‘When they killed her, they killed me, too’: A single dad deals with his daughter’s death
“I feel bad that I even smile or laugh knowing that my baby is in the ground, and I feel like I let her down. I was supposed to be there to protect her,” said Nathan Wallace, whose 7-year-old daughter Natalia was shot in front of her grandmother’s home in Austin.
Every day, Nathan Wallace returns to the tree where his 7-year-old daughter was killed.
The tree, once inconspicuous, is now decorated with ribbons, stuffed animals, flowers and a purple cross. It’s a memorial to Natalia Wallace, shot in front of her grandmother’s home in Austin while playing with her cousins on the Fourth of July.
Wallace spends hours inside his car, watching the tree. It’s the only thing that brings him comfort. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that helps him sleep.
“I feel bad that I even smile or laugh knowing that my baby is in the ground, and I feel like I let her down. I was supposed to be there to protect her,” Wallace said, as tears started to pour down his cheeks.
“When they killed her, they killed me, too.”
Dealing with death
When the sudden death of a child is compounded by the trauma of gun violence, immediate intervention is needed, according to Dr. Candice Norcott, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Chicago.
“[Therapy] is about taking steps for wellness,” said Norcott, who counsels trauma victims. “It’s not that you can’t be sad or you can’t cry, but it is to show you how to handle those emotions.”
Wallace already is worried about some of his own behavior. He’s drinking more than usual. He feels closed off emotionally. And there are mood swings — he sometimes lashes out at his brother without realizing what he’s saying.
“There is a sense of ‘I should never be allowed to be happy again because it is disrespectful to my child,’” Norcott said. “But we are left to experience joy and I invite parents to remember their child as a loving spirit in life ... they can honor theirchild by remembering the joy of their life as well as the pain of loss.”
Wallace plans to speak with someone — just not now, he said. Now, the single father’s focus is working his two jobs (one as a certified nursing assistant, the other doing pizza delivery) and raising his three other children.
Overall, gun deaths among people age 17 and younger in Chicago is nearly the same this year as it was last year at this time.
But it has grown among younger children. The number of children 13 years old and younger killed in shootings so far this year in Chicago already far surpasses all of last year. That’s six this year, compared to just one in all of 2019, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner.
It is the most gun-violence deaths in that age group since the medical examiner started publishing the data in 2014.
‘It’s not real, just a nightmare’
The day started with laughter. Wallace remembers chasing Natalia up and down the block, trying to catch her and smother her with kisses.
“She be acting funny around her cousins, talking about ‘don’t baby me,’ so I ended up chasing her around,” Wallace said. “I had asked her if she wanted to quickly go to the store with me, but she said she wanted to be with her cousins.”
Wallace left, promising to come back with chips for all the kids. Before he left, he reminded her to stay out of the street because he was scared she would get hit by a car.
“It was less than 10 minutes when one of her aunties called me, saying, ‘Your baby had got shot,’” Wallace said. “It didn’t register to me at that time cause I thought she might’ve got hit with a firework, so I didn’t pay much mind and told them I’m on my way back.”
“She called me again and said she got shot in the head and I need to get there now, and that’s when I began panicking.”
Wallace ran to the car, trying to hurry back. It seemed he was stuck in traffic on Chicago Avenue for a lifetime. His hands were shaking. He prayed it was a bad joke.
When he finally made it back, he counted his kids — oldest daughter first, then his son, then a family member told him another daughter was upstairs, safe. That’s when he realized it was Natalia, his youngest, who had been hit.
“I didn’t know what to do, officers were asking me so many questions, and I just felt numb — I really don’t know how to explain it, but it’s not real, just a nightmare,” Wallace said. “They wouldn’t let me get to the ambulance; they wouldn’t let me see her; they just told me they got to take her.”
When he finally arrived at the hospital, police had still more questions before he was allowed to see his daughter.
“The officers asked me if someone was after me, what type of things I did, and I couldn’t understand what was really going on,” Wallace said. “After all those questions, they finally told me she was dead.”
Wallace said the questioning made it seem as if he were to blame, that the shooting was in response to misdeeds in his past.
He understands police procedure but still felt slighted.
“I was real pissed off. I really didn’t want to talk to them after that, but I knew it was for a reason,” Wallace said.
That reason was to hold the shooters responsible for taking his daughter’s life. And police have acted quickly. Within days, they made their first arrest. Within a month, three men had been charged.
Wallace said he is happy police acted quickly, but he can’t help feeling the void. Even brief moments of contentedness still feel wrong, as he remembers one of his children is gone.
Natalia’s 8-year-old brother, Nathan Wallace III, has fond memories of his sister, like how she would laugh at the Disney movie “Zootopia.” He misses that.
The last thing Wallace wants to do is neglect his three other children. He’ll get better, he says, with time.
Since 2010, Chicago Survivors has made it its mission to visit every homicide scene in the city and connect with the victims’ families. Crisis responders are on call around-the-clock so someone can respond immediately.
The non-profit provides grief support, helps with funeral expenses and explains to victims their rights in terms of talking to police or seeing the body.
“I receive text messages and an email of every homicide in the city of Chicago – no matter the time,” said Oji Eggleston, executive director of Chicago Survivor. “Instead of seeing numbers the media reports, I receive actual names and ages. ... with every text message I get, it means there is a grieving family.”
Eggleston said establishing a connection immediately helps let folks know help is out there.
“The sooner that a person addresses the trauma that they are experiencing, the more likely they are able to transition through all the stages of grief and move forward with their life,” Eggleston said. “But it is something that is difficult for a lot of folks to do.”
Those first hours after his daughter died are still a blur, Wallace said, but he does believe someone from Chicago Survivor called him.
He plans to call them back.
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides