February 10, 2013
There was a girl in a casket.
There is no good way to say that.
The girl looked familiar, even to the people who had never met her, because we've all seen her in the news lately. A pretty girl, so young, and still somehow vivacious, laid out in a purple dress with a sparkly bodice that would have looked great at a prom.
"Hey," called a guy from a passing car. "Is this for that girl who got shot?"
The cameramen who were bunched in front of Calahan Funeral Home on Friday nodded, and the guy headed down Halsted Street in search of a place to park.
A lot of strangers came to tell 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton goodbye. Friends and family came, too, obviously, but it was the strangers, and the cameras, and Fox News streaming live from inside the visitation room, that made it clear that this was no ordinary wake.
"My wife and I heard it on the TV," said Walter Hughes, 62, who drove in from the suburb of Alsip, "and we said, 'Let's go over and pay our respects.'"
When he walked past the girl in the casket, he cried, not only for her but for all the Chicago young people who live in fear of winding up like her, shot in the back in a park on some ordinary afternoon for no known reason.
"She's everyone's daughter today," said Kendall Williams.
Williams wasn't a stranger. She went to college with Hadiya's parents, and Hadiya had baby-sat her 5-year-old daughter, Bailey. Now she wonders how to protect Bailey from a fate like Hadiya's.
"Where do I run to?" she said. "Where do I hide her?"
At the casket, Williams stood next to one of Hadiya's friends, who kept saying, "Why? Why?"
"It made me feel terrible not to be able to answer that for her," Williams said.
That's the stinging question with the maddeningly elusive answer that ran like background music through the little windowless room where Hadiya was laid out.
Why her, a good girl with a bright future? Why all these other young people killed before they've been able to fully live? And what to do?
Standing in the cold, gray afternoon outside the funeral home, you could have asked almost anyone who walked in or out, and they would have given you theories, strands of explanations, strands of solutions. You would have gotten the same answers and questions at her funeral Saturday.
"The youth of America don't have anything to live for," Williams said. "They can't see a future for themselves, so they don't mind taking away the future of others."
By "the youth of America" I assume she meant the America of impoverished communities where families are broken and there are no jobs.
"In the black community," said Carlos Estes, an adviser to an anti-violence group, "the men who are supposed to be holding the community together are in prison. If they're not in prison, they're on drugs."
He shook his head. "You can't police your way out of this."
One of the police sergeants on duty agreed.
"It starts in the home," he said.
Any illness is easier to diagnose than to cure. Part of the problem, I think, is Chicago's intractable segregation, a racial divide that is, more importantly, also an economic division.
Almost all the visitors at Hadiya Pendleton's visitation were black. Many white Chicagoans are saddened and aggrieved by her death, and yet few feel sufficiently connected to her neighborhood to do what the man from Alsip did, drive a ways to pay respects.
As long as Chicago's severe segregation brings such huge economic disparities, nothing will change.
It is Hadiya Pendleton's strange fate to be, for now, "everyone's daughter," the person who makes us ask these questions, ponder these problems.
But as her family keeps saying, her death is more than a public policy debate.
"This is not political," her cousin Shatira Wilks said Friday, standing outside the funeral home. "This is personal. It's not Republican or Democrat."
Strip away the theories, arguments, explanations, recriminations that surround Hadiya's death, and one sure fact remains:
There was a girl in a casket.
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