Empathy from a distance only gets you so far. Like reading about the latest shooting and reaffirming to yourself or others that gun violence is awful. Even vowing to vote the right way when the next opportunity arises.
All well and good, but it’s something else when someone you love is killed by a gun.
Jaycee Webster was shot and killed in his home on July 19, 2017. He was 20. His mother Giselle Morch said these four years have flown by. She marked the anniversary of his passing today at the Gun Violence Memorial Project exhibition at the Building Museum in Washington, DC.
Jon-Christian “Jaycee” Kemachet-Webster (1996 – 2017)
I met Giselle in 2018, when she came to a prayer to end gun violence the Community of Sant’Egidio holds regularly to remember those killed by guns in DC. She had been looking for ways to remember her son and has returned regularly to the prayer. She volunteered with us at the nursing home.
“It’s not just about Jaycee,” she told the group of friends, supporters and members of the local chapters of Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety. Her voice somehow both fiery and sad. She paused intermittently for tears.
“There are others here. Survivors. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. Say their names.”
Giselle pointed to people in the small crowd. One after another they spoke the names they hold dear.
This is what I heard:
Michael. Gail. Kevin. Joyisa. Junior. John. Joseph. Scott. Carmen. Benjamin. Chris.
Inside the memorial exhibition, objects belonging to people killed by guns in America sat inside small glass covered cubbies that formed like brickwork the structure of several house shaped rooms. The names and birth and death dates of each person were printed on the glass.
Baseballs, toy cars, photo IDs, rings, graduation pictures, children’s shoes, a tape measure. Mundane objects made heavy by loss.
I watched a mother crying at her son’s cubby. Inside were an orange and white toy football, a small trophy and a photo of him kneeling for his football team photo.
“He was only 14.” She put her hand over her mouth.
Kevin L. Cooper (1991-2006).
When she walked away, I stared at the photo and cried, embarrassed because mine was just the reaction of someone whose 13 year old boy still breathed. I didn’t feel like asking about the circumstances of his death.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, in 2020 nearly 20,000 people were killed by gun violence in America. An additional 24,000 took their lives with a gun.
Empathy has a hard time with numbers like that. What can you say or do before a mother whose child was killed? What should our empathy call us to, in the moment or beyond?
I don’t have pat answers today.
Today, witnessing these stories was all I could muster. Imagine living with them, every day, all day long.
One mother searched for her son’s cubby.
“I can’t seem to find it.” She told a few of us she had donated a possession of his when the Memorial Project started in Chicago in 2019 but still hadn’t seen the exhibition.
I followed her around at a distance as she skimmed names and objects. When she found her son’s, she seemed relieved. And she spoke.
“He loved video games. That’s why we chose this,” she pointed to the Zelda video game case behind the glass. “He was a chemical engineer working for Dupont. Thirty years old. Video games were how he would lose himself. They really helped him. He built computers from a very young age. We didn’t know he was depressed. He went into a Walmart and had a gun in 15 minutes. He took his life on Valentine’s Day.”
Michael Derek Baughan (1983-2014).
There is no closure, Giselle said. No closure until she is with her son. She holds onto that belief with everything inside her. In the meantime, she will stand up and fight and asked us to do the same. Don’t mess with a mom, she kept saying.
“It’s time to end this, on our watch!”