A Lesson from LaWanda

March 20, 2013

Yesterday, during the “Afternoon Shift” interview Rick Kogan and I did with LaWanda Thompson-Sterling, I heard myself admitting that the ordeal of her son’s murder – a story I followed on and off my WBEZ blog for two and half years – had sometimes been too much and that, because I could, because I’d had the privilege, I’d backed away and taken some distance at times.

Jeremiah Sterling was murdered July 15, 2010, his killer arrested almost immediately. For LaWanda, the murder didn’t just occur on that sunny day, but was kept alive with every new twist and turn of the case, with every new rumor that hit her doorstep, with every interview we did, with every visit from her son’s friends.

I remember being at her house and sensing that her welcome to his friends – young folks hurting from the loss, lonely for their own reasons, disoriented by events – seemed both a balm and a curse. Jeremiah’s friends kept his memory fresh, but that also meant the murder – a savage assassination – stayed near, a malignant ghost hovering.

A year after the murder, LaWanda and I were still in touch but our communications were more perfunctory.

There was something else going on in my life, too: My partner was pregnant. We were consumed with preparation, with joy, with the anticipation of this tidal wave of change in our lives.

And I was terrified. I was terrified, I suppose, of all the usual things that afflict parents on the verge – financial fears and fears about knowing what to do, of not being able to love right, or enough, or too much; of screwing him up.

When our son was born, I was enraptured. But his beauty, instead of allaying my fears, only made them worse. I worried, a lot, about the basic protection I could offer my son, and that I would never be strong enough, quick enough, limber enough, to keep him from harm.

And what about when he wasn’t with me? When he was old enough to be on his own, as good as bare-chested out in the world, as carefree and cocky as … Jeremiah Sterling?

What would I do if I lost my son? The thought – the literal thought, the very idea – is unimaginable.

And then I’d look at my Facebook messages and see LaWanda bravely commemorating this or that event in Jeremiah’s life, and my face would just burn from shame.

Because, really, how absurd. How very absurd – with my son on my lap -- to even think the realm of her wound could be accessed in any way outside of the experience itself.

The thing is, LaWanda both scares and awes me. She conjures a strength and a light that are alien to me, that I fear I could dig for in my own reserves and never find – a strength and light forged from a pain that would surely fell me.

She has a lesson to teach us, I know she does, but I don’t really want to think about the need to learn it. Because to think about it, I think, is to contemplate the very worst thing.

And nobody – absolutely no one – wants to think about that.