Brianna, who has obsessive-compulsive tendencies and A.D.H.D., found traditional school to be a challenge during the pandemic. Carla started to homeschool her, and, with Bill travelling to repair computers, they were often alone together for weeks. Carla’s condition already made breathing difficult; in the past several years, she’d been placed on a ventilator six times. Brianna learned to listen for her mother’s cough through the walls of her tiny bedroom. If her mother couldn’t catch her breath, Brianna knew to call 911. “When I heard my mother’s cough, I stood still and waited to see how bad it would be,” she said.
On August 12th, Carla turned forty-nine, and, soon, she grew sick. Three days later, Bill called an ambulance. “A week after that, she was ventilated,” he said. “I just assumed she’d get better since we’d been on a vent before.” Then Carla contracted pneumonia. “That’s what took her from us,” he added. The suddenness of Carla’s death stunned them both, and Brianna had trouble assimilating her mother’s absence. “At first, I’d call out her name so that she could help me find something,” Brianna told me. “Then I realized she wasn’t coming.”
Brianna had only two friends: she’d met one in a community-service group for girls, in 2019, and the other on Reality, a live-streaming app. Neither could help Brianna process her loss. She felt increasingly fearful when left alone in the house, but was reticent to tell her dad how scared she was. “I didn’t want to worry him,” she said. She was now homeschooling herself, and spent her days trying to learn eighth-grade math and social studies. At first, she managed to keep B’s, but her grades eventually began to slide. Before long, she was failing every online course. “It wasn’t that she was doing her schoolwork poorly,” Bill said. “She wasn’t doing it at all.”
Bill attempted to return to work immediately, but his employer insisted that he take thirty days off, and connected him to the Tristesse Grief Center, a local nonprofit bereavement center, where he and Brianna began seeing therapists.“I wanted to show her there was no shame in seeking help,” Bill told me. “I also got her a security blanket.” After Carla died, Bill bought Brianna a CZ pistol in royal blue, and enrolled his daughter in handgun training with a former police officer. “It’s locked up in her room, and it’s what made me feel safe leaving her at home,” Bill said.
On a recent afternoon, Brianna sat up on her bed as her father showed me her messy closet, which he’d turned into a safe room to hold the gun. “What’s your combination?” he asked. When she answered, he punched in the four-digit code. LaShonda, Brianna’s thirty-two-year-old half sister, looked on. LaShonda told me that she had struggled to deal with her mother’s death. “I tried to kill myself this winter,” she said. “But having me here with my little sister was God’s plan.”