I can't imagine what it's like to lose even one child.
Quana Garner of West Philly has lost not one, not two, but three of her sons. Three! Her fourth child — the tall one she called her "gentle giant" — was fatally wounded on Oct. 31 around 10 p.m. as he stepped outside of a Chinese takeout at Chew and Chelten Avenues in East Germantown, not far from where he grew up. Rohquan Gardner was just 18. (His last name is spelled differently because of a mistake on his birth certificate.)
Rohquan was killed in a hail of bullets. His mother suspects warring neighborhood factions were to blame, but police have not confirmed that. No arrests have been made.
I tagged along with Garner Monday as she finalized details for her son's funeral, scheduled for the following day. Over lunch at the Chili's on City Avenue, she talked about organizing a double funeral in November 2009 for her sons Kiheem McBride, 21, and Sharif Garner, 18, who died nine days apart. Garner said Sharif was killed Nov. 1, 2009, following an argument with a friend over a bike in North Philly, and McBride was shot for unknown reasons around 1 a.m. Nov. 10 in West Philly. They were buried the same day. Their funeral program showed a photo of the brothers side by side.
I asked, "How did you get through that?"
"I never really did," Garner replied. "I hated God for a little while, but then I got over that."
Rohquan, who was 9 at the time of his brothers' deaths, had a lot to do with helping Garner heal. He would call her from his father's house and ask: " 'Are you having a moment?' That's what he would say when I would cry."
After we left the restaurant, someone from Ricks Funeral & Cremation Services in Olney called and asked if she wanted to see him before the viewing. Garner hesitated. I really felt for her. No mother should have to see her young son laid out in a casket. She called her daughter, who agreed to meet her at the funeral parlor.
Once inside, Garner was struck by how the corners of Rohquan's mouth were lifted in a tiny smile. To her, he looked like he was smirking, the way he would when he was teasing her or telling one of his infamous tall tales. Rohquan was handsomely dressed in a classic gray suit with a crisp white shirt and necktie. She leaned over her son's body and kissed him repeatedly, talking to him quietly, mother to son. She touched his hands. Her face was wet with tears.
"He just was a normal 18-year-old boy, that wanted to do what he wanted to do," said Rohquan's older sister, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Watching Garner and her daughter say goodbye to "Man Man," as they called him, I marveled at the mother's strength. She'd been through this twice before, and here she was a third time. Garner, who married two years ago, still has a young son at home — 15-year-old Jihad Garner. She told me she wished she could wrap him in bubble wrap to protect him.
As I drove Garner home, her cell phone kept ringing. I listened as she went back and forth over who got to ride in the funeral car and as she arranged to pick up funeral programs. A neighbor called to say the food for the repast was ready. Before long, there was nothing left to do.
Finally, everything was in place — except for the final payment. A GoFundMe account helped offset her portion of the funeral expenses.
Before she got out of my car, Garner told me that because she had previously buried two sons, people assumed that she was a pro at this.
But she says it never gets easy.