WASHINGTON -- At any other time her name would likely be forgotten as just another of the estimated eight mothers a day in the U.S. who lose a child to gun violence.
But since her daughter Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed a week after performing in President Barack Obama's second inauguration, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton has drawn the spotlight rather than become a statistic. As a byproduct of the political moment in which her tragedy took place, she serves as a reminder of the consequences of legislative inaction.
On Thursday morning, Cowley-Pendleton played that role again. The same day that the two men charged with murdering her daughter in Chicago pleaded not guilty, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to echo the president's plea for lawmakers to move a package of gun policy reforms forward.
During a press availability in the West Wing with about two dozen reporters, she was asked how she balanced her personal grief with her political activism.
"How do I process waking up to an empty bed where my 15-year-old was? That's difficult," she said, measuring her words with care. "This is difficult as well, but I'm making sense of it. I've always been strong-willed and determined and all those other great things."
"I just want to –- I'm just determined to be a help to someone else," she continued. "I feel my grief. There is nothing I can do to bring my 15-year-old back. I love her more than words can ever express, more then the amount of tears I can show, or scream, or yell. My right has been taken from me to continue raising her. That's disheartening. It's awful. You will hear me and other mothers that have been affected by an unexpected loss like this say that we don't want anyone else to feel the same. I mean that when I say that."
A sense of desperation could be heard in her voice. It wasn't just because the follow-up questions centered on her level of "frustration" over the current pace of legislative activity. Nor was it because cynics have begun referring to her and others as a human shield for the administration's gun policy push. It was because she had just met more than a dozen mothers who had lost children to gun violence around the same time her own daughter died.
"It shouldn't have to affect you directly before it matters," she said. "The laws that are currently being scrutinized, they are just common sense. My 10-year-old can understand what we are requesting. I don't understand the hold up."
Outside of the victims of the December shootings in Newtown, Conn., Cowley-Pendleton's has become the defining story of the current gun control movement. When her daughter was murdered in Chicago's Harsh Park on Jan. 29, shortly after taking final exams, the story ricocheted across Washington. The tragedy became a topic of the daily White House press briefings. Cowley-Pendleton received calls and condolences from civil rights leaders and political figures. She was invited to attend the president's State of the Union address as the first lady's guest. The two were photographed standing side by side as Obama demanded that Congress, at the very least, vote on his proposed package of reforms.
On Thursday morning, Obama referenced Hadiya's story again, reminding viewers that while the memories of Newtown may have faded, the scourge of gun-related deaths has not.
"It’s been barely 100 days since 20 innocent children and six brave educators were taken from us by gun violence," he said. "That agony burns deep in the families of thousands -- thousands of Americans who have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun over these last 100 days, including Hadiya Pendleton, who was killed on her way to school less than two months ago, and whose mom is also here today. Everything they lived for and hoped for, taken away in an instant."
Cowley-Pendleton's advocacy for gun reform isn't a solitary effort. She has joined the group Moms Demand Action, which launched in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting and already claims 80,000 members. The group received 24 hours' notice to send members down to D.C. for the president's Thursday remarks. Several carpooled together from New York; Cowley-Pendleton, with her son, came in from Chicago.
"I've always been a talker," she told The Huffington Post about her decision to play a more public advocacy role. She was the lone individual without an official role in the organization to address reporters after the event ended.
"Maybe I'm the voice for people who otherwise don't have the energy to move beyond themselves when something like this occurs," she said. "I don’t know why I'm able to stand up, formulate words and talk and try to provoke a movement or change. But the fact that I can do that, I accept and I'm just going to do the job."