The conversation was cheerful, the music was loud and spirits were high at the Mother’s Day celebration Saturday at the War Memorial.
Attendees lined up for plates of lasagna and baked chicken. Old friends laughed and hugged. People danced.
But what brought the nearly 200 men, women and children together for the afternoon celebration was a common wellspring of suffering.
The event was a Mother’s Day gala for moms who have lost children in Baltimore’s epidemic of violent crime — the 12th such party thrown by the local nonprofit Tears of a Mother’s Cry.
Guests who attended earlier versions of the bash seemed unsure what to think about the fact that this year’s was bigger than ever — five times the size, in fact, of the organization’s first Mother’s Day celebration put on by founder Millie Brown in 2008.
“When I first started coming, it was really pretty small, only about 40 people,” said Burnett McFadden, a Glen Burnie mother who, almost unfathomably, lost three sons to murder in a one-month span in 2005. “Look at how big it is now. I love the entertainment and excitement Miss Millie gives us, but I wish this didn’t keep happening to so many other mothers.”
No one knows how many Baltimore-area mothers have lost children to violence — crime statistics suggest it must be well into the thousands — but guests said when murder takes a mother’s child, whether grown or not, it leaves a hole no process of grieving or passage of time can ever fill.
Dana Bell’s 23-year-old son, Antonio Davis, was visiting a family friend in West Baltimore in December 2016 when one or more men entered and shot Davis and two other men to death in what police called a targeted hit.
The assailants remain at large, and the case gained increased notoriety — and the attention of the FBI — when Baltimore homicide detective Sean Suiter was killed while investigating the crime.
Bell, who said police told her Davis was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” called her late son “my heart,” describing him as fiercely protective of her safety. She said she was so heartbroken at his sudden loss that she ended up hospitalized with physical illness.
All she can manage these days, she said, is to go to her job as a security officer, come home and try to deal with things in private.
All the more reason events like the Mother’s Day party are a “great blessing,” she said.
“I’m so thankful to Miss Millie for doing this every year,” she said, tears coming to her eyes. “It gets me out of my apartment, out of my thoughts, and it’s so important for me to be able to talk with other people who are going through the same thing.”
Two chairs away sat Bell’s aunt, Jacqueline Jamison of West Baltimore. Her son, Troy Thomas, a 26-year-old business student with a newborn daughter, was shot to death in an argument over a moped six years to the day before Davis, his cousin, was slain.
“I was just getting through it, and when her son died, it devastated all of us all over again,” said Jamison, adding that she thinks Brown’s efforts are “awesome.”
“I’m still in therapy and trying to cope,” she said. “It really helps to get out like this and realize there are others who are going through the same thing.”
Brown says she’s lucky — she has never lost a child — but that doesn’t mean the violence epidemic has not affected her.
Years ago, as an operating-room associate at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Brown, a cheerful and gregarious sort, saw more than her share of shooting and stabbing victims and was frequently called on to help nurses and doctors tell family members their loved one had died.
One case was so terrible she said it changed her.
A young man was brought in one day who had been shot 30 times. As he passed her on the way to the operating room, she recalled, his eyes seemed to plead with her to save him.
The team couldn’t, and when she told the young man’s mother, her screams “shook my entire body — the only thing I could do was reach out and hold her.”
“I cried with her. I held her. And I thought, ‘This cannot happen again. I have to do something for these mothers.’ ”
She retired to devote herself full-time to her new mission. As founding director — and often sole member — of Tears of a Mother’s Cry, she has personally bankrolled a Mother’s Day celebration, summer reunion, Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas party for the growing population of grieving Baltimore mothers every year, with occasional dinners, raffles and other outings mixed in.
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She’s still seeking the group’s first corporate sponsor.
Brown spends much of her time visiting and grieving with the mothers; she said she has counseled more than 1,000. Her son, William Brown, a painter, has done portraits of about 400 of the deceased young people and given them to their mothers.
On Saturday, hairdresser Angela Gray joined the team, offering to provide the moms with free hairstyles at Deniya’s Beauty Salon, her West Baltimore shop.
“I like to make women smile,” she said, “and these women deserve it.”
One who beamed throughout the event was McFadden, who wore a bright burgundy outfit to match her dyed hair and an oversize button bearing the portraits of her sons, Linton, Randolph and Reginald, who were killed 14 years ago — the last one, 20-year-old Linton, on Mother’s Day.
McFadden said she was in such a state of shock that year that she couldn’t grieve at all, and the process has grown more intense, and at times more difficult, with the years, but “Miss Millie’s” efforts never fail to boost her spirits, or those of the other moms.
“I look forward to Mother’s Day,” she said.