a personal testimony
By: Cheeraz Gormon
It was a St. Louis summer evening in 2001 when I picked up the phone in my mother’s living room. My Aunt Cookie, my mother’s oldest sister, was on the other end.
“Hey, Auntie,” I began happily.
“Where’s ya momma?” she replied back in a tone submerged in sadness and quiet anger. “They killed my baby. They killed, Pep.”
My aunt’s words landed somewhere between my eyes, as I felt my body go light. I told my aunt to hold on and opened the front door of my mother’s house to go find her. When I opened the door it was as if the warm orange glow of the streetlights against the darkness of night slightly blinded me. I walked out the house to see a few of our neighbors outside, and called out, “Has anybody seen my momma?” I walked a few feet from the front stairs of the house, and looked toward the one-way-in-one-way-out entry/exit of the low-rise complex in the Cochran projects where my mother lives. I kept repeating the question and looking at the opening as if I could summon my mother’s car to magically appear. My voice grew weary and began to crack with each ask. One of our neighbors, Ms. Annette, stepped off her porch and looked around the immediate area with concern. She’d never seen me so distraught. A streetlight a few feet away from our door began to flicker frantically. It felt as if the night sky was closing in on me. My head shifted from left to right, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground. I can still recall the smell of warm concrete and dust blown from the sun-baked patches of earth that separated our houses.
Ms. Annette rushed over to me, “Lord, Cheeraz, baby, what’s wrong? Get up, baby.” It felt as if I had no control over my body’s muscular function. The only words I remember coming out were, “Where is my momma? My cousin is dead.” Ms. Annette called out to God,and yelled to someone else standing outside to go find my mother. I could feel Ms. Annette picking me up, but her touch didn’t register. For a moment, I didn’t know where I was. I had no idea how much time elapsed. I just saw my cousin on the phone earlier that day at our family’s house on the North side. How could he now be dead?
In our family, cousins are raised like siblings; at times living in the same house, rarely spending summers without the presence of one another. My cousin Guillermo, also known in the family as Pep, was not only my cousin, he was my brother. And just like that, he was gone.
When I got back to my feet, each step towards my mother’s house felt like I was gliding. I didn’t know or understand what was happening to me. All I knew was that I couldn’t cry, out of fear of upsetting my aunt and mother.
Back in the house, I gently picked up the phone; my aunt was still there, silent. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing or not. I steadied my voice to prevent any sign of weakness from coming through the receiver. When I told her that I couldn’t find my mother, and reassured her that as soon as she got in I would have her call her back, she said in a thin voice, “My baby is dead, Raz. That girl killed my baby.” In that moment, I faded into a speechlessness that still haunts me.
12-years later, on the evening of August 14, 2013, I was returning to my hotel room in New York City in the late night hustle of downtown Manhattan. I felt like my energy was off; the taxi ride back to the hotel was eerily quiet, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Sure, I had just wasted money traveling to and from Brooklyn to attend a party I had the wrong name for. The venue was called Output not Outpost. Even the taxi driver let out a disappointing sigh when we arrived at a clothing store that was clearly the wrong location. For a moment, I contemplated calling the friend who invited me to the party to ask her if it was a speakeasy kind of deal. Relying on my better judgment, and sure I heard the name wrong, along with this precariousness lingering over me I let go of the hopes of dancing and told the driver to take me back to the hotel. I could feel that something much deeper was at play.
When I arrived back at the hotel, I remember the brightly lit lobby hurting my eyes. The crystal chandeliers, walls lined with large green plants, and choice of artwork in the space, were at odds with the opium den aesthetic of the elevator and hallway to my room.
Upon walking into my room, I felt a presence that gave me pause. It was as if the disquiet that came over me during my taxi ride grew legs, followed me into my room, sat down in the accent chair next to my bed, and made itself comfortable. I attempted to pay it no mind but the energy was almost tangible. I reached for my mobile phone, selected My Momma, and waited for the phone to ring. My mother answered the phone in a calm, yet hurried fashion, and said, “Let me call you back, Raz.” My mother had never rushed me off the phone like that before. I was so unsettled by the response that I sat down on the bed and became concerned about what was going on back home. Wonder soon gave way to worry. Then, in my silence, I heard something—an exchange between our recently deceased paternal grandmother and my baby brother that felt hyper-real. I heard his gentle baritone voice say, “Hey grandma,” to which our grandmother’s lifelong smoker alto voice replied with surprise, “John!” I could feel confusion, and disbelief washed over my face. I said out loud, “Why does it sound like, John just showed up where grandmother is?!”
I immediately called my mother again. She answered, her voice a whisper absent its normally bright tone, and said, “I need you to come home. John’s been hurt.” Before I could ask details, my mother’s youngest brother took the phone from her, and said, “Come home, Cheeraz, John’s been shot. He’s dead.” My uncle’s words rushed through my veins and my entire body went numb. I asked my uncle to give the phone back to my mom. As soon as I heard the phone settle against her ear, I said slowly, “Grandma got him. I heard it.” In a stoic relief, my mother replied, “Okay. Good. I love you,” and then hung up.
Less than 10 hours after I got off the phone with my mother, I landed at Lambert Airport in St. Louis. The morning air was absent the suffocating humidity the city is notorious for in August. As my uncle drove down Highway 70 headed east to my mother’s house, he calmly said, “This is fucked up, Raz. Be prepared.” It was at that moment I recall shutting down. When we pulled up to my mother’s house, the same feeling of weightlessness that came over me the night my cousin, Pep was killed settled in my body, again. While my mother has moved from her old house in the same area, I froze at the sight of her door. As badly as I wanted to see my mother, I dreaded what I was walking into. When I got out of the car, I straightened my back and lifted my head as I walked to the door. My mother opened the door as if she sensed me, and upon seeing her face, I collapsed into her arms.
Details of what happened came with each person who entered the house. John was shot just blocks away from our mother’s home. He was at a house with some friends. Someone broke in through a back window on the first floor, and started shooting people. With each visit, the description of the scene became more graphic, and motive for the shooting started to emerge. One of my older cousins went to the house where John was shot and investigated the scene for himself. As well-meaning as my cousin was, I remember my Aunt Cookie, my cousin, Pep’s mother saying in an elevated tone, “We don’t need to hear all that. Joyce don’t need to know that. Y’all stop talking,” as he was in mid sentence.
I went upstairs to my mother’s bedroom to escape the voices in the house but it didn’t help. The pain, anger, and sadness traveled through the walls, and I absorbed it all. Later that afternoon, my mother received a call instructing her to watch the 10 O’Clock news on Channel 5. As the hour approached, my mother and I, along with two family friends sat in the living room with the lights off and TV on. The young man who killed my brother was apprehended less than 24 hours after committing the crime.
I had taken care of the funeral arrangements for our grandmother’s transition three months prior, so I slid easily into the role of doing the same for my brother. Upon viewing his body the day before the funeral, I succumbed to the weight of loss, again. It was as if I returned back to the night Ms. Annette had to bring me to my feet after the news of my cousin’s murder. Except this time my mother and the funeral director were in attendance, and no one was there to physically support me. As I was emerging from my fog, I heard the funeral director say to my mother, “Leave her there until she can pick herself back up.” After collecting myself, I looked at my mother who was sitting on the front pew, eyes glazed over. I began apologizing out loud for not handling the situation better. As irrational as it was, I thought it selfish of me to cause my mother more pain by passing out as I stood in front of my brother’s body lying peacefully in his casket.
Seeing the Difference and Getting Honest
A little over a month after John’s death, I returned to New York from St. Louis. On this particular afternoon, I sat in a cozy restaurant located in Harlem with a dear friend of mine who lost his twin brother to cancer a few years prior. He knew I needed to process my own loss, so our conversation was a mix of calculated ramblings, pregnant pauses, and attempts not to explode into a full-blown cry—which I was not successful at containing. (Shout out to everyone in the restaurant who didn’t bat an eye at my tears, yet looked at me endearingly, and to the older man sitting next to us, who let me know, “It’s going to be okay, eventually.”) During our conversation, right as my friend was talking about his “new normal” in the wake of his brother’s death, it hit me that not all sibling loss lands the same way.
While the death of a sibling is nearly always painful and often ushers in a new way of moving through the world, I could clearly see the river that divided my friend’s loss from my own. Between us, there was this clear binary. On one hand, death due to natural cause, and on the other, death as a result of violent crime. On one side, there might be time, expectance, perhaps an opportunity for proper preparation, reflection, and seeing off. On the other side, incomprehensible violence, instantaneousness, visceral reactions, no chance to hear last wishes or to say a peaceful goodbye.
When I returned home, I kept coincidently bumping into folks from my old neighborhood. An overwhelming number of those exchanges segued into stories of losing a sibling or a family member or friend who was like one. I grew up in an area called College Hill on the Northside of St. Louis. The gang wars and underground drug economy ravaged the community in the late 80s, and the violence continues still. People told me deeply personal and tender things, like dressing in the same clothes for a full year after the death of their play-brother or succumbing to addiction within the months after their loss—behavioral changes, suicidal thoughts, and uncontrollable anger, or lifestyle shifts that transformed a person into someone neither they nor their family members could recognize. For many, never being given the space to grieve turned them into stone. A few people were able to connect dropping out of school, being homeless, or getting locked up directly to the violent death of a sibling and their inability to cope in healthy ways. In revisiting the stories and memories of people I grew up with who had lost siblings to a violent crime—in considering the spiraling of their lives again—it began to make perfect, depressing sense. In a phrase: the siblings are not all right.
For those of us who lost our blood-related or fictive kin siblings to a violent crime, the layers of our loss are thick, complex, and in need of understanding. In an ideal world, we’d be met with compassion and resources. However, many of us have to navigate the shifts in family dynamics or renegotiate our own identity and role in our family structure—all while attempting to go back to a “normal” life in the midst of a gaping void.
I vividly remember my first birthday after the passing of my brother. My parents, each over their heads in grief, had a hard time saying, “Happy birthday,” to me. I remember sitting on the east edge of Art Hill in Forest Park during the middle of the day sobbing uncontrollably at my parent’s inability to celebrate my life. While on the phone with my father later that night, his voice full of dismay, he explained, “I’m sorry, baby, I thought it was, John’s birthday. Please forgive me.”
In some instances, depending on birth order, gender, and ability, the expectations to assume parental roles can cause people to set their own grieving aside. A childhood friend of mine I recently interviewed said he had to become man of the house following his brother’s death. It wasn’t until he had his own family that he got the chance to finally grieve the loss of his brother. In other cases, for some, one of the worst nightmares becomes a sullen reality: they become caregivers for a parent who gets sick following the death of their child. I remember feeling helpless, and defeated as I watched my mother’s capacity and interest to be fully present in her own life diminish. For many, this is both a cross too heavy to bear and a burden one dares not speak of, as to not be seen as disrespectful.
Another layer for me was the trial for the murder of my brother. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the stress, re-traumatizing memories, and slow unraveling that came with the pre-trial, trial, and sentencing process. To go before the court with the person responsible for taking my brother’s life present made my knees buckle. I struggled through reading victim impact statements on behalf of my mother and myself. All of this created a pressure that quietly crushed something precious within me.
The loss of my cousin, Guillermo, happened at a time in my life where I committed to keep on keepin’ on. I felt it was socially expected of me to not show my grief. Still, looking back, the grief-driven pain, anger, and feeling of abandonment found ways of surfacing. The loss of my brother, John has led me down one of the most challenging rabbit holes, the likes of which I’m still navigating to this day. The experience has greatly repositioned my life, career trajectory, and how I see and care for myself. My brother’s death is a trauma that clouds my judgment at times; it makes me question my safety in this world and the fleetingness of all things. If I see something or someone that reminds me of him, I have to manage the indiscriminate spurts of grief that come without warning. The process is like a time warp, quantum leaping me between childhood memories and the current reality—my brother is no longer here in the physical form.
A few weeks ago, my mom came over to hang out and right as she was speaking about something regarding John, I almost asked her if he’d been by lately. I got confused, momentarily, and thought I just hadn’t seen my brother in a while.
Over these last 5 years, I’ve had to get to know myself all over again, and to accept the parts of me that have died—to look into the mirror, acknowledge and live with my pain, loss, trauma, and suffering and still know that I am more than those things.
The deaths of my cousin and my brother are the only two things that have ever brought me to my knees. They were both taken violently, their lives shortened by bullets entering their bodies. Each loss has caused me to question the stability of the ground I stand on, and this thing we call resilience. In their absence, and because of how their lives were taken, I’ve discovered a greater sense of purpose, direction, and courage. The feeling of not being completely whole, but wanting to be—desiring for the magnitude and depth of pain to be seen and understood, and most importantly, loved through the grief of such loss—are a short list of things I wish all people who lose either a blood-related or fictive kin sibling could be better supported in. Regardless of what it may look like, the people who lose their siblings violently need more care and understanding than you’d imagine.
So, if you find yourself interacting with a person who has lost a blood-related or fictive kin sibling to a violent crime, and you ask how they’re doing, center their experience. Listen before you ask about anyone else you believe is affected. Challenge yourself to be present for them, because chances are the siblings are not all right.