Losing Daneel (Part One)October 2nd, 2007
by Pia Z. Ehrhardt
NEW ORLEANS, LA-
A week before I left for Bread Loaf in August, our friend, Sherri’s*, daughter was killed by an ex-boyfriend. He shot her multiple times in her apartment, and then walked outside to the parking lot and killed himself. The complex has them on videotape: Daneel standing her ground, telling him “It’s over, Manny. Go home,” and then walking back up the stairs to her place, Manny in his car, getting his gun from the glove compartment, loading it with bullets kept in the trunk, walking back up to Daneel’s, then back down before putting the gun under his chin. It took him thirteen minutes to die.
I’d gotten up early that Saturday to weed the garden before the day’s heat, had run inside to catch the house phone, a call from my sister in California. I heard my husband’s cell phone ring, and he came into the den. “You need to get off the phone,” he said, “quickly.” Sherri had called. Daneel had been murdered, shot. Could he stop the autopsy? Didn’t we know the Jefferson Parish District Attorney? She didn’t want her daughter cut on. She’d been crying too hard to understand.
“Daneel was murdered,” he said to me, stunned.
“Daneel?” I said. “Murdered? No, that can’t be.”
Malcolm called Sherri’s husband. “Demetrius,” he said. “I’m going to repeat this to you so you don’t have to say the words out loud. I want to understand. Daneel . . . she was shot to death this morning at 5:30?”
Demetrius said, yes, she had been.
“The guy then killed himself?”
Yes, Demetrius said.
Daneel was twenty-six, a post-op nurse, and she lived across the street from her younger sister, Erica, twenty-one, who didn’t yet know. Daneel’s father, Pico, a New Orleans police officer, was on his way to tell her.
I sat on the kitchen floor and cried into my hands, and Malcolm leaned against the counter and wept. “This can’t be,” we said, stuck records. Our own teenage son was upstairs sleeping in his room.
We showered, dressed and left for Sherri and Demetrius’ house on the West Bank. It was almost eleven and the family had been informed at 9:30. I drove so Malcolm could make calls. The police investigator explained that an autopsy had to be done, by state law. Bullets remained in Daneel and they needed to be recovered as evidence. “I don’t want Sherri to know that,” he said to me. He phoned Demetrius to tell him what the woman had said. “She told me Daneel didn’t suffer.”
Their house is in a well landscaped neighborhood off General DeGaulle. The directions were simple, but I made two wrong turns getting there, had to wait for the same slow-changing traffic lights to cycle. “Just take your time,” Malcolm said. We gripped hands, rested them on the console. “You don’t recover from this,” he said. His father had died suddenly of a heart attack when Malcolm was eighteen.
There were cars in the garage and the driveway, a police car at the curb. Some young black guys stood outside in the heat in baggy shorts and striped Polos. They nodded quietly to us as we went inside. We’d never been to Sherri’s house before. She’d worked with us for ten years but we’d always seen her on our side of the river. We walked into despair, people in each other’s arms crying, and Malcolm and I put our arms around Sherri and cried. “I don’t understand,” I said. I don’t remember what Sherri or Malcolm said. We held each other in an awkward bear hug, a triangle of crying. But I’d never seen or heard grief that fresh. I’d had grandparents die, but not by surprise, and at the end of their lives, not on the upswing.
“The girls spent all yesterday with my mother across the lake,” Sherri told us. “It was my father’s birthday.” Sherri’s dad had been buried six months before. They’d lost their home in New Orleans East when the levees broke, and had just moved into a new place in Covington, close to Sherri’s brother, a doctor. Her mom sat on the sofa with Erica in her arms. I sat beside Erica. She let me hold her, and we cried. “I can’t believe this,” I said. “Manny didn’t like me,” she said. “He was harassing Daneel.” “Physically,” I said. “Never,” Erica said, “but with text messaging and the phone. She’d been broken up with him since January.” It was August 11th. “I was with her until ten thirty, until she told me to go home, she wanted to turn off the phone and sleep.”
“He had a gun?” I said.
“His dad got robbed after the storm, so he bought one to have,” Erica said.
(Erica and her big sister, Daneel)
Malcolm came to her and she jumped up into his arms. He’d known Sherri’s girls since middle school. When they walked into the office, his heartbeat stuttered. They were astonishing, Creoles with creamy skin and pale green eyes, graceful and lanky in their tiny jeans and t-shirts. A few weeks ago, they’d both showed up in his door, but he’d been on the phone. By the time he went down the hall to find them, they’d gone to their respective jobs, and he’d regretted that chance to visit, so the next time they came in and he was on the phone, this time with me, he’d said, “I gotta go, there are two beautiful women standing in my doorway,” like I’d understand. I hung up quicker than I needed to, not wanting to yield even though we hadn’t been talking about anything important.
(Daneel, Sherri and Erica, standing in a niece’s wedding)
Sherri’s brother got up with his wife to leave. They were going to the funeral home to begin arrangements. “Do you have a priest?” I asked Sherri. “Not one we’re close to,” she said. “Do you want to use ours?” I offered, and she said she did. I stepped outside the front door to call Father Hermes, a Jesuit, and left a message on his cell phone. Our son, Andrew, called from Subway to see if his dad and I wanted a sandwich. “Sweetie, something terrible’s happened, but not to Dad and me,” I said, and I told him about Daneel. He stayed quiet until he said, flatly, “Miss Sherri’s okay.”
“Not okay, but she’s with family. I’ve never seen crying like this, Andrew. It’s the saddest room.”
“How’s Erica?” he said.
“Not good. She was with her sister until late last night. I think she knew things had turned bad between Daneel and the guy.” I didn’t yet know his name.
“She’s gonna feel guilty,” he said.
“I don’t know. We’re finding stuff out slowly.” I told him graphic details to keep him on the phone, to bring him into this grief with us because he’d been out late the night before, missed curfew by a mile, and I’d gone to bed pissed at him. “I don’t trust you,” I’d told him in the kitchen that morning when he’d stumbled downstairs with a lame excuse. “Go back to bed.”
“When’s the funeral?” he said, but it was too soon to know. My flight to Vermont was on Friday. “I hope before I go,” I said. It was Sunday.
“It’s gonna be crowded,” Andrew said. He sounded so sad, unschooled in the protocols of grieving. So was I.
“What do we do?” he said.
“You offer help, you make yourself available,” I said. “Maybe later you can bring over Popeye’s?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I will.”
“Our family’s tight again,” I said, worried that he might not take how much his dad and I loved him for granted.
“I know,” he said.
(*The names of the family have been changed to protect their privacy.)