RBDM: Table of Contents (Limited Time Only)

Below is a table of contents for all the chapters. If you haven’t finished yet, you should be able to find where you left off and pick it back up. I’ll leave all the chapters up for another week or so, but after that I think it’s better to take them down, including this post. If you’ve been reading along, I’d love to hear from you. Even if it’s just a “hi.” I miss contact with the world!

RBDM TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prologue – Ready: The funeral is over and it’s time to go to the cemetery, but before we get there my mother has a striking revelation to share.

I.

Ch. 1 – Shooting: Eight years earlier, two men burst into my father’s store and immediately begin shooting.

Ch. 2 – The Call: Alone and dying, my father desperately dials 911 to get some help.

Ch. 3 – Bullets: While my brothers and I dance in the living room, oblivious, my mother receives a mysterious phone call telling her to get to the hospital immediately. 

Ch. 4 – M&M’s: At the hospital, Mom crumbles and I get a whole bag of M&M’s all to myself.

Ch. 5 – Educated Guesses: My father is in critical condition and no one–not even the doctors–know if he’s going to survive. But I do.

Ch. 6 – Playing the Part: While dad struggles in the hospital, I head back to school to enjoy all the attention thrown my way.

Ch. 7 – A Suspicious Peace: Dad returns home from the hospital and I become a bullet wound cleaning expert.

Ch. 8 – Superdad: Months later, Dad is unstoppable, coaching little league, attending Sixth Grade Camp with me, and running down a guy who steals from him.

II.

Ch. 9 – The Wrong Side of Town: On the night before 7th Grade begins, a FBI sting operation gone wrong in our neighborhood prompts Dad to grab his gun and head out on his own to track the criminals down. 

Ch. 10 – A Friend in Need: When helping one friend comes at the expense of my relationship with another, I’m at a loss for what to do.

Ch. 11 – Fight: A friend turned enemy wants nothing more than to beat me to a bloody pulp. A school yard confrontation leads to big changes.

Ch. 12 – Hollywood: A reality show comes calling and Dad leaps at the chance to reenact his shooting for national television.

Ch. 13 – Talking to a Dead Man: The shooting reenactment airs on television and my eyes are opened to what Dad really went through in a whole new way.

Ch. 14 – Edited for Television: Dad’s rush to the hospital is depicted, and he talks about the shooting and what he was really afraid of in his own words.

Ch. 15 – How It Ends: How Dad knew he was going die young. Plus: The reenactment concludes with my national (embarrassing) debut.

III.

Ch. 16 – The Nerd Herd: A move across town means a new school and new friends. 

Ch. 17 – Breaching Brute Protocol: High School begins and I’m determined to make a new start, but the four bullies picking on me at once have other ideas.

Ch. 18 – Good Intentions: Sick of all the misinformation out there about my church, I’m determined to go to a friend’s church and correct her pastor. My parents have other ideas.

Ch. 19 – Sitting On a Chair with Wheels: Is God real? Is my church true? I honestly don’t know and it’s tearing me up inside. A caustic confrontation leads to Dad trying to talk me down.

Ch. 20 – Flood: Holed up in a church building late at night, my friends and I have no idea our entire town is flooding, threatening to trap us.

Ch. 21 – The Last Time: I finally get the answers I’ve been searching for, just in time for Dad and I to make peace and go on a road trip together.

IV.

Ch. 22 – Speaking in Tongues: My life as a missionary begins, but there’s a catch: I have to speak Spanish. I hate Spanish.

Ch. 23 – Bad News: Ten months into my mission, I receive a phone call from my grandfather with news I do not want. 

Ch. 24 – Faithless Prayers: While waiting for confirmation that I what I know in my gut is true, I pray.

Ch. 25 – Worse Than Death: How my father died and the devastating first few moments after I found out. 

Ch. 26 – To The Lord: The Mission President and his wife come to visit and console me. I’ve got a big decision to make about what to do next.

Ch. 27 – Being a Human Being: It’s the morning after and I want nothing more than to do the missionary work I’m supposed to do. But are my motives less than pure?

Ch. 28 – In the Absence of Kneeling Dragons: I return home from my mission many months early to a very different world.

Ch. 29 – The Shoulders: The house has been overrun with mourners, and I doubt very much all of them are there for the right reasons.

Ch. 30 – Speaker for the Dead: Mom has asked me to speak at Dad’s funeral, but I have no idea what to say. A forgotten recording reveals Dad’s feelings about the shooting in his own words and confuses me further as I wrestle with his contradictions.

Ch. 31 – The Eyes of a Dead Man: The day of the funeral has arrived and it’s my turn to speak.

Ch. 32 – Grounded: It’s Thanksgiving Day and I’m home. Should I stay home and not return to the mission?

Ch. 33 – Life After Death: It’s been a long week. Two moments stand out in particular, putting everything else into perspective.

Epilogue: Decades have passed. What happened to me? To my family? What’s the takeaway?

Why take it all down? Because:

I’m just going to do it. At the encouragement of my wife and a few of you, I’m changing the name of the book to The Other Side of Fear and I’m shopping it out…again. After 7 years.

RBDM CH 33E copy

The funny thing is that The Other Side of Fear is SUCH a better title and I don’t know why I never thought of it. That’s really what the book is about: what is on the other side of the worst thing thing you can imagine happening? This is such a theme in my life (and I’m sure many others). I have faced down my worst fears many times–literally the worst things I could think of–and you know what’s on other side of that? Peace. Quite honestly, it’s peace. The worst thing is never so bad as you imagine it to be, and you can never anticipate the ways you will grow and learn and change from those awful happenings. Calamity is how God operates on us. It’s how He fixes us into who we should be (but only if we allow it). And that’s a good thing. That’s what’s on the other side of fear: good things.

Maybe the syncing up of all this with the coronavirus is nothing, but it feels oddly right and clarifying. I’ve been in the house for two solid weeks now, and despite the occasional passing panic when I give into the temptation, I don’t really have any trouble centering myself. There’s a great freedom in knowing the universe will you up at any given moment and that you can take that beating and emerge victorious.

So, into the world this book goes once more. Maybe it will find a home, or maybe it won’t and I’ll get beat up again. Whatever happens, I’ve certainly got enough time on my hands to find out.

RBDM: Chapter 6 – Playing the Part

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.

RBDM CH 6

Me Me and Pa, Dad’s parents, sat me and my brothers down on the living room couch the next morning to tell us the facts. Me Me was grave in her assessments even in the best of times, but on that morning a dark pall crossed her countenance that I had only seen once before, right after Great Grandpa Chuck died. Worse was Pa. He was usually so jovial; smiles and agreement came so easily to him. You knew things were bad if he was concerned.

“Boys, your father is not doing well,” he began. “He’s in critical condition and it’s very likely he will not make it through this. He has been hurt very, very badly. And you need to know that, even if he does make it through this, your father is gone.”

“That’s right,” Me Me continued. “God forbid he doesn’t make it out of this, but if he does he’s never going to be the same. Not ever again. He will always be damaged and he won’t be able to play with you like he used to. He won’t be able to run and maybe not even walk. He’s going to need help from you—from all of us—to do simple things like getting dressed and going…” She stared to tear up. “I’m sorry… going from place to place.”

“Your mother needs your help, too.” Pa picked it back up, turning his attention towards me. “Until your dad comes home, if he comes home, Brock, you’re the man of the house now. You do what your mother says, be a good boy and help her and support her. It’s time for all of you to grow up. That’s the hard thing you have to do now. Your father is broken and you’re gonna have to get used to the idea that things are never going to be the same.”

My brothers listened in silence, not sure what to say. Mom stood nearby, slightly horrified. I understood where Me Me and Pa were coming from, but their prophecies of doom were entirely premature. Dad was a young 39 years old. Things were going to be okay. Why was I so alone in that assurance?

For some reason, God wasn’t speaking to anyone else the same way He spoke to me. That meant I had a very real “Get Out of Jail Free Card” that I didn’t necessarily want or need, but it was tempting to take advantage of it anyway. No parent or teacher or blue-haired attendance lady would give me any grief over using it to skip school the day after my father was shot.

Mom practically begged me to stay home. While the circumstances of her petition were unique, this was not a new opportunity. As far as she was concerned, the ability to read came in a distant second to being safe and secure in an environment where one’s nausea can be constantly attended to by a large Tupperware bowl. The merest hint of a headache, stomachache, or acute spontaneous combustion was reason enough to spread the sheets over the couch, buy popsicles in every flavor, and rent a video game or two to make sure I stayed indoors until the angel of death passed us by. My word alone was good enough, no temperature taking necessary.

The temptation was great, but I could never do something so dishonest as to feign a sickness—that was out of the question. Doing such a thing was sure to induce a different kind of nausea in the pit of my stomach, a legitimate illness of the soul given physical manifestation. One could argue that such sickness would, in effect, become its own justification, but that was a kind of paradoxical guilt I dared not attempt. Would the universe even survive such a breach of the guilt/time continuum? I was sure our mortal realm could not possibly afford to find out.

The decision to head back to school the morning after the shooting was easy. If I had honestly felt even an inkling of what Me Me and Pa were telling me, I might have stayed home, but the last thing I wanted to be guilty of was taking advantage of my father’s injured state. School was most definitely on the agenda.

Besides, I was terribly, terribly excited about going to school that morning after. The idea of the place full of overly concerned teachers and amazed, admiring peers inspired a little laugh inside me that I tried very hard to not let out. I couldn’t wait to see their faces and for them to see how not a big deal it all was. And they would certainly see that. In me. They’d marvel at how I was so okay with everything and wonder at how it was possible. In a way, it would be like a prank. The local news report on the devastating shooting would tell them one thing, but my face and confident, joyful demeanor would prove quite another.

And then I arrived at school and saw their faces.

My attitude was perverse. The pitiful, sad eyes that greeted me as I walked the hallways shamed me, their sympathy an extended gift I could not refuse. I hung my head low and did everything I could to not meet anyone’s gaze. Doing the matter-of-fact, the “oh, it’s no big deal he’ll be all right” seemed like a slap in the face of their concern. I couldn’t do it—sure as I was of Dad’s recover, I could not be so dismissive of the very real feelings everyone had about what my family was going through.

I decided to leave my posturing where it belonged, firmly tucked away with the rest of my beliefs. It wasn’t just honest compassion I would betray with my cavalier manner, it was the very Source of my knowledge. If God was speaking to me, then I could lay no claim to its origin and thus had no right to make light or feed my desire for attention with it. It was too sacred for that.

There was a part I was supposed to play at school, just as I had in the hospital. Proclaiming my father was fine when clearly—clearlyhe wasn’t going to be, wasn’t going to reassure anyone. It was just going to worry them even more, only now about my emotional stability. I gave in to what was expected and endured who I had to be to help others get through the awkwardness that it was to be around me.

My friends, nervous and not knowing exactly what to say or how I’d react if they said it, didn’t ask many questions at first, which was disappointing. But, by lunchtime, after they were convinced a small puddle wasn’t about to form beneath me as I sat in the fetal position at my desk rocking to and fro while the tears fell, they wanted all the details. Finally. A crowd gathered around me in the cafeteria. Kids leaned in from as many as five seats away at the table. I couldn’t help it; I liked talking about it. Even the smallest detail of the night before, like the fact that I’d stayed up all the way to midnight (!) was fascinating to them.

Oh, who was I kidding? That was by far the coolest part.

 

* * *

 

After school let out, I began what would become a ritual for the next two weeks: visiting Dad to see how he was doing in the Intensive Care Unit at Valley Medical Center. The “ICU.” He was “listed in critical condition,” which I understood to mean that if he died then the doctors could throw up their hands and say, “Not my fault.”

The ICU is a house of horrors. It’s a place for people who are shot up to the brim with drugs and have many colored wires and devices hanging out of them. These people are often disturbingly ugly and may suffer from weird, slug-like protrusions from their skin and skin discoloration. They moan, hallucinate, and die. A lot. The only reason you’d ever let a child into an ICU would be to scare and scar them.

I couldn’t imagine any other reason Dad would be in a place like that besides what he was there for. A bear of a man, nothing but multiple gunshots had the power to drag him in there. He only stood 5′ 8″, but no one would have thought to call him small. Some of that was cheeseburgers and fries, but most of it was because he had the build of a Mack Truck.

He pitched in High School, and was even scouted by the Major Leagues until he blew out his knee. He was a Brown Belt in Karate. A sometime golfer. An all-the-time shooter of clay pigeons and targets. A lot of his athleticism he wasted away on long hours sitting behind the wheel of his delivery van or behind the counter at the Shop, but he was still active when called upon.

He was the only parent on the block who would play football with me and my friends. Dad was all-time quarterback, sending the ball as high he could throw it so we all had plenty of time to marvel at the brown dot way up in the sky. Only Superman could possibly throw the ball any farther.

He was nearsighted and wore glasses for years until corrective surgery negated the need. His eyes were brown, like his hair—which was kept short and conservative except for an unfortunate giant sideburns period in the 1970s. His hands were more like paws, hairy on top, rough on the underside, and seemingly massive enough to swallow my head whole. Or protect it.

I spent most of my time with Dad in the ICU looking anywhere but in his direction. Death had his way with him and then decided to spit him back out and let him live anyway. His eyes were at once swollen and sunken in, with dark circles surrounding them, pitting them inside their sockets. He was still mostly orange. I was told that this was because of some liquid or other they had to baste onto him for surgery, like a turkey. I didn’t get what looking like a diseased Oompa Loompa had to do with surgery. From his neck hung a weird tube with a hose running out of it to who-knows-where. It pulled on him so tightly that his neck skin looked as though it had dislodged from the muscle and bone as it ran halfway down his shoulder.

My understanding of Dad’s plight was not helped by the fact that he was hard to understand and hear. Just having the simplest of conversations required getting in very close to his face, which was the last thing I wanted to do. I mean, I loved my dad, but I very much preferred the non-zombie version. From what little I could make out, he seemed pretty upbeat, but was that a) him putting on a brave face for the rest of us, or b) that he was kind of stoned?

In a way, it was a breach of contract. This was not the man who could outrun speeding big wheels and wrestle giant, closeted beasts. If fathers were supposed to be strong for their sons, my dad was supposed to be the strongest. His forearms were like Popeye, his hands capable of beating mountains into shape.

Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Did the beeping of monitors drive Dad nuts like it did me? An up-to-the-minute record of his heartbeat was kept on a long sheet of paper coiled like a lazy snake on the hospital floor—did they need the sound as well? If it hadn’t been for the steady stream of people with badges coming in and going out and checking and rechecking his status, there might have been a chance for him to forget for a moment about his decrepit state…but for that constant beeping.

Dad didn’t think like that. That was all me. Of the pain he would only say, “It hurts.” There was so much in that simple statement, and so much evidence to back it up.

For the most part, Dad’s care was excellent. A qualified team of physicians and health care professionals. Except for Nurse Fumbly. If the bullets weren’t going to do him in, then Nurse Fumbly aimed to pick up the slack.

The stomach had been sliced open first by a bullet and then again by a surgeon’s knife to repair the harm done. When the bullet ripped through, it tore apart the kidney and blew out through Dad’s back. It was a clean exit, but it could have been much, much worse. That solitary abdominal hit—likely the first bullet to gain entry and surely the one that brought him down to begin with—missed his spine by only a quarter of an inch. Of the very elite club of individuals who have been shot upwards of thirteen times, there are very few who can then report (assuming they live to tell the tale) “I was lucky,” but Dad did it with conviction. Sure, his body wasn’t a pretty sight, but the worst of what the bullets could do to him had been felt on the cold floor of the Shop. No, what really hurt was that long cut the surgeons made straight down the middle of his stomach.

Nurse Fumbly liked to call it her tray.

Multiple times daily during Dad’s hospital stay, tubes needed to be changed, bags of fluid swapped, and wires crossed. It was all very technical. Too technical for Nurse Fumbly. In order to free up her mind and hands, she took her plate of medical goodies and placed it on the nearest available surface—my father’s fleshy bed of sensitivity. He would wince and cry out, but you don’t disturb Nurse Fumbly when she’s ‘in the zone.’

“Now, let’s see… this wire goes here… no, that’s not right. Wait, I’ve got it. This tube goes over here and… oh, dear.”

Finally, my father knew fear. He also knew a good story when he lucked into one and, while he prayed that this woman would not do to him what even two ill-meaning men and their semi-automatic submachine guns could not manage, it was easy to see that he took great delight in telling the tale of the daily, comical threats to his well-being. He especially enjoyed imitating her low mutterings, “I know it’s…no, that doesn’t make sense. Perhaps if I…”

Despite Nurse Fumbly’s best efforts, Dad made steady progress every day for his two weeks in the ICU before they took him off the critical list, defying all the early predictions of his physicians. For two weeks they were certain he would not be long for this world. For two weeks my family and friends wondered and hoped and prayed. For two weeks I never doubted.

Three weeks after the shooting, Dad was sent home.

I was right. Or God was. Whichever.

NEXT: Chapter 7 – A Suspicious Peace

PREVIOUS: Chapter 5 – Educated Guesses

START FROM THE BEGINNING: Prologue – Ready

RBDM: Chapter 5 – Educated Guesses

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.

RBDM CH 5

A full-sized Donkey Kong video game cabinet sat near the front door. I spent every possible minute jumping barrels and rescuing damsels in distress, my Atomic Fire Ball cooling in a Dixie Cup full of water next to the joystick (a low-rent chemistry experiment that made it easier for me to skip the “fire” and get right to the sugar). Meanwhile, just a few feet away, someone would ask Dad if he could see a handgun before purchasing a Coke and a pack of Marlboros. If my time outside our home on Buckingham Way was spent anywhere besides church and school, it was at The Shop.

I knew there wasn’t much to it. The entirety of the Shop seemed quite a bit smaller than the three-bedroom house we lived in. Definitely dustier. Winds from the surrounding countryside and farmlands kicked up the dirt surrounding it on the regular, pushing it inside and casting a thin blanket of wispy grime on the cracked cement floor. A broom behind the counter justified its existence by shooing it all away on at least a quarterly basis. Deep, muddy puddles dressed the Shop on all sides after a rain, with the exception of the side it shared with the bar next door. The front faced out toward the highway, a flat slab of concrete its only accouterment. If you could see it. The manmade parking surface was usually covered in oil and sludge.

The backrooms—secret places at every grocery store and mini-mart my father didn’t own—didn’t hide anything special. Just palettes of beer and soda. The walk-in freezer housing the fishing bait Dad distributed throughout the Valley, as effective as it was as a refuge during the summer, reeked of worm and earth.

I was Bill’s Son, the little prince within the Shop that was his kingdom. The Donkey Kong games were always free of charge. So were the New York Seltzers (always the Vanilla Crème) that gave such sweet relief when the temperatures swelled and the swamp cooler wasn’t cutting it. Drinks, Frozen Burritos of questionable nutritional value, and candy (whose nutritional value—or lack thereof—was never in question) were all there for the taking. Long as I asked King Dad first.

One particularly busy day, he bestowed upon me all necessary authority to run the place in his stead while he took a call in the back. For my part, I hated even going up to the attendant to hand him money while Dad pumped the gas outside. Something about dealing with adults in an official setting made me nervous. I didn’t want to mess anything up (It’s money! Think of the consequences! [What consequences?] I don’t know!). But I did it anyway, there atop the stool brought out from the back so I could greet customers at eye level. This is how I ended up, at nine years old, selling my first and only alcohol.

The adults that came into the Shop that day put me at ease. They got a big kick out of my large, bowl-cut brown head peering out from behind the register and ringing up their purchases. Counting back change was beyond me, but no one seemed to mind. I soon eased into a routine and hit the sales tax button with confidence.

Once Dad was done with his call, he came back out to count the money.

“How did you do, Son?”

“Good!” I said. “It was fun. I sold some candy bars and some of the shrimp cocktails. And some beer. I sold a lot of beer.” I was so proud of myself.  “Beer is expensive!”

“You sold beer?”

“Yep.”

“Brock, you can’t sell alcohol!”

“What? What do you mean? Yes, I did. I sold it.”

“Brock, listen to me.”  Dad was a little panicky. He looked around. No one else was in the store at that point, but still… “You can never sell beer or alcohol! I know you didn’t know, but I could get in a lot of trouble.”

“What about Near Beer?”

Near Beer was Dad’s favorite non-alcoholic beer. Even though he had given up drinking alcohol long before I was born, he still loved the taste. I tried it a few times and thought it must have been sense memory or something because the taste of feet wrapped in soggy bread seemed an odd thing to want to revisit. I figured the only attraction to beer in the first place must be the alcohol itself. Only a brain turned to mush could actually enjoy that grainy, obscene flavor. Dad decided it was okay for me to sell Near Beer, but never again did I sell the real stuff.

Dad’s small, wholesale bait distribution empire was run out of the narrow walking space that passed for the main backroom. I made my first million (in nine-year-old dollars) packaging worms at the tall, wooden table with years of soil and sweat caked into it. I worked alongside my younger brother Logan (just two years younger) at the high chairs that barely reached the table, removing the worms from flat boxes of black, moist earth and packing them into white, cup-shaped styrofoam cartons with the Bill’s Bait & Tackle logo on them for use as live fish bait. The worm version of death row.

My brother and I did lots of odd jobs. The key to the Shop’s presentation was an oft-used bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels that were never more than arm’s reach from the front register. The glass display cases were top priority. What gun unseen in its full splendor could then be sold?

Outside, Logan and I had room to run and play and shoot. We were a deadly two-man, BB gun firing squad. No toy army man was safe from our blistering, pump action delivery of death. Logan was a crack shot, while I saw to it the only true casualty of the war against our green, plastic oppressors was the shade tree we lined them up against.

Easier prey were the minnows in the tanks at the back corner of the inside of the Shop. There to keep a particularly squirmy form of fishing bait fresh, the metal tanks were no aquarium. Deep and always green around the edges, they looked more like Cannery Row chum buckets than appropriate housing for live merchandise.

A small, long-handled net for collecting the fish rested nearby, and it was my pleasure and privilege to use it. After scooping the minnows up and bringing them out into the open air, they’d hop and flail in my trap, gasping for the water I denied them. I teased them with death.

Sometimes a particularly slippery one would manage to hop his way out of the net and back into the tank before I had decided his suffering was over. To assert my authority, I’d pull it back out again. It was part of the game. No harm truly done. I always made certain each one made it back into the tank. There was another, later death awaiting them.

 

* * *

 

It was nearly eleven at night (!) when I finally saw Dad for the first time since the Shooting. He was in mid-transit to the Operating Room, alive and somewhat responsive, but not in good shape. Six hours had passed since he had been shot and it would be many hours more before the doctors were through with him.

As Mom and I sat together on the bench in the hallway, they rushed Dad out from between the double doors and prepared to load him into the elevator. The doctors motioned to us to come over and talk to him. I hesitated. What could I say? Whatever it was, everyone would hear it. I cared about that. What did they think I was supposed to say?

Mom went first, leaning in close to Dad’s ear. I couldn’t hear her. She stroked his face and tears fell. The doctors looked antsy. Was time of the essence? Were we holding them up from saving Dad’s life? Maybe we should just step back and get out of the way…

Mom looked back at me and I went over to Dad quickly. He was broken, painted orange, and ugly. Tubes ran out of him in all sorts of places where they should not. Wires dangled everywhere. He didn’t move except to breathe and turn his head. He was my father, supposedly, but he looked so unfamiliar and weak I immediately felt uncomfortable. His appearance frightened me.

With my mother and everyone from church watching, I spoke quietly. No tears in my eyes.

“I love you, Dad.”

His eyes, bloodshot and the skin around them puffy, rolled up towards me. A small smile crept over his face. He was just lucid enough to whisper back, “I love you, too, Son.”

And with that he was off to surgery.

As I watched him being loaded into the elevator I took a good long minute to consider the possibility I had just seen Dad for the last time. What would it be like to grow up without him? At almost twelve-years-old, I was the oldest of four boys. My mother held no outside job. She never had as far back as I could remember and I was pretty sure moneymaking was not in her skill set. Who would take care of us? Someone else would have to take care of us; Mom wouldn’t be able to handle it. If Dad died, what would we do?

Reality—so called—tried to settle in. Dad was hurt, badly. He’d lost a lot of blood and vital parts of his body were severely damaged. He was dying. No one was saying it, but it was obvious that’s what was happening.

But, that was the present.

Heading to a final destination and arriving there are two different things.

For all the knowledge the doctors possessed, even they could only speculate at Dad’s fate. Anyone could look at what was happening and extrapolate from that the probable, negative outcome of the night. They could do that and be certain they were right. Or, they could be wrong no matter what their fancy degrees and years of experience told them. Death was the educated guess. But, it was still just a guess.

I didn’t have to guess. I knew.

No, I reminded myself. This isn’t it.

NEXT: Chapter 6 – Playing the Part

PREVIOUS: Chapter 4 – M&M’S

START FROM THE BEGINNING: Prologue – Ready

RBDM: Chapter 4 – M&M’s

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.

RBDM CH 4

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?

“Mom?”

She was still talking to Grandpa.

“Mom?”

“W-what? Brock, what?”

“Mom, do you think we’ll still be able to go to the game?”

“What 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: Yeah.

Matt:

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…

…dying.

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

Seizure Two (Part Two)

You can read part one of this story here.

Cami and me at the movies.

As a matter of sanity, we’ve accepted that perhaps Cami will not be long for this world. If no one knows what’s wrong with her, then what’s wrong with her could be far worse (or far better) than any of us know. The joke has always been that Cami is just aging slowly—that she’s like some throwback to early Biblical times and this is just what a super long life looks like at the beginning of it. But, if thats’ not the casse, then where does that leave her? How long can a person whose body develops so little and has her attendant complications expect to live? No one knows.

Erin jumped into the ambulance with Cami and I headed back into the house. Elora was on the phone, but handed it over quickly. Erin’s friend Kristie had been driving home and followed the ambulance down the street. She called as soon as she could after seeing it stop at our house and graciously offered her services. I thanked her and asked her to come by and grab Elora.

Elora, bored with listening to one side of a conversation she cared little about in the first place, was now on the computer playing a game. After getting off the phone with Kristie, I scolded her.

“Elora! Now…now is not the time to be playing on the computer!”

“What? Mommy said I should!”

“S-she did?” Of course she did.  That’s because your mother is a genius.

By the time Kristie had gotten to our house I had called both grandmas. My mom volunteered to have Elora stay with her, and Kristie was tasked with taking her over there.  I knelt down beside Elora before she left to reassure her that Cami would be okay (as if I knew any such thing) and that she hadn’t done anything wrong by laughing at her. There was no way she could understand what was happening.

The first time this happened Elora was already in Los Angeles ahead of us and spent much of that night sobbing. Now, seeing it firsthand, it was different for her. We said everything was going to be fine and she believed us. I was grateful for that.

By the time I got to the hospital, the ambulance had already arrived, but only just. My Mother-in-Law, Lynn, was there too. We embraced and waited for our chance to go back into the ER to be with Cami and Erin. When we finally got to them, Erin, her face red with the trauma of the past hour, was laying on her back on the bed and Cami was lying face down on top of her.

Cami still moaned, softly. The seizure had taken her normal behavior and thrown it back about three years. There was a time when she was just a lump.  A cute lump, but still a lump that didn’t do much other than sleep and stare.  The pain was forcing her back into that. That’s what I told myself. It was just the pain.

After the doctor and nurses got the I.V. in her (and after a lot of screaming, of course) the lump insisted on sitting up and rising back to life. I pulled out my iPod, treating her to a silent home movie I had edited together in which she is the star. She also got to play as much Awesome Ball as she wanted. With strength that had been beyond her reach just an hour earlier, she shook the virtual ball as hard as she could, laughing as she sent it careening around the virtual room. For some reason, bouncing balls are hilarious to Cami, real or unreal.

“Hi,” she turned to me and said.

“Hi,” I said back.

* * *

Cami has had other seizures since, but the last one was a year ago. Near as anyone can tell, they’re not damaging her in any permanent way.  

Seizure Two (Part One)

This is from a few years ago, but this is its first appearance on this blog.

Cami in a blanket fort

She wouldn’t eat her french fries. I should’ve known something was up when the fries just sat there on her plate and she demanded rice. Who the crud prefers rice over fries? Not Cami.

“She didn’t get much of a nap in today,” My wife said.

“That’s weird,” I said.

After we left the restaurant, I set Cami down on the ground as soon as we entered the house and she dashed (in her own way) for her bedroom, following her big sister.  Erin and I stayed in the living room so she could perform her wifely duty and point out my faux pas at dinner (lesson learned: don’t play iPod games at the table).

No, wait.

That’s wrong.  We debated my table manners in the car on the way home. The conversation we had in the living room I can barely recall at all because everything that happened after leaving the restaurant is obscured by the memory of our oldest daughter Elora cackling in the hallway.

“That’s funny! Hahahaha! That’s funny, Cami!”

What was so funny? Elora just kept laughing. Erin’s curiosity moved more quickly than mine and she went to see what was going on. I started taking keys and change out of my pockets for my big, post dinner lay down.

“Brock! CALL 911!”

“What? Why?” Dang it, was my first thought. I really wanted to play Guitar Hero. Instead of grabbing the phone, I rushed over to see what was going on first. The Digital Guitar Gods demanded I find out if there was a chance Erin was overreacting.

Erin was crouched low over Cami, panicking. Cami had fallen, having lost control of her body. I knew this sight well. A year ago we were on our way to Los Angeles when by chance I looked over at Cami in the backseat, only to see her staring directly into the sun.

“Cami. Cami! Don’t look into the sun, sweetheart. Don’t do that.  Cami!  …Cami?”

Then I noticed that she wasn’t looking into the sun at all. She couldn’t, not with her eyes rolled into the back of her head. She was shaking, too.  Every limb was flopping about like so many out-of-water fish. Now, in the hallway, she was doing it again.

For the first time in my life, I called 911. Cami has special needs. She’s too small for her age and can’t say but a few words. The best neurologists in San Francisco don’t know what’s wrong with her, but they told us if she ever had another seizure then we should call for an ambulance immediately. Sure, the first one was a febrile seizure (a common attack of the brain brought on by a sudden fever than happens to lots of young kids), but with Cami it could always be more than that. A seizure could be the sign of something horrible.  A deterioration of her already puzzling physical and mental health.

“911. What is your emergency?”

“My daughter–she’s having a seizure! She’s very small and has special needs and she needs a hospital right away.”

The 911 operator confirmed my address and dispatched an ambulance immediatley. I gave real-time updates on the phone as Cami stopped shaking after about a minute and then lay very, very still. Erin stayed right with her. Knowing what was coming, she ordered Elora into her room to change into pajamas. She didn’t know where Elora would end up in all this, but it sure wasn’t going to be the hospital. Plus, it kept our laughing daughter busy.

The operator on the phone assured me that Cami was progressing out of her seizure just fine. I hung up the phone and went into the hallway. Erin scrambled to get ready to leave, putting her shoes back on.  I took over with Cami, scooping her up into my arms and sitting with her on the floor of the hallway while she moaned and cried softly.  I hadn’t cradled her with such trepidation since the day she was born. The look of confusion on her face broke my heart.

The dog and the cat were agitated. The sirens were getting close. That’s when it hit me.

“Erin! The dog!  They’re here and the dog is out!” Elora, age 6 and freshly dressed in her PJ’s, walked by and stepped over us to make her way to the drama-free living room. “Elora, put Plato in his kennel!”

“How am I supposed to do that? I don’t know how! Sheesh.”

“Erin!”

“What?” Erin shouted back from the bedroom.

“They’re HERE. The DOG!” Plato is a good dog, but he likes to greet all new visitors with a bark and a climb. That wasn’t going to happen. Erin got him into the kennel not five seconds before the men in their we’re-here-to-help-you suits knocked on the door.

Elora answered. “Hi!”

“Hi, sweetie. Can you tell us what’s going on here?”

“My sister fell down. She had a seizure in the hallway.”

They came in quickly, kneeling with speed and care in front of us. I thought of E.T. and how he was lying next to Elliott as the scary men in hazmat suits rushed in to take him away.  Cami had just started saying her second word that week. “Da” or “Dada.” Now this? How fair was that? Can your brain be damaged by a seizure? Even frickin’ E.T. has a bigger vocabulary than her. There would be no magnificently huge tubes leading us from the door of the house to the ambulance.

Several questions were asked of me about Cami’s current state, all of which I answered on autopilot. I made sure to appear calm, but inwardly there was one thought that overtook all others: Please don’t let this be the one that takes her from us.

Read the rest of the story right here.