On the 19th of each month, Giselle Mörch visits her son’s grave. The trip is long, expensive, and Giselle does not drive long distances. She assumes an affected posh British accent and laughs, “Oh yes, I just give my driver a ring to come pick me up.” Giselle always requests Brehima from the car service to take her through the congested streets of Montgomery County an hour north into the suburbs.
Her son, Jaycee, received a football scholarship and attended a small school nestled in the Hudson Valley of New York. Brehima would pick Jaycee up at Dulles Airport for holidays when the young man would return home from school. He remembers Jaycee and their conversations about football, family, and religion fondly. The two men would also speak about Islam. Jaycee went to church with Giselle and grew up with the Bible, but he was intrigued by Islam and began to study the Koran. He felt the Muslim teachings placed a stronger emphasis upon family and the significance of those bonds.
Brehima knows the route from Giselle’s home to Jaycee’s grave well. He has made the trip every month for over a year and a half. On this latest trip, he again watches Giselle carry her basket and find her seat at Jaycee’s resting place. He watches, respectfully, as she catches him up on the family’s news and as she weeps, telling him how much she misses him. He watches as she pulls a small hand broom out of the basket and sweeps the dirt off the grave. And he watches as she removes the many pennies Jaycee’s sisters, grandfather, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and friends have left. His nickname was ‘Lil Penny’ as he loved shiny things and making money.
Giselle cleans the stone with a damp rag and then replaces the pennies carefully. She fills the vase on the headstone with a bouquet of red flowers. Red was his favorite color and she sprinkles red rose petals, stamped with images of his face, and laughs, “Thank you for sending me that beautiful cardinal to see me the other day.”
Giselle speaks to Jaycee and about Jaycee in the present tense at all times. In her mind and heart, he is still alive and she fights every day to keep him alive in the memories of others. She feels his presence with her almost constantly: a cardinal sitting upon a tree in her yard, uniquely shaped clouds, a stray penny on the ground.
The first time I heard Giselle tell her story was in a courtroom. It was the sentencing hearing for the young man who drove the getaway car.
Jaycee was living with his mother, grandfather, aunt, sisters, and three-year-old nephew. Giselle believed that, as a single mother, it was essential she raised her children with the support and influence of her parents and siblings. She supplemented this nurturing environment with extracurricular activities, mentoring programs, and church activities. Giselle’s home was filled with family and love; the center of the energy and exuberance was often Jaycee. He simply loved life.
That was all shattered when a group of men, unknown to the family, barged into the home. The men were there to buy marijuana. Jaycee had felt isolated in a college far away from home so he left school and found selling marijuana was an easy way to make money. He wouldn’t sell to just anyone. A younger neighborhood boy wanted to get high and Jaycee convinced him it wasn’t the right path to take. For Jaycee, selling the drug was the easiest path. He liked the money and the respect he received from neighborhood kids, but he was only going to sell the drug until he could get his feet back under him and find a school nearby to attend.
He never had the opportunity. There was a confrontation between Jaycee and the men. Jaycee’s then three-year-old nephew witnessed the execution-style killing of his beloved uncle.
Giselle ran after the gunman. The men jumped into a car and Giselle grabbed the passenger side handle. The driver continued to accelerate as he pulled Giselle on the asphalt. At the sentencing hearing, she turned to the young man, looking him in the eyes, “You dragged me. My physical wounds are healed. The cuts and bruises are gone without even a scar. My emotional wounds, those will never leave me.”
Giselle was unable to maintain her grasp on the door and the men escaped. She later learned that the gunman had been released from Prince George’s County Jail a week earlier on illegal gun charges. Meanwhile, inside the home, Jaycee’s elderly grandfather, sisters, aunt, young nephew, and two friends were trying to tend to him. His sister Gigi got a pillow and propped his head up. She was so accustomed to her brother teasing her that for a while she convinced herself that this was all an elaborate hoax. At any moment, he would jump up and say, “Surprise! Got you!” How many times had he tricked her before?
Jaycee’s other sister, Nikki, and one of his friends tried to perform CPR on him. Giselle knew her son was no longer alive. She knew the moment she heard the shot; her son was dead. As the driver left her on the ground, bloodied and bruised, she screamed after them, “Murderer!”
It felt like hours, but the police finally arrived. An off-duty police officer offered to give Giselle a ride to the hospital. She gratefully accepted. The officer escorted Giselle into the hospital emergency room in an area shielded by a curtain. Giselle saw a detective through a small gap in the drapes. The detective emerged from the screened-off area and quickly pulled the fabric together when she saw Giselle. Giselle knew the woman was shielding her from her son.
Giselle asked the detective if she could see her son. Each time the detective deflected the question. She ushered Giselle into a small room where a doctor soon joined them. The doctor and the detective told Giselle that Jaycee had not survived. Giselle asked to return to the room where she knew her son’s body lay. The detective responded that Giselle couldn’t see Jaycee because his body was now considered evidence and would be taken to forensics. The detective told Giselle she would have to contact the coroner’s office in Baltimore to make arrangements to see her child. The only thing Giselle wanted was to be by her son and she was denied that simple solace.
Giselle’s family rallied to her side immediately. Giselle’s sister, a family friend, and Jaycee’s friends came to the hospital. Giselle gathered the group together and told them the news. They stood in a circle and held hands, praying. Jaycee’s friends drove Giselle home that evening.
She returned home to seek comfort with her close-knit family but instead found a reporter and cameraman waiting for her. Jaycee’s friends shielded her from the reporter’s questions. “I tried to be polite to them. I asked them calmly to just leave us to grieve, but this woman kept shoving the microphone in my face. Finally, after she wouldn’t give me any space, I said, ‘Have you ever seen or watched someone die?’ And do you know what she said? ‘Yes,’ and then she told me I was rude.”
During this dark time, there were people who showed great compassion and kindness. Giselle’s religious community came to her side immediately. “Shortly after Jaycee transitioned to heaven, my church family provided us with great spiritual strength and came together with the community to give Jaycee a loving memorial reception.” Giselle’s neighbors also rallied to the family’s side. Not only did friends and neighbors bring meals, but they also asked the news reporters to respect the family’s privacy.
Jaycee’s friends were also a great source of strength. The men whom Jaycee met while studying the Koran soon become an important part of Giselle’s life. Many of these friends came to the court proceeding to support Giselle and her family. One of their fathers approached Giselle when he learned about the murder, “I want to pay for the funeral. He was our Muslim brother. Let us give him a Muslim burial and we will take care of everything.” A friend’s father even donated one of their family plots for Jaycee to buried.
The family recently celebrated their second Christmas without Jaycee. Giselle sent me an email shortly after the holiday, saying, “We decorated the CHRISTmas tree with the ornaments Jaycee made and received as gifts.” Jaycee’s favorite foods were on the family’s table. Though he wasn’t physically with them his presence was felt. These joyous occasions are always bittersweet now. Jaycee’s death is felt at every holiday, every birthday celebration, every wedding, and every birth. Giselle takes great comfort in the Bible and often references a passage, “Absence from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
Jaycee’s headstone was designed by his sister Gigi, Uncle Garey, friend Chad and Giselle. Gigi picked the photo to be used, an image of a young man far too young to die who immediately wins you over with a charismatic smile. Chad and Gigi selected two of their favorite Jaycee quotes to have engraved on the headstone. The first speaks to the young man’s love of money and youth: “Get $ Sty Lo. # Lil Penny.” The second quote reads: “I may not change the world, but I want to inspire many.”
Jaycee Muhammed Isa Webster
September 2, 1996- July 19, 2017
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