The morning of Wednesday, December 18, Erika Jenkins found an inspirational quote online, so she posted it to her Facebook wall. Almost immediately, her best friend, Derrica Dotson, clicked “Like” and reposted it to her own wall.
That was pretty typical. The two women, both in their early twenties, had been best friends since they were 13 years old. They shared the same outlook—a positive way of seeing the world.
Erika jumped off Facebook to go to work but got back on that afternoon when she was home. Within minutes, she saw a post pop up on Derrica’s wall from her eldest cousin. It said “R.I.P.”
Erika felt sick. “Call me,” she texted her friend, but there was no answer because Derrica had died, killed in a murder-suicide in Memphis by the father of her two youngest children.
Five days passed before I learned what had happened. You see, Erika works at my son’s daycare. I like her very much. When my son, Charlie, was still in the infant room, she spoke to him quietly and respectfully, in the same voice she used with grownups, as though already on friendly terms with the adult he would become.
I believe Charlie benefitted from the love she felt for her own son. When she missed her little boy during the day, she held mine that much closer.
“He looks like my son,” she would say.
Charlie has graduated to the toddler room, so Erika and I don’t get to talk too much anymore. On December 23, when she was processing my tuition payment, I asked if she was looking forward to Christmas.
“Yes, I am,” she said, “except…,” and at first I think that was all she wanted to say, but then she paused and looked at me and decided to tell me more. “My best friend died last Wednesday,” she finally said. “There’s the funeral, and I’ll need to be there for her family.”
I asked her what had happened.
“Her child’s father came into her apartment and shot her,” Erika said. “And then he shot her mother, and then he killed himself, right in front of her two little girls and her 6-month-old baby.”
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I said I was sorry, again and again, until we were both crying. “It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
Her best friend’s mother was recovering from her head injury at the hospital. The doctors felt she was finally well enough to learn her daughter had died—they planned to tell her that afternoon, and she could go home on Christmas Eve. Derrica’s 21-year-old sister, Delisa Dotson, would take on the responsibility of raising the kids. Their church had rallied around the family, helping to pay for the funeral. Even so, the family’s needs were still so great.
Weakly, I told Erika I wanted to do something for her best friend’s children, but I wasn’t sure what.
That night, I found a news story online about how Wednesday, December 18, had been a deadly day in Memphis. Derrica had died at the Chickasaw Place Apartments in Binghampton on the same day a pawn broker had been killed four miles south on Lamar.
Here is one of the news stories about Derrica’s murder.
I left town on a long holiday, but I couldn’t forget about the tragedy and the children left behind. When I got back, I did a few things to help that seemed inadequate, then asked Erika if I could blog about it.
“I think if my friends knew, they’d want to help,” I said, and she agreed.
Each morning at daycare, I try to learn a little more about Derrica.
At 24, she thought she had her entire life ahead of her. She had four kids under age 6. She lived in the struggling Binghampton area of Memphis.
She was a loving friend with a talent for hairdressing. Each day, she took pride in doing her children’s hair, and if a friend came over, she would do theirs, too. It was hard for her to envision a life for herself outside of poverty, but she wanted it for her children. She’d given up dreams of school because the pressure of motherhood was too great. She fought with her boyfriend, but then forgave him, in an endless cycle. She worked at a nursing home, and her mother helped out with the little ones.
Life was hard, but it was wonderful, too.
“She was just the most loveable person you ever could meet,” said Erika. “She had a big heart.”
Derrica Dotson’s four children have lost their mother. Her sister will raise them, but it will be an overwhelming labor of love and she’ll need support.
You can be the one who helps this family. You can show them there’s more good than bad in the world because I think they’ll need that.
How you can help:
Derrica leaves behind three little girls—a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 3-year-old. She also has a little boy who’s 6 months old. If you have any new or gently used clothes or toys you’d like to give to the children, you can email me for pick up, or drop them off at the following locations in Memphis:
1910 Frameworks 2029 Union Ave. Memphis, TN 38104
2nd location Xx Memphis, TN
Financial contributions may be sent to a memorial account set up in Derrica’s name at this address: xxx. The funds will go to Derrica’s mom, all for the purpose of providing care to the young children.
On having a child, and losing a parent:
Ever since having a child, I’ve worried I would lose him. That I would fail to protect him, stop watching him the moment before a tumble. I’ve lost him in so many ways in my mind—to a slip on the concrete, to violence, to a quiet illness that steals him in his sleep.
But in all my imaginings, it’s his vulnerability that separates us forever—never my own.
Which is strange because I lost my dad when I was a kid.
My dad died from cancer when I was in high school. I still mourn him and love him, and still have a great desire to keep him alive somehow. I write him letters or do the things he loved, like watching Kojak or eating M&Ms from a king-sized bag. Sometimes I think, “He’s still right here with me.”
As part of my dad’s AA recovery, he helped many people in crisis and came to believe, by the time he died, that “being of service” is our purpose in life.
I remember all the people who helped out in the weeks and months after his death am still so grateful.