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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Drive-By Agony --but No Tears

She knows the pain of losing two sons to guns. Somehow she survived. Now Lorna Hawkins is dedicated to moving other parents through the grief and anger.

September 01, 1996|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I guess you could say life was normal," says Hawkins, her eyes trained on the cars rushing outside. "Mother, father, kids at home. They were good boys. Joe loved to mess around with cars. He drove dirt bikes all his life . . . and Gerald did too. He followed right after his brother. They could break-dance in the streets and you wouldn't see a car come down the street for hours." There's a pause, her eyes following a set of taillights: "Life was just quiet and easy."

Sibling bickering was quickly resolved in family summits she called to clear the air. But what couldn't as easily be contained was what happened outside their yard and four walls.

"Seemed like all of a sudden the youths started hating each other over things--girls, petty arguments, envy," Hawkins says. "Then they turned to fights. If the person got beat up, then it was, 'I'm going to shoot you.' One day Joe came home . . . he had been in a fight. He was 19 and I was like: 'Aren't you too old for this?' And he said: 'Yeah, but they were just picking on me. I can't go to the corner or anywhere.' "

Hawkins didn't realize how far from exaggeration this was until her son set out on Thanksgiving Eve 1988 for a night out with his girlfriend and their baby.

"I thought he was gone. I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner. It was about 8:30 and all of a sudden I heard these bullets, these guns," she recalls, her head cocked slightly to the side, her body erect, eyes focused into dead space. "That's the first time we heard guns on our block and they were loud."

The memory of that November night is a collection of jagged shards, painful in their sharpness:

* The old man broadcasting to the hospital waiting room assembly that all the commotion outside the was "just another one of those gangbangers."

* The details of the bullet's route: through the neck, severing an artery.

* The news much later that said bullet was meant for someone else, a neighborhood kid who had been stirring up trouble, and who shared a haunting likeness to Joe.

"Someone came by later to explain," she says. " 'Mrs. Hawkins, we didn't mean to shoot your son.' Why? Why tell me now? It doesn't make any difference. No difference at all."

*

For a while, life seemed like a low-frequency hum drifting in and out around her. Something without substance, something to float through. At its coiled center was the burn of loss, chased with anger.

Friends fell away, many uncertain how to find the right pleasantries, unsure how to extend a hand. Younger son Gerald dipped deep into depression, Hawkins says: "He got into all kinds of trouble. And we as a family gathered around and started going to the unsavory places he went to . . . letting him know that we weren't going to let him go."

But she found she couldn't find strength alone. A support group helped her: Orange County-based Memory of Victims Everywhere. "I wanted to do some action. Not just sit around and cry," she explains. "It's important to cry, but four or five years of crying is a little bit too long for me."

That framework became the blueprint for what took shape as her own support organization. Formed a month after Joe's death, Drive-By Agony linked her with other mothers, provided a support network--a mission, a balm.

Even Gerald seemed to have turned a life corner. By 1992, he boasted two years of college, a child and aspirations of becoming a probation officer.

Then he pulled up to a convenience store phone booth and two men approached, demanding his keys.

He said no.

They opened fire.

"She didn't have time to get over one before it hit her again," says Shields of her friend. "The second death made her real angry. . . . It was like she woke up."

Frank Hawkins remembers: "It was like a mess around here for a while, starting back that Thanksgiving. Then this slapped us in the face. Lorna couldn't work, the daughter couldn't. I was the only one, and I couldn't sit down at work and cry. . . . It was not something she ever even dreamed of."

But when it happens, he explains with gathering resolve, "You just have to stand up."

*

Parked outside Rita Norwood's home is a 1975 Monte Carlo, painted gleaming onyx. "He dressed it up himself," Norwood says. The "he"--son, Kevin, 18--was approached at the Compton Swap Meet, told to turn over this car. He did. They shot him anyway--through the neck.

That was 1989. The car still sits, marooned in the driveway of Norwood's home, a Drive-By Agony sticker plastered on its bumper.

"I met Lorna in a state of depression. I was looking through the newspaper, and all of a sudden I saw her picture, slumped over in the chair, tore back like I was. So I called her. She put me on the show right away," says Norwood, who a year later also lost the nephew, Deon, 18, she was raising. "For me being on the show was like a tension relief. Everybody tells me I was a little crazy for a while."

Lightning isn't supposed to strike in the same place twice. But it does. Again and again, immobilizing more lives than one can ever imagine.

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