“I was in prison and you came to Me…” (Matthew 25:36).
Tick, damn it, tick! I cried silently, oblivious to the fact that I had just thought a word I would never say out loud. I glared through bloodshot eyes at the large, round, schoolroom-type clock that was the sole decoration on the cold gray wall behind the metal chair where John sat, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and holding a phone to his ear, while gazing at me through a glass partition, no doubt knowing that I was avoiding eye contact because the pain was just too great.
Still staring at the offensive timepiece on the wall, I demanded silently, Do you think just because you don’t make any noise that I don’t know what you’re doing, that I don’t realize that with every sweeping circle you’re stealing more and more of my son’s life?
Oh, God, if only there were a window in here! If I could just reach through this glass and touch him…!
The tears came then, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. I pulled my vision from the clock and caught a glimpse of John’s anguished, sweat-beaded face before squeezing my eyes shut in a vain attempt to block out the swell of emotions that threatened to drown me. I had to stop this denial and refocus my efforts and energy on my son. He would never survive this nightmare if I didn’t; none of us would.
I forced my eyelids open, wiping the tears from my cheeks and wishing I had been allowed to bring my purse in with me. But, of course, everything personal had been left behind before I had been admitted to the visiting area. You’d think those in charge would realize a mother’s need for a tissue in such a situation.
Slowly, I cracked my lips into what I was sure was a wooden smile. “You look good,” I lied, knowing he knew better but hoping to convince myself. “Are they treating you all right…feeding you, and—”
Trembling but quite obviously trying hard not to show it, he pressed the palm of his free hand against the glass in what was doubtless an attempt to cut off my pointless questions. “I’m fine, Mom. Honest. I told you that last time. And…please, you don’t have to come here. I don’t want you to come here. Can’t you understand that?”
How could I understand that my son didn’t want me to visit him and support him when he’d been accused of something so horrific it was beyond comprehension? How could I understand anything anymore? Not only had John been falsely imprisoned, but he was losing weight and I could see he wasn’t well. He needed me….
“I want to come,” I answered. “I have to. I’ve never abandoned you before. Why would you think I would now—especially now?”
The pain and fear in his dark blue eyes flickered before fading to dull. He pressed his lips together and shook his head. “I have to go, Mom. Time’s about up anyway. I…hate talking to you like this…seeing you this way.”
I watched his Adam’s apple bob slightly as he swallowed and then said, “I love you, Mom. You know that. Dad and Sarah, too.” Then, after only a brief hesitation, he removed his palm from the glass, hung up the phone, and stood to his feet. Immediately a corrections officer was at his side, escorting him from the room.
Still pressing the receiver to my ear, I whispered, “You didn’t even say goodbye, John. You didn’t say goodbye….”
At the thick metal door, just below and to the right of the silent wall clock, John stopped, turning slightly as his armed escort unlocked the heavy barrier. Glancing backward, his lips spread ever-so-slightly in that frightened, little-boy smile he’d had since he was a little boy, the one he’d worn when he walked on skinny, shaky legs into his kindergarten room on the first day of school, assuring me that he was all right. As I had that day when I stood in the hallway outside his classroom, I now did my best to return his smile. Then he turned his back to me and shuffled on shackled ankles through the passageway.
So little had changed in the eighteen years since that first day of school—and yet the world my husband and I had known since our oldest child was born twenty-three years earlier had exploded and vanished, washed away in tears…and in blood. Nothing would ever be the same again.
John’s kindergarten smile had been his signal to me that he could handle things and I should leave. With legs of lead and a heart even heavier, I forced myself to honor his wishes.
February 11. I would never forget that day, the day that would forever divide the before and after of our lives.
It had been raining that evening when we received the news—a soft, steady rain, not one of the usual Southern California downpours that we expected that time of year. Our sixteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, had been spending the weekend with a friend, and Charles and I were sitting in front of the fire in the family room, enjoying some rare and much-needed quiet time together.
When the doorbell chimed, Charles pulled himself from the couch to make his way to the front door, while I went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. Whether or not our visitor was one who would stay awhile, I thought a steamy cup would be a nice touch as Charles and I added another log to the fire and extended our pleasant evening together.
I’d scarcely lit the flame under the teapot when I heard Charles speak from behind me.
“Liz,” he said, his voice choking with emotion.
Whatever he was about to tell me, I sensed that I didn’t want to hear it.
Slowly I turned from the stove toward my husband, who stood in the doorway between the living room and kitchen, his handsome face ashen and his lips trembling as he tried to speak. When I saw two uniformed policemen behind him, my world began to spin.
I took a tentative step toward Charles, then another and another, suddenly feeling much older than my forty-four years, as I willed my husband to tell me that everything was all right, that nothing had happened to either of our children. He reached toward me and gathered me close.
“It’s your mother,” he whispered, leaning his face against the top of my head. “She’s…dead.”
The ringing in my ears started slowly, gaining strength and volume as I pressed closer against my husband’s chest, reasoning with myself that it couldn’t be true. If he had said something happened to my dad, I might have believed him. Dad, after all, was nearly eighty and had been in a rest home for two years now, his memory gone and his health not far behind. But Mom was still young—not quite seventy—and she was active and healthy. How could this be? What could have happened? A heart attack? A stroke? Surely not an accident…
I lifted my head to look into Charles’ dark eyes, seeking an explanation. All I saw was shock and disbelief, as tears began to trickle down his cheeks. In the twenty-four years we’d been married, I hadn’t seen him cry more than half a dozen times, two of those times being when he wept for joy at the birth of our children.
“Why are the police here?” I asked, suddenly sensing that we were dealing with something much worse than a heart attack. Maybe Mom had been in an accident after all….
Charles opened his mouth to answer, but it took three tries before the words would come. “Murdered,” he whispered. “Your mom was…murdered.”
My eyes snapped shut, as the spinning increased and my world went black. The last thing I remembered was Charles’ arms holding me up.
After giving me the news, Charles half carried, half dragged me to the couch, where we sat, his arm around me and my head on his shoulder, as the two policemen gave a brief rundown of what they knew so far. Only an occasional word or phrase penetrated the continual roaring in my ears, but I somehow knew I didn’t want to hear anything more than that. Even the slimmest details seemed more than I could absorb.
The words swirled around me, as I locked onto the face of the female officer, who seemed somewhat softer than her male counterpart. Her lips were moving, and a hint of compassion shone in her eyes as she spoke.
“…detectives will be coming by…”
“…questions for you…”
“…need to speak to your entire family…”
Charles, ever the competent attorney, seemed able to process entire sentences and respond appropriately, while I continued to float in a maelstrom of pain and disjointed thoughts. Was it possible this was all a dream? Dare I hope I would wake at any moment and find that none of it was true?
As soon as the officers left, Charles tried to call John but got no answer, which somehow only compounded my agitation and pain.
“Why isn’t he home?” I demanded, as if my husband had some sort of control over our son’s whereabouts. “We need John here with us,” I insisted, knowing I was being unreasonable but unable to stop myself. “And Sarah too. You have to reach him, Charles. Tell him to come home, and to pick up Sarah on the way.”
Charles sighed, his dark eyes sad as he gazed at me. “I know, Lizzie,” he said. “I’m trying.”
He called John’s home number again, and when there was no answer, he left a message. Then he dialed John’s cell phone. Just before it switched over to voice mail, John answered.
“You need to come over,” Charles announced, skipping over any small talk. “We’ll explain when you get here.”
He paused briefly, listening, and then said, “I don’t want to get into it on the phone. Just come home—now. And please stop at Julie’s and pick up Sarah on the way. This is urgent, son. More than you can imagine. Just…get here. Please.”
In just over thirty minutes our children arrived, hurrying inside to find Charles and me still sitting on the couch, the fire now reduced to embers.
“What is it?” Sarah demanded, as she zeroed in on my obvious distress. “What happened?”
John stood quietly beside her, his eyes darting from me to Charles and back again. They were waiting for an answer, but I knew I could never give it to them. Charles would have to break the news.
“It’s…your grandmother,” he said, his voice cracking as he spoke. “She’s…dead.” He paused, letting his words sink in. I watched Sarah’s green eyes go wide, her face pale, as John remained silent and still beside her.
“She was…murdered,” Charles added.
The scream that ripped from Sarah’s mouth brought me back from what seemed miles away, where I had been watching the scene from a detached position. Suddenly the pain came flooding in and I catapulted from my seat and grabbed my daughter, pulling her to me. Together we collapsed onto the couch, weeping.
“I can’t believe it,” Sarah kept saying, as I held her close and rocked her, stroking her hair. I imagined Charles was interacting with John, but I was too busy consoling Sarah to pay much attention. Streams of seemingly never-ending tears flowed down her cheeks. Her long auburn hair hung loose, covering her face as she bowed her head and stared at her hands, which clenched and unclenched, in her lap. “Why Grandma? Who would want to hurt Grandma? She was the nicest lady in the whole world!” At the realization that she had just spoken of her beloved grandparent in the past tense, a fresh onslaught of sobs overtook her, and she turned and wept on my shoulder, the wetness of her tears soaking through my blouse and dampening my skin.
Charles did his utmost to comfort us all, going from one to the other to offer an embrace or an encouraging word, but all the while looking as helpless and stunned as the rest of us.
John had collapsed into his favorite recliner across from the sofa, buried his head in his hands, and said nothing. Then, as suddenly as he’d fallen into the chair, he launched himself out of it, uttering a curse word I knew was no stranger to him but one he seldom spoke in our presence.
Pacing back and forth in front of us, he repeatedly pounded his right fist into his left palm, speaking into the air with such questions as “How could this have happened?” and “What are we going to do now?” His agitation only increased as he paced, and I wanted to put my arms around him and help him stop, to encourage him to cry and release his pain, but I was still holding Sarah and thought it best not to let go. I looked pleadingly at Charles.
Reading my wordless message, he approached John from behind and placed his hands on our son’s shoulders. John spun around, wide-eyed, his fists clenched and one arm drawn back as if ready to strike. When his terrified eyes locked with those of his stunned father, John dropped his hands, as realization flooded his features. And then, at last, with the howl of a wounded animal, he fell to the floor, curling up in a fetal position as he continued to cry out in obvious pain. Charles sat down beside him, gathered John into his arms, and rocked him as they cried together on the floor, while Sarah and I did the same from our perch on the couch. We were still in the same positions when the detectives showed up at our door.