In the past ten years, close to 4,000 people have been murdered in Philadelphia.
With each homicide, there's a circle of family members and friends who are left searching for a way to cope with the loss.
Some are crippled by the pain; others are driven to succeed in spite of it.
This is the story of two young sisters who've dealt very differently with the pain of losing their mother, but have found that -- even as the world turned its back on them -- they could always survive by sticking together.
Hell in Kingsessing
Meeting Tyzahvon McCloud, you would never know the years of hell she's had to overcome.
Now, as a well-adjusted professional woman in her early twenties, she's the kind of person who radiates warmth. She's tall, a fashionable dresser with cocoa-colored skin. She has a laugh that makes you feel at home, eyes that gleam with the light of the room.
But in late 2006, she and her sister Kiara were thrust unready into a long struggle that most people — let alone teenagers — couldn't imagine having to endure.
Ty was 17. Kiara was 16. Both went to Overbrook High School, a senior and junior respectively.
They were living with their mom Tracey, and her boyfriend Samuel Brown in his house in the Kingsessing section of Southwest Philadelphia. When they first moved in a few years prior, Brown seemed normal.
"He was pretty nice at first, but it was something that still left us a little bit puzzled about him," Ty said. "You just know something's a little bit off."
Before long, Ty says she, her sister and her mother found themselves living in a house of terror.
Brown drank regularly and began to show a wicked jealous streak.
"She could be out all day with us and he would automatically assume there was a guy with us," she said.
They'd come home sometimes and all the light bulbs would be removed from their sockets. Brown would be sitting alone smoking a cigarette in the dark. Other times, they'd go to leave the house and a key would be broken off in the top lock. During arguments, he'd smash plates of food against the wall.
Sometimes when Ty and Kiara weren't around, Brown would become physically abusive. Their mom had always pushed her daughters to excel in school, but all of the sudden she started asking them to stay home.
"It was kinda like you could see in her eyes that it was like ... she felt more safe if we were there," said Ty, "because she believed that he wouldn't go to the extreme of putting his hands on her if we were home."
That strategy worked for a while, but not for long.
Ty and her mom were home one day when something caused Brown to snap. During an argument with Tracey, Brown cut off the house's electricity at the circuit breaker and stormed through the dark West Philly row in a rampage.
Ty and her mother could hear him raving as they barricaded themselves behind the bedroom door.
It was just one of the many times she remembers calling the police.
"He came upstairs and was like banging on the door, trying to knock us over so he can get in. And the only thing I could hear was like my mom saying, you know, 'Put the knife down, put the knife down.'"
In the end, no one was hurt that day, but it was the first time Ty realized just how far Brown was capable of going.
"I'm thinking, 'Oh my god. We may actually die.'"
Around this time, Kiara, the younger sister, began hiding a knife in her bedroom and carrying a razor blade when she walked the halls of the house.
"Under my pillow, in the teddy bear, when I washed up I'd take it in the bathroom with me because I didn't trust him," Kiara said.
Again and again, Ty and Kiara urged their mom to leave him.
"My sister always told her, my mom, that something is going to happen to you," said Kiara, "but she just brushed it off like, 'He's not going to do nothing to me; he's not that crazy,' but it's like, you felt it."
The girls could at least partially understand why their mom stayed with him. Before living with Brown, the three of them had shared a West Philadelphia row-home with nine other family members — many of them unstable, drug addicted. Between those cramped quarters and the fact that their father was in prison serving a life term, it must have seemed to Tracey like there was nowhere else to go.
By Christmas of 2006, Ty and Kiara had had enough and decided to move out. For space reasons they stayed with two separate aunts. At first Tracey stayed behind, but soon enough, she left, too.
But after only two weeks, Tracey went back to Brown, and as is common in relationships of domestic violence, the worst tends to occur when the victim leaves and comes back again — when the aggressor feels his/her power has been threatened.
On Jan. 7, 2007, Tracey McCloud was murdered. It was the Sunday night of an Eagles-Giants playoff game. Brown got drunk and strangled Tracey to death with the lanyard on which he hung his keys. At some point in the altercation he hit her so hard that her teeth were knocked out.
The funeral was closed casket.
The lion's den
Days went by before Tracey's death was discovered. In that time, Brown moved Tracy's body to the couch and set out trying to collect advance money on a construction job he had yet to complete — coming and going from the house as Tracey lay dead in the living room.
Ty had talked to her mother on the phone the night before the murder, begging her not to stay there.
Over the next few days, she called the house at least three times, but no one answered.
By Wednesday afternoon Ty and Kiara were called down to Police headquarters.
Now-retired Philadelphia homicide detective Chuck Boyle remembers the day well. Of the hundreds of cases he's worked in his 30 years on the force, he counts having to tell Ty and Kiara about their mom as one of the most emotionally bruising moments of his career.
As he approached them, he remembers they were sitting with schoolbags at their feet, helping each other with homework, innocent to the gravity of the words he was searching himself to find.
"These were probably two of the nicest little girls, a beautiful personality and everything else and I remember [thinking], 'How do I have...how do I tell them?'"
When Boyle broke the news, he didn't have to name the culprit, the sisters knew. Then he watched as they broke down into each others' arms.
"I could see that there was that bond between them right then and there. Right then and there," said Boyle. "It was a special relationship between the two of them, and they had each other."
It was the moment that Ty and Kiara had always feared, but when it happened, it was even more horrific than they could have imagined.
"To know the whole time, you're waking up; you're eating breakfast; you're getting dressed. And my mom is laying there dead," said Ty, "It just made me sick to even know that, you know? Just really, really sick."
As darkness fell that January night, Ty and Kiara found themselves facing a grim future. Their mother was gone. Their father had long been in prison. And as they would quickly find out, their extended family was unreliable and ill-equipped to give them even basic care.
"It almost felt like we didn't know these people or we didn't grow up with these people," Ty said. "It was almost like they turned their backs on us to say: 'you're on your own.'"
All this weighed heavily on Detective Boyle's mind as he drove them back to West Philly that night.
"You know the neighborhood where I had to drop them off at," said Boyle, "these were two nice little girls and I'm thinking, 'My god what chance do they have? I'm basically dropping them off in the lion's den.'"
West Philadelphia vagabonds
This is the point in the story where Ty and Kiara had to make decisions that define the rest of their lives. If they quit school, if they gave up, if they gave in to the pressures of the neighborhood, it would have been understandable, expected even.
But instead, at Ty's lead, they fought on.
"We were just like, OK, we have two options: Either to just give up on life and end up the way most of our family members ended up or pushing through this and becoming the people who our mother wanted us to become."
Ty and Kiara essentially lived as West Philadelphia vagabonds. Without consistent support from their extended family, they went from couch to couch, taking shelter with whoever would put them up for a month or two at a time.
For kids still struggling to get through high school, it was an awful experience.
The things that their classmates could take for granted — school supplies, rides, a guaranteed place to sleep at night — were all things Ty and Kiara learned they couldn't count on.
Kiara took it all the hardest.
In one particularly crushing experience, she recalls the helplessness she felt when her godmother told her she could no longer live in her house.
"And it's just like, 'you were supposed to be my mom's best friend, like, ya'll always was together everyday,'" said Kiara, "and for you to just say 'Oh, you got 30 days to find somewhere else,' it's just like, 'I wouldn't be here if I had somewhere else to go.'"
On top of all this, they had to contend with the trial.
Both sisters were called to testify, where they cited the years of trauma they faced living in Brown's house. He was convicted of third degree murder and is serving a 20-to-40 year sentence at a state penitentiary.
A tale of two sisters
As the years went by, the girls learned to deal with the stress and pain in very different ways.
Although the loss crushed her, as elder sister, Ty became defacto parent:
"I kind of just wanted to give up and not finish school. But I knew that I had a younger sister that I had to be a better role model for, and I know she looked up to me, so I had to be strong."
Just a few months after the murder, Ty graduated high school, completed her college applications, and by fall found herself at Penn State's Schuylkill campus. There she overloaded on coursework and studied her major — criminal justice — to the point of insomnia-driven blackouts.
Kiara, though, was always on her mind.
"So while I'm at college and taking 21 credits," Ty said, "I'm still like, contacting my sister, 'Do you need money? Are you okay?' You know, being that parent."
Kiara wasn't faring well.
"Like mentally, like internally, I felt sick, like I couldn't eat, I couldn't think, I was just like out of it."
Kiara felt so awful she went to the hospital, but the doctor told her, at least physically, she was fine. He recommended grief counseling, which she tried, but didn't continue:
"It was just like, days where I was just like wanted to die. I didn't have nothing to live for no more, with no point. I felt like we didn't have the support that we should have had."
The stories we tell ourselves
From a grief counseling perspective, Ty and Kiara's case can be seen as a study in how individuals use storytelling to understand their lives.
Mary Beth Hays is the clinical director of counseling services at Philadelphia's Anti-Violence Partnership, a nonprofit therapy resource for the city's homicide co-victims. She didn't counsel either of the girls, but has worked closely with many similar cases.
She says those who are most resilient in dealing with their grief are those who are best able to organize the world around them into a useful personal narrative, either consciously or not.
Essentially, the idea is that we as humans are storytelling creatures who each see ourselves as the "heroes" or "protagonists" of our own lives. When a sudden trauma alters our existence — as happened to Ty and Kiara — the story we tell ourselves about who we are and how we're able to respond can make all the difference in our ability to overcome the horror of the loss.
Hays offers one common 'storytelling' reaction to sudden trauma:
"The story that: 'I want to be this person that my loved one always wanted me to be.' And then you do everything you can, in its greatest cognitive state, in your sense of, 'I can do these things on behalf of this individual.'"
But Hays says, for some, the stress of the trauma can make that narrative a lot harder to construct.
"PTSD really means that the mind is in a space of reorganizing," said Hays, "and it's harder for that left hemisphere and that right hemisphere to create that story and that narrative that integrates that truth that: 'I had a relationship with someone who, you know, loved me but couldn't keep me safe, who wasn't able to stay safe themselves,' and how do I make sense of that?'"
In Kiara's case especially, the years after the murder felt like a hollow void. She managed to graduate high school, but after that, felt aimless. She had no story of herself to make sense of things; she was just a lost character watching as the randomness of the world flew by all around her.
Ty, though, had her story. She was the leader. She was the one who could overcome any adversity through hard work, determination and positivity — all concepts she came to understand better through years of counseling with AVP.
With the help of scholarships, including the Philadelphia Police Department's Daniel Faulkner grant (which Det. Boyle helped facilitate), Ty ended up graduating from Penn State's main campus and now works as a legal assistant at a city law firm.
At this point, Ty not only has her narrative, but she consciously thinks about it and knows how to control it. For instance, when first asked about whether she could forgive Brown, she said:
"I feel like in order for me to heal and move forward in life, I would have to forgive him, because if I was to hold onto that, I would never excel in what I have planned for myself and want to do with my life."
But later on, she reconsidered that response in a way showing how important the 'story she told herself' had become in forging her identity.
"I get worried that if I do forgive, then the pain and the struggle that I went through would kind of like die down a little bit," she said. "I kind of don't want to forgive, because I don't want to forget how that shaped me to become the way that I am."
The better Ty became at controlling her own story, the more confident she became that she could actually help Kiara find her own.
When Kiara fell into an abusive relationship — following in the footsteps of her mother — Ty was there to pull her away to safety, reinforcing the idea that the role of victimized partner was not in the cards for either of them.
When Kiara was mired in feelings of depression and uselessness, Ty urged her to enroll in a career school. Even if Kiara couldn't see herself as a college student, Ty pushed her to see herself as a person who could rise above the fray of the neighborhood.
That endeavor led Kiara to graduate with the certification to become a nurse's assistant, and now, while she's been searching for a job in that field, she's kept steady work and settled into a stable, healthy relationship with her new fiancé.
Although Ty has been the dominant actor in their relationship, it's critical to note how important each sister has been to the other. Ty's able to push herself harder knowing she's leaving an example for her younger sister. Kiara's able to move ahead by seeing how far her sister has gone. Ty's successes are Kiara's; Kiara's, Ty's.
It's something Detective Boyle has watched in awe as he's kept in contact with the girls over the years.
"Most of what happened with them is what they did for each other, how they had each other's back.
It was almost like one was the left hand and the other was the right hand," said Boyle. "I don't know if I could have done it. Going from where they were that night to where they are today, I just don't know if I could do it."
By far the biggest change in Ty's and Kiara's life came a year ago when Kiara gave birth to her son, Mekkar.
"I think my son really motivates me a lot more and gives me like more of something to strive and live for each and everyday," Kiara said. "Including myself and my sister, my son was the greatest gift God ever could have gave me."
Mothergood gave Kiara the narrative that sustains her. She's no longer a character searching for a purpose. She's now a protagonist on a journey she understands.
Kiara's son has had an almost equally profound effect on Ty. More than ever, she's driven to build a career that will provide the safety and security that she and her sister have rarely known.
Mekkar, she promises, will never feel the way that she and Kiara felt when their family left them to face the world alone.
"For me being his only aunt, it's like I have to make that, and you know have that set in stone," Ty said. "So in the event something bad was to happen to my sister or his father, my nephew would never have to worry about, you know, where he can go, where he can rest his head and who's going to look out for him."
That role, Ty says, is one to which she's willing to devote her life.