The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Highland Park, mother who died saving her toddler is mourned

Mourners hug on July 12 as they head into a Wilmette, Ill., funeral home for the funeral for Irina McCarthy. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill.Eight days after the Highland Park shooting, mourners filled a funeral home to honor Irina McCarthy, who was killed protecting her 2-year-old son Aiden. McCarthy’s husband, Kevin, also died in the rampage, which left seven dead and dozens injured, including an 8-year-old whose spine was severed by a bullet.

“Our hearts are shattered,” Rabbi Dovid Flinkenstein told mourners during a service at Weinstein & Piser Funeral Home in nearby Wilmette. “The pain is unbearable. There are rivers of tears. We don’t want to be here, nor should we be here today.”

Family and friends described McCarthy, 35, as a loyal friend and fierce mother to Aiden. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) and Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering were in attendance, along with about 150 others.

During the service, friends described Kevin McCarthy as the love of Irina’s life and promised their son would be taken care of. One family friend said Aiden “will have a family, a home and will thrive and grow with us.”

McCarthy’s colleagues at the North Chicago-based pharmaceutical company AbbVie spoke as well, describing her as “more than a colleague, she was a friend.” The Chicago Tribune reported that McCarthy was a manager in oncology, according to LinkedIn.

Plans for Kevin McCarthy, 37, have not yet been announced.

McCarthy’s funeral was only the latest reminder of the tragedy that struck this still-traumatized town. On Monday, community members gathered at the recently reopened site of the shooting. Some brought flowers and photos; others came simply to bear witness.

Mackenzie Mottlowitz, 30, had been at the parade with her whole family when the shooting began. Her family had attended the Fourth of July festivities for 25 years, always in the same spot. Last week, as the gunman fired into the crowd from a rooftop, she and her family dove to the ground amid broken glass and fallen bodies.

Since then, Mottlowitz has been waking up in tears, dreaming of running from a shooter and hiding. “I came down here to make sure I could put a visual to what was replaying in my own head,” she said.

Mottlowitz said she and her sisters Madison, 29, and Miranda, 21, have been inseparable since the shooting.

Lindsey Hartman, 41, was at the parade too, along with her husband, Danny, and their 4-year old daughter Scarlett. When the shooting started, she and Danny huddled on top of their girl.

When she returned to the scene Monday, there were still traces of glass on the ground and bullet holes just above where she lay on the ground. “It put a punctuation mark on just how close we were,” Hartman said.

As she laid down seven rocks collected by her daughter, Hartman cried. “In Jewish culture you leave a stone at the cemetery,” she said. “I sat by each individual’s memorial and sobbed.”

Others wept, too, she said. Strangers suddenly felt like family.

At Highland Park High School, therapists and social workers were on-site to talk to those affected. Some of them had traveled from other states, and many had recently worked with victims of the school shooting in Uvalde, Tex. As those seeking help arrived, they received color-coded bands — blue for those who had been at the shooting, white if not. Toys had been donated by local businesses, a distraction for children waiting their turn.

Hartman said she had spoken with someone at the school, and it had helped. “This is their job, and yet it felt you were talking to friends or family,” she said. She said her daughter is doing well, though she requires a few more hugs.

Others are having tougher time.

“No one should hear their 7-year-old say he is glad ‘none of his friends were killed’ before you tuck him in at night,” said Jordana Greenberg, 40, a lifelong resident of Highland Park who also attended therapy at the high school. “No one should hear their 5-year-old say she no longer wants to ride her bike because her last memory of it was during ‘the parade where people were hurt.’ I would not wish this pain and uncharted parenting territory on anyone.”

Susan Isaacson, 68, was at the parade with her children and two grandchildren. They sheltered in a wine store and were not injured. But they are struggling.

“I’m not happy,” Isaacson said. “I don’t feel like making dinner or doing anything. I just don’t feel like myself. At night, when it’s quiet, the thoughts come back.”

She returned Sunday morning to the scene of the shooting, sitting on a bench with a young woman with three little children.

“We both cried,” Isaacson said. “I just cannot get it out of my mind. I will never feel the same. … [The shooter] took our innocent city and made it a statistic.” Her 7-year-old granddaughter is not sleeping. The 5-year-old is acting out, she said.

Isaacson said therapy has helped. And she appreciates the way the community has come together to mourn and honor those who risked their lives responding to the shooting. Recently she attended a large dinner for first responders. Her grandchildren drew pictures that firefighters promised to hang on the wall.

Many who attended the parade say they feel they were playing the odds. One second running in a different direction and the outcome could have been tragic. Many describe everyday sounds of cars backfiring, alarms and loud voices as triggering. Others say they are still in shock and will need time to recover.

“This is trauma with a capital ‘T,’” Mottlowitz said.