This is the story of a girl.
But wait—not yet.
First, this is the story of a brick. A wonderful brick, located beneath a wonderful tree. You can find them both—the brick and the tree—in a corner of the playground in front of New Rochelle’s Ward Elementary School. But only if you pay attention. Only if your eyes are wide open.
My eyes, to be honest, weren’t especially wide that warm afternoon last September. It was just another average suburban day in a long string of average suburban days: Wake up, eat breakfast, drive the kids to school, get in a couple of hours of writing, eat lunch, pick the kids up, blah, blah, blah. The rituals of our lives, while not altogether unfulfilling, can get like that—blah, blah, blah.
On this particular day, my daughter Casey, 7, and son Emmett, 4, weren’t quite ready to head home. So they bolted from Ward’s concrete entranceway toward the modest playground, a place I’d been a million times before, but a place, apparently, I’d never truly noticed.
As Casey and her friends went up and down the slide, my son gravitated toward a tree. From afar, before the spring awakening arrives, it looks like any other Spring Snow Crabapple. Brown trunk, about 15 feet high, a bunch of branches jetting off this way and that. No big deal. Upon stepping closer, however, I noticed a grayish brick at its base. The words—engraved atop a copper plate in capital lettering—leapt from the surface …
IN MEMORY OF BIANCA WEBSTER
FROM THE CLASS OF 1994
I read the words on the brick again. And again. And again. I immediately found myself overtaken by sadness; the sadness of a parent forced to think of his children not as little people with limitless futures, but as mortal beings who, at some point, will—like all of us—cease to exist. Then I did the math. If Bianca Webster were scheduled to graduate from Ward Elementary in 1994, she’d be, oh, 27 or 28 by now. She’d possibly be a wife; a mother; a person with a job and a mortgage and a love of … what? Guitar? Chai Tea Lattes? Ron Howard movies?
She would exist.
For the remainder of the day, I couldn’t get Bianca Webster out of my head. Who was she? What did she look like? How did she live? How did she die? That night, after putting my children to bed, I sat before my laptop and composed a short, seemingly unremarkable blog post about the tree, the brick and the girl. Beneath the headline, IN MEMORY OF BIANCA WEBSTER. FROM THE CLASS OF 1994, I wrote:
I didn’t know Bianca Webster. Have never heard of Bianca Webster. And that’s sort of what’s sad about it. We put up rocks and bricks and signs to remember people, but we rarely remember people.
And that was that. I moved on. I went about my life. I had bills to pay and mouths to feed and …
The e-mail arrived a month later. I didn’t buy it at first. Somebody messing with me. A gag. A joke. My blog, after all, averages roughly 1,000 daily hits. I keep it for my own entertainment, and little more.
Then I read the e-mail again.
I believe that the then elementary aged child is my daughter. I’m not sure if it is my child. If you’re talking about a school in New Rochelle, NY. I like to share a few things about my Bianca. She was a daddy’s girl.
She loved me very much. And I loved her. I know you’ve stated that you didn’t know Bianca Webster.
But I still want to thank you for taking notice of her. Bianca was in 5th grade when she passed away, she was 10 at the time. Which means, in 2010, “YES” she’d be a full-grown adult, 25- or 28-years old, perhaps with a husband … kids … a career … a life.
Sir, I wasn’t in New York when Bianca passed away. I was living in Virginia. Bianca’s mother and I were not together. Although Bianca and I had a very good relationship, her mother and I were very kind to one another when I called on the phone or visited Bianca in New York.
… I’m not sure why I’m sharing so very much of my personal life to you. Maybe it’s God way of bring me closer to going to New York to see my Bianca’s grave.
So, thanks for sharing. I like to ask you to hold your children close, tell them that you love them everyday. And show them that you love them every second, every minute, every hour of each day.
The name beneath the e-mail was Darrell Lewis. I wrote back, and he responded with another note, this one accompanied by a photograph. The attached image was of a pretty black girl with short dark hair, soft eyes, arched eyebrows. She is wearing an aqua-colored dress with flower prints, and her hands are crossed atop her lap. A thin gold chain dangles from her neck, and she’s positioned on a white love seat—the kind my Grandma Mollie fancied in the late-’70s. Bianca’s face projects neither joy nor misery, but the requisite “I’ll sit here and pose, but only to placate you” blank stare we’ve all offered up at one time or another.
That night, I called Lewis.
“I don’t entirely know why,” I told him, “but I want to get to know Bianca …”
“I went into labor on the day of the Super Bowl in 1983 …”
The words are uttered by Jacqueline Webster. She is on the other end of the phone, speaking to me from Atlanta at the behest of Darrell. She is hesitant. Cautious. More guarded than Bianca’s father. She came to grips with her daughter’s death years ago, and isn’t all that thrilled about reliving such a nightmarish past. Since that horrible day, she has strived to aim forward. She moved south, married, had two sons, worked as a nurse, divorced. Highs, lows, ups, downs. “I don’t know what I can tell you,” she says. “My daughter was a young girl when she died.”
Then, without prompting, the thoughts begin to flow …
“I named her Bianca Ebony-Ann Webster, but I have no idea why,” Webster said. “Before she was born I had no names planned. I didn’t even know if it was going to be a boy or a girl. Somebody threw out some names at New Rochelle Hospital (now ), and I picked Bianca.” A soft laugh trails the thought, and she drifts back in time to another life. To, in many ways, another person.
She was born and raised in the small Jamaican village of West Moreland, and came to America—to New Rochelle, where a cousin lived—with her parents at age 16. Her father, Joseph Webster, worked as a painter and her mother, Gwendolyn, was a housekeeper. “I remember flying to New York for the first time, looking out the window and seeing all the bright lights,” Webster said. “I was so excited—New York, here I am! Then I woke up the next morning in New Rochelle. I walked outside and asked my mom, ‘Where are the city streets paved in gold?’”
After graduating from New Rochelle High School in 1977, Webster studied for a year at Westchester Community College, worked a couple of random jobs, then enlisted in the National Guard. The ensuing 10 years of her life were spent in the Guard, serving as a combat medic and patient care specialist. Her military training took her to different parts of the country, including, in 1981, San Antonio, TX. That’s where, one night, she met a Naval officer named Darrell Lewis at the non-commissioned officers club—a social hall for military personnel.
Like Webster, Lewis didn’t come from money. The middle of six children, he was raised in San Antonio, and joined the Navy to help alleviate any financial burden on his family. “I wound up spending six years in the military,” he says. “It helped provide a way.”
Webster and Lewis dated for nearly two years. They were young and energetic, and shared a bond forged by the armed forces. He worked as a DJ on the side, and she would tag along to his gigs and line up records. “We had a great time,” she says. “But we eventually broke up, like people do. I moved back to New Rochelle, Darrell stayed in San Antonio. That was that.”
Sort of. Upon returning home Jacqueline learned that she was pregnant. She called Lewis to tell him, but expected little in return. He didn’t move north; she didn’t head back south. They were an ex-couple, and she would have the baby without him while leaning on her parents for help. “I wasn’t mad at all,” she said. “I knew I’d be fine.”
“Her name was Bianca, but most people didn’t call her that.”
Danyea Diggs takes a drag from a Newport, then another. She is standing outside a Subway sandwich shop in downtown New Rochelle, on lunch break from her day job at Royal Child Care. A small silver piercing protrudes the skin above her lip, and her hair is shaved off the sides of her scalp, forming something of a beefed-up Mr. T Mohawk.
She is crying.
“I called her Bee-Bee and she called me Yey-Yey,” Diggs said, before taking another drag. “We were best friends since daycare, when we were both 18 months old.”
When I first contacted Diggs, via Facebook, for this story, she said her hands began to shake and tears streamed from her eyes. She needed a friend to write back because, “I couldn’t handle the emotions. I could barely breathe.”
I ask Diggs whether she can still hear Bianca’s voice. She pauses, tries, then shakes her head No, but issues an addendum. “I can imagine her yelling, “Yey-Yey! Yey-Yey! That’s it.” More tears.
Webster and her daughter lived in a three-family house at 120 Winthrop Ave. Her parents resided in one of the adjacent apartments. Shortly after Bianca’s birth, Webster took a job as a nurse at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, and when she returned to working her standard 4 p.m.-12:30 a.m. shift, Gwendolyn often served as child care.
Bianca, her mother said, “was a macaroni-and-cheese kind of girl.” Translation: Though her family was Jamaican, she was completely Americanized. She loved dolls and pretty dresses and all things light blue, and talked of becoming a teacher when she grew up. The staff at Ward Elementary complimented Webster on her daughter’s studious and respectful nature. Bianca tore through books, happily reading Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle alone atop her bed.
“There were nights I’d come home from work, thinking she was asleep, and she’d have the sheets over her head, reading,” Webster said. “I’d yell, ‘Put the books away! You have school tomorrow!’” When Diggs came up with some sort of mischievous scheme, her friend would usually stop her. “She’d say, ‘Yey-Yey, you know that’s not smart,” Digs said. “She was always right … a good, smart girl who had no interest in trouble.”
Bianca’s gift—and passion—was music. One day Webster heard the unexpected sound of a seamless reggae tune coming from her daughter’s room. She walked in and saw Bianca playing her miniature Muppets keyboard. “Where’d you learn that?” Webster asked.
“Oh, I heard it on the radio this morning,” Bianca replied.
Before long, she was taking Saturday morning lessons at a music store on North Avenue. “I went out and bought her a full-sized keyboard,” Webster said. “I still have it, along with all her music books. They’re in my living room, sitting in a navy blue bag. Just sitting there, the way Bianca left them.”
In the early days of December 1992, mother and daughter traveled to London for the wedding of Webster’s Aunt Linda. They remained overseas for 10 days, touring the various sites, catching up with old relatives, eating well and laughing often. It was the cold, wet season in England, so nobody seemed to worry much when Bianca began coughing. “A couple of days before we left she had a cold and she had a fever,” Webster said. “Whenever I gave her Tylenol the fever went down, so I figured I’d take her to the doctor when we got home.”
That’s exactly what Webster did, and she was surprised yet nonplussed when Bianca was diagnosed with bronchitis and placed on antibiotics. As the symptoms worsened after a week at home, Bianca returned to the pediatrician, who maintained the girl merely needed medicine and rest. “I was bringing her homework to her house after school,” Diggs said; she was also a fourth grader at Ward. “I wanted to play, but she didn’t have the energy. Still, I never thought it was a big deal. She was sick. Kids get sick.”
Webster continued to load her daughter up on chicken soup and medication, until the night of December 20, when Bianca’s breathing turned alarmingly labored. She drove her to the emergency room at New Rochelle Hospital, where X-rays were taken. “Your daughter,” Jacqueline was told, “is suffering from pneumonia.”
After waiting another hour in the lobby of the emergency room, Bianca was admitted into the pediatric ward. “I was in the room with her, by myself, because the nurse stepped out to get something,” Webster recalled. “Bianca started pointing toward something at the wall. I thought she meant the TV, and I told her I’d get them to turn it on.
Webster paused. Not for effect or impact. But because, sometimes, people simply pause.
“When I turned back around to face her, she’d stopped breathing. I’m a nurse, so I began to initiate CPR on my daughter. In between chest compressing and breathing, the nurse came in and called code blue.” A handful of doctors stormed into the room. One leaned over Bianca and administered further CPR. Webster watched from beside the bed, screaming, crying, begging for … something.
“It didn’t work,” she said. “Bianca was dead. My child was dead.”
Another pause. A long one.
“She was 9-years old.”
The box arrived in the late afternoon of December 23, 1992.
Knock on the door.
A UPS man appeared, holding a package.
The label reads BIANCA WEBSTER.
How could Darrell Lewis have possibly known? He was living outside of Hampton, VA, at this point, working as a disc jockey and assistant program director at a gospel radio station, WTJZ. After going much of Bianca’s life without having regular contact, Lewis insists he was trying to make a strong effort. He said they spoke on the phone and exchanged letters, and that Bianca excitedly told him what she wanted for Christmas. “She gave me a list,” he said. “Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, a Barbie doll …”
Roughly a week before Christmas, Lewis said he and Bianca talked. “I told her, ‘Bianca, the gifts will get there before me, but Daddy’s going to come and see you soon enough.” Lewis paused, gathered himself, cried. Gathered himself, then cried again. “I sent a huge box with her presents,” he said. “With all her presents.”
How could Lewis have known that his daughter was dead? How could he have known about the funeral, held earlier that day at in New Rochelle? How could he have known about the body of his daughter, dressed in pink in an open casket? “I was like, ‘That’s not her color! She doesn’t like that color!’” said Diggs. “I was waiting for her to pop up and say, ‘Surprise! I’m here! That’s somebody else!’”
How could Lewis have known about Jacqueline Webster crumpling to the ground in disbelief; about Webster’s mother’s painful sobs; about little Diggs storming into her room and smashing the TV against the floor?
How could he have known that Bianca’s Christmas presents would arrive two hours after her burial at Beachwoods Cemetery?
How could he have known?
Somehow, no one called Lewis in the aftermath of the death. So, when the package from him included a phone number, one of Webster’s aunts picked up the phone and left a message. “I was at the radio station,” Lewis said. “I used to check my answering machine through shifts. It was about 5:30 in the evening. I got a few normal messages, than the one …”
Hi, Darrell, it’s Jacqueline’s aunt. I have something to tell you. Sit down and relax. I hope you’re with someone near you. Bianca is dead, and Darrell, she didn’t suffer. She went like a little angel. Call Jacquie and she can give you the details.
Lewis sat, dumbfounded. He switched on the phone’s speaker and played the message for a co-worker. “She said Bianca’s in the hospital, right?” he asked. “That’s what she means, right? The hospital—right?”
“No,” the man said. “She’s dead.”
It’s weird, the way stones and monuments and the like tend to work. We name schools and bridges and traffic circles after people; we dedicate trees and benches in their memories; we talk about never forgetting.
Then, inevitably, we forget.
Maybe that’s what gets me most about Bianca Webster; what led to the blog post and the e-mail from Darrell and, now, this article. On June 14, 1994, at 9:30 in the morning, a couple of Ward Elementary representatives and New Rochelle city officials gathered by the playground to dedicate the tree and unveil the brick. Some words were uttered, some belated condolences were offered. Then, when all was said and done, Jacqueline Webster and Danyea Diggs—both in attendance—walked off to resume their lives.
Through the years, the brick has become part of the landscape; in a sense, more obstacle than memorial. If people take notice, it’s only for a second or two. Evoke the name Bianca Webster to Ward parents and employees, and you’re almost certainly met with a quizzical shrug. Why, the school’s principal, Franco Miele, was only 15 the day she died.
And yet, when I tell Diggs about the tree and the kids who climb up its trunk and dangle from its myriad branches, she giggles like the 9-year-old girl from long ago. Whether they know it or not, she said, the children are paying homage to her best friend.
“It’s like they have a piece of Bianca with them when they play,” Diggs said. “It’s like she’s right there, climbing alongside them, laughing her head off.”
Jeff Pearlman is a columnist for SI.com, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times-bestselling author of five books. His latest, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, was recently released. He blogs at jeffpearlman.com