Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton was leading a meeting at work last month when she got a phone call any mother would call horrific. Her 15-year-old daughter, Hadiya Pendleton, had been shot while with friends on Chicago's South Side.
"I went into temporary shock, I grabbed my nearest coworker ... [and said] 'Help me understand what they're saying, because clearly they're not talking about my baby,'" she tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More. When she got to the hospital, a nurse told her Pendleton had died.
Hadiya Pendleton was shot just days after traveling to Washington, D.C., to participate in festivities surrounding President Obama's inauguration. Her death made national headlines, adding fuel to calls for stricter gun control and focusing attention on Chicago, where more than 500 people were killed last year.
But, Cowley-Pendleton says, the Chicago neighborhood wasn't the problem. "It wasn't that she was in a bad neighborhood and you would expect this bad crime to occur. She was in the right place, doing the right thing, and it was just a bad guy in the wrong place," she says.
This week, Cowley-Pendleton was a guest of the first lady at the State of the Union address. In calling on Congress to vote on his gun control plan, the president mentioned Pendleton, who was shot just a mile away from his Chicago house. Cowley-Pendleton said being there was difficult "because all you want is your baby back. But the reality is, you can't ... So to have someone as large as the president talk about your baby, it's an honor. It's an absolute honor."
When asked what should be done to curb gun violence, she says she still has a lot of reading and research to do about gun policy. But she says the country needs to start thinking about penalties for gun offenders that would make them think twice about their actions.
Cowley-Pendleton says her job now is to keep talking about her daughter's story, in hopes of informing the public debate and preventing future tragedies.
"Hadiya's been murdered. She's been buried now. But the pain — this pain — is indescribable. ... I would never, never want anyone to feel this pain. It's irrecoverable."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, the president is heading home to Chicago this week, and it's not a moment too soon for many young people in Chicago and those who love them. They've been calling on the president to come home and talk about the violence young people there confront or fear every day.
There were more than 500 murders in Chicago last year, many of them young people. So we're going to spend some time today talking about this. In a few minutes, we are going to speak with a small group of young people in Chicago who are trying to do what they can to stop the cycle of violence.
But first, we are going to spend some time talking about a story that's become all too common, but that makes it no less shocking and heartbreaking. Fifteen-year-old Hadiya Zamora Pendleton was an honor student. She was a majorette in the marching band, and she performed in the president's inaugural parade just last month.
But just after that trip to Washington, D.C., she was shot and killed in broad daylight, for no other reason, Chicago police say, then she happened to be with some friends at a park on Chicago's South Side, and two men there mistook one of her group for somebody else. This was just about a mile from the president's Chicago home.
Her parents were guests of the first lady this week during the president's State of the Union Address and her mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, is with us here now in our Washington, D.C. studios. And I just want to say welcome to the program, and I'm sorry for what's brought us together today, and I'm so sorry for your loss.
CLEOPATRA COWLEY-PENDLETON: Thank you. Thank you very much.
MARTIN: It always seems like such a ridiculous question, but I wanted to ask how you're doing.
COWLEY-PENDLETON: That's a great question, actually. It's a moment-by-moment emotion. So right now, I'm fine, as fine can be considering, but, you know, I'm getting through day by day.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask - and I know it has to be painful to contemplate - how you heard about what happened? I mean, you must've gotten up in the morning that morning, thinking it was a normal day.
MARTIN: And then, all of a sudden, you know, everything changes.
COWLEY-PENDLETON: Yeah. It's laughter before she leaves, and always a I love you, Mommy, and I love you too, baby, like every other day. But on January 29th, while at work, I received a frantic call from one of her many best friends. And given the time of day I received the call and who it was coming from, while in a meeting, I knew I had to answer. So...
MARTIN: How did you know? You just - there was something told you that you had to answer?
COWLEY-PENDLETON: Instinct. I just - you know, I interrupted the meeting I was leading and said, let me get this call. And when I picked up the phone, it was her friend screaming Hadiya's been shot. Help, call 911. You know. But they knew they had to call me, you know? So in the midst of it all, they frantically called me. I'm Mama Cleo, so, of course, they have my number, and immediately, I got the call.
MARTIN: Could you even process what was happening?
COWLEY-PENDLETON: No. Actually, I went into temporary shock. I grabbed my nearest coworker and, you know, I have to apologize to her, I'm sure. I just - you know, and I threw the phone at her. Like, you know, I'm grabbing my chest, about to fall over. Just help me understand what they're saying. You know, because clearly, they're not talking about my baby.
But, you know, given who was on the phone, her friend Kaylin(ph), I knew I had to be concerned. But I couldn't process it. So I needed my coworker to take the call to help me understand exactly what they were saying.
MARTIN: When did you realize she was gone?
COWLEY-PENDLETON: When I made it to the hospital, and the nurse came into the room to talk to me. That's when I knew.
MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about the neighborhood, for people who aren't familiar with Chicago. As we've told a lot of people just as a way of reference, it's about a mile from the president's home. So - his Chicago home. So just by way of clarification, you're just saying it's generally perceived as a safe neighborhood. It's just not a place that you would've been normally worried about her.
COWLEY-PENDLETON: Generally, yeah. You know, generally safe. You know, you're just in the area where, you know, people there have nice jobs, you know, homes they value and take care of. And, you know, it wasn't that she was in a bad neighborhood, and you would expect this bad crime to occur. She was in the right place doing the right thing, and, you know, it was just a bad guy in the wrong place.
MARTIN: And if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton. She's the mother of Hadiya Pendleton. This is the young lady who performed at President Obama's Inauguration just last month, and on January 29th, was shot and killed by two men who mistook a member of her group for someone who had shot one of them months earlier. And Hadiya died. And she's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
I just wanted to ask: How do you react to the response that the nation has had to what happened to your daughter? I mean, on the one hand, people are shocked by it. I mean, they're shocked and disgusted. And on the other hand, other people are saying: Why did it take this? I'm just wondering how you feel about it.
COWLEY-PENDLETON: You know, it's unfortunate that it takes something to happen to bring an awareness of most issues that people speak on for ages. You know, there's nothing, then you seem maybe the odd ball out and, you know, it's a lesser priority. But seeing that someone with a bright future ahead of them who absolutely caused no harm to, you know, anyone else like that, I think that's the - that's where the support comes from, you know.
I mean, she looked for diversity. She looked for different. If you were different, you could be her friend, you know. She didn't follow the crowd. She embraced life. She wanted to do things. She's just that sort of individual. And I believe maybe that is the reason why there's been such a reaction. It has everything to do with who she was and how she was, and the fact that it's not just her mother saying this, or her father. It's people who had no idea what I was saying that had this to say about my child - which of course, makes me very proud, because that meant that when I was not around, she still listened, you know. And it takes something major, unfortunately, before there's usually a change put in place.
MARTIN: I was just wondering what - the first lady's coming to your daughter's funeral, was that meaningful to you?
COWLEY-PENDLETON: It was absolutely meaningful, because it was meaningful to Hadiya. You know, everything Hadiya's funeral was about Hadiya - nothing to do with politics. It had everything to do with Hadiya. It was about the kids and the kids having an ability to speak out about how they felt and to, you know, express how they felt for Hadiya.
So, you know, yes, the first lady coming to my daughter's funeral was everything. And it was everything because Hadiya would have absolutely loved it, which I'm sure she did.
MARTIN: What was the significance of your coming to the State of the Union and sitting in the first lady's box?
COWLEY-PENDLETON: I believe by being there, it was a recognition of Hadiya's greatness. By the president speaking on gun violence in my presence and wearing purple, which is significant to Hadiya. And, you know, it just made me proud.
MARTIN: Was it hard?
COWLEY-PENDLETON: It was, you know, because I - yeah. I spent time looking around the room and thinking about how much Hadiya would've enjoyed being there to listen to the president and really see Michelle Obama for herself and how down-to-earth she is. And I think that she would've loved it. So it's my job to honor my daughter in death by fulfilling what she could no longer fulfill. So...
MARTIN: Was it hard to hear the president speak about her? I mean, he talked about how she loved lip gloss and she had so many friends that all of them thought that they were her best friend and, as you pointed out, the girls had your own - your phone number, so they knew to call you themselves. So they clearly were close. You were close to her friends and her friends are close to you.
COWLEY-PENDLETON: And their moms.
MARTIN: And their moms, but was it hard to hear him speak about her? Was it...
COWLEY-PENDLETON: Of course. Of course. It's difficult and exciting at the same time and what I mean by that is, you know, it's difficult to hear because all you want is your baby back, you know, but the reality is you can't. Once they're dead, they're gone, so to have someone as large as the president, you know, talk about your baby, it's an honor and, you know, it's an absolute honor and I'm glad it's my little girl they're talking about and it's just unfortunate that she's gone on home.
MARTIN: We were talking earlier when I said that, you know, I appreciate your being. You said, this is my job now. And I wanted to ask what you meant by that.
COWLEY-PENDLETON: Well, it's my job to get the word out. It's my job to let people know that, you know, oftentimes, we will hear a story or mostly something on the news and I know, for me, you know, politics and laws and things of that nature - you know, that's for the people that want to go into law. It's for the people that want to be a politician or things of that nature.
And then, as long as your life isn't affected by the laws that are in place or, you know, made inconvenient by the laws that are in place, it's - you know, it's a story you hear. Your heart goes out and then you just keep going on with your life.
The thing about it is - and something I had never considered - was that, although laws are in place or there are things that are on the table for discussion that I may or may not understand fully, I could be affected by what's happening and so it proves itself to be important enough for a second glance or for - you know, to take some time to look it up on my phone or my BlackBerry. You know, follow up on the stories and so, when I say it's my job, I'm saying it's my job to keep talking about it. I want to keep talking about it and I want to go, what is this woman talking about? Like, you know - yeah.
Of course, Hadiya's, you know, been murdered and she's been buried now, but the pain that - this pain is indescribable. You know, I used to have issues, believe it or not, talking in front of crowds. Super nervous, just so nervous. But I don't know what I would be thinking, the crowd's saying or thinking. Now, this pain - there's no thought out there that could surpass the way this pain feels, it's so deep. And I would never, never want anyone to feel this pain. It's irrecoverable.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break here. Please stay with us as we continue our conversation with Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton. She is the mother of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was a victim of gun violence. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.