In her 63 years, Venida Browder absorbed more heartbreak than any one person should have to endure — but she refused to let it overwhelm her until the last, final loss of her son Kalief, her grieving family told the Daily News.
Browder, who died Oct. 14 after a series of heart attacks, never recovered from the shock of finding her 22-year-old son Kalief after he committed suicide in their Bronx home in June 2015, said daughter Nicole Linares, as the family prepared for their mother’s Saturday funeral.
“My mom was an amazing, amazing, beautiful soul,” said Venida’s married, 27-year-old daughter.
“She did not have a glamorous childhood. But she kept her heart so big, so full of love for all of us, I don’t know where any of us kids would be today without her,” Linares said.
Long before Kalief Browder’s tragic story — jailed at 16, three years spent at Rikers Island for want of $3,000 bail, often in solitary confinement, for the false allegation of stealing a backpack — forced his shy, stay-at-home mother into the national spotlight, Venida Browder was Venida Broadnax, the child of a single mother in Newport News, Va.
Venida, one of five children — two other sisters and two boys — cleaned houses as a girl to help her mom, who also made a living as a housekeeper. But loss came early for the family; Venida’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and the young girl was sent to live with an uncle.
Her two sisters died in a house fire.
The family relocated to New York, but hardship found them there, too. Herbert Broadnax, one of Venida’s two brothers, died in a freak accident on the Staten Island ferry in 1981. Back then, cars were allowed on the ferry, and Broadnax’s vehicle somehow fell into reverse — sending him plunging off the back of the boat and into the water, where he drowned. Her other brother, Sonny, moved to Texas.
By the time Herbert died, Venida had married Everett Browder, who worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority cleaning buses.
They had two sons, Shihahn, now 39, and Raheem now 34, — followed by two miscarriages, which the couple felt keenly.
“My mom wanted a lot of kids and she always said that she had wanted a daughter,” Linares said. “She was told she had two choices: risk more miscarriages, or adopt. So she adopted.”
Venida and Everett Browder added to their family with Akeem, then Nicole, Deion, now 25, Kamal, now 24, and finally Kalief, the youngest.
“Her legacy is her kids. She took us in, she took in everybody,” said Akeem Browder, 33.
By 2004 Venida was the head of a single-parent home, still surrounding her children with love and compassion.
“She had to raise us on her own, and she did it proudly,” Akeem Browder said.
Their mother excelled at hosting huge Thanksgiving and Christmas family dinners — filling the two-story home with people, savory smells and as many presents as she could afford.
“Our mom wiped our boo-boos, she comforted us when we cried. She cooked, cleaned and did our laundry — boy, did we give her a hard time with that — and when we acted out, she just never took it personally,” recalled Linares, who joined the family at 16 months old.
“I don’t know how she managed it, but if there was a doll I wanted or a present, she’d find a way to save money to get it,” she added. “My mom put us first, always.”
Venida’s escape from the occasional chaos was gardening, the family said. She tended her blooming rose bushes with fierce attention and adored fresh lilies and roses in the house.
During Kalief Browder’s incarceration, the stress wore on Venida — who needed stents put into her arteries to help her weakened heart, her family said. But she didn’t let that stop her from becoming an outspoken advocate for juvenile justice reform — demanding an end to solitary confinement for inmates under age 18.
Before charges against him were dismissed in 2013, Kalief spent 800 of his 1,000 days in solitary, Venida Browder said in a video interview for The Marshall Project.
“They’d tell him, ‘We’re going to break you.’ That’s what they told my baby, ‘We’re going to break you.’ And in reality, they did,” she said in the interview.
Venida Browder was home alone with Kalief on Saturday, June 5, 2015, when her son hanged himself from the second-story window using an air-conditioner cord.
“I miss my son. I miss him so much,” a teary Venida says in the final moment of the video.
Kalief had filed a $10 million false arrest and wrongful imprisonment lawsuit in 2013 over the crushing abuse he endured while in custody, and his parents picked up the legal battle after he died.
The city had also been put on notice that a $20 million wrongful death claim would be brought on Kalief’s behalf.
It was formally filed in the Bronx the day Venida Browder died, family lawyer Paul Prestia said.
Venida Browder’s heart was never fully in the legal battle, her daughter said.
“What she really wanted, all she truly wanted, was an apology,” Linares said. “As soon as my brother died, she just broke apart. She deteriorated in every way after he passed — physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.”
In the end, according to Akeem Browder, his mother suffered 11 heart attacks in a 24-hour period — falling into a coma after the first one at roughly 10:30 a.m. the day before she died. After an agonizing night, the family came to the conclusion they had to let her go.
“She kept on coming back, and we were thinking she was gonna defy (the odds) ... She wanted nothing more than for her kids to be at peace,” he said. “The last time ... they brought her back again ... we thought, ‘Enough was enough.’ ”Send a Letter to the Editor