A terrible unity: Tyre Nichols cries out and the nation hears
The call, the voices -- they come like distant echoes, and always when I am least expecting it. Often, they resound through my memory in those shadowed minutes before sleep comes.
"Mama!" The small piping voice of a little one, excitedly seeking my attention to share a new discovery.
"Mom!" The panicked holler for assistance because the adolescent has done something unwise, as adolescents do.
"Ma!" The collegiate-cool bark of a young man who has decided that "Mom" sounded wrong riding on basso profundo air.
When my sons left home to pursue their callings, I would sometimes hear those twilight voices, calling "Mom!" and jump to wakefulness, wondering whether they were safe, or afraid, or in trouble. Sometimes, my imagination tumbling me into tumult, I'd have to call them and hear their voices in real time -- even though their silent eyerolls came through loud and clear, as well.
Perhaps it is different for fathers -- I can only write from the experience of motherhood -- but those echoes both soothe my heart and break it. It is good, a true gift, to hear their young voices and to recall their tone when summoning me, and the reason why.
Somehow it reminds me that in the natural order of things, we are never meant to outlive our children whose "souls dwell in the house of tomorrow," as wrote Kahlil Gibran in "The Prophet." But what if there is no tomorrow for them?
At 8:24 p.m., on Jan. 7, 2023, a young man named Tyre Nichols was driving home -- he lived with his mother and stepfather -- when he was pulled over by police. According to the timelines, one minute later Nichols was yanked from the car, and five shouting, agitated officers wrestled him down. In the released video, you can hear his voice. "OK! I am on the ground," he says to them. "You guys are really doing a lot right now. I'm just trying to go home."
He sounds confused, as any innocent does when facing sudden, inexplicable violence. He sounds young and sweet-natured. He's not cussing or striking out; he's merely telling the helpless truth: "You guys are doing a lot ..."
He sounds scared, too. He sounds like someone who knows what safety feels like and knows that at this moment he is not safe, at all.
For Tyre Nichols, safety felt like being at home, where he was known and loved.
At 8:33 p.m., having tried to get beyond the reach of unduly aggressive cops -- and having been chased, tasered, beaten, pepper-sprayed and kicked repeatedly -- Nichols wanted and needed his mother. "Mom!" he cries out as the blows rain down upon him, without mercy. "Mom!"
Tyre Nichols was at that moment approximately 60 yards from his mother's house. 60 yards from unconditional love. 60 yards from safety.
Tyre's mother, RowVaughn Wells, has told the press that at 4 a.m. she received a phone call from a doctor at St. Francis Hospital, asking why she was not with her critically injured, dying son. "I said, 'The police officers said that I couldn't come, because he was under arrest.'" She only got to see her son after he had departed his broken, grievously sinned-against body.
My heart is wrecked for RowVaughn Wells, who has lost the son who loved to photograph sunsets and to skateboard, and who would enter their safe home with a cheerful, "Hello, parents!" I pray that in those pillow-borne reverberations that come drifting between our wakefulness and our dreams, she will hear the echoes of a better yesterday -- of her baby calling out "Mom!" because he is excited; because he wants to show her something he has discovered, or a new thing he can do. I cannot bear the thought that instead she might torment herself with imaginings of what he sounded like when he was so near to her, his safe place, and yet so far away.
No, RowVaughn Wells, don't go there. Let the earlier echoes come -- high-pitched, and sweet and free. They are the good ones you deserve to have and to hold of your lovely son, Tyre Nichols, gone much too soon, too soon.
Maybe there is one good thing to take from all of this -- good as in instructive; good as in hopeful and inspiring. RowVaughn Wells, in the midst of incomprehensible loss, is showing us exactly what her motherhood looked like. She's doing it by revealing the depths of her great grief, but also the depths of her great faith, which is helping her (and us) to find some meaning in Tyre Nichols' death: "I do know that he was a good person. And that all this -- all the good in Tyre will come out and so that's what keeps me going because I just feel like my son was sent here on assignment from God," Wells has told reporters.
"His assignment is-- was over. It's over," Wells said. "And he was sent back home. And God is not gonna let any of his children's names go in vain. So, when this is all over, it's gonna be some good and some positive because my son was a good and positive person."
It is striking to me that Wells' first comments were calls for peace -- that the inevitable (and justified) demonstrations that must come will not create more victims for more mothers to mourn over and remember only in echo. She pointedly noted that the men who killed her son had "brought shame" on their own families. That's a very "mothering" thing to say -- it demonstrates her true and instinctive mother's heart.
Perhaps this mother who a few days ago was known, loved and heeded by a mere handful in the calculations of the world -- her children and her husband and her friends and neighbors -- might somehow end up a mothering this nation that has been roiled, for so long, by issues of racial injustice, intolerance, fast judgments, violence, uncharitable stereotyping and knee-jerk, almost tribal, division. Can we pray for that?
May flights of angels lead Tyre Nichols to his rest. And may they then guide this restless and ragged nation, finally brought to a terrible unity in a most painful and shameful way, through this mother's prayerful tears.
- Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News.