Saturday, January 02, 2016

What I carry

This is a long one. I could probably have edited it more than I have, but to be quite honest, I didn't want to. Some I wrote over the last few months. Some was written, well, years ago.

I have been thinking a lot about death recently. Maybe because, not too long ago, I read a book about praying for those in Purgatory. Also, in November the Catholic Church makes a point of praying even more for the souls of our beloved dead.

Work plays into it, too. In early October at the paper where I work, we covered the case of a missing infant, an 8-week-old baby named Chance who, we in the newsroom felt the more we learned about his parents, was likely dead. It sadly turned out to be true: the father beat the child and then suffocated him -- the mother doing nothing to stop it -- leaving him in his crib for eight days before burying him in a shallow grave in an undeveloped part of the city and fleeing to another state. It is appalling and sad to read about these things as well as to write about them  -- murders, accidents, child molestations. You don't dwell on them, can't really -- and not what you envision writing when you go into journalism. At least I didn't. And while I'm not the cops and courts reporter, we're a small staff, and all of us wound up writing several stories on Chance's death. I covered a candle-light memorial vigil for baby, and the sorrow of his grandparents and of complete strangers in the community was palpable. Of course I cried for this little one, who deserved far more -- a life -- from those entrusted with his care. It was only later that I remembered his drug-addicted parents -- who appeared stone-faced in mug shots and first-appearance videos -- needed my prayers, too.

There was a lot of anger in the community toward the parents, who are in jail awaiting trial, but also toward their families, whom strangers felt should have done more to protect the baby. A lot of that vitriol was unleashed on social media, a laying of blame and criticism, and it got me thinking about how grateful I am that my own family's tragedy played out in the days before the Internet was as ubiquitous as it is now (the fact that I am now, by writing about it, putting it out there doesn't escape me, but as it's a matter of public record for anyone who does a little digging, and as only about five people read this, and two of them know already...).

My father's death -- sad as it was, the cancer taking him so quickly -- was, of course, not the first I'd ever experienced. A favorite teacher died mid-way through my sophomore year of high school. One of my grandfathers died when I was 2, my great-aunt Rose when I was 14, Granny-B in 2006. But those weren't catastrophic. I'd try to sugar-coat it if I could, but there is no casual conversational segue in existence that will soften the fact that my uncle murdered my grandparents.


To say it was devastating to my entire extended family is a gross understatement. Two lives were ended prematurely, but there were so many reverberations, so much more long-term damage. The sorrow tore holes in relationships. It sparked my father's undiagnosed but completely real depression that never healed fully, and contributed to a rift between him and one of my brothers; they had barely spoken for six years before Dad died, although my brother came home in time to see him, but only at Mom's request. I pray he will be glad, someday, that he was there.

The sharpness if the pain is gone, of course, but the gap left by their deaths will always be felt a little. I've certainly processed it, over the last 21 years. I don't know about other members of my family, but I've forgiven my uncle, something I wasn't sure I'd be able to do. But it was one of those situations where you pray to hopefully, someday, maybe, have the ability to forgive, then find one day you have done it unconsciously. Quite frankly, while I had always prayed, I see that teenage hope to one day reach forgiveness as the first time I really trusted God with something as, at least ostensibly, an adult -- making the concrete choice to believe that, through His grace, everything would somehow be alright.
My uncle is serving two consecutive life sentences, without possibility of parole, and no one in the family has contact with him. He and Dad wrote letters for a while, but once my uncle realized Dad wasn't going to try and help him get out -- did he seriously thing my prosecutor father would? And with the sentence he received? -- my uncle stopped writing. I pray he has sought forgiveness and found peace, but he no longer deserves to know how our lives are going. If this makes it sound like I haven't forgiven him fully, well, I'm not a saint yet. 

Anyway, I don't generally ever talk or write about my grandparents' murder and uncle's imprisonment. Why? Well, it is a heavy thing with which to entrust and, dare I say, burden someone. I can remember clearly exactly where I was every time I've told someone about the murders, and can practically count those instances on one hand. I've spoken about it publicly exactly once, during a retreat talk to high school students on forgiveness. There are people I have known for a very long time -- some close college friends, for instance -- who have no idea. My coworkers don't know, either, although there have been plenty of situations where I could have brought it up. But I also don't want to be like a past coworker who, having lost her husband while in her 30s, brought it up his death in practically every conversation, even on the phone with sources, 20-plus years later.
Part of me has always felt, too, that it's no one's business. I remember, sometime after the murders, going with Dad to Walmart. We ran into someone he knew slightly, and Dad started talking about it. It was almost certainly more than this person had anticipated going into a check-out line chat, and I almost wanted to sink into the floor. Why was he sharing all our sorrow? Mom said it helped him to talk through it, but I have never thought I needed to....although perhaps, having had the urge to write about it for years, perhaps I do, after all.

It's ironic, then, that I sometimes find myself writing about murder cases, although fortunately I've never had to bother the family of a murder victim -- I'd refuse, anyway. I will never hound a devastated family for quotes. I know, too well, some of the things they're experiencing. Being hassled by reporters was the last thing we would have wanted at the time, and the only time any of us were quoted in the press was when Dad actually had to testify at my uncle's trial.

Why now, then? That's a good question. Partly because, while on vacation over Thanksgiving, I  helped my Mom clean out a spare room in her house, and there were many things that brought my grandparents to mind.

But also, portions of the story, in one form or another, have been sitting in my drafts folder -- not to mention in my head; how I'd couch it, the way I'd phrase things -- for years. I've wanted to write about these events. I've just never done it. Fear of opening up too much, perhaps? Probably. Even though it's hardly my fault and I have nothing to be ashamed of, there is that worry that people will judge, somehow. After starting several drafts, and more maybe editing than a lot else I've ever written, I've over-thought it time and again (me, over-analyze something? Pshaw!), and done nothing. Most of this post was written ages ago and, yet I kept prevaricating. "Why am I writing this?" I kept asking myself. It isn't meant to be a treatise on living through grief, an exploration of bad things happening to good people or an it-can-happen-in-anyone's-family sort of lesson. I suppose you could say it is entirely selfish.
I have built it up in my head as something so major (which of course it was) to reveal, but nothing has ever come from being locked away. As small as it might seem to some, even though I won't be sharing this on social media anywhere, it is a big thing for me to just hit the "publish" button. What, in fact, am I risking? That it will go viral? Unlikely as that may be, the thought is a bit intimidating. But it is a new year, after all, too, and with the goal to write more in 2016, I feel like I shouldn't shirk telling this story anymore. I recently I came across a quote from St. Catherine of Sienna, "Start being brave about everything," and realized that if I've wanted to write something for years and haven't done it, that only makes it more obvious that I should.
We all have scars that we carry. This is one of mine.

So, we need to talk about "The Lion King." This isn't a non sequitur, I promise.

The first time I saw it, I didn't like it at all. I really couldn't stand the crazy bright colors and harshly geometric, unrealistic looking crocodiles during the "I Just Can't Wait to be King," number, especially.

I know this would be tantamount to sacrilege to some people, as it's so beloved. But, it wasn't so much the movie itself that bothered me (it's great, actually -- loosely based on Hamlet, and beautifully drawn (minus those crocodiles), filled with subtle historical references like goose-stepping hyenas, and it's funny) so much as the circumstances surrounding when I saw it. I was 16, and it was July of 1994. I saw it in a nearly empty (or so I remember it) theater with all my first cousins (including Sam, who was still in the womb at the time) sitting together in one row.

Meanwhile, my Dad, Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Joe were buying caskets. Mom and Aunt Jean had taken us to the movies as a distraction. In retrospect, taking 10 children to see a film where a character plotted and then took the life of a family member might not have been the most enlightened choice, given the circumstances, although ultimately I don't think any of us were scarred by it (in fact, my cousin Carrie didn't even remember where she first saw the movie until it came up in conversation and I reminded her). In fact, we never really talk about that at all.

Anyway, my uncle had some mental issues, but was fine when he took his meds. By way of backstory, he'd graduated from high school, and started college, but decided he needed space, and went traveling. There were years of time where he was living off the grid, with no contact with family. He spent some time working an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. At one point, he fell in love and proposed to a girl, but she said no, which apparently caused some sort of break -- he was arrested on stalking charges -- and he spent time in the state mental hospital in Chatahoochee. A little odd sometimes, but up until that summer, he'd never been violent. After he returned, my grandparents did all they could to help him out. They supported him in between low-paying jobs, gave him a car and he lived rent free in my late great-grandparent's small home. They didn't make too many demands of him. Partly, I think they gave him so much leeway because of Nana -- he was their youngest, and she didn't want anything to happen that would drive him to the point of leaving and cutting off communication again.

But it had reached a point, in 1994, where a line had to be drawn, and my grandparents gave my uncle an ultimatum: they would either pay his tuition to go back to college, or help him find another job, but if he chose neither, they couldn't continue to support him indefinitely. Apparently, that's what caused him to snap. Not taking his meds, in the week or so leading up to their deaths, he left several angry messages on their answering machine (messages Dad would find later and eventually testify about). Then, on the night of July 11th, my uncle asked my grandfather, who loved to fix things, to check out something seemingly wrong with his bike. While he was looking at it, my uncle attacked him from behind, hitting Grandpa with some sort of blunt object -- never found, it could have been any of the hundreds of tools my grandfather had. Grandpa was a big man, and my uncle, who was intending to burn the bodies, could only manage to drag his body into the side yard and cover it with a tarp. 

Nana, cornered in their bedroom, fought back. When police went to inform my uncle of their deaths, he apparently answered the door without a shirt on, his chest covered in scratches she left behind as she tried to fend him off while he was choking her. He wrapped her in a sheet and carried her body to the compost pile in the back yard where he planned to start a fire. She wasn't yet dead, only unconscious, however. But when she came to, and started to stir, he beat her to death as well.

It couldn't actually be determined which one of them died first. 

After they were dead, my uncle calmly went back into the house, washed his clothes and hosed off the driveway. Because he tried to cover his tracks, knowing what he did was wrong, he was found psychotic, not insane

If the above narrative seems dispassionate, or in any way cold or unfeeling, please trust me, it is not. But they are facts I have lived with for a long time, and you certainly become able to deal with things more pragmatically as time passes. To gloss over them seems disingenuous.

I remember snapshots of the day we found out, just flashes really. It was a Tuesday, and I was going to paint my bedroom blue. All my things were boxed, borders were taped off and all the really big furniture was crammed together in the center of the room. A month and a half later, when we came home, we pulled into the driveway at around 3 a.m. the first day of my junior year of high school. I put my room back together in the days and weeks that followed. That room, to this day, is still white. Only in cleaning out my parents' garage after Dad died did we finally get rid of those two rusted cans, never opened and still full of pale blue paint.

Anyway, it was still early that Tuesday when the doorbell rang. And officer told my Dad to call Pensacola Police Department. He thought maybe something had happened to my uncle. I then heard my father on the phone, and his cry of pain and anguish is one that I couldn't possibly recreate. Calls were made, to Uncle Joe in Tennessee, to Aunt Marilyn, across the world in Japan. A coworker from Dad's office came by at some point to get his files. Fr. Sheedy arrived from church, called by someone, and prayed with us. I remember, at one point, hugging a wall clock Nana and Grandpa had given me when they were down visiting just three weeks before and, later, standing at the end of our hallway, and my brother Daniel, 11 at the time, holding my hand. That night, finally on the road to Pensacola, driving up 471 through the Green Swamp, my brothers slept in the back of the minivan but I was still awake, wanting to hear and yet not listen to my parents, numb and speculating.

The funeral itself is also a bit of a blur. Little Flower was packed, and mostly I remember squeezing Carrie's hand hard as we walked down the aisle behind the caskets, telling myself not to cry as Dad gave a eulogy. At the graveside service at Barrancas National Cemetery, I was so far in the back that I couldn't hear what the priest was saying. Instead I took huge comfort from the two Navy jets that flew over -- Grandpa was a retired Navy pilot -- and even then, not knowing what signal graces were, I couldn't help but think that those planes meant they were okay. Most people would think nothing of it -- Barrancas is on base at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, and jet planes are common; pilots train there -- but you will never convince me otherwise.

Despite all the numbness and anguish, there was still laughter, seeing cousins again, the boys playing video games together, sitting with my then 99-year-old great-grandmother, even taking photos and enjoying food as a family during a post-funeral reception at a family friend's home.

We ultimately spent three weeks after the funeral in Nana and Grandpa's house, cleaning, sorting. It wasn't a ghastly crime scene, if you're wondering. My grandparents just had a lot of stuff. It took years before the house was ready and finally sold (my uncle wasn't convicted for four years, due to a number of issues including his competency to stand trial, and the medical examiner's deployment to the Middle East with his reserve unit. It was also nearly a decade before my dad, their executor, could close their complicated estates -- a fact which certainly contributed to his depression).
But what I remember about those three weeks spent with my family and cousins is, strangely, joy. None of us, during those weeks, cried: Carrie and I camped out in the music room, sleeping  in sleeping bags on the floor stretched beneath the baby grand pianos because there were no other bedrooms to spare between our parents and all our respective brothers; laughing over the 1970's era paisley jumpsuit that Nana had saved, laughing again when we found a photo of the Navy wives fashion show she'd worn it in; Grandpa's stashes of photos everywhere, -- many never seen, decades old ones of them courting, or of parties with people we'd never be able to identify; joking with my cousin Matt about things Grandpa could have jerry-rigged or fixed up if he was still alive. It always felt like they were on vacation and would walk through the door at any moment. I will never forget the smell of their house -- a mix of mothballs and coffee and whatever it was that gave their home, always a happy place, its character. Every now and again I catch a whiff of something similar, and it never fails to make me smile.

In writing this, I find myself wondering if my reticence to share this part of myself has to do with what happened when we got home. It seems strange, now, to think that none of us went to any sort of counseling. We probably all could have used it at some level, my father the most. But -- and I deplore this about his former workplace -- he would have been judged negatively for having any kind of counseling on his record, so he got none beyond talking to the priests at church, which was better than nothing, but still insufficient.

And like I said, we got home about 4 hours before the start of a new school year. Besides a few teachers, who hugged me when I checked in at the office, none of my classmates ever said anything, not even an "I'm sorry for your loss." For a long time, I thought they might not know, but news of any kind typically traveled my tiny Catholic high school like wildfire and I realized, belatedly, that everyone knew, but probably had absolutely no idea what to say. No one treated me with kid gloves, so things were seemingly normal. I went to class, and got mostly good grades, went to dances and sporting events and got my driver's license and life carried on. And since I wasn't breaking down in tears in public, I guess everyone assumed I was fine. Which I was, although I was certainly sad. But since Dad's emotions swung wildly for years -- sometimes I think my Mom alone held him together through force of will and faith; as an adult, talking with him about it once, he had no memory of his sometime rages -- we all basically kept a check on ours, and it wasn't until nearly three years later, in college, that I even mentioned the murders to someone other than family.

I know my Dad struggled with the why of it for years, but I have always known there was some reason God allowed this to happen. I don't know that reason, or what it means that I never belabored it too deeply. Talking it over with a very good friend in college once, I remember her saying that I was so strong to have survived all that, and to still be "normal." It surprised me, then and now, to think of myself as some sort of survivor compared to say, someone who has suffered sexual assault, lived in a war-torn environment, or experienced a terror attack first-hand. But these events are part of who I am and, I think, led me to cling closer to God, a fact for which I am abundantly grateful.

I will always miss my grandparents. I continue to pray for them and ask them to pray for me, too. I carry them in my heart. And despite the recitation of the facts above, I do not dwell on how they died, but remember them for who they were: her a talented, classy, gentle, prayerful woman, a classically trained pianist, artist and teacher who had a strong devotion to Our Lady, let me try coffee for the first time and would share her toast on early mornings when we were the only ones awake; him a retired Navy pilot turned Real Estate agent who could fix anything, loved photography, told ridiculous jokes and liked to sometimes buck the rules, teaching me to drive (illegally, at 14, on abandoned Naval base runways) and fish with live bait. Neither were, of course, perfect, but both of my grandparents, especially Nana, who was a convert and prayed the Rosary daily, had very strong faith.

I have tried several endings for this post, but all seemed too trite, or too abrupt. What does feel right is to close with the prayer given by Jesus to St. Gertrude the Great, which I pray daily:

"Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen."

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