It dawned on the mother, in the shadowy nights she spent awake after her son was gunned down in 2017, that one day his baby was going to ask about her baby.
Only a matter of time, she thought, staring out into the dark Germantown street from the dining room window where she once stood guard every night until her youngest child, her only son, 23-year-old Niam Johnson-Tate, returned home safely.
One day, it wouldn’t be enough for the little boy with his father’s smile to look at the photos of a man he barely knew and squeal, “Daddy!”
One day, he’d want to know: “Where’s my Daddy?”
And then what was Kimberly Kamara to say?
So she did what she always did when trying to find her way. She started writing.
At first, her words carried too much grief. There were too many details for a young boy — he didn’t need to know, not yet, that his father had been with his 3-month-old son minutes before the shooting. For as long as she could, the grandmother would keep the painful memory of calling out his name as paramedics rushed his lifeless body into Temple University Hospital. The grim specifics, including that his killer still roamed free, would find their way to the little boy eventually.
The boy should know that his birth changed something in his father, who seemed to find purpose in fatherhood. He should know that his father was a donor and that seven people received his organs after he died.
As Kamara thought, a story emerged, about a little boy she named after her grandson Kairi, who searches for answers — from his teddy bear, his dog, the postman — until he gets to his mother, who sits him on her lap and tells him, “Son, your daddy is in your heart.”
It’s a lovely little book, beautifully illustrated by her son’s cousin, Jamie Washington, about the sorrowful job left to family members tending their own grief.
It’s a starting point for a heart-wrenching conversation that hundreds of families are forced to have in Philadelphia alone. At quiet kitchen tables, at solemn support groups like Moms Bonded by Grief, which Kamara attends, families wrestle with what to say, how much to say, wishing they were spared the duty but knowing that they can’t protect the children from the truth forever.
“It’s hard. I have to admit that I couldn’t do it,” said Terrez McCleary, who co-founded the support group after her daughter, Tamara Johnson, was shot and killed in 2009. Tamara was 21. Her daughter Ghazalah was just 2. After Johnson was killed, McCleary was lost to her own grief. By the time she emerged, her husband had talked a little to the granddaughter they are now raising, sparing most details. So had a therapist, who meant well when she told her that Mommy had been in an accident and her body stopped working, but who only ended up leaving the little girl with false hope: Couldn’t a doctor fix her mother’s body so she could come back home?
They settled into a merciful silence until last month, when the man who killed Johnson came up for parole. For the first time McCleary discovered that her 12-year-old granddaughter was aware of much more than she realized.
In a letter to the parole board, the girl wrote about the two short years she had with her mother, “730 days." She counted.
“All this time, I had no idea," McCleary said. "I was trying to shield her.”
Looking back, McCleary wishes she could have had the conversation, pain left unspoken always leading to more pain.
Kamara held a launch party for the book on July 5, the second anniversary of her son’s death, a bittersweet moment that reminded her of how much her son had always inspired her. She ended up going to college after he innocently asked her as a kid what her degree was in.
She hasn’t read Where’s My Daddy? to her grandson yet, but she can feel the day inching closer.
The night of the party, she and her family were up late in the kitchen relishing Kamara’s debut. They were proud of her and missing Niam. They couldn’t bring themselves to go to sleep.
Read us a bedtime story, one of her grown daughters asked. Kamara laughed, at first thinking she was joking. And then she opened the book, and read.