“That was such a horrific thing that happened to her. I don’t know if we’ll ever get over that. We try to take one day at a time, but each comes with tears and sadness.”
Editor’s Note: Everybody has a story. GG’s House is a three-part series that tells the story of one woman, Irene “GG” Alexander, who has spent her life caring for her family, children from her neighborhood, and anyone in need of a helping hand. In 2020, her family was marred by death and violence. Now the Madison community is giving back to her in a big way. The final two stories in the series include: GG’s House, Part 1: A Murder, a Photo, and a Family Shattered and GG’s House, Part 2: Her Life Is One of Giving.
Irene “GG” Alexander takes a break from packing to sit down on her couch, one of the few remaining spots left to sit in her living room.
The previous day, GG received a call from Michael Johnson, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. She was given three days to pack up a lifetime worth of memories.
In 2020, those memories were marred by death and violence.
“He said he wanted to give me a home makeover. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I couldn’t believe it,’” said the 67-year-old, who has lived in her Madison northside home since 1999. “He knew what we had been going through, starting with my great-granddaughter’s death and then my husband’s death.”
GG’s family has lost five family members in 2020. Three were within the span of three months, starting with the shooting death of her great-granddaughter, 11-year-old Anisa Scott in August; the death of her younger brother, Robert Brown, less than three weeks later on Labor Day; and the loss of her husband, Patrick Alexander, a man she first met when she was 13, to cancer on Nov. 9.
“When I look at what Ms. Irene went through this year? That’s five people she lost in a matter of months. And how her grand-baby was killed and then I watched that video of Anisa praying at 7 years old, praying for gun violence to cease and desist, and she ended up losing her life that way,” Johnson said. “I just felt compelled to do something.”
The tragic death of GG’s great-granddaughter drew national attention. Anisa was shot in the head on Aug. 11 while a passenger in her mother’s boyfriend’s car. They were on their way to the mall and picking up lunch. Anisa never regained consciousness. Three men have been arrested in connection to her death.
The family was overwhelmed with support in the days following Anisa’s death. They received sympathy cards from people in Alaska, California, and Canada. GG’s front porch was flooded with flowers. “I don’t even know all these people or how they even knew my address,” she says.
On her memory pole on the corner of Lexington and East Washington streets is a medal left by someone who competed in a “Strides for Peace Race Against Gun Violence” race and a note reading, “Rest in power Anisa. I run for you. Love, Stephanie.” The family has no idea who Stephanie is.
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called to express her condolences and to say the city was outraged over the incident. A memorial service, arranged by Johnson, was held at Breese Stevens Field. Several thousand people attended.
“It’s so hard. And I don’t downplay anybody’s losses. Everybody misses their loved ones. But this child …,” says GG, her voice trailing off. “That was such a horrific thing that happened to her. I don’t know if we’ll ever get over that. We try to take one day at a time, but each comes with tears and sadness.”
The depth of the entire family’s loss and the lingering toll of gun violence becomes clear when Anisa’s 6-year-old sister, Anija Ragland, walks toward GG sitting on the couch, a 12-by-12-inch canvas photo of her sister clutched in her hands.
Spend enough time with the family and you’ll realize Anisa still goes everywhere the family goes.
The Girl in the Photo
The girl smiling from the canvas has braided dark hair, and walnut-colored eyes. Her face is surrounded by a halo of stars.
“I kiss it in the morning, just like I would do every day to her,” Anisa’s mom, 29-year-old Ashley Rios, says of the photo of Anisa. “I still talk to her. We include her in everything.”
GG does the same.
“I say good morning to her when I get up and I kiss her picture good night when I go to bed,” GG says. “Some days are better than others. That’s how I get through it.”
Anisa’s photo sleeps with them, rides in the car in her own seat belt, and travels with one family member or another so it is never left alone. Anija now tucks the photo of her sister into bed every night, covering her up with the butterfly blanket that covered Anisa’s small body during her last days in the hospital.
“I tuck her in, then I give her a kiss like this [the 6-year-old kisses the photo she is tucking into GG’s bed] then I get down off the bed and I walk out,” Anija says. “And then sometimes I come back to check to see if she’s OK.”
Lorene Gomez is GG’s daughter and Anisa and Anija’s grandmother. An accountant who lives in Atlanta, Gomez recalls the family arriving on a recent visit, the photo of Anisa buckled up in the back seat next to Anija.
“Anija said, “Gramma, do you want Anisa to sleep with you, too?” Gomez says.
One night when the family was visiting, Gomez found Anisa’s photo propped up on a pillow, a blanket tucked below it.
“She gives her the headphones and the iPad at night because she knows Anisa makes TikTok videos at night,” Gomez says.
Rios thinks the inclusion of the photo is one of the ways her family is dealing with their loss.
“The other night we were lying in bed, me, the picture of Anisa, and then Anija,” Rios says. “I think I was talking on the phone and I turned and she was feeding her sister Mike and Ikes. And I was like OMG. Mike and Ikes were Anisa’s favorite.”
Rios says Anija asks her questions all the time about why Anisa can’t still be with the family.
“I don’t feel like any of us really understands the why or the how, yet,” Rios said. “As hard as it is for her to understand, it is even harder for me to explain it to her when I don’t even understand it myself.”
The part of her daughter’s life that Rios still can’t understand began around lunch time on Aug. 11, with an ordinary, everyday decision by Rios’ then boyfriend to take her daughter to the mall and Chick-fil-A.
Rios, a medical assistant at a SSMHealth clinic, said the last time she communicated with her daughter was through a text message exchange at 11:11 a.m. Her daughter was already in the car.
Within minutes of those texts, she got the call that there had been a shooting. Then she called her grandma, GG.
“She said, ‘Grandma. Grandma. My baby’s been shot. They shot her in the head,’” recalls GG. “And then her scream. It just plays over and over in my head.”
GG, who doesn’t drive, called her sister and they rushed to the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison.
“When I got there, Ashley was on the floor on her knees,” says GG. “When she saw me, she just fell in my arms. It was really, really bad.”
Gomez was scheduled to fly to Madison from Atlanta later in the week. When she got the call Anija had been hurt, she rushed to the Atlanta airport and left immediately.
“When I arrived I saw my sweet baby on life support,” Gomez said. “But it was just a machine. I knew she was no longer there.”
The 11-year-old’s uncle, Jovani Gomez, works for Great Lakes Coca Cola Bottling. He was on a delivery in Monroe, a small town roughly 90 minutes south of Madison, when he received a call that his sister’s daughter had been shot.
“I dropped everything I was doing. I left all my cases and products at the store and drove as quick as I could to check on her,” Gomez, 22, says. “I didn’t really know what her situation was and what condition she was in. I was just praying the whole way.”
Rios, a graduate of East High School who is a medical assistant for a SSMHealth clinic, said the outlook for her Anisa didn’t sound good from the beginning.
“But still, as a mom, you have hope,” she says. “You think, ‘Maybe I’ll have to take her home in a wheelchair. Whatever I have to do, I’ll do it.'”
On Aug. 12, Anisa’s second day on life support, a second CT scan was done and efforts were made to bring her out of the sedation, but Anisa wasn’t responding. The pressure was too much on her brain.
“The way they explained it to us is if we do it now, if we do it in five days, the outcome is the same,” Rios says. “I know in my head she wasn’t suffering, she wasn’t in any pain, she was very well medicated, but in my heart, as a mom I couldn’t let her …. I wasn’t going to leave her there five days to be that way.”
The decision was made to remove Anisa from life support on Aug. 13 at 11:11 a.m.
“I truly believe they did everything they could for her,” Rios says. “The doctors and nurses at the Children’s Hospital were amazing.”
GG says Anisa’s death, followed by the death of her husband, brought out feelings that were different from other deaths, including the loss of her 88-year-old mother more than a year ago.
“It hurt but I felt OK when she left. It wasn’t all emotionally torn up like it was with Anisa and my husband,” GG says.
“Anisa was so unexpected. We had just gotten done speaking with each other,” GG adds. “I was the last person she talked to. I called her and said ‘OK I know you guys are going to the mall and I know you’re going to stop at Chick-fil-A. Don’t forget to bring food for Anija.’”
“She said, ‘OK GG. I got you.’”
Then the call was over.
“Everybody Calls Me GG”
Some 11 years before that last call, Anisa was learning to talk. Part of a large, multi-generational family, she mimicked what she heard and started calling GG grandma.
Anisa’s grandma (Lorene Gomez) was not having it.
“Lorene said, ‘Oh no. I’m her grandma. You’re the great-grandma. Anisa can call you GG,’” she recalls. “And it stuck. Everybody that knows me calls me GG, and I love it.”
These and so many more memories are exchanged as GG, Anija, and Jovani, who all live at GG’s house with Ashley, prepare to temporarily leave the house in anticipation of the remodel. Jovani talks about how Anisa was into everything he was into. They rode motorbikes together up and down the street in front of GG’s house, something “that scares me half to death,” GG says.
Anisa gained a love of monster trucks from her dad, even getting the chance to drive one a few times. She loved to dance and make TikTok videos. She loved Pizza Hut pizza, chicken nuggets from Chick-fil-A with barbecue sauce. She loved basketball. Once she started to play, “that was it for her. That was her thing,” GG says.
She was a kind, funny girl, who stood up for others, one of the traits her little sister remembers most.
“She would always stand up for me and say, ‘Don’t do that to my sister, please,’” Anija says while cuddling with GG, the photo of her sister in her arms. “She would always sit by me whenever I needed help with something. She tries to protect me.”
The 6-year-old then starts tapping the photo of her sister and tells GG, “We can never forget this girl.”
The next day when the family leaves the house for the home improvement project to begin, the photo goes with them.