Denise Reid’s childhood nickname was Sunshine. You need only to spend five minutes with Denise to understand how she earned this befitting moniker. Denise radiates warmth and kindness.
I met Denise through Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters (MOMS), a remarkable organization run by women whose children have been murdered. Denise knows loss well. Her uncle, cousin, and cousin’s girlfirend were all shot and killed.
Her mother was shot standing in the doorway of their Baltimore row home. The bullet tore through her mother’s arm and lodged in the family’s roasting pan. Denise’s mother survived and the tale of the bullet and the roasting pan continues to be told around the family table.
When Denise and I met for the final edit of this piece, I inquired about her nephew who had just been released from University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Unit after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds. She informed me, with her characteristic optimism, that the young man was doing remarkably well. She then added that another nephew was shot a few nights earlier. She expected this nephew to survive as well and invoked the power of God as a significant force in the recovery of both men. She didn’t mention the shooting of her second nephew on Facebook because she was sensitive to the fact that many of her fellow MOMS were confronting anniversaries of their childrens’ deaths and she didn’t want to eclipse their stories.
These stories are commonplace in Baltimore.
Denise invites me to her home on an overcast April day. She lives on the top floor of an old row home in West Baltimore. Her apartment is carefully and meticulously decorated with flower arrangements she’s cleverly made with old mylar balloons. The decorations are cheerful and bright. There are three portraits that aren’t of family members on display: Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Jesus Christ.
Denise is a chaplain with the Baltimore City Police. I have accompanied her on many prayer marches in the city and had the honor of listening to this petite woman preach on the street corners of the most violent neighborhoods. I can say without any reservations that no one would think of attempting to intimidate Denise on these marches. She is a powerhouse.
Denise shares the story of her son’s death with the same candor and courage she preaches with on the streets. She looks me in the eyes, “I know this from both sides. My story is one of hope, love, redemption and forgiveness.” Denise knows what it is to be the mother of a victim and to be the mother of a perpetrator. Not every mother has the strength to share this sad dichotomy.
Tavon was Denise’s first child and only son. The labor was grueling and she laughs as she remembers, “There is a reason that Tavon and Jazz (her younger daughter) are separated by twenty-three years!” Tavon’s delivery was difficult, but he was an easy baby and kind child.
She recalls overhearing his friends, who at the time didn’t realize that she was present, speak about her son shortly after his death:
“Tavon, drove me to the doctors.”
“Tavon, took me up to college when no one else would give me a ride.”
“Tavon helped me get groceries.”
Denise still proudly displays a cabinet full of his school awards. Tavon excelled at Malcolm X Primary School where he amassed many accolades in scholastic achievement, athletic prowess, attendance, and conduct.Her uncle, cousin, and son... all shot and killed. Meet Denise and go #BehindTheStatisticsClick To Tweet
Three years before he was shot, Tavon was charged with second degree murder. Denise sat in the courtroom every day of his trial. When she first told me the story, her focus was not on her son or the impact it had upon her at six months pregnant with her daughter. Her focus was on the victim’s mother: “There was one day when we saw one another in the bathroom. I looked at her and saw her hurt and despair. I wish now that at that moment I could have embraced her with God’s loving care.”
Denise wasn’t present when the jury announced their verdict. Shortly before the decision was announced, Denise fell down the court house steps and was rushed to Mercy Hospital. She sat in the hospital bed, praying for her unborn child and her son, uncertain and concerned about their fates. She also prayed for Baltimore, for the mother she’d passed in the bathroom, and for the man her son was accused of killing. Denise and her unborn child were unscathed. Mrs. Nancy Waters, Tavon’s paternal grandmother, called Denise to tell her that Tavon was found not guilty.
Tavon came home. Denise had a beautiful baby girl. Tavon and his girlfriend learned that they were expecting a baby boy. Then Denise received another call from Tavon’s grandmother on October 18, 2006. Tavon was gravely wounded.
Tavon survived for almost three years after he was shot. He was paralyzed from the neck down but able to speak and his cognition was completely intact. Denise and her family watched Tavon and monitored his care carefully. They had him transferred from numerous hospitals and nursing homes to ensure that he received the best medical care available.
Denise remembers how Tavon’s father, with whom she was no longer romantically involved, became his son’s fiercest advocate and devoted caretaker. “Tavon’s phenomenal father, James Waters Senior, took him breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. He rubbed Tavon’s skin with lotion to ward off bedsores. His girlfriend helped him maintain his prized dreadlocks which had grown all the way down to his rear end.” The entire family mobilized to care for their beloved Tavon.
I often wonder what would happen to me if one of my children died. I can’t possibly know, but I am fairly certain I would not demonstrate the grace I see in Denise.
When I tell her this she laughs, “I’m a positive person. By God’s grace, he fortified me with strength.” She quotes Nehemiah, Chapter 8, verse 10. When I was a girl, everyone in the neighborhood called me Sunshine because I smiled all the time. I’ve kept that positivity but that wasn’t an easy time. Tavon also always saw the bright side. I remember walking into his room one day shortly after his son was born. His mind was still sharp as anything. I can remember him looking up at me with a devious grin, winking at his lady friend, and saying, ‘Well, maybe we can find some way for me to still have more babies.’ He could still laugh.”
Denise remembers the night the nurse called and said that she should come to the hospital. Denise put Jazz, her baby girl, in the stroller and ran down a poorly lit Baltimore street. “I was out of my mind. Jazz kept yelling, ‘Mommy, what are you doing?’”
Denise ran into the hospital with security and the nurses trying to keep her out of her son’s room, but she overpowered them. She saw Tavon and a small army of health care providers swarming over him.
No one ever found Tavon’s killer. There is grainy video footage of the shooting and stories floating around the street. Denise never sat in a court room looking at a young man accused of her son’s murder. She says she doesn’t need to know. She has made her peace. “My story is about God being glorified and not about my son. I am focused on God’s forgiveness, redemption, healing, and love of the three alleged perpetrators.” Denise has never uttered a harsh word about her son’s killers. “I pray for them every night. I wish them only the best.” But she looks at me with uncharacteristic sad eyes and says, “I don’t wish this on any mother.”
Tavon Terrell Water, Sr: June 8, 1983 to April 1, 2009
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence