Moments before each of them died, the women were doing the kind of stuff that women everywhere do.
One was hanging ruffly curtains in the living room. The other was chatting with a friend in the back yard while keeping an eye on the youngsters.
Getting shot while doing your everyday, perfectly mundane thing is no way for anyone to die, especially well-regarded, churchgoing, community mainstays like Dona Elizabeth Ferguson and Helen E. Foster-El. But within a few days, Ferguson, 40, of Capitol Heights, and Foster-El, 55, of Southeast Washington--women who live a few miles apart on opposite sides of the District-Maryland line--were killed by gunmen aiming at others.
Four men--including a father and son--were arrested in the death of Ferguson, a mother of five shot in the chest while putting up tan curtains with her son, 9, and a nephew. The alleged shooter, 21, was reacting to a soured drug deal, police say. Three men have been charged in Foster-El's death.
In both cases, neighbors--who are often reluctant to tell police anything after violent crimes--were so angry they helped police obtain enough information to make swift arrests.
Their outrage doesn't surprise me. I'm old enough to remember when men--even in the poorest neighborhoods--protected the mothers, grandmothers and children in their midst.
I'm old-fashioned enough to wonder what kind of men shoot at each other near backyard walkways where moms hang damp laundry, kids play tag and grandmas in plastic chairs enjoy the summer breeze while watching little ones. Foster-El died with bullets in her back and leg after shielding her neighbor's children from the 20 shots that were fired.
And I'm idealistic enough to think that a man's opinion of himself must be immeasurably low if he can fire wildly in the direction of a clapboard house with a minivan and a toddler's tiny, foot-pedaled car in the drive, a house that practically screams "Family Living Here." A house whose owner, a woman separated from her husband, was saving to move her children out of the violent neighborhood.
What kind of culture produces men with such stunning disregard?
Our culture, the same one in which crime is reportedly down in most major cities; the one in which even the poorest, least-educated men are supposedly benefiting from the economic boom. The one in which things are looking up--though not for Ferguson's kids or Foster-El's daughter, or her neighbor, 12, a boy who went to bed and woke up shaking after seeing "Miss Helen" die.
Such slayings leave everyone shaken--even a former D.C. homicide commander. "As a father and husband, I can't imagine the agony of the families" of Ferguson and Foster-El, says Capt. Alan Dreher.
"Dealing with grieving family members is something you never get used to. And these cases . . . I just know if it happened to my wife, it would just be . . . "
For a moment, Dreher pauses.
"I couldn't imagine."
Me either. Where I live in suburban Maryland, parents worry about their youngsters potentially using drugs, experimenting sexually, driving safely. Few people have to avoid certain areas of their homes, as Ferguson did to avoid gunfire from neighboring apartments. Being gunned down while sitting in one's back yard is inconceivable.
Much has been made, and rightly so, about the desperate lives of the men who commit such crimes. We lament, cry and scratch our heads over the obscene numbers of black men dying violently. But the deaths of these two women got me thinking about other women.
We see slayings like Ferguson's and Foster-El's and recoil. But as horrible as their deaths are, the women are among only the most obvious female victims. What about the invisible women and children connected to the killers and the killed, who make weekly trips to prisons, halfway houses and cemeteries to visit sons, fathers, husbands and lovers?
"Media accounts mostly deal with perpetrators and victims," Capt. Dreher explained. So, "you don't see the children crying at night for months because their father is gone. You don't see the teenage children having to drop out of school to raise their siblings. You don't see the agony and grief of women in these households . . . continuing for a long, long time."
What we saw of those poor women's deaths was heartbreaking. What we don't see every day should break our hearts, too.