Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Monday, October 27, 2014

After the Death of Darnell Byrd, Jr, Part 2: "A story that is killing my heart"

"A story that is killing my heart"  

(See Part 1: Between Rumor and Knowing)

Today, a year after the murder of Darnell Byrd, Jr,, his mother, Ultra Humphries, sits in the front room in her house in East Oakland, in the room where Darnell slept, talking about him, about his hopes and dreams, about his ongoing presence in her life. Darnell wanted to be a barber. He had plans to change his own look, to look more professional, more button-down. He was getting serious, he was growing up. Mother and son were scheduled to go shopping for new clothes the day his body was found, with a bullet in his head, on 78th Avenue. He was 24.

Akim, Ultra and Darnell. Darnell was killed in Oakland in 2013
Ultra has turned Darnell's old room into a peaceful sitting room. Warm sunlight filters through the curtains of blue and brown. There are two comfortable couches and a corner shrine to the memory of her only son. Her husband, Akim, sits at her side. They are young, a year either side of 40, a strikingly handsome couple, out in the world they will catch your eye. But if you watch them long enough you will see in the hard, sober set of their faces the weight of this loss. Akim is always a quiet presence until, occasionally, while telling her story, Ultra can't totally control her emotions and her voice wavers, and then gently Akim touches her arm. He picks up the story until she can gather herself. It's never a long time. Ultra is determined for people to know what happened, what is happening in Oakland, and how the families of the killed, especially the mothers, suffer.

"I'm strong," she says. "But I hurt."

For Ultra, it has been, it continues to be, a journey through grief and pain, to forgiveness, and a search for healing and justice. Every week she checks-in with the Oakland detectives in charge of the investigation. When the primary investigator got sick, she insisted that the investigation progress.

"This is not a cold case," she told them. She says they have been responsive, but she does get frustrated with the pace of things.

Her attitude towards her son's killer has shifted over her painful year.

"In the beginning, I felt a lot of hatred," she says. "And I really wished he was dead." But this has been a hell she would not wish on anybody. "I really have to pray for him and his family. Because...God help him. And I really hope that he will turn himself in and repent and turn away from wickedness and evil. If he doesn't turn away, his parents are going to lose their son."

Her faith has kept her intact, she tells me. "Because I have God, it's why I haven't gone crazy."

She's gotten invaluable support from her church, and from two Oakland institutions devoted to helping families of the killed. The Crisis Response and Support Network, out of Catholic Charities of the East Bay, has helped with the rent when Ultra had to miss work. And they have linked her and her daughter up with therapist who she says have helped them both immensely.

And in Marilyn Harris and the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, she has found a kindred soul and a source of ongoing strength and healing. Since her own young son was murdered in Oakland in 2000, Harris has been stepping into the lives of survivors, often right at the crime scene, or in the first days after a killing, to guide them through the business at hand, to be their eyes and brain when their own eyes and brain refuse to function or believe, and to begin their long journey back to life. Among the many services she provides, Harris leads a monthly grief group for parents of the killed. There, Ultra could being to tell her story.

"The group," she says, "it makes me feel comfortable to speak about my situation, because others are going through the same thing that I'm going through. So they understand. And when they tell their stories, I'm able to identify what I'm going through, because even though they may have lost their son five years ago, ten years ago, they still lost their son, and they're able to tell me how it's gonna be."

It sounds strange, but sometimes her strength frustrates her. "I don't want to wear it," she tells me," but she does want people to know both that she has a painful story and that she is enduring. "I want them to know, even though I've been through the death of my son, you are still able to make it, you can do it. and that's what Marilyn has given me strengh to do."

Outwardly, a year later, she can look fine, normal, like anybody else going about their business. On a day just about six months after Darnell's death, Ultra wandered idly into a local clothing store. She didn't have much money and wasn't really looking for anything in particular, unless some real bargain popped out at her. Eventually she found herself at the jewelry counter chatting with a friendly clerk. Ultra ended up telling the clerk her story, talking about her son's death, witnessing to the clerk about her church.

"She said, 'I saw you when you came into the store," Ultra recalls, "'and you just looked so good, and nice, and you would never have thought that you lost your son.' In my mind, I'm thinking, 'Do I have to look like what I've been through? She said 'You can't even tell.' But if I looked like my story," says Ultra, "I'd probably be missing all my hair, all my teeth, one leg, no hands."

Still, it is important that people know, that they hear. "Just because I'm not wearing my story, doesn't mean I don't have a story that's killing my heart. Because I have one."

One year later, of course Darnell remains a force in her daily life, even as she misses the little things, the mom-things."I can't tell him to take the garbage out, tell him to go the store for me."

She speaks to him still, sometimes just to ask, in exasperation, why he wouldn't listen to her. "Why didn't you just stay home, why did you always have to go out. Why didn't you just listen. I told him not to go in that area. Not to go around there. That's not a good area for him to be in."

And then there are the times when she hears his voice. Darnell speaks to her. "I just keep hearing him telling me 'Moms, it's gonna be okay.'"

When her inclination was to save the insurance money, Darnell gave her advice. Mom, you need to use that money, that's what I gave it to you for. She used it to create this peaceful room we are sitting in today, this room in which Darnell is a presence in photographs and in spirit. One year after his murder, the grief of course still comes, sometimes very suddenly. "I will be in the bathroom putting on my makeup and suddenly have a spurt of crying," says Ultra.

She says she wants to have a quiet day on the anniversary of his death, a visit to his niche at the cemetery and a day of family togetherness. They'll have a bigger event to mark what would have been his 26th birthday in January.

More and more, others who have lost a son or daughter have begun turning to Ultra for advice and she says that actually has helped her heal. "Helping others helps me," she tells me. "I'm a fighter, I go, I have to keep moving, and that's what makes me thrive. I want to be like Marilyn Harris, to be able to motivate and inspire people."

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