“My son was shot three times this morning.”
The text came from Carmen Pagan, who just a few weeks earlier was telling me how she feared this moment, and had been trying to prepare for it.
“I live my life imagining, almost expecting, that knock on my door or phone call.”
And then it happened, and in a blur of adrenaline and fear came the gut-punch realization that no mother can prepare herself for a phone call with news that her 20-year-old son had just been gunned down.
Pagan threw open her front door and ran to her car before remembering that she was not only barefoot, but her two youngest children were still inside.
In the car, her 9-year-old begged her to slow down and breathe as Pagan sped to the hospital, stopping only long enough to throw up.
As she rushed inside Temple University Hospital, she saw the familiar face of Scott Charles, the hospital’s trauma outreach coordinator. How many events in support of victims of gun violence had she and Charles attended? And now here she was, another mother waiting to hear if her son would become the latest of the city’s record number of homicide victims this year.
“I’m falling apart, I’m praying … ‘Oh God, this will kill me.’”
I’ve come to know many of these mothers over the years, but usually I meet them after their loss. I get to know their children through their eyes, their stories, and favorite photos they hold high at rallies and marches and news conferences where politicians make mostly empty promises.
Pagan’s son Elijah was different.
I sat with Pagan inside Family Court in 2017 as she waited to find out which juvenile facility her son, then 16, would be sent to for stealing a car. It wasn’t something she wanted, but she hoped it would make the drug corners less appealing.
For hours we sat in the courthouse’s overcrowded waiting room while she replayed every step and misstep that brought them there. Pagan, 43, wasn’t much older than her son when she started using and selling drugs. He was only 6 when she went to prison for five years. She vowed she’d make up for mistakes. And in many ways, she did. She got her college degree. She got a job, despite the felonies on her record that made it difficult. She’s became a vocal activist against the drugs and gun violence that killed her brother in 2016 when he was caught in crossfire in front of their mother’s home.
When her son’s case was finally called that day in 2017, I saw the flash of gratitude and tenderness cross his face when he turned around to see his kindergarten teacher standing next to his mother.
He got his GED while in detention, a scholarship to Community College of Philadelphia, and when he was released about a year later, a job at UPS. But then he went back to the streets.
The guys around Kip and Cambria Streets who had found Pagan mildly entertaining when she’d drive up, metal bat in hand, looking for her son to chase away, were not taking too kindly to her blasting their business on social media in hopes of shaming her son straight.
“Philadelphia Police Department,” she begged in a post. “Please pick my son up from Kip and Cambria area where he is selling drugs before they kill him.”
Better he was angry than dead, she justified.
After he was shot, Pagan was allowed to see him at the hospital only briefly because of COVID. She took a picture of him lying in the hospital bed, unconscious and attached to tubes and machines. She told him she loved him.
Later, in a phone call, he told her not to cry; he loved her, too.
But when she called the hospital about a week later, she was told that he’d been discharged. He hadn’t told her. He had slipped from her grasp once again.
“I’m just numb, and feeling hopeless.”
Police are investigating the shooting. But she couldn’t stand idly by while the person who shot her son was on the same streets as he was. She made up fliers asking anyone with information to come forward and went to the 2400 block of Mascher where her son had been shot on the morning of Oct. 28 as he sat in a car.
“I know you’re afraid to be involved because you have to live here," the flier reads, "but all info will remain confidential.”
She handed one to Daniel Jackson, pastor at New Kingdom Baptist Church. He told her that the church would help however it could. What he didn’t tell her was that in just the last seven or eight months, he’d presided over 15 funerals of people gunned down in the city.
When Pagan’s son found out what she was up to again, he was furious. Part of her understands his anger. He’s not a kid anymore. His choices. His life. He’s got a 1-year-son of his own now.
But that’s just it — how can she turn her back on her son as he walks down the same perilous path she had? When does a person give up trying to make their child understand, however old they are, that the mistakes they’re making will affect their children the same way their mistakes affected them?
Sometimes she tells herself she should give up — especially when he sends her texts calling her a snitch. But then that persistent whisper of a voice tells her not to give up, not yet.
If not for her son, then for another mother’s son who may not be as lucky.