The father rocked back and forth in the first row of Foster Memorial Baptist Church one warm July afternoon.
At funerals, the front row is reserved for the family of the deceased. Over the years, Lance Gaymon, who has owned his own mortuary transport business for the last 20 years and has worked as an assistant attendant for Talbert Funeral Parlor for the last three, has watched countless families say their final goodbyes, their cries piercing air heavy with grief.
When Gaymon is not transporting the dead from nursing homes, hospitals, or morgues, he’s at funerals, keeping a respectful distance from mourning relatives, but ever ready to step in to provide comfort. It’s one of the lessons he imparted to his 15-year-old daughter, Sabria, as she showed increasing interest in her father’s work.
As young as 8, Sabria was begging to tag along on his rounds, a tiny assistant trailing Daddy.
“She would ask so many questions,” Gaymon, 43, said. “She wasn’t scared of anything. She wanted to see how do Daddy work.”
If the sight raised any eyebrows, he didn’t notice. Because in their moments together, he imagined all that lay ahead. They would remain close, even as she contemplated being a doctor. It would be nice to try to save lives, she told him, after being around so many lives lost. Out of his four daughters, maybe she’d be the one to take over the family business someday.
But now he was the father in the front row. His girl, quiet and still, in a casket. The agonizing cries, his family’s and his own.
“I’m the griever now,” he said.
The initial reports of a triple shooting near Temple University around 3 a.m. on July 26 said two men and an 18-year-old woman had been shot at a large party, the woman fatally.
Later police said the woman was actually a 15-year-old. But by then, the city’s attention had moved on to the ever-mounting shootings and killings. Just a month later, another 15-year-old girl was shot and killed. So far this year, 157 children under the age of 18 have been shot; 29 died.
Gaymon was on his way home from an overnight shift at one of the city pools, a seasonal job he works in addition to his transport company, when he got a call from a number he didn’t recognize.
He ignored it, but then there was a text. As he made his way inside his North Philadelphia rowhouse, he read the message from a friend of Sabria’s.
Sabria had been hurt.
“It just didn’t sound right,” Gaymon recalled when we spoke in his living room.
She was home, in for the night, when he left for work. There had to be a mistake.
He called out to her. No response. He went upstairs to her room, the one she had been eagerly planning to paint purple, her favorite color. She wasn’t there.
He rushed to Temple University Hospital, where he was taken to a waiting room.
This was just wrong, he thought again, a misunderstanding.
But then doctors came in, with the kind of look that says all that needs to be said. They worked hard to save her life, they told him. But she didn’t make it.
“It broke my heart. It broke me. It really broke me.”
It would be understandable for him to be a little angry with her, even as his heart was breaking. She wasn’t supposed to be out, and she knew that. She certainly wasn’t supposed to be at some cookout at 3 a.m. while he was at work.
But then, what’s the point? he asked as he stared at his hands. What good would it do to be angry at his teenage daughter for acting like a teenager, for taking some of the very risks he took as a young man — even if the risks of adolescence seemed so much less risky then.
Gaymon, a deacon, prays that whoever shot his daughter will do the right thing and turn themselves in. A good girl’s life was ended too soon, he said.
He misses her. He laughed a little when he recalled how the 10th grader at Randolph Technical High School would sometimes take their dog, Princess, out for extended walks while she hung out with friends nearby.
“Where’d you go, to Center City and back?” he’d tease.
“Fatherrr,” she’d say. She always called him that when she didn’t like something Gaymon said, or cooked, which was anything but salmon.
At the hospital, Gaymon sat in disbelief with his wife.
And then he called Sabria’s mother, who was out of state celebrating another daughter’s birthday. He had called to tell her Sabria had been hurt. Now he was calling back to tell her that their daughter was gone.
“I need you to come back now,” he said.
He called his cousin, who also runs a mortuary transport company, to take Sabria to Talbert’s Funeral Parlor in Chester, where the owner, Bruce Talbert, was waiting. He would prepare her for the funeral himself.
Like Gaymon, Talbert struggled to believe Sabria was dead. Just a week before, she was at his front door dropping off paperwork for her father, who waited in the car, and asked if she could spend more time at the funeral parlor. As long as it was OK by her father, Talbert told her, it was fine by him.
“That’s the last picture I have of her, standing at the door smiling.”
Gaymon was about Sabria’s age when the great-grandmother of a neighborhood friend died, ravaged by cancer that made her all but unrecognizable to those who loved her. But at her funeral, Gaymon said, she had been transformed to her former self.
“I remember thinking it was like magic.”
As he sat in the front row, looking at his daughter, he felt a little of that magic.
In the white casket with purple lining, his little girl looked as though she were sleeping and still might wake up.