At about 5:00 pm on Thursday, November 20, 2014, fourteen-year-old Mohammad Uddin was struck by a car while crossing the street.
It was at the corner of Caton Ave. and East 7th Street in Kensington, Brooklyn. He was rushed to Maimonides Hospital, where he died of trauma to the head and body. The driver, a 78- year old woman, was found and arrested that evening for leaving the scene of an accident.
According to an NBC interview of the boy’s uncle, “Uddin, a ninth-grader at Brooklyn Tech, one of the nation’s top high schools, moved to the U.S. with his family 10 years ago from Bangladesh and dreamed of becoming a medical specialist.” Mohammed’s uncle described him as a very, very gentle boy.
I got the news moments after the accident occurred. I was running errands on the same corner as the accident. As I was stepping out of my building, my neighbors, a young expecting couple, told me that something terrible had happened outside. My neighbors were troubled that this tragedy may have involved a child.
Just minutes after the accident, the police had closed off the corner in both directions. The news reporters were right there. One reporter confirmed for me what had happened. Other neighbors were now outside, and there was a general sense of disbelief and grief. I think we all felt contempt for that oddly-angled street corner. Drivers seem to be in such hurry all the time, even when the pedestrians have the “right of way” in the crosswalk.
There is a garden center on that corner, with beautiful seasonal decorations. I know I have been guilty of crossing the street and letting my eyes focus on the fall-colored potted-flowers, pumpkins, and lovely things outside. I know my 10-year old step-daughter finds these things attractive too. I think the whole neighborhood felt appalled that something like this should have happened there.
A neighborhood is sad. A neighborhood was suddenly taking form and becoming a body, something real, a community where people know each other, maybe like in a small town, with a feeling that’s almost impossible in dynamic and overcrowded New York City. I didn't know Mohammed personally, but my heart went out to him and his family. I wondered if I had met him or his family before. They live only a few houses down. I am often outside walking my dog, and passed in front of his home many times on my way to the Park or to the hardware store. I was hit with a sense of finality that death brings, but also of longing. I began to think of the family. Could his mother be one of the women I often overhear greeting one another with “As-salamu alaykum” (peace be with you). Maybe we were not strangers.
The depths of despair. I cannot imagine what that family is going through, but I wanted them to know that they are part of me, of the community, and that they are not forgotten. After reaching out to Pastor Meeter for prayer, it turns out other people had reached out to him also. There was a lot going on in the community in remembrance of Mohammad, but I was unable to make it to the wake or funeral. I was torn by this, so Pastor Meeter advised me on how to approach the family in this time of need.
I was meaning to write a letter, but before I knew it was Thanksgiving. So I posted a sympathy card in our lobby with a letter and a pen, encouraging the tenants of my building to write words of comfort, as Thanksgiving Day mark a week since Mohammad’s death. I was moved by how many people cared.
The next day, I went to deliver the card with my step-daughter. I had intended to leave it in the mailbox or hand it to someone if anyone was home. There was plenty of movement in the house, so we knocked. Young people opened the door. I explained why we were there, and tried to hand them the card, but they invited us upstairs to meet the Uddins and give them the card directly. We went up.
I was worried I would not know what to say and that I might not know the proper protocol and do something offensive. But I needn’t have worried, for when I met Mr. and Mrs. Uddin, their warmth, graciousness, and gratitude for our visit was so sincere, even in their grief. I felt a deep desire to comfort them, to take away their pain. We were simply fellow people, communicating words and feelings from the heart. They invited us to sit and visit. I shyly leaned on the sofa, but Mr. Uddin gently insisted I sit down. My step-daughter shyly sat down too. The family served us grapes and sliced apples and made us feel at home. The family worried about us and our comfort. I looked in Mrs. Uddin’s eyes, as she sat right across from me, and tears began to stream down her face. I hugged her and I did not let her go. Then we all sat again.
We spoke of the impact this has had on the entire community, that Mohammad will always be remembered and that we all feel his loss, the loss of one of our children of our community. I spoke of being a Christian, and that Kailey and I pray to God –to Allah – and that we pray for their healing and peace and for Mohammad. One of the family said, "Yes, God — Allah. He hears all our prayers,” in response to my mentioning Christianity. We nodded in agreement.
It was a beautiful moment; we understood each other and our shared human experience; we are all God’s children. It felt real, and life-changing to have experienced something so intimate and raw with this family. They were welcoming to us and open to what we had to say. I was moved that we could mention Christ and Allah and it felt natural and comforting and safe to say. Our hearts were open to one another. I won’t forget it.
There were moments of silence, as we sat together in sadness. The children sparked conversation with my step-daughter, asking her what school she goes to and what grade she is in. I am still astounded by the loveliness and grace of these children and young people, looking carefully after their guests. I met Mohammad's 5-year old brother, a happy child who smiled at us often from behind his mom and sister’s dresses. I also met Mohammad's older sister. We stayed a few more minutes. On our way out, they invited us to a walk and vigil to be held Monday, December 1st.
The walk and vigil began at PS 130, and we walked to the Uddin's home. We paused, in silence, where the accident occurred. It was cold and raining, which felt appropriate. The turnout was great. At the end of the vigil, Mohammad’s sister spoke from the home, and she tearfully expressed her gratitude on behalf of herself and Mrs. Uddin, who was overcome by emotion. She thanked us for showing her family that "Our community has lost one of our own children, and you are helping us to get through this by showing us that we are not alone."
In retrospect, I can see how a small gesture, like purchasing a card at the store, and posting it by the lobby elevator with a simple message, became empowered by the heart of community. The gesture helped moved grief beyond desolation. It gave me the courage to approach the family and let them know we cared—despite my timidity and my fear of saying the wrong thing. I saw our common humanity, and my timidity evaporated. I saw how we are interconnected, and I could see that we are not alone or independent of one another. We really are a family meant to care for and lift up one another, and share with each other those things that make us human.