She could tell by the way the phone rang.
“I was at work. I was actually in a meeting. Something about the way the phone rang. … I said, ‘Let me get this phone call,’” Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton recalled.
She picked up the phone. What would follow was a story that became known across the nation.
The call was from a friend of her daughter, Hadiya. “She was screaming and crying—and the squeals and the seriousness of it. She said, ‘Hadiya has got shot!’ It was awful,” Cowley-Pendleton recalled. “I screamed. I ran off from my meeting.”
Hadiya was killed in a park not far from her home on Jan. 29, only eight days after performing at President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony—a fact that grabbed international headlines.
Here was a young girl—a majorette from a stable family at a good school—and then, just like that, there she wasn’t.
But Cowley-Pendleton is still here. Within days of her daughter’s death, she was thrust into the national spotlight as a voice against the senselessness of urban violence and an example of the grief that comes with it. Obama mentioned Hadiya in his Feb. 12 State of the Union address, Cowley-Pendleton appeared in a public service ad advocating for stricter gun control, and Al Sharpton interviewed her on his national talk show for MSNBC, among many other appearances.
The day before, and the day after. These are the two poles between which Cowley-Pendleton’s life has swung since her daughter’s death.
“How I am is a bit of a conflict,” she said. “I am deeply sad, for the lack of a better word, because my baby is not here. But I’m also proud of her, because all of this is because of her and the type of person she was.”
When The Chicago Reporter spoke to Cowley-Pendleton a few weeks after Hadiya’s funeral, she swung between a soft-spoken friendliness, playfully disparaging her messy home and then, at the mention of her daughter’s death, tearing up as if drowned under a wave of grief.
Cowley-Pendleton is a large woman with hair so short there is little of it. When you first see her, she looks familiar. Her features echo those of her daughter whose face has been all over the news. She has a smile that turns up at the corner and almond-shaped eyes that respond to any emotion.
The Bronzeville apartment where Hadiya lived with her mother, father and younger brother could have been any family home in the city. A frosted pound cake, minus a couple of slices, sits in a Tupperware container on the kitchen’s marble tabletop.
In her open-plan kitchen, a family friend is watching a cooking channel, two of her cousins stroll in and out of the bathroom, and the family’s Chihuahua makes a never-ending racket. This is one of the calmer days, Cowley-Pendleton says, when she can get out of bed in the morning.
On the fridge hangs a quiz of Hadiya’s called the “Quiz on Truth.” Cowley-Pendleton insists on putting the brown-and-cream corduroy cushions, lying haphazardly, into order on the family’s L-shaped couch before the interview starts.
A block from the apartment, it is apparent that the neighborhood is in mourning. Every tree on the block leading up to their condo is adorned with an oversized purple ribbon, the color for Hadiya’s high school marching band, as is the gate to their building.
A little further from their home, the larger detritus of the poverty of Chicago’s South Side lays flat and close on the landscape. A corner store has bars on its windows, as does the fish-and-chicken restaurant across the street. Behind it is an empty lot, full of pebbles and scraggly weeds that wave weakly during the bitter Chicago winter.
The cold realities of that world—with its rising gun violence, particularly on the South and West sides—are now a daily part of the life Cowley-Pendleton is leading.
She admits that, before Hadiya’s death, her main concerns were driving her daughter to dance classes and having a ready ear for any of the usual teenage travails she expected Hadiya to go through. Now, she has a different focus: gun violence—and how to stop it.
“Because I was affected by it and I know what this feels like is the reason I am so passionate about it,” she said. “This is hard. It hurts tremendously. And I would love to be the reason why some other family doesn’t have to feel this way.”
She plans to start a foundation in Hadiya’s name.
“We come from a family of love, and I think, if more people focused on love than hate, there would be a lot more peace. So if I can come to you and I can give you love, … your consciousness and your view of the future should change,” she said. “I would just like for as few families to be affected by this. So, if talking about my baby helps, then that is what I want to do.”
Cowley-Pendleton doesn’t think Hadiya’s tragedy was more likely because she chose to raise her in the city—on Chicago’s South Side.
“I don’t look at it like someone has a better opportunity than me or my family because we are on the South Side. If you go to the park [where she was shot], it’s a very nice park, a very nice neighborhood,” she said.
Hadiya’s death happened because “there are simply just bad people in the world—lost people—and that is what you have to protect yourself from. Those that believe they have no hope—it’s unfortunate; it’s generally innocent folks that are affected by those lost individuals.”
“At Sandy Hook [Elementary School], I’m sure those people had thought, ‘This is an area where nothing like that is likely to happen,’” she added.
The two young men accused of shooting Hadiya, Kenneth Williams and Micheail Ward, are in custody at Cook County Jail and have pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of murder.
Underlying each statement about those who she says have little future is the hope and future that Hadiya had. Where there used to be a young girl with a ready smile, a love of reading books in long baths, is now the hole in Cowley-Pendleton’s heart.
“I’ve worked so hard on putting her in better situations, keeping her busy, making her well-rounded and still with the opportunity to be a kid,” she said. “What didn’t I do for her …”
For now, “I’m coping, because it’s what should be done,” she said. “When your child has done what she is supposed to do, it’s only right that you do what you are supposed to do.
“I have to keep her name out there, and I can’t allow anyone to forget what’s happened. Her death cannot be for nothing.”