My son, Michael, loved tractors. Fortunately for him, we lived in an area with miles of farmland where tractors were commonplace. Once when we were driving home he said, “Mommy I want to see a tractor.” I told him, “Michael, I can’t make one appear by saying hocus pocus abracadabra.” Immediately he tried to repeat my words, only managing to say “hocus pocus” but struggling with “abracadabra.”
After he was killed, my parents’ neighbors arranged for a John Deere tractor to lead the funeral procession at his service. I hadn’t even met the man who ended up driving the tractor at the service. For such a young boy, I could not believe the number of people who came to pay their respects.
Michael was two-and-a-half years old when he was fatally shot in the back by his father during a routine supervised visit. I had been bringing Michael to my former mother-in-law’s home for supervised visits for almost two years.
On March 23, 2013, I went to my former mother-in-law’s home. My ex-husband arrived soon after we did, and Michael walked out of the house with me to meet his father. As I was walking down the ramp from the house, my ex-husband attacked me, hitting me in the head over and over again. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in an awkward position on the ramp and realized I had been shot in the legs.
Michael was on the other side of the car when I heard my former mother-in-law say, “I’m going to get Michael.” That’s when my ex-husband grabbed Michael and shot him in the back. He tried to take off with him but I managed to grab him back. He came after me and after struggling over Michael, my ex-husband took him from me and threw him in the hatch of the car. He shot at his mother but missed. After he got into the front seat of the car, I got Michael out of the car and ran inside the house. At some point during the frenzy, I was shot three times in the legs and face.
Michael was already dead when I brought him in the house. After the police arrived, I was brought to the hospital where I stayed for a couple of days.
My ex-husband fled the scene, initiating a massive search involving the state police. He went home, switched cars, and called his siblings to tell them what had happened. He blamed me. By the time they found him that afternoon, he had shot and killed himself.
I left my then-husband when Michael was just six weeks old. The day after we left, he was hospitalized after threatening to commit suicide and to burn down the house. He was released after the judge decided not to extend his hospitalization, but a month later he would return because he attempted suicide by taking pills and was found comatose in his car.
By this point, I had filed a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order. I was told that the PFA could not forcibly remove weapons from my abuser. His parents had taken his weapons after he threatened to commit suicide; they were no longer in his home, but they were still in reach. In January, my ex-husband petitioned the court for the right to have visitation. Initially his petition was denied, but the judge eventually ruled in his favor. A little over two years later, my son was dead.
The system failed my son again and again: when the judge decided not to extend my ex-husband’s hospitalization; when he was arrested and quickly released for violating the Protection From Abuse order twice; when he was allowed visitations to our son; when his firearms were not made inaccessible.
The day after the shooting, one of the state troopers involved in the case came to see me at the hospital, and I begged him not to conduct an autopsy on Michael’s body. He told my sister that he was only trying to protect me. He was concerned my former mother-in-law would change her story, but the physical evidence could not lie. He said to me, “He meant to destroy you, and if he destroys you, Michael loses.” Right then and there I told myself I need to do everything possible to not let Michael die in vain.
Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by local television station reporter who wanted to air Michael’s story; I worked with a local domestic violence program and shelter to host a domestic violence awareness event called “Walk to End Gun Violence” in Michael’s memory; and I was put in touch the legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV) to discuss changes I wanted in legislation. PCADV then invited me to become an advocate with Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
I continue to be amazed at the sheer volume of support I have received these last three years. From the state troopers, the hospital staff, my family, friends, the community, and the people I meet everyday. When I was first released from the hospital, I couldn’t drive because of the injuries to my legs, so my friends and family took turns chauffeuring me around. But mostly I pull strength from the memory of Michael, and from not wanting to let my ex-husband win.
But that doesn’t mean things are easy or “better.” I’ve made a lot of changes. I have learned to manage. I worked with kids but left my job because it was a constant reminder of Michael. I moved out of the county because of a job offer, which in term provided me with a fresh start.
Michael’s teachers used to joke that he was a lawyer in the making. He kept you on your toes. One of his favorite questions was, “What’s that smell Mommy?” One day he asked me in the car, and after I gave him an answer he said, “No that’s not it, Mommy,” before launching into a lengthy explanation of what it really was.
While I was dropping him off at daycare one day, another parent came over to me and said, “I need to tell you something that happened.” Her son was having a hard time with his mother leaving, and Michael put his arm around him and brought him to play with the train set because he knew he liked trains. That was my son. Just two years old and already he had a big heart.
Pretty soon he started taking things I would say to him and say them back to me. Just a few weeks before he died, he was spooked by a dove sitting by the window and still shaken a few days later, I told him, “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.” A few days later we were talking about monsters, and I told him there weren’t any monsters. He looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, Mommy. I protect you.”
I couldn’t protect Michael from the system that failed him, but I can try to protect others whose lives are still at stake. As Americans, we need to reevaluate the system that puts thousands of lives at risk every day. My son was just two-years-old when his life was stolen. We need to do more to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
This piece is by Hollie Ayers. If you or anyone you know has been personally affected by gun violence and would like to share your story with Moms Demand Action, please email [email protected]