NEW YORK — The bullet that tore through her son's head one summer night divided Camille Bodden's life in two: Abby, and after Abby.
Once she had a boy who hated homework and loved digging worms. Once she had a teen who drank milk and left the empty carton in the refrigerator. Once she had a proud young man with a purpose, studying economics at college.
Now she has memories--and a mission. After her son died at 24, Camille Bodden embraced a new family: survivors of murder victims. In newspaper columns, at churches and schools, she reaches out to others steeped in sorrow, sharing the power of memories to heal, to comfort, even to reach into death and pull out life.
At a memorial in a Brooklyn church, the names are read aloud, one by one like slow drumbeats.
Abby Bodden. Shot.
Juan Sanchez. Shot.
Andrew Marti. Strangled.
Outside the Oratory Church at St. Boniface, the scent of blossoms fills the sunny afternoon. Inside, behind stained-glass windows, Camille Bodden sits with others whose lives have been shattered by violence.
Denise Louise Ritts. Stabbed.
Efrain Rios Olivo. Beaten.
Baby Henry Tysawn Showard. Suffocated.
The names go on, 52 in all. Candles flicker in trembling hands. Camille Bodden's flame goes out, extinguished by her tears. From a photograph in a tiny frame on her lapel, Abby is smiling.
"Death comes so suddenly, and at first, you're pregnant with grief," she says. "But then you roll back that tombstone, and it becomes a womb, and you give birth to the strength and courage to help others."
Abby was born in 1971, Abdul Malik Bodden. His mother's diary records his first stirrings when she was pregnant with her seventh and final child. The doctor heard the heartbeat, she wrote. "Baby is kicking nicely."
For the seventh birthday of "my sweet baby boy," she wrote: "We sang and cut the cake."
As a teenager, Abby fished with his best friend, Mario. At the State University at Buffalo, he lived in an apartment and studied economics, still managing to write to his mother in Queens. In a letter he never had the chance to mail, he told her: "I want you to live long so I'll have at least one person in my corner."
He phoned her one day in July 1995, and his last words were, "I love you, Mama."
A few nights later, on July 20, Abby was sitting in a friend's double-parked car in Buffalo. Another young man, a stranger, pulled up and started taunting Abby, mistaking him for someone he had argued with earlier.
Abby and his friends drove off. When he got out of the car in front of his apartment, shots pierced the night, and a bullet ripped through the back of Abby's head.
His mother, a nurse, rushed to the hospital where her son lay dying. During the vigil she kept by his beeping monitors and breathing tubes, she wrote in her journal, her crisp professional jargon crumbling beneath reality.
5 a.m.: "Abdul's progress. Herniated brain stem, function depressed."
3 p.m.: "Check patient's breathing without support. . . . Heart stop, CPR given, brought back. . . . Clinically brain dead, likely."
4 p.m.: "No life left in my baby. God took him home."
Abby's murderer was caught, convicted and sent to prison. The headlines faded. But the case is never closed for those who love a soul stolen by murder.
At the Brooklyn memorial on a recent Sunday, some mourners had lost loved ones just a week earlier; others, as long ago as 1980. In their struggle, they were equals, listening as Sister Camille D'Arienzo invoked the story of Lazarus, who rose from the dead after the stone of his tomb was rolled away.
"Sometimes mourners put a stone on the entrance of their own hearts," said Sister D'Arienzo, a Roman Catholic nun. "Sometimes behind the stone are grief, anger, hatred, desire for vengeance. Sometimes what is locked behind the stone is ourselves, who can't let go of the dead to love the living."
Camille Bodden is a member of the Cherish Life Circle, which Sister D'Arienzo started five years ago to oppose the death penalty and support victims' families. The group, backed by the nun's Sisters of Mercy order in Brooklyn, organized the service.
Bodden, 57, also spreads comfort on her own through counseling, writing and speaking. A nursing professor at Queensborough Community College, she applies her teaching skills to a new curriculum of grief.
She recently addressed an auditorium of sixth- and seventh-graders. A gregarious woman slightly over 5 feet tall, she held their rapt attention with stories of life and death, despair and hope. Afterward, they leafed through her diaries, looking for memories of Abby.
Part of her message is public and political. She notes that of the 52 victims named at the service in Brooklyn, 40 were shot to death, some of them with weapons illegally purchased.
"I'm outraged at the ease with which people are able to buy guns," Bodden says.
But the real power of her message is personal.