Aaron’s 18th birthday was one of the hardest for Renee Garcia. She’d known that soon he would fly the nest and embark on a bright path without her by his side. This was the year her boy was supposed to become a man.
The toughest part about that day was knowing he’d never have that chance.
“The bitterness of not knowing who he’d be, what he could have been — it kills me,” she said. “It honestly does kill me because it was taken away from me. And even though I took my power back, I still have that hole in my heart.”
Five birthdays have passed since Aaron Kelly Jr. — or “Bubba” as his friends called him — died in front of Renee despite a swarm of doctors frantically trying to save his life. And with each passing year, she is haunted by more questions than answers.
“Would he be a doctor? Would he be a lawyer? Would he be an architect? Would he have kids? Would he have gone down the wrong path?” she said. “Not knowing is what gets me.”
Something wasn’t right
Aaron died when he was only 13.
In February 2008, his two sisters, 10-year-old Marisa and 8-year-old Alana, his mom, her boyfriend John, and a few other family members and friends were at Louis Park in Stockton, a spot they’d always held family gatherings on sunny afternoons.
Like always, the kids were down by the water, running around, fishing, asking Renee if she wanted to play a game.
But through the trees, Renee watched four men approach — and something wasn’t right.
One had a red bandanna tied around his head. Another had something bulky tucked away in his waistband. When the four men got closer, everyone saw that each was armed.
Renee grabbed her kids and loaded them into her van. With all three in the back, she ran to the driver’s seat and started to drive away. But when Renee’s foot hit the gas, the battle began.
In the days to come, Renee learned that those bullets were meant for her boyfriend’s son, a rival gang member of the four men. But instead, Renee and Aaron were caught in the crossfire. One bullet pierced her car. It grazed Renee’s arm, ricocheted and struck Aaron under his left arm.
Holding her wound, Renee drove to the hospital, running stop signs and red lights, while Marisa and Alana held Aaron in their arms, pleading him to hang on. He was quickly losing consciousness. His life was slipping away.
He never uttered a word, aside from looking at Renee and saying, “Mom, I think I’ve been hit.”
When they reached the hospital, doctors put Renee and Aaron in adjacent beds. And for Renee, the memories in that room are more vivid than any others from that day.
“That forever stays with me, what I went through at that point,” she said. “That’s when I can say my life just changed.”
Praying for the right words
Renee could never find the right words to say. She’d sit outside, beneath the sun, write a few lines and then decide to start again. She agonized over that speech, but eventually knew it was something she couldn’t script.
It had to come from the heart.
“I just prayed that morning for God to give me the right words to say,” she said.
She stood in front of the court and stared at each of the four men — Deandre Cole, 18, Michael Garduno, 20, Rattany Uy, 18, and the ringleader, Chanreamey Prum, 23 — and thought about what to say.
Aaron was too young to have experienced many of life’s milestones. He was never going to drive a car, graduate from high school, get married, have children of his own.
He was robbed of those opportunities.
“It’s the last thing you get to tell them,” Renee said. “You get to pour your heart out and tell them how you made me feel — what you’ve taken from me, what you’ve done to my family.”
Renee told the defendants that they didn’t just end Aaron’s life, they ended their own.
Renee told them that they were so young. They’ve done this to themselves. And for what? One second of revenge?
There was so much Renee wanted to say. For almost two years, she’d been a prisoner to those four men and what they did to her son. There were countless nights she couldn’t sleep, and plenty of days she never rose out of bed.
She suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, diagnosed not long after Aaron was killed, but refused any medication. She wanted to feel everything, all the pain. It was so great that she tried to kill herself in 2009.
But in that courtroom, in that moment, she wasn’t going to let them win anymore.
“I’m taking my power back today,” she told the defendants. “You’re not getting the best of me.”
“And I didn’t let them get the best of me,” she said. “They got my son, but they weren’t going to get the best of me.”
‘I still have a hole in my heart’
Renee doesn’t visit Aaron’s grave. But she’ll often go to Louis Park, where a plaque in front of a bench and tree bears Aaron’s name.
They sit at a point in the park that overlooks the Delta and a harbor where boats meander nearby. Atop the grassy knoll, Renee can sit on the bench and still see the spot by the water where Aaron would play with his sisters and fish for whatever would bite their line.
And during the day, she can watch the sun traverse the sky and never leave her sight.
“I feel like he’s shining down on me there,” she said.
Those thoughts, the light, make for the good days. But there’s still so many times Renee slips into the dark.
It’s been more than five years, and that image of watching her son die has never left.
“I suffer all of the trauma,” she said. “But I also suffer the pain of watching my son die before my eyes.”
Renee feels that sometimes that day in court gave her closure. But other times it did not. She wants to visit those four men in prison and tell them that living in a 6-by-6-foot cell is nothing compared to knowing that memories of Aaron are all she has left.
“Even though I took my power back, I still have that hole in my heart and think about who he’d be today,” she said.
Renee’s made sure Aaron lives on in her community. Every year at Louis Park, she holds Aaron Kelly Jr.’s Day in the Park to raise awareness about the consequences of gang violence. She speaks with young children, at risk of joining gangs, and uses her son’s story to change lives.
But Renee can’t always be the determined mother that everyone sees.
“People think I’m so strong and such a source of strength, but as a mother, you have to be strong,” she said. “I have my days where I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to function, I don’t want to talk to anybody. You feel like your world is just black. But you find the strength to know you have to keep going.”
On sunny afternoons Renee will walk along the grass by the water’s edge, her son on her mind. Many days are still bleak. But as she watches the light glimmer off the Delta, she finds the words to pull through.
“Every time I get to that point where I want to give up, I remember my son telling me to keep going,” she said. “Do not let them get the best of you.”
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.