PHILADELPHIA — His blue gown swaying in the breeze and a tassel dangling from the mortarboard on his head, Tyshon Malik Williams stood before his mother’s tombstone.
He let himself shed one tear but no more. No crying, he thought, today is a happy day. He knelt in the fresh-cut grass and started talking.
“Mom, I’m graduating today,” he began.
At the Fernwood Cemetery and Mausoleum outside downtown Philadelphia, he envisioned chatting in the warm sun with his mother. She looked like the young woman with 1980s bangs smiling softly from the portrait that hangs in the living room of his family’s home. She grinned as he told her about his prom. She nodded when he admitted that Grandmom sometimes gets on his nerves.
That June afternoon was the third time mother and son have been so close. The two last reunited almost a decade ago, when a 10-year-old Tyshon visited her grave soon after learning the story behind her death. Before that, there was the night his mother lay dying, clutching her belly in the wet grass before delivering a 3-pound 9-ounce boy.
Etched on his mother’s headstone before him: “May 29, 1995.” The day after a mysterious gunman chased down and shot his mother outside a Prince George’s County apartment building. The day Tyshon’s mom died. The day Tyshon was born.
Now, 19 years later, Tyshon has become a 6-foot-1 man. Before celebrating this milestone, he wanted to catch up with Tasha Monique Williams — the mom he never knew.
About a hundred feet away, Leola Williams-Lucas — the grandmother who raised Tyshon — looked on. Her wide brown eyes drooped — partly from staying up until 4 a.m. baking cakes for Tyshon’s party and partly from the tears welling in her eyes. She wanted to run to him and give him a hug. But before she did, Tyshon told his mother that he loved her and said goodbye.
“I’ll see you later,” Tyshon said. “I’ve got to get ready for my graduation.”
Born in Philadelphia, Tasha Williams grew up with two sisters in a working-class family, her mother a secretary and her father a carpenter.
Her family was mostly happy but lived in a two-bedroom rowhouse in a rough neighborhood, and Tasha, the middle sister, wanted out. She took school seriously, graduating from high school in 1987 with dreams of becoming a nurse.
Tasha made friends easily, had a generous spirit and loved board games. A ready smile often showed the gap between her two front teeth, but behind her happy face, her mother said, Tasha kept many things private.
At 18, Tasha enlisted in the U.S. Navy to help fund her education. But her mother didn’t know about it until two uniformed recruiters arrived at the family’s door. As Tasha headed to the gym with the pair, she told her mother that she had taken a military entrance exam at school.
“ ‘ When were you going to tell me this? ’ ” Williams-Lucas remembered asking. “She was a lot like the way Tyshon is. Quiet. Didn’t talk.”
While Tasha often kept plans to herself, she made one thing clear: She wanted a baby, and she wanted that baby by the time she was 25.
“I don’t know why that age,” Williams-Lucas said. “She just said that’s when she wanted to have a baby.”
Tasha didn’t have a serious boyfriend or husband at the time, and she didn’t want one, said Tasha’s younger sister, Allison Dotson. Tasha wasn’t one to fall in love quickly and liked to be independent.
“She didn’t want the father involved,” said Dotson, 37, who works for the IRS. “She didn’t want a man to take care of her.”
So just as Tasha quietly joined the Navy, she made plans to become pregnant. By Oct. 28, 1994, her 25th birthday, she had begun trying to conceive with men she was seeing at the time.
Stationed at what was then Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Tasha was living at an apartment in Temple Hills with her older sister, Sabriana Williams, her sister’s boyfriend and their three children. Tasha took the kids to the park and Chuck E. Cheese’s. They’d watch her favorite movie, “The Lion King,” together.
“She would have been a good mom,” said Sabriana Williams, 47, who works in tech support. “That’s the part that hurts a lot.”
The day Tasha announced that she would have a child of her own, Sabriana Williams and her sister were in line paying for groceries at the base’s commissary.
“ ‘I have something to tell you,’ ” Sabriana Williams remembered Tasha saying.
Tasha was a month or so along. The sisters stood in the store weeping.
As Tasha’s belly swelled, she called the baby growing inside her “Snickerdoodle.” She often craved the cinnamony sugar cookie during her pregnancy, just as she’d get hankerings for collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and rice.
The whole time, however, Tasha didn’t talk much about who impregnated her. But police say that man may have been her killer.
“She never said who the father was,” Sabriana Williams said. “She never discussed that man.”
With less than two months before her due date, Tasha dreamed of laying her baby to sleep on Peter Cottontail sheets and naming him Tyshon Malik — a name reminiscent of her own.
The rain had just cleared the Sunday before Memorial Day in 1995. After spending the evening with her 12-year-old niece, Tasha walked out of her apartment about 10 p.m.
“She actually was leaving to go to the base that night,” said Antoinette Belton, Tasha’s niece, who is now 30. “Once she left out, she stopped in the hallway, unlocked the door and stuck her head back in the door to tell me that she loved me.”
Minutes later, Belton heard gunshots and her aunt’s screams: “Please! Help me!”
The first bullet struck Tasha’s leg, and blood seeped onto her new white sneakers. She tried to run, said Sgt. Bernard Nelson, the Prince George’s cold-case detective who has been working her case.
“It appears she was shot once and chased to the side of the building and then shot again,” Nelson said. The second bullet struck her head.
Donovan Carter was one of the first Prince George’s police officers to arrive. Tasha was on the ground with her back pressed against the building, barely breathing and unable to speak.
“I could see her hands were around her stomach,” remembered Carter, now a corporal. “She was curled up in the fetal position.”
Tasha was flown to Prince George’s Hospital Center, where doctors delivered Tyshon by Caesarean section at 12:18 a.m.
At the time, a hospital staffer told The Washington Post that it was “pretty remarkable” that the baby survived.
But the shooting left his mother brain damaged.
“The doctors said the blood wasn’t flowing to the brain,” Williams-Lucas said later. “If she did live, she would have been a vegetable.”
Family members took her off life support, and she died at 1:30 p.m. May 29, 1995. Tasha’s loved ones surrounded her to say their goodbyes — uncertain if she heard them or her son’s first cries.
Police believe that someone targeted and chased Tasha.
Of the 1,400 cold cases dating to the 1950s in Prince George’s, her unsolved slaying is particularly disturbing, said Nelson.
“You have to look at the possibility of it being somebody that knew her or had some type of grudge against her, whether it be the ex-boyfriend or the father of the baby,” Nelson said. “They may not have wanted the baby to be born.”
The man believed to be Tyshon’s father was in a relationship with another woman at the time, Nelson said. The suspected father had also been pressing Tasha to get an abortion. Police interviewed the man but never detained him.
He is still part of the police investigation, the detective said.
“We’re not excluding him as a possible suspect,” said Nelson. “We know where he is now.”
The mystery still haunts Tasha’s friends and family. In the early years after her death, they’d send detectives school portraits of Tyshon, showing how he had grown. And recently, Tasha’s friends created a Facebook page called “Justice for Tasha (Williams).”
Police want that, too, Nelson said, but they need more people with information about Tasha and the night she died to come forward.
“A child lost his mother before he took his first breath,” Nelson said. “We definitely want to bring this to closure.”
Tyshon knows his mother only from yellowing photo albums and the refrain of his family’s memories. “You smile like your mom,” relatives tell him. “You all act the same. You all got the same eyes.”
“I knew she was in the Navy,” Tyshon said, staring up as he searched for more details. “And, I think she fixed planes, I guess. Hmm. What else? She was smart. She was successful. I think that’s really it.”
Tyshon is not sure what’s next for him. He said he wants to become a video-game designer, and he plans to apply to the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
He rarely wonders about his father: “Growing up, I remember everyone talking about my mother. I was always just focused on her. Nobody ever said, ‘Tyshon, your dad was great.’ ”
“Nobody ever talks about him because you don’t know who to talk about,” his grandmother said.
Sometimes, when watching TV, the image of a happy nuclear family flashes on the screen. At those times, Tyshon wonders: Would his mom be strict with him because she was in the military? Would he have traveled to different bases with her? Would he still be close to his grandmother?
But quickly, the questions fade. He hopes there’s an arrest in the case one day. But Tyshon tries not to dwell on his mother’s death. Grandma did a good job raising him, he says. And it’s not healthy to obsess over something he cannot change.
Hours after visiting his mother at the cemetery, Tyshon again slipped on his cap and gown, this time amid the bustle of 15 other Delaware Valley High School classmates.
As he marched through a hotel conference room with “Pomp and Circumstance” swelling from crackling speakers, his grandmother, grandfather and Aunt Allison watched with pride, clapping and cheering.
Tyshon’s teachers recognized him as a “wonderful human being” and complimented his grandmother on raising a “fantastic young man.” His family members danced, gave each other hugs and slapped high-fives as Tyshon collected his awards and honors.
Then, one by one, students walked to the podium to receive their diplomas.
“Thank you, Mom!” the first said.
“This is yours, Mom!” another cheered, holding up a diploma.
“Thanks for paying my tuition, Mom!” said another.
Then it was Tyshon’s turn. He thought about thanking his mom. He thought about continuing the conversation he had started with her that morning. But just as he’d been living his life the past 19 years, he didn’t want to focus on what he might have been or should be. Just as he did earlier that morning, he told himself that today was a happy day.
He leaned into the microphone and looked out into the crowd. “I want to thank my family for supporting me all through high school,” he said.
Tyshon rejoined his classmates and tossed his mortarboard in the air.
Anyone with information about the case can contact Prince George’s County police at 301-772-4925.