Irvin (Nephew) B. Lawson November 22, 1976- January 25, 2008
Larry (Boxx) W. Henderson, Jr. August 4, 1983- May 3, 2014
Alice Oaks saw her younger son Larry’s phone number pop up on her cell phone screen. She was in frequent contact with her boys. A little earlier Larry called to tell his mother that he and his older brother Irvin reconciled after a fight that had kept her son at odds for far too long. Alice was relieved. Nothing in her life was more important than her two children. Her happiness was firmly entwined in theirs.
Alice was accustomed to daily calls and visits from her sons, but this call came late at night and woke her from a restless sleep, abruptly, coughing and struggling to breath. The coughing fit was short-lived but intense. She picked the phone up and held it to her ear. Larry was screaming on the other end, “Ma, Nephew got shot.”
Irvin was known by family and friends as Nephew. Alice, one of nine siblings, brought her first child to her mother’s house just before Thanksgiving to a home filled with uncles and aunts. Her sisters began to refer to Irvin simply as Nephew.
Irvin and Alice spent the first six years of his life together, just the two of them. Irvin was a star athlete. Alice couldn’t tolerate watching Irvin on the football field. It was too violent and she lived in fear that he would be hurt. She was relieved when he decided to play lacrosse instead. In high school, Irvin joined the ROTC. Alice showed us one of the many photographs of her son. “He was so handsome in that uniform. I think if it hadn’t been for peer pressure, he would have gone into the military.” Irvin’s photo captures a young man with a charismatic smile.
Larry joined Alice and Irvin a few months before Irvin’s seventh birthday. Irvin was a fierce protector of his baby brother. Larry was known as Boxx because as a toddler he loved fries and chicken wings from the Korean restaurant know as chicken box. Larry was the creative child. He won a scholarship to The School for the Arts. Both of Alice’s children were voracious readers. The photo is taken near the Village Learning Place. When her children were young, Alice worked near this lending library. In the summer months, she would bring the boys to work with her and they would bring books from the Village Learning Place to her office.
Alice’s fondest memories were of those summer days with her boys stretched out at her feet reading books as she worked. It was so important to her that the three of them remain a stable unit. Irvin’s first call that day informing her the boys had resolved their petty differences was such a relief, but this second panicked call from Larry brought only terror.
Larry’s voice was frantic and high-pitched. The cell phone lost connection soon after Alice picked up but she knew she had to go to the hospital. On the way there, a woman called to express her condolences and ask if she would be willing to consider donating Irvin’s organs. Alice yelled at the woman and told her that her child wasn’t dead. When she arrived at the hospital she knew otherwise. “They asked me to go into that room. You, know, that room, the room every mother fears.” In the room, the doctors told her they tried but had been unable to save her son. “I just wanted my mother,” Alice said. When they took her to see Larry’s body she saw tubes in his throat and immediately thought of her coughing fit earlier in the evening. “I was coughing for him. Struggling to breath for my child.” Alice returned home that evening and immediately began preparing for Irvin’s funeral, an event that had so many attendees, it was standing room only.
Almost immediately after the death of her son, she was thrown into the chaos of his murder trial. The defendant’s mother was also in attendance. Once the mother followed Alice out of the courtroom and made snide remarks to her. However, on the day the defendant was declared guilty and sentenced to life plus 20 years, and the defendant’s mother fainted from the shock, Alice cried not for her child but for the shooter’s mother. The pain and trauma of murder was overwhelming for everyone.
Alice reached out to the State’s Attorney’s Office to avail herself of the counseling and support services offered. There she met other women who were active members of Survivors Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE), a support group and advocacy organization for individuals whose loves ones have been murdered. “We are like sisters, those women and me. There is nothing more painful and devastating than the death of your children. But I thank God for giving me these women to stand by my side.” These mothers share the bond of a child’s violent death.
Many of us have not experienced loss like Alice’s. However, most of us have the compassion and sympathy to stand with these mothers in the moments after the tragedy to offer our support. It’s the weeks, months and years after the murders that are often the most challenging for the ones left behind. It is the times when the mothers fear that the world has forgotten their children, or worst yet, when family and friends question why the women continue to grieve. Alice recalled her husband, her sons’ stepfather, questioning why she wasn’t able to “get over” Irvin’s death. It is the moments when people assume that a gun homicide was justified, or even deserved. Alice presumed that her younger son’s uncle was calling her to offer her support after Larry’s death. Instead the uncle chided her, “If you live by the sword, you have to expect to die by the sword.” SAVE members are accustomed to these callous and thoughtless sentiments. Alice and her peers have created a space where they can honor their children and support one another.
The women of SAVE were there for Alice in her very darkest moment. They came to her the night she learned that Larry, her only other surviving child was also killed.
On the day of his death, Larry came by to visit her and she made him a big breakfast. As Larry left the house, she said, “I love you, be careful.” Larry laughed, “Mom, you always say that.” Alice left home shortly after her son and saw a rainbow as she was driving. She called Larry to tell him. The call went directly to his voicemail. Later she received a call from one of Larry’s friends. The woman asked if she had spoken to Larry. Alice said that she left a voicemail but had not spoken to him since breakfast. “Something is up with Boxx. Someone is posting on his Facebook page ‘rest in peace,’” the woman said. Alice stopped the car in the middle of the street and started to scream, “Not my last child. Not my only living son.” The pain was intolerable. The police found Larry’s body face down in the dirt later that night.
She immediately called her friends Greta and Maria from SAVE. The women drove around the streets of Baltimore together trying to find the coroner’s office. They never got to see Larry’s body that night. Unbeknownst to Alice at the time, her husband already identified his stepson’s body and the coroner would not let another person in to see Larry.
Irvin and Larry were separated by just over six years in age. Their murders occurred six years apart. Irvin’s murderer was found shortly after he was killed. Alice felt some closure. However, Irvin’s case continues to be reopened by the defendant in an attempt to secure an early release. Each time Alice has to return to court she feels the trauma of the loss all over again. “Sometimes they are just so disrespectful. Like the attorney who get up on the stand and keeps going on about Nephew this and Nephew that, like she knew my child. She never met him.” Alice feels like the courts and the system are more concerned about the well-being of the man who killed her son and his rights than they are about Irvin’s or her rights. This is a constant refrain heard from mothers who manage to get their day in court: the system has failed me and my child.
After Larry’s death, Alice contemplated suicide. She felt that she had nothing left. She worried that without her sons, she would be abandoned and alone when she got old. “Both of my boys were ladies’ men. They left me with eight grandchildren with eight different mothers.” Alice laughed. She then began to cry, “I thought that my boys would be here to bury me.” She composed herself and continued, “One of Larry’s daughter’s mothers called a few months ago. She asked to come visit me one Sunday.” Alice’s granddaughter, siblings and mother came over armed with enough food to feed a small army. “I sat right in this chair and just looked around in disbelief. I said, ‘I didn’t know you all cared about me.’ And they said, ‘We love you, Ms. Alice.’ Now here I was worrying that no one would be there to care for me when I get old and her come all these people showering me with love.”
She quickly learned who her friends were and where she could go for unconditional support: SAVE and The Family Bereavement Center at Roberta’s House. Losing a child is devastating, losing two children is catastrophic, but losing a community of support is a fate that no one should have to face. The communities created by the strong and courageous mothers who have suffered a loss of a child provide an answer to the abandonment that too many families suffer in the wake of a violent and traumatic death of a loved one.