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.
Dad placed his hands on my head and the men gathered in a tight circle around me the chair I sat in. They stacked their right hands over his, one on top of the other, each of them courteously supporting the weight of those above their own to not overburden my bowed head. I could feel the meat of Dad’s palms dig in nonetheless.
Up against Dad’s, my own hands looked relatively frail and elegant; easily swallowed up in a handshake with men or very husky boys. They wouldn’t have looked out of place on woman and made for perfect partners for my tiny, slender wrists. I wondered if my hands might fill out at some point or if I’d always see bone where Dad had so much muscle and flesh. I was eighteen years old. By now if ever, I thought. But still, as a man, I hoped for a brighter, more masculine future.
The room was deadly quiet. Feet and butts on metal chairs shuffled in the silence while the cylinder of men did their best to get into a comfortable position. There was no telling how long they would need to stand around me, that was up to Dad. They bowed their heads and closed their eyes and waited. Finally, my father began.
“Brock William Henry Heasley, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood which we hold, we place our hands upon your head and confer unto you the Melchizedek Priesthood and ordain you to the office of Elder with all the rights, powers and authority thereof.”
I was five months out of High School and two months away from going out on a volunteer mission for the Church, just as I was supposed to. Whatever other questions I had about life or God or any of it, this much was a given: I would go on a mission. I was about to turn nineteen and that was the age of eligibility. It was time and I had been spent my entire life preparing for it.
My call was to serve in Arizona to teach Spanish speakers the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their own language and dedicate my life entirely to the Lord for the space of two years. It was an assignment I received only days earlier. It was an assignment I desperately did not want. I had no hesitation in giving up my family, my friends, dating, school, my new job at the movie theater and (for that matter) movies, television and comic books. But English? I did not want to give up English.
I didn’t want to admit it but my call to serve—handed down from the Prophet and President of the Church himself—seemed more than a little uninspired. My call gave me doubt I didn’t need. Spanish? I got C’s in Spanish. Barely.
I hadn’t moved on much at all from the night questioned my sanity. I remained in a state of default belief, but that perfunctory hope still refused to bear fruit. My willingness to serve a mission was a child’s commitment, founded on a child-like faith based more in trust than understanding. I felt some guilt about that. Could I go door-to-door preaching something I only wanted to be true? It seemed I would have to. What else could I do? Go to college?
Unlike Dad, I’d never stopped asking what was true. I knew that was the coward’s way out. If I accepted the stories of the scriptures even in part, then I had to accept that God sometimes tests His people’s patience. He—I was certain—now tested me. I clung to that idea, though my behavior did not always indicate I was anywhere near passing the test. My prayers were more token than diligent. Just long enough to feel like I was doing my part and just often enough to annoy God with all my constant pleading.
I made my bed with belief. Belief, I told myself—not knowing—was enough. But I was wrong about that.
I concentrated, closed my eyes even tighter, and pushed all other thoughts out of my head. Dad continued the blessing with his own words.
“We bless you with a desire to read from the scriptures regularly. As you do so, you will find the counsel within the words of God and His prophets that will have the most meaning to you. We bless you with strength and a willingness to serve…”
I wanted to remember this moment, what it felt like to sit there and receive the power and priesthood of God. The power to act in God’s name was, I knew, no light thing. I would now be able to serve in the Church in a leadership capacity, if so called. I would be able to give blessings of healing and comfort. I would be able to enter the Temple fully, and experience all of its attendant blessings. I would serve God and the people of Arizona as an adult—as a man.
Would there be a moment when I felt the power enter my body? What could a thing like that possibly feel like? I didn’t know and the longer the blessing went on, the more it seemed I would never know. It was just another blessing, not at all unlike the countless other blessings I’d received from Dad on the first day of school or when I was sick.
“We bless you with faith and understanding. We bless you that you will have His Spirit with you as you fulfill your priesthood callings and attend to your duties; that you will have joy in His service and be mindful of what you—”
Dad stopped talking. He stopped cold.
And hard. I felt tremors in his fingertips as they dug more deeply into my scalp. The duration of the pause grew to an exceptional length, beyond awkward silence and into “Did he fall asleep?” territory. My head grew hot. I listened intently and only to Dad’s breathing, waiting for the next piece of advice or insight. It wasn’t coming. Why this pause?
Finally, he continued—but now, his voice was different. Shakier and lower.
“Brock…you are about to encounter many challenges. Hard times are ahead of you both in your mission…and in your life. There will be great trials, but your Father in Heaven has every confidence that, as you trust in Him, you will overcome them.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
The men surrounding me echoed my father’s Amen.
I felt the life drain from me. My entire body seemed to consist of only one organ: my stomach. Which felt awful. I had no power to give over to my limbs, no ability to speak. My eyes opened, but I saw nothing. My mind raced ahead of me, overwhelmed with thoughts and empty at the same time. Not a thing or person in the room was of consequence.
What did Dad’s final words mean? “Hard times?” Like what? Why would he say that?
Somehow, I managed to get up from my chair and stumble through a half-hearted round of shaking hands with the men who participated in the blessing. Dad was last and we embraced.
I turned around and walked back to my seat next to my family, who were there as witnesses and as support. The “room” we were in was really just a section of the main hall of the church partitioned off by a vinyl curtain. Directly above our heads was a basketball hoop folded up into the ceiling (as it always was when not in use—no one was fooled, our meeting was in a gym).
Mom beamed. My brothers looked like they couldn’t have cared less. Now that it was over they would return to their respective classrooms. Except it wasn’t over.
“And now,” the Bishop said. “I’d like to ask Brother Heasley to come up and share his testimony with us.”
I got up without thinking. “No,” he said. “The other Brother Heasley.” What other Brother Heasley? Why was the Bishop so confused? He pulled me by the arm towards a space my father did not need to occupy. I felt a little embarrassed and wondered why the room was so big and everyone so far away. They all sat at the ends of long, long tunnels.
Dad’s testimony was short and sweet, as it usually was whenever he was called upon to share it. There was little that made him as nervous and uncomfortable as having to stand in front of people and deliver any kind of impromptu speech.
When Dad was done, the Bishop turned to me and indicated it was now my turn. I moved back to the center of the room while Dad took his seat next to Mom.
I lifted my eyes and did my best to focus them, but it was difficult. “I feel weird,” I managed to say. “There’s, ah—there’s no other way to describe it. I suppose that explains my behavior just a minute ago.”
I got a few pity laughs, but they could just as easily have been snickers. My intent was to then bear my testimony—to share with everyone all that I believed and how excited I was to go on a mission (leaving out the hatred of Spanish part).
Instead, I could not speak. Because I can’t talk while I’m crying.
The tears so completely overwhelmed my face they blocked my speech and plugged my nose. I was overcome by… emotion? Is that what it was?
At first, I did not know. I bit my lip to keep from blubbering and scolded myself for the wretched display that was my face. Meanwhile, everyone waited. Staring at me. If I’d been able to speak without sputtering, I probably would have ditched the testimony and just started apologizing.
My mind was clear. I had no explanation for the unnerving, involuntary, and vulgar convulsions of my body. This is being done to me, I thought. I am not choosing this. If it’s possible to have an out-of-body experience while remaining in one’s body, then that’s what was happening to me. I felt… something. And it was intense. But, I could neither define it nor halt it. This went on for a full minute and a half. I was a victim, publicly tortured by whatever force had taken hold of me.
I started to put together what was really happening. Strange, unfamiliar thoughts barged their way into my mind, an intelligence I neither possessed nor was capable of generating.
I realized I was not the victim of what was happening. I was the beneficiary. It was as though all the emotion had cleaned me out, breaking apart all other feelings and thoughts so these new ones had a place to go. This new, vast space filled almost to overflowing with knowledge—more pure and refined and exact than any I had ever known. It rushed in so powerfully and with such clarity that neither natural occurrence nor imagination could possibly explain what was happening.
Here, now, was the answer I had longed for.
Any concerns I had about where I was or who was in the room with me fell away as I received my gift. I knew God was real and that Jesus Christ was the Savior of the world—my Savior—and that His gospel and the Church were true. It was all true. It could not have been simpler or more plainly stated in my mind. No proofs were presented. No facts clicked into place leading me to one, inevitable conclusion. I just knew. Better than I had ever known anything and, I suspected, better than anyone could ever know anything at all.
I gave into my tears and I welcomed them. I didn’t care what my face looked like anymore as I sobbed a pure, joyful gratitude. This was my moment and if it had to happen with so many surrounding me, then that was their dumb luck. To know what is true—really, actually true—what gift could be greater? It was one I had quite nearly given up hope of receiving. Why me? Why now? I had no idea.
That’s when I got mad.
Really, genuinely angry. It rose up inside of me as I thought about all the people—all of my brothers and sisters out there—who didn’t have what I had in that moment. How was that right or just? I had gone so many years without an answer, but I at least knew where to look. How many people didn’t even know that much? How many didn’t know the right questions to ask? It did not seem right to me that anyone should be denied the truth I now possessed, for any reason. The reality of an Adversary was so clear. There was a force in opposition to truth that would do anything to stop people from obtaining it. A devil.
A desire for physical, punishing violence rippled through me. In that moment, my skin was just a container for my spirit and my rage. I felt like I could take on Satan himself and turn him into a bloody, pitiable mess. It wasn’t right that people didn’t have what I had in that moment. I knew. I knew the most basic function of the universe and my place in it. My heart ached for those left wanting and my emotions turned from gratitude to a deep sorrow. It didn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way.
I became conscious of the room again. Several minutes had now passed without even one word escaping my lips. I tried saying something just to see if I could.
The tears started back up and I clammed up again. I both wanted to experience and live inside of this moment forever, and see it end immediately. I averted all gazes, but from the sounds of the creaking chairs those in the room with me were feeling more than awkward on my behalf. No doubt they wondered when I might finally sit down. So did I.
I let another minute pass before attempting to speak again.
My sincerest desire was to somehow communicate to everyone in the room just exactly what I felt, to give them a piece of it, but I knew that was impossible. Instead, I said very simply and with a power behind my voice I didn’t know I had:
“I…know that Jesus Christ is my Savior and that He lives. I know the Church is true and that we have a Father in Heaven who loves us and knows us.
“This I say in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
* * *
Dad chose to drive me the 1,000 miles to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, UT himself. It was cheaper than a plane and if there was one place where Dad and I didn’t have any problems getting along with each other, it was on the road. We wanted to take our time and see the sights, so we stretched it out. Three days, just the two of us.
We piled my two suitcases into the silver Volvo station wagon. The large, black trench coat I would wear during the Utah winter for the next nine weeks (and never again) hung on a hanger at one of the back windows. We said our goodbyes from the street in front of our house. Mom cried. I hugged her tightly and told her I loved her. I told my brothers the same. Two years was a long, long time.
I couldn’t wait for it to start.
We took the southern route and in Las Vegas we stopped for lobster and sleep. Dad talked all through the Mojave desert about how on the Strip you could find the cheapest, most delicious lobster you’d ever tasted. The best part? It was All You Can Eat. He wasn’t wrong—it was very good—but why did it have to be Vegas? Was it necessary that our waitress serve us eyefuls of cleavage along with our food? Judging by the other servers in the restaurant and their equally low cut tops, the answer was yes. Bad enough were the showgirl-enhanced billboards greeting us on our way into town. Did the local dining also have to be so immodest? Surely, at those prices, the restaurant could move the lobster without the sex marketing.
Las Vegas seemed a sad, depressed town to me. Everything in the city was in the service of pleasure and the trapping of attention and time. I felt like an alien visitor to a foreign land whose customs I couldn’t understand. So this is what being a missionary feels like, I thought.
My first and only previous journey to Utah was just a few months earlier during a road trip with a friend. My favorite part of that trip was when we finally got out of the long, boring nothing that was the Nevada desert and first entered the mountains of Utah just past St. George. Fall was on the horizon, and there was a sharp bite to the cold rushing by outside, but it wasn’t so bad we couldn’t roll down our windows. Since my friend’s car stereo status remained at “stolen,” our only playback option was the boombox we put at my feet on the passenger side. We sang along at the top of our lungs to Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and it was glorious. Now that I was with Dad and back in those same mountains—surely the most beautiful I’d ever seen—I was intent on recreating that experience and feeling.
Mr. McGuire would have gone over well with Dad. His firm belief was that no good music had been produced past 1970 and that people hundreds of years in the future would still be singing along to Red Rubber Ball while the correct pronunciation of Nirvana fell by the wayside. I knew that belief put Dad squarely in the same camp as those who could not understand how a cardigan sweater could be worn ironically, but I was confident it was ignorance and not taste that held him back. There was a lot of good stuff out there. He just never took the time to hear it.
“Dad, I’ve got a tape,” I told him. “Mind if I play it?”
“Think you should?”
“President Tanner just set you apart as a missionary two days ago, Son. You think listening to heavy metal is the best thing for you right now?” Every kind of music Dad hated was heavy metal, which to him was synonymous with evil. I knew this to be false. God was not as close-minded as Dad. He hears everything and everyone, and, since power ballads are awesome, I knew He must be a fan.
“He told me I don’t have to follow all of the mission rules yet—they can change from Mission President to Mission President anyway. He just told me to be good and not do anything stupid, basically.”
I popped in my ‘Brock’s Utah Trip 1’ cassette and sat back. Track one: Tonight, Tonight by Smashing Pumpkins. To my ears, the song was a thing of rare beauty, an aural feast that could be forever dined upon for helping after helping of inspiration and uplift. It featured lots of dad-friendly orchestration and a haunting lyric that meant… something I had never quite been able to parse.
Time is never time at all/
You can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth/
And our lives are forever changed/
We will never be the same/
The more you change the less you feel
“How can you listen to that?” Dad said after only a couple of verses.
“What are you talking about?”
“Turn it off. I’m not listening to that.”
“Dad, just give it a chance.”
“I did. I don’t like it.”
“How can you say that? This is a great song.” I was a little offended and more than a little disappointed. I had taken great pains to create a mix both Dad and I could enjoy. Like any good mix, I led with my best stuff. If he didn’t like the Pumpkins, then what were we supposed to listen to?
“That’s not a song, Son. That’s noise.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Listen to it. You call that music? He sounds like he’s whining. This is whining with accompaniment. Did you bring anything good?”
“Seriously?” I got angry. Why was that? It was just a stupid song, but I wanted Dad to like it. I didn’t know why, but that was important to me. “You really think it sucks that bad?”
“You honestly don’t?”
I didn’t, but I turned it off anyway.
We arrived in Provo during what turned out to be the worst blizzard of the year. Our Volvo skated around the city streets, nearly missing street lamps, parked cars, and mailboxes. We should have gotten chains for the tires, but he was convinced he could navigate without them. Only the grace of God explains why we didn’t hit anybody.
The next morning, we got up early to trek up the hill to Salt Lake City. The Temple in Salt Lake is one of the more beautiful Temples in the world and Dad wanted to take me through it now that I could go in. There wouldn’t be another chance for us to do so for another couple of years. I was against it simply because the roads on the hill towards the city were just as icy as the ones in Provo, and the traffic twice as fast. We had to get out and push a few times and stay in the right lane the whole way up, but we made it.
Of course, we had the same problem going back down after we were done. This was a particular problem because it was now late morning on January 31st, 1996. I was supposed to report to the Missionary Training Center at noon. Instead, I was late by a couple of hours. Luckily, the orientations were done in shifts according to last names. We joined up with N-Z and no one was the wiser.
Walking the halls of the MTC in my heeled dress shoes with Dad next to me in his tennis shoes only made our height difference that much more obvious. He was bigger than me by about 80 lbs, but when we stood side-by-side I had at least a couple of inches on him up and down. I hated that. It was only when across the room from each other I could pretend he was just as large as he’d always been. When I was seven years old, I made a bet with him that one day I’d be taller. He bet against me and ten years later paid out the $100. I would have gladly lost that one. I preferred the version of Dad on the other side of the room.
I was the first Heasley to ever serve a mission. I felt the weight of that, but I didn’t mind it. It was an honor, and, in a way, a culmination of the work Dad started long ago when he tossed out his booze and cigarettes. We didn’t talk about it, but the glow on Dad’s face as we walked through the building spoke volumes.
We entered the orientation room together, knowing that after the presentation we’d be leaving separately. The speakers talked a little about strict, work-hard life at the MTC, but more about the sacrifice families makes when they send their children away to serve the Lord and the blessings that come from that sacrifice. The longer they spoke—the more my official entrance was delayed—the more nervous I got. Once Dad walked away, I’d be alone. For two years.
When it was over, everyone in the room stood up and all the parents made their way for the west doors while the missionaries went out the east doors. Dad and I shared a hug.
“Goodbye, Son,” he said. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Dad,” I said as I watched him turn to walk out. “See you in a couple of years.”
It was the last time I saw him alive.
This marks the end of Section III of this story. There are four sections total, each with its own focus and feel. In a lot of ways, this section is the most difficult of all of them just because of trying to represent the internal struggle and how alone I often felt during these years. The next, last section takes place over the course of less than a year, but, needless to say, a lot happens.
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START FROM THE BEGINNING: Chapter 1 – Shooting