Andrea Drayton woke up Sunday to a mother’s worst nightmare when her phone buzzed with a text message: Her daughter Deonka was at a club in Orlando, there was gunfire and Drayton needed to come to Florida fast.
Drayton, her husband, Shepherd, son Shepherd III and daughter Alexia piled into the family car and began an excruciating early morning journey from Eastover, South Carolina to Orlando, where a gunman had opened fire at a gay nightclub in an attack that left 49 victims and the killer dead.
Drayton called the friend of her daughter’s who had sent the text. The friend said “a bomb went off.”
“I couldn’t understand what she meant with that,” Drayton recalled, realizing later it was a police explosive used to distract the shooter.
The family found only chaos when they arrived in Orlando on Sunday afternoon. They called hospitals. They asked police and others if they had seen 32-year-old Deonka Drayton. They held up pictures of her. Nothing.
They found their way to a senior center set up a few blocks from the Pulse nightclub for families who couldn’t find their loved ones.
Finally, around 10 p.m. on Sunday, they were among the first families to hear. Deonka was among the dead.
Anger, sadness and disbelief welled up inside them.
They went back to their small hotel room with a view of a busy freeway. They carried Deonka’s black book bag with them. Inside was her Bible, stuffed with scribbled notes about Jesus and questions about life.
The family talked and cried and discussed the anger they all felt.
Days later, on Wednesday night, as they waited for Deonka’s body to be released to them so they could take her home to South Carolina, they forgave.
“We forgive the shooter. We talked about it,” said Deonka’s father, a pastor who runs a nonprofit that helps the poor and elderly. “Hatred will find a way to destroy you, so we forgive the shooter. It wasn’t very hard to do. Anger was in me and there was no place to release it. Forgiveness was the way to release it.”
Deonka, whom the family called Dee Dee, had struggled through some hard times in her life but was starting to find happiness, the family said.
A devoutly religious couple from a town of just over 800 people outside of Columbia, Deonka’s parents struggled with their daughter’s homosexuality at times. But the bond of family endured.
“We loved her for who she was,” her mother said.
The family was so close, Deonka had her little sister Alexia’s name tattooed on her arm.
Deonka’s brother, 25-year-old Shepherd III, said he spent hours reading his sister’s poems and was always impressed with her profound intelligence.
Sitting on the hotel room bed, 15-year-old Alexia riffled through her sister’s Bible and remembered her smile, her choppy laugh that everyone noticed. They talked all the time, shared funny videos and had the same favorite color: blue.
“It was her goal to go to school. She didn’t have a chance to do everything she wanted to do,” Alexia said, “and now I want to do it for her.”
Kelli Kennedy contributed to this report from Miami.