I know neither has survived the moment I see the EMT return the empty stretcher to the back of the ambulance. On the edge of the field diagonal from my house, a young man slides into the driver’s seat of the car that holds me and my two brothers in the backseat. “Can’t find ’em,” he murmurs to the woman sitting on the passenger side. She turns around and looks over the seat to face me with a demure smile. “Where did you say your shoes were again, honey?” she asks. “Just inside the front door,” I recite as I watch the taillights of the ambulance flash at the stop sign. She disappears for a few minutes and comes back with white sneakers in hand. “Just where you said they were!” she proclaims as she passes them to me with a slight shake of her head toward her coworker as if to say, “Men...what are you going to do with them?”
Both child welfare workers face forward and the driver starts the car. We navigate onto US 1 and head southbound. After a quick stop at the McDonald’s drive-through, where I decline any food, we are shepherded into a stark government building that smells vaguely of pencil erasers and kindergarten. We take seats at a long conference table, my brothers with their Styrofoam trays of pancakes and sausage and me with my Dixie cup of water. Another woman joins us at the table. She has the stoic determination of a person well-practiced in delivering this sort of news. She confirms what I already knew a million years ago sitting in the car beside the field. “We’re orphans,” my younger brother states flatly. “No!” the caseworker rushes to correct him although he’s not wrong. “We’re working on something for you.” A different caseworker gets up from her seat and slides Tarzan into the VCR. There is irony in this choice and at one time I might have been pleased with myself to point it out, but I am not today. We say nothing.
When I am on perhaps my fourth Dixie cup of water, I am summoned to meet with investigators in a different building. I shiver in the icy air-conditioning as I sit in front of a woman with brown hair and kind eyes. She rattles off question after question that I answer as best I can. Were my parents married? Yes. My mother always wore a ring. She was wearing it this morning. I had asked my mother once if they had wedding photos. She told me that you didn’t have to have a big wedding to get married; you could go sign papers at the courthouse. When I asked why she didn’t have the same last name as the rest of us, she told me that women didn’t have to change their names just because they were married. Did my father drink a lot? Was he drinking this morning? No, at least not that I knew. I’d never seen him drink more than a Budweiser or two after work. Liquor wasn’t kept in our house. Was there any indication that he would do something like this? I pause and let the bizarre past three months replay in my mind. I can’t think of a thing to offer that could possibly measure up to the magnitude of this question. “I don’t know,” I admit, defeated.
The news of my parents’ murder-suicide rocked our small island community. My mom was the Head Start coordinator at the local elementary school. My dad owned a successful concrete pumping business. They were well-known in the community, and the community responded. My brothers and I moved in temporarily with close family friends. We were shielded from the chores generated by sudden death: the hasty settlement of the estate, memorial planning, the preparation of our house for sale. For us, the following days were a blur of meetings with psychologists, cupcake and casserole deliveries, and even a donated excursion to swim with the dolphins. I learned to simply say “thank you” to each of the many sorry well-wishers. My reflexive “It’s okay” was suddenly very inaccurate.
A beautiful memorial for my mom was planned and held at the library of our school, fitting for my mom, who treasured books and learning. The space quickly filled to standing room only. In the receiving line, people told us stories. The grandmother of two of my mom’s Head Start kids talked about the time my mom helped file her income taxes. An immigrant father told us how she navigated the bureaucracy of Medicaid so his son could get a much-needed heart operation. Even today, I stand in awe of her generous spirit.
It’s hard for me to imagine what would have been said at my father’s funeral, had he not committed such a terrible crime, had there been a funeral, which there wasn’t. It is not something extended to people who do things like he did. A few days after his death, some of his relatives took my brothers and me to Winn-Dixie and we bought single stem roses. We stood at the top of the arch of a bridge and tossed the flowers into the bay. We said they were the best mommy and daddy in the world. That was all.
Months later, in our new home in a rural southern town with my maternal uncle and aunt, I sit on my bed unpacking boxes of my old life. I haven’t packed them myself, and the contents range from mundane odds and ends to treasured relics of my “before” life. In one box, amid the guestbook from my mom’s memorial and a free-floating clipped obituary, is a section of The Reporter. My mom and I were Reporter readers. A new edition every Thursday. We’d scour the letters to the editors for ones from people we knew in the community. Writing to the paper was what you used to have to do to broadcast your opinion. It had to be refined, at least in comparison to the tweets and status updates that can now be shared with little forethought. This was just a few years before the dawn of social media, but it was a different era entirely.
In any event, here is page four, snipped from its folds like a keepsake for a time capsule. The article is about my family, or rather, the demise of it. It’s a straightforward account of the events as they unfolded on the morning of March 19, 2003. Some of the details are lurid and personal, and I wonder how the reporters could have known what they published until I learn that 911 calls are public records. I feel queasy inside. Violated. The corner of the page features a black-and-white picture of my house sectioned off with yellow caution tape. It’s pixelated and doesn’t pick up much detail. The angle of the camera doesn’t quite capture the “God Bless Our Home” wreath hung carefully on the front door. You can see the gumbo limbo tree beyond the swing set, but not the concrete heart beneath it.
This was where we buried our cat, Ichabod. Icky was old; his death was part of the natural order of the world. We were with him when he passed on. Icky laid on a bed of several soft towels spread on the kitchen floor. A slat of sunlight shone on him through the sliding glass door. My mother pet him gently all through his last moments. Afterward, we each stroked his warm body a few final times. I clipped a few tufts of fur and put them in a Ziploc bag. I didn’t want to forget how soft he was. The next day, my dad dug the best hole he could, given the unyielding coral rock that composes the island ground. We were completing a unit on the ancient Egyptians in school and I wanted Icky to have his toys and cat food put in his tomb to bring with him to the afterlife. We gathered together at the base of the gumbo limbo and my parents talked of Icky. My dad then filled in the hole and poured concrete over the top. The hole was meant to be a circle but it ended up being a heart shape. While the concrete was still soft, we each pressed our hands to make prints and set a seashell at the top, for he was an island cat. This is a story that was not printed in the newspaper.
Icky’s was the first death that I experienced besides my grandmother’s, which was mostly hidden from me behind hospital doors. Hers was a death prettied and stage managed. The antiseptic smell of the ICU. A kiss on a cold, powdery cheek at her wake. Learning that you shouldn’t smile in cemetery pictures because you are supposed to look somber. Icky’s death was real. From his passing, I learned that death involves recognition of the life that has passed. It brings people together. It follows a logical process. My parents’ deaths did not follow these rules. Rather, it was unexpected, chaotic, and horrifying. It was an explosion that tore through my life and left a film of dusty, smoky particulate in its wake. Immediately after, you are choking and sputtering and gasping for lack of clean air. Eventually, time lets you breathe easier. You think you may have escaped unscathed, but the poison you inhaled settles in any chasm it can find. Let it simmer a good 10 years and it may just become a cancer. Eating you alive all the while without you even knowing it.
Last year, I decided that I might need to go to therapy. The crux of the matter was that I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to my parents. Not even my husband of three years. I’d read one too many articles warning of the destruction wrought by secrets within a marriage and this finally pushed me to look up a therapist. The roots of my silence ran deep. In the early months, I was more open. When classmates and teachers asked with curiosity why I had moved to a new state right at the end of my seventh grade school year, I told them that my parents had died and I moved here to live with my aunt and uncle. I would share this matter-of-factly, holding eye contact to better communicate that I did not need pity or fawning over. I told my math teacher in the middle of the hallway, students streaming around us. I whispered it to a new friend while we sat, bored, after state testing. Despite my attempts to assure them, I could see the shock in their faces.
Before long, I began to doubt myself. Was I making a social faux pas? Did it fall into the same category as wearing blue mascara and passing way too many notes to the boy who was never interested? I didn’t know. What I was sure of was that I never again wanted to feel the way I did sitting in the gym on one of the last days of school. A classmate and I sat against the gym wall and watched the others play basketball. Like others, she wanted to know why I moved to a town that most were trying to escape. I responded with my standard answer, but then she asked a follow-up question I hadn’t prepared for: What happened? It was my first encounter with someone who was not too polite to ask. I froze. I knew immediately that I could not tell the truth to this girl whose name I was not even entirely sure of. So I concocted a car accident story. It was plausible, satisfied her curiosity, and we moved on to a different topic after that. But I didn’t forget the lesson there and I started to retreat into myself. I began to refer to my aunt and uncle as “my parents” in casual conversation. It was simple. Easier. Less scrutiny. Decreased vulnerability. And I could keep my mom and dad tucked away inside the protective fortress of my mind. That was most important to me, more so than any attempt to ameliorate my discomfort.
Because “my father killed my mother and then himself” is a loaded statement. The implications are harsh. My mom must have been a meek, battered woman. My dad must have terrorized our family. But that wasn’t my experience. My mom was a fierce advocate for all types of disenfranchised people. She loved being a mother. She made by hand award-winning Halloween costumes, served as Cookie Mom every year for the Girl Scouts, and instilled in me a sense of curiosity about the world and a love of learning. My dad escorted me to my first dance, a father-daughter event with the Girl Scouts. He took me on all the thrill rides Orlando had to offer and helped me conquer my first wobbly ride on a bike with only two wheels. All this, and yet…how could I ever expect anyone else to understand if I actually lived it and still do not understand?
I spent hours agonizing over the possible judgments of others but have only recently gained insight into my own bias that perpetuated my silence for so many years. I feared most of all that I could no longer be proud of my family. Can things like this really happen to nice families? Being the child of both the perpetrator and the victim of a terrible crime is a uniquely strange and terrible place to occupy. I feel I am only now beginning to fully appreciate all my father has stolen from me. At 13, I didn’t grasp that my mother would not hear my salutatorian high school speech, see me off to my very first dorm, watch me walk across the stage to receive my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She did not carefully arrange my wedding dress and veil before I walked down the aisle. She will never hold my future children in her arms. She will never realize her dream of becoming a teacher. She is separated from not only her children, but all who loved her.
Her murder is an inexcusable transgression; many would call it unforgivable. I am so angry at my father and yet I also grieve him. Society is not comfortable with this grief. I’m reminded of this in many small ways, usually when such views are amplified on social media. When Adam Lanza’s mother is omitted from the death count of the tragedy at Newtown. When online commentators rail against the funeral home who dared prepare the body of a terrorist. It is a completely understandable reaction. Criminals forfeit their claim to protections under the admonishment that you ought not speak ill of the dead. And, as social animals, the greatest retribution we can possibly inflict upon such people is exile and erasure. Expunging them from our collective history wrests the control back into our own hands. But still, a loss exists for the survivors of these reviled people. Loss of confidence in their good nature. Loss of your own certainty that you are an accurate judge of character. Loss of who you had hoped or wished they would be. It is a grief that lingers, resistant to resolution, perhaps because it is so isolating. For half my life, I sat alone with my feelings, never telling a single person what really happened to my parents.
January. I had wanted to wait until after the holidays. I see my husband’s white car as I navigate into the expansive church parking lot that doubles as parking for my therapist’s office. “Did you find it okay?” I ask him, although he obviously did. My hands are stuffed inside the front pockets of my fleece jacket so he can’t see how they shake. He follows me through the front door and we take a seat in the small waiting room. “Do you want to go to hibachi after this?” he asks, always free of fluster, calm and collected. “Sure,” I reply, omitting the qualifier I continue in my head, “if you still want anything to do with me after this.” The therapist comes out to welcome us in. I excuse myself to the bathroom where I take a few deep breaths and try to collect myself. I remind myself that my therapist and I have prepped for this. This is why we are broaching the subject here after I shared that I worried I wouldn’t ever be brave enough to start the conversation on my own. Still, my pulse throbs in my temples as I return to the session room.
My therapist is showing off the tricks her therapy dog has mastered. Lulu twirls, rolls over, sits. The therapist says just a few words to welcome us to the session and then the floor is mine. I launch into the spiel that I’ve semi-rehearsed. “So, you know my parents passed away when I was younger and we haven’t really talked about it. I had a normal, happy life for many years,” I stressed, “but then my dad started acting strangely. He became very paranoid. Once, he thought there was a message in the newspaper just for him. He became obsessed with the idea that my mom was having an affair despite there being no evidence of such a thing. I don’t think anyone knew what to do about it. And this all led up to one day where my dad killed my mom and then killed himself.” A statement I agonized over for the better part of eight years is complete in less than five minutes. I look up at my husband’s face and he is nodding empathetically. “Did you have any idea?” the therapist asks him. “Yeah, I had kind of pieced it together,” he replies. This doesn’t surprise me. It’s hard to maintain a farce for so long, and there have been slips, telling statements on the parts of my relatives. “It must have been very difficult for her to hold in this secret for such a long time,” my therapist observes. “Yes,” he agrees. He must sense that I am uncomfortable with the weightiness surrounding us because he gently rubs my arm and whisper-sings, “Let it go, let it go.” He knows nothing can coax my smile like Disney. We all laugh, grateful for the break in the tension. Afterward, we do go eat hibachi, and I feel light as air. My bones don’t seem so heavy.
Thirteen years have passed since the day I walked down the steps of my house for the last time and into a completely different life. When I feel the hard edge of bitterness creeping in, I try to counter it with gratitude. My uncle stepped up and sacrificed to parent three children, ensuring that my brothers and I would continue to grow up together. My grandmother has often served as a surrogate mother for me; from dispensing life advice to checking in on me when I am sick, I can always count on her. I have a wonderful husband and supportive in-laws.
But whenever I’m back in my hometown, I always drive by my childhood home. It’s different now. The two lots that made up our large backyard have been sold and developed. The houses seem squeezed uncomfortably close to one another now. The native trees have been cut down. The owners have completely given up all attempts to grow grass and they have filled in the area with pea rock. The effect of white lawn against white house is stark. It does not feel welcoming. It is not as it was. I am not as I was. ●
The author of this piece has asked to be anonymous to respect her family's privacy.