She sat in the car, weeping, watching the workers in masks as they lowered her son’s casket into the plot he now shared with his brother.
“I just want to make sure my baby is OK,” she said.
And then, as if she were whispering in his ear: “Bye, Stinky. Mommy loves you.”
Chimere Quattlebaum had been here, at Northwood Cemetery, just 18 months earlier after her firstborn, Thomas Page, 19, was gunned down right under a police camera mounted a few feet away.
Friends and family crowded into his funeral, and then around the grave site, where she arranged to have white doves released in his memory.
The loss devastated her and her younger son, Thalyl Taylor, who considered Thomas more father than brother. Thalyl’s father was shot and killed when he was just 3.
“It was just me and my boys,” said Quattlebaum, her voice barely above a whisper.
And then on March 21, a day before Philadelphia’s mayor issued a stay-at-home order to battle the coronavirus sweeping through the country, she lost Thalyl, her only remaining child.
Thalyl, 17, didn’t die of the virus. He died of the other epidemic that has long swept unchecked through this city: gun violence. He was shot in the back during a triple shooting in the 1800 block of West Tioga.
He was the city’s 91st homicide this year. The virus may have stopped our country cold, but it has done nothing to slow the number of shootings and murders in the city.
Thalyl was still alive when Quattlebaum rushed to Temple University Hospital. But then she was told that he suffered a stroke during surgery. Five days after he was shot, on March 26, she had to make the gut-wrenching decision to take him off life support.
And now, here she was, her grieving reflection in the car window that separated her from her child.
A mother robbed of a son by one epidemic, only to be robbed again by another epidemic that cruelly cheats us of our ceremonies and rituals of saying goodbye to our loved ones.
At the funeral home, only 10 people were allowed inside at a time, and then only for a short while. But at least there, Quattlebaum said, she had a little time to be with him, to caress him and tell him that she loved him.
At the cemetery, Quattlebaum sat in the first car of a line of mourners with a few relatives, wishing she could just swing open the door and run to the grave site. Maybe she could just duck behind the car, she suggested, where no one could see her. A relative told her that wasn’t a good idea.
She wasn’t afraid of the virus. She was afraid of living without her children.
“In 18 months, I lost everything that meant anything to me,” she said. “How am I supposed to go on?”
The only thing that had made losing her firstborn bearable was Thalyl, whom everyone called “Baby 9.” The nickname fit because he was the youngest and, for a while, the smallest of the group of nine Nicetown-Tioga guys who grew up together.
But also, because he was her baby. "Mommy’s Stinky” she called him, a boy who was born with underdeveloped lungs and who later struggled with asthma but who still loved to play sports, especially basketball.
Always up for an adventure and a laugh.
Only she knew how much pain was behind his smile.
After Thomas was killed, Thalyl lost interest in everything: school, sports, even spending time with family.
He’d tell his mother: "Mom, I just want to be with my brother.”
“That hurt me because usually I’m the one that fix everything with my children, and I couldn’t fix that,” Quattlebaum said, sobbing.
“And now there’s nothing to fix no more.”
Thalyl’s murder is still under investigation. The trial for Thomas’ murder was scheduled to begin in June.