Her Sister’s Keeper

In Chicago, tragedy touches even the most celebrated families. But Dwyane Wade’s mother and aunt have learned that hope can follow despair

The sound of distant police sirens drowns out the first notes of gospel music as Jolinda Wade’s extended family hurries inside the church. There have been 19 shootings in Chicago this winter weekend, and the family’s chapel has become a safe haven on the city’s far southern edge. An usher guards the door, on the lookout for gang members. A sign near the entryway reads: put the guns down.

Jolinda, 62, steps to the pulpit and looks out at her small congregation of friends and family members, a group shaped in many ways by Chicago’s gun violence. There, offering a welcome prayer, is a great-nephew who survived being shot twice while buying a snack at a convenience store. There, asleep in the back, is a 5-month-old baby already orphaned by gunfire. And there, standing in the far corner of the church, is Jolinda’s sister Diann Aldridge, 64, whom Jolinda worries about most of all.

“It’s not like this violence just came knocking at our door,” Jolinda preaches. “It kicked our door down.”

The church was purchased for Jolinda by her famous son, Dwyane Wade, who left the Miami Heat in the summer of 2016 and returned to his native Chicago to find a family and a city in crisis. There were 787 homicides in Chicago last year, according to the Chicago Tribune, the most in two decades and far more than the total for New York and Los Angeles combined. No one is exempt from the gun epidemic here, not even members of one of the city’s most well-known families.

Pastor Wade preaching at New Creation Binding and Loosing Ministries in Chicago, IL.

Ryan Lowry for ESPN

Now Jolinda paces the aisles of the church as she preaches, bouncing on her toes with excitement, punching her hands against the air and stopping to wipe sweat off her forehead with a towel. She looks out often at older sister Diann, who stands still and quiet in the back. The two of them have always been tight, a bond that helps form the backbone of both their church and their close-knit extended family. Diann was the first person Jolinda had ever saved—“my pillar, my strength, my spiritual goddaughter,” Jolinda once called her—and now in some ways Jolinda feels as if she is trying to save Diann again.

Twice in the past 19 years, Diann has had to identify the body of a child killed by gunfire. After her first daughter was killed, in 1998, Diann left the morgue and ultimately went back to the trap houses of south Chicago, hoping to numb her pain with drugs and alcohol. She spent more than a decade getting high, she says, “searching for something that might make the hurt go away.” Then, last summer, she’d been called back to the morgue, and now she’s come to her sister’s church searching for answers to painful questions.

She sways in the back row with four grandchildren who are hers to raise, trying to quiet the baby as Jolinda preaches.

“This is our issue now,” Jolinda says, walking through the pews toward Diann. “All of us have been hurt. All of us will rebuild together.”

An Undefeated Conversation: Athletes, Responsibility and Violence

For decades, it had been Diann who worked to rescue younger sister Jolinda. They had grown up sharing a bedroom in a small rental house on the South Side of Chicago, two of nine children raised by their mother during the ravages of the drug war. All nine siblings eventually became addicts, but none fell quite as fast as Jolinda: from cheap wine, on to marijuana, on to cocaine, on to heroin. Meanwhile, the youngest of her four children, Dwyane, was born in 1982, around the time Jolinda began selling drugs herself. By the time he turned 8, Jolinda was failing to pay rent and trading the family’s monthly food stamp allotment to support her drug habit. She sent Dwyane to live with his father across town, then began disappearing herself.

“There were whole months when she was kind of lost to the streets,” Diann says. “I didn’t know where she was or if she was dead or alive. I would get a tip and then go off searching.”

Sometimes Diann would find Jolinda in jail or in a halfway house. Other times she would find her sister living among addicts and prostitutes in the foreclosed homes their brother helped manage on behalf of a property company. When Jolinda was dope sick and in withdrawal, Diann gave her money for another $10 bag so she could function through the day. “That kept me from ever having to start prostituting for money,” Jolinda says. “She helped save me from all of that.”

Diann Wade

Ryan Lowry for ESPN

The two sisters would sit together, drink and talk about their problems. Jolinda was always cycling through her feelings of shame and regret over the ways in which she had failed Dwyane, whom she rarely saw as he moved into high school. He was becoming a basketball star, known throughout the city, and his successes only magnified her sense of failure and grief. “He was this great kid, and I didn’t even get to see how he grew into that,” she says. Diann, meanwhile, was a high-functioning addict, mostly a drinker, and she had managed to help look after her siblings and her own three daughters while holding jobs at a call center and as a home health aide. “She is a protector,” Jolinda says.“There were some feelings of, ‘If she can manage to help take care of her kids even as an addict, how come I can’t?’ It was a reminder of the love that other people had and I felt like I didn’t deserve.”

And then, in 1998, Diann got a phone call about her oldest daughter, LaTonda—beautiful, stylish, 27 years old and just recently married to a Chicago Housing Authority official named Marvin King. Neighbors had heard gunshots at LaTonda’s apartment, a noise so commonplace in that part of the city that nobody had bothered to call police until King failed to show up for work the next day. When officers came to investigate, they concluded that LaTonda had been shot by her husband, who had then turned the gun on himself in a murder-suicide. When Diann arrived at her daughter’s apartment, the crime scene was still so bloody she couldn’t bring herself to step inside. She asked a friend to sort through LaTonda’s belongings, then left most of the funeral arrangements to relatives.

“I got lost in my madness for a long while,” she says. “I would drink until I had little blackouts. I wanted that relief of just thinking about nothing.”

Something about seeing her older sister so broken made Jolinda want to get clean. She wanted to rebuild her relationships with her own children and help take care of Diann. Jolinda went into a rehab program in the late 1990s but relapsed. She turned herself in to police again in 2001, and this time she stayed clean of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes while in jail. She studied the Bible in her cell, devoted herself to ministry and then began pastoring to her earliest congregant, Diann. Jolinda gave her sister a Bible and taught her to pray. She brought Diann into the church that Dwyane paid for in 2008 and put her in charge of its charity programs. The two sisters began meeting regularly to talk about grief, religion, new beginnings and forgiveness.

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, left, and his mother Jolinda Wade, center, and pastor LaDell Jones cut of the ribbon during the Opening Day Celebration of their new church edifice at the Temple of Praise Church on Sunday, May 18, 2008 in Chicago.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Eventually Diann began to feel a little less angry about LaTonda’s death, a little lighter, and with that clarity came a revelation: For her, a new beginning meant leaving Chicago. She moved to the suburb of Justice, Illinois, then began asking her two surviving daughters to move too.

“It’s just not safe around here anymore,” she remembers telling them.

Solutions are rarely so simple on the economic margins of Chicago. Diann’s youngest daughter, Nykea, was a single mother of three children, with a fourth on the way. Her health aide job paid minimum wage. She was stuck living with her family in the one place she could afford: Parkway Gardens, a housing project of 35 buildings where Michelle Obama had spent her earliest years.

It was known as “O Block,” and it was the location of several shootings each year. But the violence also had its own sort of order, and Nykea had built a routine around keeping her children, ages 12, 11 and 9, safe. She made sure they stayed inside the apartment after dark, when drug dealers started roaming near the project’s playground. She took the children across town to stay at her sister’s house on the weekends, when gang violence was at its worst.

Diann herself didn’t like to visit O Block, and she kept asking Nykea to move. Eventually, Nykea agreed: “I’m done with this mess,” she told her mother early last summer.

Nykea had tried to apply for Section 8 housing in a safer neighborhood of Chicago, but the waitlist could sometimes stretch on for 15 years. So instead, Diann drove Nykea out of the city and continued three hours south, all the way to Indianapolis. They toured a Section 8 condo with new hardwood floors and a two-car garage. The city felt quiet. The neighborhood looked safe. Nykea took dozens of photos on her phone and filled out a Section 8 application. Then she came home to Chicago and waited for her clearance to move.

But the paperwork took time to process, and the move kept getting delayed. Nykea gave birth to her fourth child, daughter Da’Kota, in early August and later that month decided to re-enroll her kids in Chicago’s schools. One afternoon, she loaded the baby into the stroller and took a trip toward the school’s main office. Two convicted felons came running down the street with guns, chasing and allegedly firing at someone else in the neighborhood. A stray round hit Nykea in the arm. Another shot hit her in the head.

Diann got a phone call from a family member minutes after the shooting while at home in the suburbs. She started heading back toward the city but couldn’t maintain enough focus to drive. A friend met her at a gas station and took her the rest of the way. As they drove, Diann called Jolinda, who had been busy in recent weeks helping her own son, Dwyane, move back to Chicago into a 19th-century mansion on the city’s Gold Coast. Diann was confused and talking fast on the phone. She didn’t yet know whether Nykea was injured or dead, and Jolinda tried to calm her down.

Jolinda headed to the hospital and called her son from the road. Wade had already learned about the shooting on Twitter. Nykea was a year younger than Dwyane, and he had often listened to her read her poems or screenplays at the family’s annual reunion, during which everyone was required to perform.

“Another act of senseless gun violence,” Wade tweeted about his cousin as he made plans to return home. “4 kids lost their mom for NO REASON. Unreal.”

By late that afternoon, a few dozen family members had gathered in the hospital waiting room even though they suspected Nykea was dead. A doctor came out to confirm. Then two police officers asked Diann whether she wanted to go see her daughter. Diann began to follow them, then stopped. “Wait,” she said. She gestured back at Jolinda, then turned to the police. “I want her to come with me.”

The officers led the two sisters back to a small hospital room in a ritual that had become routine in Chicago, where 96 people had been killed that August, the highest monthly total for the city in two decades. The officers told Diann not to look at her daughter’s face, but she did anyway. They told her not to remove the bandage on her forehead, but Diann reached over and pushed the bandage back.

“All the weight in my legs went out from under me,” she says. “I couldn’t move. I just dropped.”

Jolinda tried to lift her off the floor, and soon a nurse came in to help load Diann into a wheelchair. Jolinda attempted to console her, whispering prayers into her ear about God’s plan, but Diann didn’t seem to hear. She was lost in her own head, disoriented and overwhelmed. She kept repeating the same phrase over and over as if in a trance.

“Please, not again,” she said.

Now it is five months and 355 homicides since Nykea’s death, but in some ways Diann is still every bit as overwhelmed and disoriented as she was at the hospital. She has taken over care of Nykea’s four children—“the only option and the best option,” Diann says—and together they’ve worked to forge new lives on the outskirts of Chicago. The children have squeezed into Diann’s two-bedroom house, into her creaky old Chevy sedan, into new schools in the suburbs. “Just jamming everybody in,” Diann says.

Diann shares a room with the baby, waking up to feed her four times each night and then sometimes lying awake as doubts crowd her head: Do the children need a grief counselor? Has she signed them up for the right summer camps? Is the baby doing OK on formula? And how, at 64, can she summon the emotional energy to raise four more children when two of her own are dead?

Diann Wade and her grandchildren in her car at New Creation Binding and Loosing Ministries in Chicago, IL.

Ryan Lowry for ESPN

It is too much to process, and so late one wintry day she drops the children off at school and continues driving with the baby into Chicago, to her sister’s church. It is the place where she feels most at peace and where she finds the person who understands her best. Diann has never seen a professional counselor, but ever since Nykea’s death she has come a few times each week to talk to Jolinda at her church office.

“How you doing, sis?” Jolinda says now.

“I can’t get Nykea out of my mind some days,” Diann says. “When [LaTonda] died, it was a hazy blur. Now I feel everything.”

“It hurts, don’t it?” Jolinda says.

They sit down next to each other in the empty pews. The church is quiet as Diann rocks the baby against her chest.

“At least this time I can process it. I can forgive,” she says.

“That’s right!” Jolinda says, punching her hand against the air. “And we have the strength to do something.”

For the past few months, they’ve worked obsessively to make Nykea’s death into a turning point for Chicago. Her killing—and the subsequent indictment of two brothers for the crime, Darwin Jr. and Derren Sorrells—became one of the city’s biggest news stories of 2016, resulting in promises of greater police presence from the mayor and tweets from then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. “This could be our family’s biggest contribution right here,” Jolinda said in the weeks after Nykea’s death, and everyone in the family had taken on a role.

Jolinda had written a rap about gun violence and invited gang members into the church to discuss a neighborhood peace treaty. Wade had partnered with the Bulls during home games to honor Chicago students who had overcome the city’s violence. Diann had given an interview to CNN as Jolinda sat nearby for support. “I truly try,” Diann had said, between sobs, “from the bottom of my heart—I forgive them. They’ve taken a person’s life senselessly. And I just love them.”

The family’s most ambitious effort in memory of Nykea is to expand Jolinda’s church into a state-of-the-art community center for at-risk children. The building’s huge hallways lead to empty rooms and unfinished space, and architects have developed plans that reflect the vision the family has for the church. A few weeks after Nykea’s death, Jolinda invited the city to a “soft opening” of the center, hoping to generate some fundraising momentum. Hundreds of children were bused to the church. Nickelodeon provided waterslides and video games. Several politicians put on hard hats and followed Wade for a tour of the empty rooms, where loose wires still ran across the floor. One room was supposed to become a basketball court. Another would be a recording studio. Others would become theaters, culinary institutes and classrooms, Wade explained.

“In memory of Nykea,” Diann told the group.

“We can save lives here,” the mayor said.

“A model for Chicago,” a senator said.

“The turning point,” Jolinda said.

The obituary for Diann Alridge’s daughter, Nykea.

Ryan Lowry for ESPN

But now, as they sit in the pews four months later, the church looks just as it had before. Diann and Jolinda are still waiting on fundraising money, on architectural plans, on a callback from the mayor’s office. On some nights, lying alone in bed, Diann wonders: Would she ever experience any true form of relief from her pain? No matter how many ways she has tried to escape her grief—with blackout drinking, with prayer, with work and forgiveness—all that sadness waits on the edges, ready to come rushing back. “You can work ’til you’re tired and do as much as you can, but when you stop to catch your breath, the reality is still the same,” she tells her sister.

“For our family, it’s all about Romans 12:2,” Jolinda says. “‘Do not be conformed to this world but be … ’”

Diann interrupts: “‘ … transformed by the renewal of your mind.’”

“Yes!” Jolinda says. She reaches out and grabs her sister by the shoulder. “That’s our story.”

“It’s true,” Diann says, sounding more convinced.

They lean against each other in the pew, two sisters who’ve supported each other through one transformation after the next. Diann grabs the baby and stands up from the pew. “We’re going to be fine,” she says.

The two sisters make plans to meet back at the church in a few days, then hug goodbye. Jolinda heads downtown to see her son before a road trip. Diann packs the baby into the car and starts driving out of the South Side, back to her house, away from Chicago.

Eli Saslow is a Washington Post staff writer, ESPN contributor and author of Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President.