The memories they share surface both laughter and tears in Mary Johnson-Roy. They tell the story of her remarkable life.
Her friend, Brian Mogren, scrolls through old photos of Mary on his laptop, while he and several moms sit around the table and help fill in the rest: Here you are shaking hands with Obama. This is you and the prince of Jordan. Here we are at the cabin for that retreat. Remember the time you were in Essence magazine?
Most of the pictures kindle a recollection in Mary, but others do not.
"Wow," she says, again and again, as if even she can't believe the depth and reach of her impact on the world.
Mary's story, after all, is incredible. Her only child, 20-year-old Laramiun Byrd, was fatally shot in 1993 by a 16-year-old boy. Twelve years later, Johnson-Roy went to the prison to meet the person who killed her son. Not only did she forgive Oshea Israel, but she began to love him like her own. For a time they even lived next door to each other. When Mary got married, Oshea helped walked her down the aisle.
But now many of the details have dimmed in Mary's mind. Nearly two years ago, doctors diagnosed Lewy body dementia. The disease has stolen some of her light, but Mary's community is determined to slow that decline.
Family and friends, including mothers of murdered children, started regular social visits that they call Thursdays With Mary (a play on "Tuesdays With Morrie"), which have now extended to Saturdays. They pray, listen to music and remind her of her happiest days.
"There are times she gets on a roll," Brian says, recalling Mary's more lucid moments. "Older memories are easier than recent ones. We are now the ones helping her remember the details — to be her memory for her."
Mary's Minnesota-made tale of forgiveness and reconciliation traveled around the globe. As arduous as it was for her, she shared it generously, in churches and synagogues as well as prisons and dental offices, often alongside Oshea, who was released from prison in 2010 after serving 17 years.
"She loved telling our story. You'd see the light in her, but you'd see the pain, as well," Oshea said. "She had such a great spirit, where conversations go a long way.
"I miss talking to the person I could harass," he added with a laugh, thinking about their good-natured ribbing. "Now she's been robbed of it. It's like watching a parent or grandparent go through it. It tears you up inside because you're used to seeing them the way they were."
A conversation between Mary and Oshea that aired on NPR's StoryCorps recounted how at their first interaction in the prison, she crumpled in his arms, sobbing, after he had asked for a hug.
"After you left the room," she recalled for the recording, "I began to say: 'I just hugged the man that murdered my son.' And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for you — I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you."
But how did she do it? When I asked Mary this question recently, she still knew the answer.
"God woke me up and said, 'I want you to forgive,' " says Mary, who turns 71 on Mother's Day. "I know people think I'm crazy. But God talks. He speaks. 'I want you to forgive.' What could I say? I sure wasn't going to say no to God."
Another mom, Princess Titus, senses I am waiting for further explanation. "If you're looking for something more from Mary, you ain't gonna get more than, 'That's what God said,' or 'You need to go pray,' " Princess says. "Mary's legacy is one of simplicity: It's faith and forgiveness."
Healing the two sides of homicide
The gatherings take place at St. Jane House, a colorful, sunlight-drenched home on the North Side sponsored by the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis. The retreat center has served as home base of From Death to Life, the organization Mary founded in 2005 to heal families ravaged by gun violence.
Mary cozies up under a blanket and is able to converse. She has her rough days, too, though — like the night she screamed in her sleep because she was convinced animals were crawling up her bedroom wall. A GoFundMe account has been set up at bit.ly/42xLYt8 to contribute to her care after her many years of her showing up for others.
As part of From Death to Life, Mary convened the Two Mothers healing groups, creating a space for mothers who lost children to homicide. Over the years, they grieved and accepted one another, without judgment, trading stories about their child's favorite foods and what it was like to give birth to them. They hosted gospel jazz events and held remembrances of life in which they'd pin pictures of their children to a tree.
Forgiveness, while modeled by Mary, isn't foisted upon everyone.
"I'm not at that point yet," says Ebony Robinson, who started attending the group last year. Her son, Andre Riley Jr., was killed in 2016. "I pray to be one day, to free myself and my mind. ... Me and my family, we are stuck hurting."
Mary also brought together mothers who lost sons to prison for taking another person's life. Sometimes the two groups met, in hopes of building empathy and peace and bridging the two sides of homicide.
Back in 2006, one of the people who heard Mary speak on a Sunday in church was Ed Roy. Two months earlier his only son, Mandel, was shot and killed, and Ed was angry and craved revenge. Moved by her story, he walked up to her and asked if he could join her healing group, even though it was for mothers. "Anytime," she responded. "Pain is pain. Grief is grief."
Their friendship, born of the same heartache, blossomed into love. He reminds Mary of the day of his epiphany. "I said, 'I'm gonna marry you. You're the one.' You said, 'Not on this planet! You don't even know how to fix a car.' "
Recalling that exchange, they burst into laughter.
"We've had 10 years of friendship, and going on eight years of being married," Ed tells her. "I told you life with me would never be dull."
The thing about Mary is that the people she's touched have paid her love forward. Ed runs a program that brings together victims and offenders. He's written letters to one of his son's killers, even sending him canteen money during his incarceration. "I felt like he was my son," Ed says, his voice quivering. "He'd share with me some things, and I'd tell him to hold on and stay well. It was like letting my son live through him."
Mary asks to see a picture of Laramiun. Brian goes upstairs and brings down a large framed picture of him. Laramiun is just a boy in elementary school, frozen in time, with a gorgeous smile that causes Mary to melt. Her fingers caress his face as she breaks down in tears.
A disease can pilfer memories from the brain, but it cannot cheat a mother out of the love for her child that she feels deep in her bones.
Ed and Brian let her have this moment. The people in Mary's corner will continue reminding her of the faces, figures, connections and occasions in her life. They'll keep her memory alive.