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.
Mom, her eyes glassy like two freshly scrubbed crystal balls about to tell a truth I was pretty sure I did not want to hear, turned off the music in the living room. Tyler, my youngest brother, was two years old. He was the only one who didn’t stop dancing.
“What?” I asked. “Mom, what’s going on?”
“It’s your father.” She was far away, hatching and rejecting plans for what to do next with such speed I could practically see them fly by as her vacant stare darted back and forth. “Something’s happened and he’s—they’ve taken him to the hospital. I’m going to call my parents and I want you to come with us. To the hospital. Your brothers…they’ll stay here, but I want you with me.”
“Is he all right?”
“I don’t know.”
“But something happened to him?”
“I don’t know.”
My grandparents lived just a few blocks away. Even so, the wait for them to arrive was excruciating. Within its space bred a million possibilities. Some of them pretty terrible. Most of them involving a gun. Has to be a gun, I thought. What else could it be?
Mom called a couple women from church to come over to be with my brothers. She only wanted me with her. Just me. There were times when being the oldest had its perks, and going to the hospital and drinking chocolate milk when something important was going down was one of them. I eagerly searched for my shoes.
My four-year-old brother, McKay, was a spoiled brat—an unfortunate and irritating affliction of personality brought on by a defect in his heart that sped it up into a dangerous double rhythm whenever he got too worked up. Crying would do it. So would swimming, oddly enough. If you took his teddy bear and he cried, you had to give it back and then buy him one that talked or sang or pooped its pants. Anything to make him happy or else he would have an attack. The upside? When McKay had to be rushed to the hospital, I usually went too and got to pick something out from the vending machines in the cafeteria. I always chose chocolate milk.
It was the closest thing to candy Mom would allow us to have outside of Halloween. Cool, creamy chocolate milk in that little paper carton. Once again, it would be mine. As a bonus, and given the hour, I knew I might even get to stay up late that night. There really was a lot to get excited about.
As we drove downtown in my grandparents’ car, I was so grateful telepaths existed strictly within the confines of X-Men comic books. A telepath would see through me right away. They’d see that while my father was potentially hurt, shot, suffering and/or dead (no, not dead), all I could think about was how to manipulate the situation into a sugar rush. Was there something wrong with me? Or was I just trying to make the best of a bad situation?
No way I’d be going to school in the morning. When I eventually did come back in, say, a couple days or even a week (!) later…my dad had been shot. That was kind of cool. And if he was already dead or was going to die? Well, he wasn’t—of course he wasn’t—so I was free to do some guilt-free fantasizing about what it would be like if he did. I’d be that kid. That kid whose dad had died. I’d get to play with that for a while and it could only work in my favor when it came time to choose teams for kickball.
It wasn’t that whatever was going on with Dad didn’t feel real. The whole situation actually felt inevitable, which is just about the best, most comforting version of real. He sold guns. That’s a dangerous profession and it was only sensible to think he might be hurt at some point. That was logical. My family didn’t watch the nightly news and think, “Well, at least that horrible thing on screen is not happening to us.” Instead, we thought, “Gee, I wonder when that will happen to us?” And Dad taught us there was no fear in that. Only acceptance.
He was tough like that. The other kids in the neighborhood felt like their dads could handle anything, but with my dad it was actually true. My dad was built like a tank and could probably take one down if it dared mess with him. Yes, the bad thing would happen, but he wasn’t going to die from it, not now…whatever it was.
It was January 17th, 1989, three days before my twelfth birthday. Three days. (A cool part of the eventual story I’d be able to tell.) When we arrived at the hospital, Grandpa helped my still shaking mother out of the car. Both he and Grandma were good about always being there when we needed them, but also hanging back to allow my mother to do what she needed to do according to how she understood to do it. They gave counsel, not lectures or opinions that were not to be argued with. We all followed Mom’s lead to the emergency room.
I’d never been to an adult ER before. I was expecting something noisier. Where were the people screaming about their severed fingers and the doctors rushing about wildly, arms flailing as they waved off the impossible-to-meet demands of put-upon nurses and bleeding patients? What about the gurney (that’s what it’s called, right?) with the dying man being rushed to an operating room while his frantic wife ran alongside him weeping until the nurses pulled her away? Where this picture of what the emergency room was supposed to look like came from, I didn’t know, but the eerily quiet scene in front of me was the last thing I expected. It creeped me out.
The voices that could be heard were few and hushed, many of them interrupted by bass-heavy fits of coughing. The low-ceilinged room was full, but not to capacity. Most of the frightened people huddled together in groups around campfires of germs and bacteria, seated in chairs that looked like something straight out of Star Trek with their bowl-like shape and many bright, garish colors. No one had any loose appendages they were trying to support or a barely bandaged head bleeding down the side of their face. They all just looked really sick. Most of them were Hispanic. I knew we were on that side of town, but I wondered why that was.
Once through the Emergency Room, a nurse led us to a secondary waiting room for, I assumed, family members of victims of awesome crimes. Inside the softly lit room were a small couch and a few padded chairs. In the corner between them sat a tiny table with a lamp and a phone. (Maybe to order pizza?) My grandparents and I were ushered in, but a doctor took Mom away immediately. Whatever secret knowledge awaited her, the rest of us weren’t allowed to hear it. Instead, we waited quietly.
In the silence, I thought more about chocolate milk, school and telepaths. I couldn’t wait for my friends to find out what was going on.
When Mom finally came back, she didn’t have much to tell. She seemed calm, but it was the kind of calm people adopt to convince themselves that they’re all right and that their home isn’t really burning. That it’s not cancer in those X-rays. That the car wasn’t just hit by an oncoming truck.
That your husband wasn’t just fatally wounded.
The blankness that returned to Mom’s eyes was a sign that the calm was just a precursor for what would come next. She sat down next to me after closing the door behind her and began to speak, the tremor in her left hand slight but visible as she used it to lean on her chair.
“There was a robbery and… Bill has been shot. Many times. They’ve got him stabilized right now. He’s in critical condition and th-they’ll start working on him soon.”
“How many times?” I asked.
“T-they don’t know yet, Brock. It’s too hard to tell. Some of his wounds are where the bullets came…went in…and some of them are where they went out.”
“Can we see him?”
“Not right now.” She turned to Grandpa and Grandma. “They let me see him for a little bit…I talked to him…but it’s hard for him to say anything right now. They don’t want anyone else to come back just yet. There’s a chance we could see him later…when they’re transporting him to surgery, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Great! It was almost 8’o’clock and in another hour I normally would have been going to bed. My brothers were probably already getting ready and putting on their PJ’s. Suckers.
“Jill,” Grandpa began to ask. “What’s…”
I found it impossible to focus properly on the conversation. Some confusing medical terms were thrown around, but I got the gist: Dad was in a bad way and the doctors were going to work on him and it would be a while before they knew when—or if—he’d survive. Probably not a question we could count on having answered that night.
“Dad, what about the boys? Can you call home and talk to Sister Vance and Sister Pennington for me? Tell them…”
I knew Mom was concerned about my brothers, but I also knew her well enough to see she was using them as a distraction from what was going on. She would busy herself as best she could until the doctors came back with some (definitely good) news. Until then: paranoia, worry. That was Mom. Me, I knew Dad was going to be fine. We were in a hospital (at night!), the place-that-makes-everything-better. The only real question, the only one worth asking, was: When? When would Dad be okay? And that’s when it hit me—what about my birthday party?
She was still talking to Grandpa.
“W-what? Brock, what?”
“Mom, do you think we’ll still be able to go to the game?”
“The hockey game. For my birthday. Dad is gonna take us on Friday.”
Some people think hockey is a sport. It is not a sport. It’s a live stunt show. You can almost always guarantee there will be a fight either on the ice or (preferably) in the stands. The games themselves are barely contained madness. The players skate so quickly and turn so sharply and stop so suddenly that the very ground beneath their feet gives way into a quick puff of white. How did they do that? It defied all my understanding of what a person could reasonably do with their bodies without breaking them in half.
And then there was the snack bar. I knew it was a fountain drink and that (supposedly) the same ingredients used in the back rooms of the Selland Arena were also at my local 7-11, but it was only at hockey games that I got to taste the sweet, sweet nectar that was the best Sprite known to man. One sip after a bite of that other, delicious staple of any hockey watchin’ diet—nachos—and you’d have had a hard time convincing me that Heaven didn’t have its own ice rink. Nachos and Sprite—that’s what was at stake.
“No, Brock,” Mom said. “I don’t think your father is going to feel up to that.”
“Oh.” I suspected that might be her answer and I didn’t try to hide my disappointment. I recovered quickly. “Can I call Matt and Nathan and Wes? To tell them what’s going on? They think we’re still going, but if we’re not then I need to tell them. I could call them right now. I mean, there’s a phone here and we’re just waiting anyway…”
“I don’t know…”
“Please? Mom, I’ll make the calls short. I promise. I’ll just tell them what’s going on and then I’ll get off the phone.”
“All right,” she said with a sigh. She was far too tired to do battle with me that night. “Go ahead and call them.”
I grabbed the receiver from the phone on the table excitedly. They were gonna freak. I called Matt first, calming myself down beforehand in order to act appropriately concerned. I didn’t want to be thought cold or uncaring.
Me: Hey Matt, I’ve got some bad news.
Matt: Okay, what’s up, bud?
Me: Um, we have to cancel my birthday party on Friday. My dad was shot and he’s in the hospital now.
Matt: You’re kidding.
Me: No, it’s bad. It doesn’t look like he’s gonna be well enough to go to the game, if he comes out of it at all. We don’t know for sure, but it’s probably better to just cancel the party. Maybe we’ll go next week.
Matt: Wow. Uh. Uh…okay?
Me: I gotta call the others. See ya.
Matt: Um, see ya.
Matt’s reaction was typical. By the time my calls were done I was quite pleased with myself. I knew that immediately after hanging up my friends would dash over to their parents to tell them what had happened and they, in turn, would dash back to the phone to tell everyone they knew. It was a safe bet that within the hour the hospital would be crawling with Mormons.
It was both the natural consequence and the function of belonging to a church that believes all of humanity is a rather large and very real family—so much so that Latter-Day Saints even refer to themselves as brothers and sisters. If one of their brothers or sisters is hurt, all possible services are offered—be it food or babysitting or a shoulder to lean on. It’s the responsibility all members of the church share. Cain’s ancient question rendered moot by lasagna and green Jello salad.
Sure enough, within an hour, thirty people had shown up. It occurred to me that Mom knew what would happen if I made my calls and probably wanted exactly this.
They were all adults; none of my friends came to comfort me. Okay, yeah, it was late, but how often does your dad get shot and nearly die? (Nearly, mind you.) I was disappointed. I felt robbed. Mostly, I was bothered by all the hugging.
There was no way the little waiting room was going to hold us all. The hospital staff moved us away from Emergency and towards the elevator leading to surgery. Along the wall in the hallway was a long bench upon which my mother sat at one end and I sat at the other. Friends of my mother and mothers of my friends sat and stood by us, wherever they could fit.
A part of me liked the attention, but the greater part wasn’t exactly sure how to behave. I felt small. Awkward. I didn’t know what was expected of me, but I was sure I wasn’t coming through. Everyone seemed to be in distress, and none of my reassurances helped. Worse, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t feel what they were feeling. Dad, after all, was gonna be okay. I knew he would be.
But, what if they’re right to be so concerned? What if I’m wrong?
I hadn’t given that possibility enough attention. All these people were worried and seemed to think something might actually be not okay at the end of this. But they had to be wrong because I knew they were wrong. I knew it. And I wanted my chocolate milk.
There was one person who got it.
“Brock, I saw a vending machine down the hall over there. Is there something I can get for you?”
Brother Willingham was our Home Teacher. Once a month he visited my family, taught us a spiritual lesson, and made sure we were doing okay. If we were sick, Brother Willingham was the man Dad would call to come assist him in giving us a blessing. He was a large man. Wide shoulders. He reminded me of Dad, just taller and in a suit.
That night, the thing that was of the greatest comfort to me was a pack of M&M’s. It was better than chocolate milk. Plus, bonus, Dad was in no position to swindle it away from me.
I wondered why Brother Willingham bought those M&M’s for me. It was his own money he had spent. He had sacrificed for me. The one who wasn’t shot. The one who wasn’t crying at the other end of the bench. Why buy me M&M’s at a time when there was so much else to worry about?
This was no solution to Dad’s problem or to Mom’s worry, but it was a solution to my problem. I relaxed. I didn’t have to put on a show for anybody. All I had to do was eat my M&M’s and wait it out. I felt better knowing someone was on my side and not waiting for the full body shudders and the tears that would prove just how broken up I was by… my father…
I looked over at Mom. Now, with people to lean on, she fell apart, collapsing into sobs as all her strength left her. Later, her mind would wipe away the memory of the entire night.
I watched her in wonder and agony. Seeing Mom that way twisted my insides into knots. How could I be so sure? How could I be so blindly confident that Dad wasn’t in mortal danger when people far more educated and experienced than I had decided it was unknowable?
The answer: Because this was not the end of the world.
I assumed it would feel like the end of the world if Dad was going to actually die. All my hope and confidence in life continuing from one moment to the next was in my parents. If one of them were truly going to be taken from me, then there would be an indication. I was convinced God would not allow something of such significant impact without telling me about it first.
Mom’s fear easily overwhelmed whatever other feelings might want to enter in. That’s why I was there, wasn’t it? Because she couldn’t help but think of the horribleness of it all, and I couldn’t help but think every other way.
I wondered how I might tell her and if she’d believe me. I knew I could convince anyone of anything given enough time and if I spoke persuasively enough. Sure, there was a lot I didn’t understand about what was going on, but that didn’t mean I was wrong. Would she see it that way? Or would she doubt me?
I moved over and sat beside her. She quickly wrapped her arms around me and buried her head in my shoulder. Softly and quietly, I told her.
“Mom, I think everything’s going to be okay. Dad will be all right.”
She held me tighter and cried some more.
NEXT: Chapter 5 – Educated Guesses
PREVIOUS: Chapter 3 – Bullets
START FROM THE BEGINNING: Prologue – Ready