Miyetta Neal, 5, sits on the lap of her mother, Bernice Neal, as Deandre Hooks and Quentorria Snowden talk about the loss of their 1-year-old daughter, Keondra Hooks.
Sometimes, Leondra Hooks sits on the floor of her mother’s near-downtown apartment and plays by herself — although it doesn’t really seem as though she thinks she’s alone. Maybe she imagines her little sister, Keondra, is there with her, said the girls’ mother, Quentorria Snowden, 21.
In August, Keondra, 1, was killed, and Leondra, 2, was critically injured when gang members allegedly fired into the Moody Manor apartment in the central city where the girls were sleeping.
Keondra was shot once in the head; she died 12 hours later. Leondra survived despite being shot in the torso and suffering collapsed lungs.
Leondra has had numerous surgeries since the Aug. 8 shooting at Moody Manor, and she’ll need more. Several bullet fragments remain in her body and family members say she has a hole in her lung that they aren’t sure can be fixed.
Keondra’s ashes stay with her aunt Bernice Neal, 27.
It’s been almost five months since the family was forever changed.
“It’s hard for me to be here without her,” Ms. Snowden said.
Mrs. Neal’s four children ask about their little cousin. What do you say to children who don’t understand what death means?
“ ‘Where’s Keke? When’s she coming over?’ ” the children ask Mrs. Neal, whose apartment is in the same near-downtown public housing complex as Leondra’s family. “I just say, ‘She's playing with angels and they’re being stingy right now. They’ll send a letter when she’s coming.’ ”
There is an unmistakable sadness in the family.
Mrs. Neal said Christmas had been one of their best times of the year.
MyLasia Pride, a cousin of the slain Keondra Hooks, is one of many family members who are missing the toddler this holiday season season.
“You felt the Christmas spirit. We felt it,” she said. “I look at Quen and my granny, I look at them and I can see that joy that was once there is different. It’s gone.”
Now they’re hoping for a miracle on South 14th Street.
Mrs. Neal wants her four young children and Leondra to have a happy Christmas.
“My little family is all I do have. I just want, you know, for us to all sit back on Christmas and actually have a real Christmas, and actually feel the love we think we lost,” Mrs. Neal said.
And now, this family, struggling with Keondra’s death, is trying to explain to the other children how school is still a safe place to go, despite news reports of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Mrs. Neal said the family broke down again when they heard about the 26 victims — 20 being children.
“I have to pray because of what I’ve seen,” Mrs. Neal said. “Now it’s people out there going through the same thing we went through, and I can’t imagine it being so many at one time. I hope they have somebody out there, you know, that’s going to be there to help them because … it’s one thing for an adult to get through, but a kid? There’s no understanding. You can’t explain it.”
All of those families in Connecticut — some, probably, with wrapped Christmas gifts that might go unopened — it's miserable to think about.
Mrs. Neal and Ms. Snowden hate that they know how those families feel.
“It puts a toll on your heart sometimes,” Mrs. Neal said. “And then you sit back and, before this happened, you think, ‘That will never happen to me.’ And you never really give it any more thought until, boom, it does hit you and, now you’re lost because you never put in all that effort of knowing what you would do in that situation.”