Veobia Akilo’s email was succinct and powerful:
On January 15, 2017, my son Andrew V. Zachary became the 14th murder victim (this year) of Baltimore City, he was only 23 years old. Not only was he my first-born child, he was a husband, a father and also a Marine, honorably discharged. He was able to survive combat overseas, but could not survive the streets of Baltimore. Say his name: Andrew Zachary.
We met Veobia at Huber Memorial Church, a beautiful old stone building just south of Towson and close to some of Baltimore’s prettiest neighborhoods. Veobia moved her three children to Baltimore almost a decade ago to be closer to family. She wanted to be in a safe community and found a home on the edge of the historic Hamilton neighborhood.
Veobia chose to have her photo taken at the church because it holds fond memories: Andrew’s baptism, visions of him in the children’s church, Christmas celebrations, and singing. Veobia laughs as she recalled nudging a teenage Andrew during services as he dozed off. “I’m just praying,” he’d say as he jolted awake.
Andrew loved laughing. He and his mother shared a sense of humor that, as Veobia remembers, “Not everyone got.” Sometimes when she can’t sleep, she scrolls Facebook. Occasionally she comes across a funny video, one she knows Andrew would appreciate, and she begins to tag him in her post. Then she remembers he is gone and her laughter turns into sobs.
“There are times when I think, he’s just in boot camp,” she says. The 12 weeks that Andrew was in basic training for the Marines were the only time that Veobia did not speak to her son at least twice a day. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine him off at basic training rather than face the dark reality of his death.
Veobia was 22 when she had Andrew, one year older than Andrew was when he died. It was just the two of them for many years before she got married and had two more children. While he was young, Andrew and Veobia moved around the eastern seaboard frequently for her work: New Jersey to North Carolina to Maine. They always had one another. “We had a pact.” she says as tears slip down her cheeks. “If I got old and couldn’t care for myself, he promised that he would bathe me and care for me. And that if anything happened to him when he was in the Marines, if he lost his arms and legs, he wanted me to do the physical work of carrying him.”
She worries that people will think that Andrew is just another stereotype: a fatherless, young black man shot to death in Baltimore. In truth, he was a husband, a doting son and a devoted father.
“I’m not saying my child was perfect. We had our troubles,” Veobia frankly states. Andrew got into college after high school but Veobia worried that he lacked the discipline to complete the courses. “He was so bright, a genius I think. But I knew that he needed something I couldn’t give him. Maybe something a father could have.”
She brought home a recruiting video from the Marines. They both agreed that he should put his college plans on hold and enlist. After completing basic training, Veobia drove down to attend the ceremony. She saw Andrew from afar and she said she immediately began to cry. “I knew he couldn’t smile, but I could see the smile in his eyes when he saw me. And then, when the ceremony was over, he ran up to me and he said, ‘Mom, we did it!’ He said ‘we’ like it was both of us.”
Veobia could see a change in her son. He was proud of his accomplishment and eager to begin his career as a Marine. There were so many years when it was just Veobia and Andrew trying to survive in the world together. So many years when she felt like she had to fight tirelessly to protect him. “I did everything to prevent him from becoming another statistic. I did everything to prevent this pain.”
Veobia doesn’t recall much about the night of January 15, 2017. She remembers being called to the hospital. She insisted that she see her son. She simply couldn’t believe that anyone would want to kill him. Andrew lay on a gurney, his big eyes wide open, lifeless. She still recalls the sound that filled the room, a keening so foreign that she didn’t even realize it came from her lungs. She shakes her head as she recounts that horrible time. “We deserve better than this. Our children deserve to live.”He survived combat overseas, but not the streets of Baltimore. Go #BehindTheStatisticsClick To Tweet
She is fiercely cognizant of the need to be her best for her surviving two children and her granddaughter. Andrew’s only child, Sophia, is three and lives with his widow with whom Veobia has a great relationship. She makes sure that her 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, and 12-year-old son, Elijah, have all the resources and assistance they need. She also makes sure that she cares for herself so that she can be strong for them.
“Losing a child impacts you as a mother. I’m not the same mother to my younger children.” She has renewed her relationship with God, attends therapy, receives acupuncture, and has set up meetings with a nutritionist. She may not be the same mother, but she works tirelessly for her younger children and granddaughter to be the best mother and grandmother.
I ask her, as I do all mothers in Baltimore with surviving sons, if she worries about Elijah. Veobia is fierce: “I’m absolutely terrified.” You can see the fear in her eyes as she reacts to my question, wide-eyed abject fear. The moment is intimate and profound. She is silent for a moment and then begins to talk about her ex-husband whom Veobia divorced when her younger children were babies.
“He wasn’t the best husband but he is an awesome father,” she says. Elijah’s and Isabella’s father drives from Portland, Maine once a week to see his children and provide emotional support. Both parents feel this is particularly important if they want to keep Elijah safe. There have been times when Veobia has thought of leaving the city, but this is home. Her mother and family are here. It isn’t easy to leave that network of support and love.
Veobia pauses, “My mother and I were just talking about the holidays.” She continues to tell us that one of Andrew’s greatest passions was food. He loved not only eating it, but cooking it. “He’d watch Emeril and then next thing I know he’s be flambéing everything in the house.” She begins to tear. “I don’t know how we are going to get through Thanksgiving without Andrew at the table.”
Veobia, who shared Andrew’s passion and talent for cooking, now dreads it. She does it because she has young children to feed. Each time she even considers cooking his favorite food, a Nigerian red stew, she is overwhelmed by sadness.
When Andrew joined the Marines, Veobia knew there was a risk her child could be injured or even die. When he was honorably discharged from the Marines and went to Afghanistan to do contract work, she knew he was taking a risk with his life. She never once imagined that Andrew would be shot dead in the community where he was baptized.
It’s unlikely that Veobia will ever know the entire story from the night of Andrew’s death. The detectives told her that another black man confronted Andrew at a convenience store and a fight ensued.
“I don’t need vengeance. I don’t want my child’s killer killed. I just want him off the streets so he can’t kill someone else,” she says. A simple request from a grieving mother. The silence of the streets makes it unlikely that Veobia will ever learn who killed her son. A disagreement that could have ended in a fistfight ended with gunfire and a dead child. The deadly combination of silence and violence is an all too common Baltimore story.
Andrew V. Zachary: January 6, 1994 – January 15, 2017
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence