When Jeremiah Sterling came home from Colorado last July, his mom bought an automatic coffeemaker so he and she could hang out, have coffee and talk in the kitchen – just the two of them – in the mornings.
“He was real simple in what he liked, but what he liked, he stuck to,” says LaWanda Thompson-Sterling. “Jeremiah loved chicken nuggets, Cinnamon Crunch cereal, Ray’s bar-b-q.”
What she discovered on those lazy summer mornings over coffee was that the boy who’d gotten on the plane to Denver in the winter had come back a man.
“It was almost like he was older than me,” says LaWanda Thompson-Sterling. Jazmine Sterling, 19, Jeremiah’s older sister, says her brother had an almost uncanny talent for intimacy and consolation. “You could talk to him about anything,” she said. “He always knew what to do and say when he saw me or my mom sad.”
(Jeremiah Sterling )
Last summer, that was particularly important because LaWanda was going through her own travails. She had been unemployed for months – for the first time in her life – and was still dealing with the aftermath of the divorce from Jeremiah’s father, Odel.
The day before Jeremiah was gunned down in the alley just a block from his mother’s house, he’d reached across the table, touched her arm and said, “What you don’t know, Ma, is that life goes on.”
She’s haunted by that now, but that day, she was simply glowing in her son’s presence.
“I was happy,” says LaWanda.
Both her children were home: Jeremiah, 16, was visiting for the first time after having moved to Denver in December, and Jazmine, a student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, was home for the summer.
“And those two,” she says, “were very, very close. His sister was Jeremiah’s right lung.”
Home is a three-bedroom single family house on a well-trimmed block of modest bungalows in West Pullman. The Sterling family had moved there when Jeremiah was in middle school.
“He was so active back then,” says LaWanda, “that CPS wanted to label him ADHD.”
Odel, Jeremiah’s father, was attentive, held Bible study with both Jeremiah and Jazmine, and helped with homework.
“When he was little – and I mean pre-school – Jeremiah would do Jazmine’s math homework,” says Odel, who’s sure his son would have studied physics in college if he’d lived long enough. “I remember one time, we were working on it together and she just wasn’t getting it, which made no sense. She’s always been very good at English, which I’m not especially good at, but she was struggling with the math in a way I hadn’t seen before. And I asked her, ‘Why aren’t you getting this problem?’ Well, Jeremiah, who was just a baby, comes over, does the work and then goes back to playing. And I’m going, ‘Wait, what just happened here?’ Because he’d worked out the whole formula. And he says, ‘Oh, Daddy, I always do Jazmine’s math homework’.”
Yet, Jeremiah didn’t really begin to excel in school until he moved to Denver.
“He was very easily distracted in school,” says Jazmine, who graduated from the Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville instead of the family’s Chicago neighborhood high school, Fenger.
At one time, Jeremiah had hoped to go to Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy.
“He knew it was a good school and that it would help him get into a good college,” Jazmine says. “Because he really did want to go to college. He knew Fenger was a bad school and had a lot of the troublemaking kids in the neighborhood. He just wanted to stay out of trouble.”
But Jeremiah missed the deadline for the application.
“He was disappointed,” says his sister.
“He just didn’t want to be (at Fenger); he was struggling,” says his mother.
“He was kind of upset he had to go back to Fenger,” Jazmine says, “but he made the best of it.”
Odel, who was divorced from LaWanda by then, disputes some of that. He points out that Jeremiah would sometimes oversleep and miss classes. He says LaWanda simply didn’t discipline him enough in that regard.
LaWanda, says Odel, spoiled their youngest, and she doesn’t entirely deny it.
“Jeremiah was a mama’s boy,” she concedes. “He whined when he didn’t get his way. But all I had to say to get him in line was ‘I’m disappointed in you’.”
When it was intact, the family was church-going, Bible studying. Odel, a minister, had insisted on discipline and respect.
“If they told the truth, they’d never get a whooping — but a lie, it was automatic. My kids – all my kids – say, ‘Yes m’am,’ ‘No, sir’,” he says with pride. “There were problems, of course, but never talking back or disobedience.”
None of that, however, inhibited Jeremiah’s playful, outgoing spirit.
“He was always being funny, cracking jokes, breaking tension,” says Cory Mack, 30, the half-brother Jeremiah had gone to live with in Denver.
“He was very outgoing, very compassionate, even as a child,” says Odel. “He was me and I was him.”
And, in fact, Jeremiah had quite resemblance to his tall, handsome dad.
“He was a little Odel,” LaWanda concedes with a laugh.
According to Odel, Jeremiah learned to tumble after he saw him do it. Eventually, the boy would join the Jesse White tumblers for a spell.
“Later, somebody said something about me break dancing,” Odel recalls, “and Jeremiah turned to me and said, ‘Daddy, will you teach me to break dance?’. But my son took it to another level.”
In fact, in his teen years, Jeremiah’s reputation and accomplishments as a dancer would be a tremendous source of pride and hope for the future.
“He’d tell me, ‘I’m gonna be famous, I’m gonna buy you a house, I’m take care of you’,” LaWanda remembers, and then begins to cry. “I told him, ‘You’re a beautiful, intelligent young man, you can do anything you want’.”
“Jeremiah and my mom were unbreakable,” Jazmine says.
That might be why, when Jeremiah was shot 12 times and dying in that alley, he turned to the neighbor who was with him waiting for an ambulance and said, “Tell my mother I love her.”
They were his last words.