When a police officer knocked on Chanda Taylor's door, the 35-year-old office worker was so startled that she was afraid to answer. What was he doing on her Cheverly doorstep on an October morning?
Her dread grew when the officer told her that she needed to call the Ocean City police right away. Something had happened to her younger sister, Tara, on a trip to the beach.
Shaking, Chanda dialed the number. She got the devastating news that would change her life: Her sister, a lifeguard who loved the water, had been found dead in the sand after a late-night swim.
The shock was immeasurable. Chanda had seen Tara hours earlier at her Lanham home. The two - so close they still spoke the special language they'd made up as kids - were planning a family barbecue.
Chanda's first thought was of her sister's eight children. What would happen to them?
There was only one answer.
"When that officer said, 'Your sister's drowned,' there was no question. No second thought," Chanda recalled. "I knew there was nothing else I could do but to keep my nieces and nephews together."
So she gave up her tiny apartment and moved with her 11-year-old son, Tanare Jr., into Tara's home to care for the eight children - Tyren, 17, Diamond, 14, Porcha, 12, Amira, 11, Janyia, 9, Hy'meed, 7, Nevaeh, 6, and Gina, 3.
In the weeks since, Chanda has had to grapple not only with her own grief and that of the children but also learn the complicated logistics of her supersized family, from doctor's visits to teacher conferences and transportation. On her first trip to the grocery store, she ended up loading three carts with food. It took hours and cost more than $300.
"I'm not even going to lie to you," Chanda said one recent evening. "Sometimes around here, I'm in a fog."
The children sat on a leather couch and frayed side chairs and described the unsettling sense of insecurity they felt after their mother's death. None had wanted the children to be split up and sent to live with other relatives, they said.
As they spoke, several began to cry quietly.
"I thought it was going to be hard for us to stay together," said Diamond, a freshman at Parkdale High School. "I thought they would separate us."
Amira, tears wetting her cheeks, crawled into Chanda's lap for comfort.
"What did I tell you about why I am here?" Chanda asked the fifth-grader, squeezing her.
" 'Cause you love us," Amira said.
"And what am I going to do?" Chanda prompted.
"Take care of us," Amira said.
Chanda stepped up and said, 'This is my sister, and my sister's children will not be separated,' " recalled her grandmother, Mary Y. Brown-Glascoe, 69, a retired technical writer from Capitol Heights. The relatives - including the children's fathers - agreed that having Chanda move in would be the best solution for everyone, Brown-Glascoe said.
It would be a huge step for Chanda to give up the apartment that she shared with a boyfriend of three years. But she confided to her grandmother that she didn't see how she could resume her life until Gina, Tara's youngest, was 18. The girl had just turned 3.
Two months in, Chanda shows little anger about the circumstances, only a determination that is at times steely, at times resigned.
"Anger is not going to help anything. Anger is not going to change anything," she said. "I think little things like, 'Why did you go?' That makes me mad. But that's a split-second situation. It doesn't stay."