July Fourth at the Toomer-Tyson household last year started out like any of the family’s holiday gatherings.
Music played in the background as Paulette Thorpe and her siblings, cousins and other relatives sat around in the backyard and told jokes over plates of steaks, burgers and hot dogs. On that particular afternoon, Thorpe, 74, was trying to get into one of her several Facebook accounts.
“She had 13 Facebook pages because she could never keep her password straight,” her nephew Carlos Lyons recalls with a chuckle. “She had recently just brought her phone to me, walked over and gave me her phone, like, “Can you fix this phone for me so I can get on Facebook?”
“We were just laughing and joking, having a good time like a big family, that’s what we do every holiday,” Lyons says.
Throughout the afternoon, Thorpe and her family could hear an unending chorus of fireworks, and in between them, they heard people in the surrounding neighborhood firing their guns in the air amid the celebratory fervor of Independence Day.
“We didn’t know how close they were but you could hear them,” Lyons says.
The incessant fireworks and gunshots were making Thorpe nervous, and by the evening, she decided to leave. Hours later, Lyons was home lying down when he got a call from his cousin Christopher, asking whether he heard what happened to their aunt.
Sitting on a friend’s porch that night on Burlington Avenue in Durham, Thorpe was fatally struck by a stray bullet.
Lyons said in an interview after a memorial for Thorpe that her death from the same celebratory gunfire she was worried about that day was especially devastating.
“The one thing she left us to get away from was the thing that killed her,” he said. “That’s what makes it hard.”
Approximately 50 friends and family gathered at Beechwood Cemetery on Sunday afternoon to mark the one year anniversary of Thorpe’s death and celebrate her life. After an opening prayer, Thorpe’s siblings and cousins spoke about how much they missed her, recalling her “infectious laughter” and telling stories of their time together.
They brought blue and white balloons — colors chosen in honor of Thorpe’s lifelong love for the Dallas Cowboys. Toward the end of the memorial, they released the dozens of balloons into the sky.
Standing around her headstone, Thorpe’s friends and family urged the community to be more careful with “how you celebrate” this July Fourth holiday weekend. On Friday, the Durham Police Department released a brief public service announcement warning residents not to fire their guns in the air this weekend.
In addition to causing serious injury or loss of life, the department reminded Durham residents that getting caught firing a gun in the air can result in being charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor and a fine of up to $500.
Lyons said he was happy to help the department produce the PSA by providing images of Thorpe with her family. A year later, police have yet to charge anyone in connection with her death, but Lyons said he doesn’t fault the department for not being able to identify the person responsible.
“We just want somebody to be held accountable. We’re not a hateful family, we don’t hate the person,” Lyons said. “I mean, we are hurt, but we have already forgiven them. We just want answers.”
Having lived in Durham for many years, Lyons said it was common to hear people firing guns in the air on holidays like Independence Day and Christmas.
“I don’t know why people are using them to celebrate, but you hear it all the time,” he said.
He recently moved to a more quiet neighborhood, but as soon as he’s back in Durham, Lyons can hear the celebratory gunshots. While he and his family were remembering his aunt, Lyons said he could hear the sound of gunshots in the distance.
While Lyons is hopeful people celebrating will think twice before they lift their guns, he knows that for some, shooting bullets into the sky is “just the norm.”
“Until you see something like this happen to your own family, you won’t take it seriously,” he said. “Or until one of your loved ones goes to jail behind it.”