My father was murdered in 1996. 17 years later, I wrote RAISED BY A DEAD MAN, a coming-of-age memoir about all the violence that lead up to that moment. Now, after sitting on the manuscript for 6 years, I feel compelled to share it, chapter-by-chapter, starting right here. Saying “I hope you enjoy it” seems wrong given the subject matter, but I honestly hope you do.
Because this is a story of hope.
As a missionary, I often knocked on doors for hours for the chance—the smallest, slightest chance—to talk to just one person. I understood why those doors often didn’t open. I shared a bond with the people hiding behind the curtains and telling their kids to stay low and quiet that was completely unknown to them, but very real for me: neither of us wanted me on their porch. I didn’t enjoy interrupting meals or telenovelas or midday sexual congress any more than they liked seeing me standing there in the white shirt and tie, eagerly hoping for a few minutes of their time. Yes, I wanted to talk and teach, but not to anyone who didn’t want to listen. So, when Mom asked me Sunday night if I would like to speak at Dad’s funeral and to the hundreds of people who would be there, I responded with a resounding Yes!
In my head. I didn’t want to sound too eager given the somber reason for the opportunity.
What I said out loud was, “Me?”
“Yes,” Mom said. “Don’t you think that would be nice? I think that would be nice.”
It was a safe bet the funeral would be covered by the local media and half of the people there would not be members of the Church. I couldn’t imagine not speaking at the funeral. A more captive audience I’d never find. Any other path led to regret.
The Shoulders had gone home. My first day back in California was almost over and Mom, Uncle Richard, and I sat at the kitchen table together to talk about the next few days. Mom left most of the decisions to me. I don’t know if it was the nametag or that I was not a gooey mess in a house of gooey messes, but she seemed to think me perfectly capable of handling all the necessaries. The idea I speak at the funeral was one of her lone contributions to our plans.
“Richard is giving the eulogy and Bishop Pauline will be giving the gospel talk.” I said.
“What else is there to say?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “You’ll think of something. You always give such good talks.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m amazing.”
Uncle Richard laughed. “You knew your dad, Brock. What did he believe in? What would he want you to say?”
Ah. What would Dad want? We thought we knew, the three of us. It was something we asked and answered with confidence several times that night. Dad wouldn’t want a sad, depressing funeral. Dad, a patriot, would want the military involved despite the fact he hated his time in the Service. Dad would want this hymn sung and these people as pallbearers and that person to say a prayer and that other person to feel like they were included. Maybe that guy could, I dunno, usher at the door?
It helped that Dad was dead and couldn’t argue with us. We, the living, were so sure about the identity and personality of our newly dead and gone, we alone deciding what his responses would be to a life now going on without him. Who would challenge us, the ones that knew and loved him best? No one, not even him. This was the neat and tidy version of Dad, the one who did everything we told him to and behaved precisely as we had come to expect. It wasn’t the Dad any of us knew, but it was the only one we had left.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
After all of our talks about the Gospel and his death and what came after who was more qualified? According to Mom and Uncle Richard, no one. I knew only one thing for sure: the talk would somehow involve words.
* * *
The next day’s errands gave me the perfect excuse to procrastinate. There was a gravesite to select and a funeral home to visit and an obituary to write and many more decisions still to be made. My guide through it all was Uncle Richard. Outside of our home, as a full-fledged, temporarily displaced missionary, I still needed to be accompanied by an adult male who could serve as a companion while I was away from Elder Vaughn. It saved me from asking for the help I so desperately needed. Tall, commanding, and at-ease with every person he met, my mother’s oldest brother probably could have done it all without me. Instead, he was my chauffeur around town and stood behind me as I made the key decisions.
Our first stop was Red Bank Cemetery, far outside of the Clovis city limits. Tall trees stood at attention on the main drive up through the middle of the property and along the outer perimeter, but otherwise the grounds were bare and open. On a good (read: smog free) day, there was a clear view of the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains and, unlike the more populous cemeteries in town, this one was always quiet. I chose an untouched spot without many other graves around it, which was easy enough to do.
Afterwards, we went back into the city to the Smithson Funeral Home. It truly looked like a “home,” complete with a well-manicured lawn and an interior layout suggesting less a business and more a converted mini-mansion. The Director, a short, greasy little man too old for the brown hair he sported on his head and above his lip, wore a smile that never cracked. He greeted us at the door and brought us through a series of tight corridors and narrow doors—the kind you usually only see in older homes—to a large, well-lit back room with two rows of caskets on either side. All of them were open. It wasn’t actually the barracks of a vampire army, it just looked like one.
The creepy and quiet showroom for the final vehicles of the dead came complete with a pushy salesman. As the Director highlighted the features of each casket—solid mahogany casing, almond interior, ebony finish, head panel designs adorned with praying hands or doves flying or some other art the earthworms could admire—Uncle Richard and I walked down the aisle, noting the price tags as we went, each one more shockingly expensive than the last. What I couldn’t understand was why the dead needed an elaborate coffin in the first place. What good did gold trim ever do for those who couldn’t open their eyes to admire it?
The Director was a seemingly nice enough man, but he had his agenda. The people he led into this room were grieving—at their most vulnerable and most willing to move through a sale as quickly as possible. How else could he charge thousands of dollars for a box—a box!—and get away with it?
Thankfully, I knew exactly what I wanted and the thicker the Director laid it on, the more sure I became. Down at the end of the rows, away from the others and painted the most offensively unattractive pale blue the world had ever seen, was the cheapest casket available. A pine box for my father. You could light a match under it and watch it burn.
“A-are you positively sure that’s the one you want?” The Director went into a flop sweat.
“Yes, of course.” I said. “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“It, ah, matters more than you think. But if that’s the—if you want that one then I suppose it’s, ah, up to you. It’s not the one I’d choose for my father, certainly.”
What would Dad want? I figured Dad saw death as such a temporary thing he’d be upset if we spent a lot of money on something that was just going to get buried in the ground anyway. Dirt could be shoveled onto blue wood just as well as gold trim.
The matter settled, we moved into the Director’s office to discuss our ideas for the funeral and transportation and the graveside service. His people would take care of everything, including setting up chairs and shuttling the body in and out of the church. The funeral would be simple and short. Hymns, prayers, an a capella rendition of True to the Faith by a group of Logan’s friends, and a few talks. (Including mine about…something super special.) Afterwards, we’d convoy over to the cemetery and be met there by volunteer Army Veterans for the 21-gun salute.
Was I sure I wanted the pale blue one?
* * *
Since I had never before been entrusted with anyone’s legacy in print and microfilm, I pulled the last few days of newspapers from Mom’s recycling bin to get some idea of what obituaries were supposed to look like. It was my last task that Monday evening, and it had to be done immediately to make the next day’s paper. I didn’t trust anyone else to do it properly.
Most of the obituaries I read were little more than a cold list of accomplishments and a note about the time and place for the funeral. There was no sense of who the person was or what all those accomplishments added up to. That didn’t seem right. If they didn’t result in a human being worth describing in even the broadest of details, what possible meaning did any of the plaudits and degrees have?
My word count was limited by our budget. I packed in as much as I could:
William Maurice Heasley
A loving husband and father, Bill died on November 23, 1996 a happy man. Bill spent much of his life in the service of others; in particular his family and including his country through a 3-year service in the army. He is also a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and served in many capacities in the church. Exhibiting a Christ-like love towards those he came in contact with, Bill Heasley was an example to all of humility and firmness. He instilled a kind of hope in others that continues even after his death. We know that we will see him again one day and he is dearly missed.
I had perfectly codified my father into one paragraph. The changing tense precise and each adjective chosen for maximum impact and information. It was succinct, and I was quite pleased with it.
No doubt Dad, who was not around to tell me differently, would have thought it the greatest obituary ever written.
* * *
The Shoulders returned on Tuesday, which was motivation enough to stop procrastinating and just write my talk for the funeral already. I had been so sure when I took on the assignment that I would think of something vital to share, but trying to represent Dad’s worldview and take on faith turned out to be harder than I thought. I knew Dad had faith, but I still couldn’t grasp how. I dug around the house, looking for notes, books, pieces of mail, anything Dad had put his hands on for some sort of clue or inspiration.
I found a copy of an audio tape I had received from my family back in March while I was still at the Missionary Training Center. Dad’s hip was replaced in February, just after our trip to Utah together. At the time of the recording, he had just gotten home from the hospital.
Dad: Hello, son… I’m sitting here on the throne—the easy chair here. Just got through cleaning myself up and I’m doing pretty well. Doing my exercises. I’ve been walking down to the end of the block and back, so I think I’m doing well.
The tape was front loaded with Dad’s 911 call and I shared it with the other Elders in my MTC district because by then they’d heard the story and were curious. Their jaws dropped appropriately, which never stopped being a thrill. Most of the rest of the 60 minute tape was filled with news, greetings, and personal messages. Mostly from Mom. According to her, the big news around the house was Dad’s newfound ability to bawk like a chicken. She insisted I hear it, but Dad was a bit more reluctant about sharing.
Mom: Do the chicken thing.
Mom: Do it. Do the chicken.
Dad: Well, why can’t I just take him out and let him listen to Daisy, our pet chicken?
Mom: All right, go ahead.
Dad: Nah, I’m just kidding, we don’t have a pet chicken Daisy.
Mom: [Bursts out laughing] What, did you think he was gonna believe you? I can barely put up with the cat.
Dad: Well, you never know what the boys will bring home from school.
Mom: McKay wants a rat.
Dad: A rat? Your mother says McKay wants a rat for his birthday.
Mom: Next week.
Dad: Um, I don’t think he’s going to get it.
I hadn’t listened to the tape since Utah. It was the last record of his voice I had.
Dad: Well, I don’t know much else to say. I miss ya. Um, I guess I’ll sign off by doing my one lone impression of the farm animal. I don’t know if this is something you really wanna hear, but I guess this is my one claim to fame.
Oh yeah, I guess Mom is sending you the 911 tape. It had been some time since I heard it, so…it’s funny how you remember things a little differently over the years. But, of course once I heard it again it brings it all back. That was definitely an eventful evening. So, I guess I shouldn’t say I hope you enjoy it. [chuckles] But, uh, it is quite unique I suppose. Well, I think your Mom’s got more to say. Surprise, surprise. So, here it goes.
[Dad imitates a chicken. Very and creepily well.]
I love you, son. Talk to you later. Buh-bye.
Dad’s segment of the recording stopped, replaced by empty hiss. With eyes beginning to water, I stared at the tape player in disbelief. Was that all there was? Was this the last record of him I had?
You hadn’t seen him in ten months. And then he was gone.
Do you remember the last thing he said to you?
He told me no one wanted to see me and that I shouldn’t come home.
Yeah. But, he meant it in a good way.
Of course. What about the time before that?
He bawked like a chicken.
Seriously? Last thing he said?
That time, yeah.
For the first time since the night he died, I felt the sting of Dad’s absence. I hadn’t stopped missing him since he’d gone, exactly, but I hadn’t experienced it this acutely, not even when Mom sobbed all over me Sunday afternoon. I felt a kind of aching despair, worn out and hollow, and I knew that space would never be filled again.
The reality of speaking at my own father’s funeral came into focus. What if, instead of having nothing to say, I got up and couldn’t speak? I was proud of the fact I hadn’t cried since the night Dad died and the last thing I wanted to do was put myself in a position where I could potentially break my manly, manly streak. I was at risk of making the funeral into the kind of spectacle it was not intended to be.
The tape clicked and a high-pitched rub out sound transitioned the audio to something new. The background hiss resumed and Dad’s voice came back on.
Dad: Brock, it’s me again. I felt that after I ended I, well—prompted by the Spirit if you will—that I should make a comment about the 911 tape that you and your companions have listened to.
Um, I just—it was as you know, Son, a life-altering experience. It was an experience that changed my entire life and I believe that—ultimately—that it will be for my good. And there’s been a variety of other things that have happened since then that, uh, I guess don’t happen to too many people, but they seem to be things that the Lord has seen fit to throw my way to strengthen me. I believe they have, although I think for a period of time there I wasn’t really aware or could really accept that fact.
“Your father always said he never got any answers to prayers.”
Mom poked her head into my bedroom to see how my talk was coming. Her words confused me. I had seen Dad pray, but had we ever had a discussion about it? I couldn’t remember. There was that night in my bedroom when I vomited words and feelings and Dad thought I was crazy and needed therapy. He said he never got an answer about the Church being true, but I hadn’t thought he was talking about prayer in general. That seemed like a declaration I would have remembered.
“He just didn’t feel like Heavenly Father answered him,” Mom explained. “He used to say it all the time.”
“Even after the shooting—the first one?”
“How could he even think that? Of course he got answers.”
“Well, I know that and you know that, but your father didn’t think so.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, it doesn’t. That was your father.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense.”
“He was a contradiction,” Mom admitted. “I could never figure him out. Believe me, I tried.”
I felt my funeral talk and my perception of Dad collapse under the weight of what Mom’s words. I couldn’t accept any of it.
“But,” I said. “We would talk all the time about life after death and the Gospel and all that—it wasn’t some abstract thing to him. He believed in it. He knew there was something next and he looked forward to it. We talked about that. All the time. I can remember being six and talking about it on the Route.”
“Well, hold on,” Mom said, her hand up. “I didn’t say he didn’t have any faith at all.”
Dad: But I knew when all this was happening—at the time the shooting was going on—I never did lose consciousness. There was a time when I felt, well, this might be the end of my life. And as you heard on the tape I felt that could be so and tried to say goodbye, but it wasn’t too much longer after that that I felt, well, y’know, I’m gonna get through this.
And then after the surgeries and getting out of the hospital and being able to revisit the scene and so on and so forth—and then later on finding out that even though they only hit me thirteen times I was actually shot at 35 times and basically every one of them were from point blank range, no more than eight feet away—so you can see that a miracle was in its work there that I was only hit that many times.
And as I’ve stated many times after going back into my shop and seeing where the bullet holes were, that right where I was standing—cuz I can remember everything, every second of it as if it happened yesterday—there should have been bullets that had gone through my chest or my head. Just like the three bullets they tried to put in the back of my head when I was sitting on the ground—and these are armor-piercing bullets, some of them—and the second wooden door, a one-inch wooden door stopped the bullets, which they shoulda’ never done. So, there was a lot of things going on and I really do feel that somebody was looking after me. It wasn’t my time to go, but for whatever reason the Lord allowed this to happen.
“So,” I said to Mom. “He did have faith. I didn’t imagine that.”
“No,” she said. “That was the thing that used to make me so mad. Your father never doubted for a minute.”
To a lot of people, Dad was the guy who—when he was able to attend church—never wore a tie because of his thick, nearly non-existent neck. Business concerns kept him away from Sunday services with enough frequency that people noticed. They thought of Dad as a storeowner or a bait distributor or a gun salesman or that guy with the swiss cheese legs. But to me there was more to him than guns and worms and the ultimate How I Got These Scars story. The concerns of this life sometimes demanded more of his time than he would have liked, but his chief interests lay in the next world. He was very up front about that.
Or was Dad confused? He believed in a God that never answered his prayers and allowed him to be shot nearly to death—only to actually die later when it happened again. Was that madness? Was there any sense in that?
“Okay, right,” I said. “Right. So, if he didn’t believe in prayer then how…?”
“He believed in prayer as much as he did anything else,” Mom said. “He just didn’t think he got answers to his prayers. For whatever reason, he just didn’t see it.”
“So he had faith, just not a lot of it.”
Mom looked displeased. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
“Well, that’s why he worked on Sundays, isn’t it?”
For years, working on Sundays was a matter of no small disagreement between Dad and me, though he was mostly unaware of this. Sunday, as the designated day of rest, was a day to refrain from working and from doing things that would cause others to work—things like buying groceries and eating out.
It wasn’t until I was several hundreds of miles away and had nine months of pious living behind me that I worked up enough righteous fury to tell Dad that he broke the fourth of Ten Commandments each and every Sunday by selling his guns and his beer. He did this either in person (missing church in the process) or by not closing the Shop so his employees could go home and be with their families. It bothered me that it was on this gravy train of disobedience that a roof was over our heads and a pool in our backyard. I explained to Dad that greater blessings awaited him if only he’d do the right thing. Dad wrote me back two weeks later. It was our last communication.
“Your father told you why he worked on Sundays,” Mom said. “He talked with his Bishop about it years ago and was told then that if the only way to support his family and keep his business going was to work on Sundays, that was between him and the Lord. Your father prayed about it and felt good about staying open on Sundays. And that was that.” Her face couldn’t help but sadly register all the many, many discussions they’d no doubt had on the subject.
“He prayed about it,” I said.
“Yes,” Mom said.
“And he felt good about it.”
“And he never received answers to prayers.”
Dad: And, like a lot of things in life, I think, the shooting was to eventually get me into a more humble position—which it certainly has. Of course I do hope that He doesn’t have any more experiences like this in store for me. I think I’ve had my quota for this life anyway. I hope so. It was one of those, hopefully, once in a lifetime experiences that most people don’t ever go through.
But it was a character-building experience, I believe. One that someday I think I will probably know all of the ramifications as to why and so on, but I know at least part of it was to prepare me for—for whatever He may have in mind.
So I don’t have any feelings of “why me?” or any feelings of, well, that was a terrible thing to be allowed to happen to me. Or anything like that. I don’t blame the Lord for allowing it; I thank him for allowing me to get through it and giving me the strength to do so. Because it was something I don’t believe I could have done without some help.
So anyway, that’s all I really had to say about it. I guess your Mom wants to take up the rest of the time here so I’ll sign off again. And so, uh, I love you and look forward to hearing from you again, Son. Buh-bye.
NEXT: Chapter 31 – The Eyes of a Dead Man
PREVIOUS: Chapter 29 – The Shoulders
START FROM THE BEGINNING: Chapter 1 – Shooting