.”
“I hope they’re convicted too,” Grandma replied, her voice quiet, but accompanied by tears. “Your Mom was my only daughter. I want justice served. I’m praying for the grace to forgive them because I know forgiving them will help me. Do you think you can pray for grace to be able to forgive them?”
Jenna looked at me in horror. “I don’t see how, Grandma.”
As we pulled up to the memorial we saw a small red sports car parked beside the concrete wall. Grandma and Jenna parked a bit behind and stayed in Grandma’s jalopy while the red car’s door opened.
The driver of the other car, a tall woman in a blue suit, got out, stood at the wall, and stared. Although the woman’s face was in shadow, she gave a gasp of recognition.
Jenna sat up straight and pointed toward the woman. “Grandma, I’ve seen that lady on the news. She was walking with the shooter. I think she’s his mom.” Jenna hesitated and then added, “She looks so sad.”
Grandma nodded. They waited until the woman drove off. Then they walked up to the memorial.
Jenna laid down a small bouquet—three roses–red for her dad, yellow for her mother, and white for her bother. Neither of us spoke on the way home.
Once home, Jenna and I worked in the garden, but did not speak of the wall or what we had seen.
I was up all night trying to figure out what to tell her, to comfort her. I was going to call the analyst for some suggestions and then I remembered the story of my name. How my mother told me why she had named me Deborah. “I had a dream that someday you need the power of that name.”
After breakfast, I asked Jenna to come into the living room.
She curled up next to me on the sofa. I picked up the family Bible from the coffee table, and said, “You know I was named Deborah for a woman in the bible—remember me telling you about her?”
Jenna looked up. “Of course, Grandma. She was a judge, and a ruler over her people. I remember you telling me that’s why you wanted to become a lawyer and then a judge when you were young.”
I nodded. “I was reminded of something else about my namesake when we saw the shooter’s mother today. While Deborah was a ruler, Israel had an enemy named Sisera who was killed as punishment for the horrible things he did by the hand of a woman named Heber.” Then I read aloud Deborah’s words: ‘Through the window peered Sisera’s mother; behind the lattice she cried out, ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’
Jenna asked, “Grandma, Deborah was pretty far from Sisera’s village, wasn’t she?”
I responded that Deborah may have been imagining what was going on. The important thing was that Deborah wanted her people to know that even the awful Sisera had a mother who loved him and was, at the moment of their celebration of his punishment, missing him.
Jenna was quiet for a moment and then asked me, “So it’s okay that I feel sorry for that woman, the shooter’s mother?”
I answered, “Yes, in fact, it’s a good thing. I feel sorry for her too.”
I pointed to another line of the chapter and read: “’after that day, the land had peace for forty years.’ I told her that I thought compassion for the shooter’s mother was the beginning of us being able to heal. Once there was compassion, forgiveness could be given, and the land could heal and be peaceful again.”
“Does this mean that someday I’ll forgive the shooter? I don’t want to. Can you forgive him, Grandma?”
“No, Jenna, I can’t forgive him yet either. But I do feel sorry for that woman we saw today.”
Jenna agreed about feeling bad for his mother.
I told her that even though neither one of us was really ready to forgive the shooter that I thought think feeling sorry for his mother was the start of finding peace for us.
Jenna whispered to me, “Tomorrow we can go to the wall again? I ‘d like to leave flowers there for her too, that sad lady we saw— Sisera’s mother.
Growing up, I was often annoyed by my name. No one else in my class was named Deborah. I thought I had to be a lawyer and then a judge, even though I did not enjoy either profession. But now I know. My mother’s dream of naming me Deborah was so that at this moment, I could bring comfort to my granddaughter, help both of us heal. I don’t know how many more days I will write in this journal, but my heart is now at peace—Jenna’s too I think. I hope, that like the land Deborah ruled, she and I will remain at peace for years to come.
Joan Leotta was nominated for Pushcart and Best of Net in 2022