‘When they killed her, they killed me, too’

In­side a sin­gle dad’s strug­gle to deal with the shoot­ing death of his 7-year-old daugh­ter

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - MANNY RAMOS RE­PORTS,

Every day, Nathan Wal­lace re­turns to the tree where his 7-yearold daugh­ter was killed.

The tree, once in­con­spic­u­ous, is now dec­o­rated with rib­bons, stuffed an­i­mals, flow­ers and a pur­ple cross. It’s a memo­rial to Natalia Wal­lace, shot in front of her grand­mother’s home in Austin while play­ing with her cousins on the Fourth of July.

Wal­lace spends hours in­side his car, watch­ing the tree. It’s the only thing that brings him com­fort. Some­times, it’s the only thing that helps him sleep.

“I feel bad that I even smile or laugh know­ing that my baby is in the ground, and I feel like I let her down. I was sup­posed to be there to pro­tect her,” Wal­lace said, as tears started to pour down his cheeks.

“When they killed her, they killed me, too.”

Deal­ing with death

When the sud­den death of a child is com­pounded by the trauma of gun vi­o­lence, im­me­di­ate in­ter­ven­tion is needed, ac­cord­ing to Dr. Candice Nor­cott, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Uni

ver­sity of Chicago.

“[Ther­apy] is about tak­ing steps for well­ness,” said Nor­cott, who coun­sels trauma vic­tims. “It’s not that you can’t be sad or you can’t cry, but it is to show you how to han­dle those emo­tions.”

Wal­lace al­ready is wor­ried about some of his own be­hav­ior. He’s drink­ing more than usual. He feels closed off emo­tion­ally. And there are mood swings — he some­times lashes out at his brother with­out re­al­iz­ing what he’s say­ing.

“There is a sense of ‘I should never be al­lowed to be happy again be­cause it is dis­re­spect­ful to my child,’” Nor­cott said. “But we are left to ex­pe­ri­ence joy, and I in­vite par­ents to re­mem­ber their child as a lov­ing spirit in life . . . they can honor their child by re­mem­ber­ing the joy of their life as well as the pain of loss.”

Wal­lace plans to speak with some­one — just not now, he said. Now, the sin­gle fa­ther’s fo­cus is work­ing his two jobs (one as a cer­ti­fied nurs­ing as­sis­tant, the other do­ing pizza de­liv­ery) and rais­ing his three other chil­dren.

Over­all, gun deaths among peo­ple age 17 and younger in Chicago are nearly the same this year as last year at this time.

But it has grown among younger chil­dren. The num­ber of chil­dren 13 years old and younger killed in shoot­ings so far this year in Chicago al­ready far sur­passes all of last year. That’s six this year, com­pared with just one in all of 2019, ac­cord­ing to the Cook County med­i­cal ex­am­iner.

It is the most gun-vi­o­lence deaths in that age group since the med­i­cal ex­am­iner started pub­lish­ing the data in 2014.

‘It’s not real, just a night­mare’

The day started with laugh­ter. Wal­lace re­mem­bers chas­ing Natalia up and down the block, try­ing to catch her and smother her with kisses.

“She be act­ing funny around her cousins, talk­ing about ‘don’t baby me,’ so I ended up chas­ing her around,” Wal­lace said. “I had asked her if she wanted to quickly go to the store with me, but she said she wanted to be with her cousins.”

Wal­lace left, promis­ing to come back with chips for all the kids. Be­fore he left, he re­minded her to stay out of the street be­cause he was scared she would get hit by a car.

“It was less than 10 min­utes when one of her aun­ties called me, say­ing, ‘Your baby had got shot,’” Wal­lace said. “It didn’t reg­is­ter to me at that time cause I thought she might’ve got hit with a fire­work, so I didn’t pay much mind and told them I’m on my way back.”

“She called me again and said she got shot in the head and I need to get there now, and that’s when I be­gan pan­ick­ing.”

Wal­lace ran to the car, try­ing to hurry back. It seemed he was stuck in traf­fic on Chicago Av­enue for a life­time. His hands were shak­ing. He prayed it was a bad joke.

When he fi­nally made it back, he counted his kids — old­est daugh­ter first, then his son, then a fam­ily mem­ber told him another daugh­ter was up­stairs, safe. That’s when he re­al­ized it was Natalia, his youngest, who had been hit.

“I didn’t know what to do, of­fi­cers were ask­ing me so many ques­tions, and I just felt numb — I re­ally don’t know how to ex­plain it, but it’s not real, just a night­mare,” Wal­lace said. “They wouldn’t let me get to the am­bu­lance; they wouldn’t let me see her; they just told me they got to take her.”

When he fi­nally ar­rived at the hospi­tal, po­lice had still more ques­tions be­fore he was al­lowed to see his daugh­ter.

“The of­fi­cers asked me if some­one was af­ter me, what type of things I did, and I couldn’t un­der­stand what was re­ally go­ing on,” Wal­lace said. “Af­ter all those ques­tions, they fi­nally told me she was dead.”

Wal­lace said the ques­tion­ing made it seem as if he were to blame, that the shoot­ing was in re­sponse to mis­deeds in his past.

He un­der­stands po­lice pro­ce­dure but still felt slighted.

“I was real pissed off. I re­ally didn’t want to talk to them af­ter that, but I knew it was for a rea­son,” Wal­lace said.

That rea­son was to hold the shoot­ers re­spon­si­ble for tak­ing his daugh­ter’s life. And po­lice have acted quickly. Within days, they made their first ar­rest. Within a month, three men had been charged.

Wal­lace said he is happy po­lice acted quickly, but he can’t help feel­ing the void. Even brief mo­ments of con­tent­ed­ness still feel wrong, as he re­mem­bers one of his chil­dren is gone.

Natalia’s 8-year-old brother, Nathan Wal­lace III, has fond mem­o­ries of his sis­ter, like how she would laugh at the Dis­ney movie “Zootopia.” He misses that.

The last thing Wal­lace wants to do is ne­glect his three other chil­dren. He’ll get bet­ter, he says, with time.

In­ter­rupt­ing vi­o­lence

Since 2010, Chicago Sur­vivors has made it its mis­sion to visit every homi­cide scene in the city and con­nect with the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies. Cri­sis re­spon­ders are on call around the clock so some­one can re­spond im­me­di­ately.

The non­profit pro­vides grief sup­port, helps with fu­neral ex­penses and ex­plains to vic­tims their rights in terms of talk­ing to po­lice or see­ing the body.

“I re­ceive text mes­sages and an email of every homi­cide in the city of Chicago — no mat­ter the time,” said Oji Eg­gle­ston, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Chicago Sur­vivor. “In­stead of see­ing num­bers the me­dia re­ports, I re­ceive ac­tual names and ages. . . . with every text mes­sage I get, it means there is a griev­ing fam­ily.”

Eg­gle­ston said es­tab­lish­ing a con­nec­tion im­me­di­ately helps let folks know help is out there.

“The sooner that a per­son ad­dresses the trauma that they are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, the more likely they are able to tran­si­tion through all the stages of grief and move for­ward with their life,” Eg­gle­ston said. “But it is some­thing that is dif­fi­cult for a lot of folks to do.”

Those first hours af­ter his daugh­ter died are still a blur, Wal­lace said, but he does be­lieve some­one from Chicago Sur­vivor called him.

He plans to call them back.

“I feel bad that I even smile or laugh know­ing that my baby is in the ground, and I feel like I let her down. I was sup­posed to be there to pro­tect her.’’

NATHAN WAL­LACE, on the death of his daugh­ter Natalia (below)

ASHLEE REZIN GAR­CIA/SUN-TIMES PHOTOS

Nathan Wal­lace’s daugh­ter Natalia was gunned down on the Fourth of July in front of her grand­mother’s house.

ASHLEE REZIN GAR­CIA/SUN-TIMES PHOTOS

Nathan Wal­lace with his 8-year-old son, Nathan Wal­lace III, in the liv­ing room of a rel­a­tive’s Far South Side home.

A memo­rial for 7-year-old Natalia Wal­lace sits near her grand­mother’s house in the 100 block of North La­trobe Av­enue in Austin.

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