Born: Oct. 14, 1960. Resident of Bowie. Died: Feb. 6, 1999.
When the wreath would chime with Santa's "Ho, Ho, Ho!" Tomi, Tolu, Tobi and Abisola would stop whatever they were doing and race to the front door to see who was there. Little Tomi was always last, lining up behind her three older sisters to give a cheery welcome to the family's Bowie home.
This year, though, the singing wreath held more sadness than joy, and the children rarely scooted to greet visitors. Their father did manage to get a Christmas tree up, but then lacked the energy to decorate it.
"Daddy, the tree?" Tomi, almost 3, would ask. "Yes, soon," he assured her.
It has been nearly a year since the girls lost their mother in a car accident, a loss felt especially deeply this holiday season. The heart of her household, Adediwura Odutayo-Okanlawon "was our guiding light," said Koye Okanlawon, her husband of 12 years. "If there is a word to describe a perfect person, she was it."
On Feb. 6, Odutayo-Okanlawon was driving with her children to a baby shower when a car pulled out in front of their Mitsubishi van, according to police. The van struck the car and overturned. The girls sustained relatively minor injuries--although 12-year-old Abisola's severed left ear had to be reattached--but their mother was not so fortunate. She was 38 when she died.
Friends and family recall Odutayo-Okanlawon, a registered nurse, as someone who put others first, whether she was providing medical care at the D.C. jail or passing out fans to cool people at church.
"She spent most of her life helping others and saving souls," said her husband.
At the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup and, later, at the D.C. Central Detention Facility, she preached the gospel as she patched up the inmates. "She treated this job like a ministry," said Terri Gerald, director of nursing at the D.C. jail. "The inmates really loved her. They grieved when she left us."
It wasn't just the inmates. Odutayo-Okanlawon also gave advice and spiritual support to co-workers, and every year organized a week in which nurses at the jail were feted for their work. "They went to her for emotional support," said Gerald. Following her death, the nurses took up a collection for her children and named her nurse of the year. "She would have been very proud," said Koye Okanlawon, who keeps the plaque honoring his wife in a special place in the living room.
Raised in Nigeria, Odutayo-Okanlawon came to this country in 1989, eight years after her husband emigrated. To celebrate their reunion, they had a second wedding, "American-style."
Two years ago, the couple opened an ethnic food store in Laurel called Wazobiac Foods, a combination of three Nigerian words for "welcome." After working at the jail all day, Odutayo-Okanlawon would pick up the children at school, feed them and leave them with a babysitter, then go help her husband at the store.
Even juggling two jobs and four kids, she never missed church, attending Redeemed Christian Church in Laurel. Just before her death, the Pentecostal congregation recognized her three years of perfect attendance. Both chief usher and treasurer, she was "an inspiration to all," the Rev. Bayo Adeyokunnu noted in his eulogy.
With their mother taken from them, 12-year-old Abisola has assumed that role for her younger sisters, caring for them while their father works. "She does everything now," Okanlawon said proudly of his eldest child. "She does their hair, puts their clothes on and bathes them at night. She has had to grow up very fast."
Just how fast becomes clear when Abisola is asked what her mother would expect of her daughters. "She wouldn't want us to cry," the young girl answered. "She would want us to be happy because now that she is gone, at least she can rest and she doesn't have to worry."