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The heavy cloak of death that often accompanies gun violence first draped itself over my world at a young age. My exact age – single digits? early double digits? – and some details are unclear in my memory, but I do remember this:
His name was Raphael and he was my cousin. The morning before his birthday, he was shot accidentally, and it killed him. Instead of planning the birthday party of her teen son, my aunt had to plan his funeral.
At the time, I didn’t realize that this death would trigger a chain reaction resulting in the death of another family member in almost the same fashion, nor did I expect that gun violence would become as normal as breathing in the city I call my home. And I could not fathom that tragedies like these would happen in schools too. Yet all of these unthinkable scenarios came true.
“I think it’s important that the people in Florida know that we support them… But this city deals with gun violence every single day and so I think its important to march with that in mind as well. I lost 2 of my cousins to gun violence.”
Mikayla Tyler, 18, Philadelphia pic.twitter.com/jOJI6jlRNa
— youthradio (@youthradio) March 14, 2018
The next time death from gun violence touched my life, I was 16. I remember every detail about that day. It was April 21, 2016, and I was in school. A sophomore in high school, I was anticipating the end of the day. My class and I were heading to the gymnasium for last period to watch a play. I was lined up in front of my classroom door, waiting for the signal to move to the first floor, my classmates behind me.
And then my phone rang.
My mom’s smiling face appeared on the screen of my phone, but my heart immediately dropped because I knew something was wrong; she would only call during school for an emergency. I hesitantly answered, and I remember her exact words: “They killed him, Kayla. They killed your cousin.” The bell rang, and my classmates passed by me, not realizing that my heart was breaking right before their eyes.
As tears fell from my eyes, I frantically made my way down the halls and stairways, the sound of my mother’s grief ringing loudly in my ears as I ran out of school.
I took a bus ride, an El ride, and walked a few blocks with my heart broken and grief raking my body so harshly that I nearly passed out before I finally made it into my mother’s embrace.
His name was Jerry. He was my cousin and the closest thing I had to a father figure. His death was no accident or happenstance. He was purposefully shot in the face – murdered in broad daylight.
It’s still difficult to think about the fact that he is no longer here. For his obituary, I wrote a poem.
The Worst Thing About Death
The worst thing about death is knowing I will never hear your voice again.
The worst thing about death is acknowledging that I’ll never hear your knock at the door one more time.
The worst thing about death is that the warmth of your big hugs will never radiate from you and run onto me and straight into my heart.
The worst thing about death is simply the fact that you’re not here anymore.
Not here to protect nor provide, not here to have family talks or good food.
The absolute worst thing about death is that it chose you.
People like my family, in urban cities like Philadelphia, deal with the effects of gun violence all too often, and it should not be ignored.
The fact that I had to attend two funerals because someone irresponsible had a gun shouldn’t be ignored.
The fact that the sound of gunshots ringing out in the dead of night in my city is normal should not be ignored.
After the Parkland shooting, people with stories like mine, people directly affected by frequent gun violence, are starting to have a voice too. We are able to give light to stories that are often paid no attention.
No gun violence – even when it’s not on a mass scale or happens in an urban setting – should be considered ordinary or acceptable.
I believe there’s no single way to avoid tragedies like the ones I have endured or put an end to all school shootings. But what I do know, is that guns should not be so easily accessible to irresponsible people who use them to hurt others. Our representatives in Congress need to realize this and start making changes.