Tuesday, August 30, 2011


I must be feeling better. I’ve been listening to Prefab Sprout. Headed by singer-songwriter, Paddy McAloon, the group has been around since the ‘80s. They make winsome music, the kind that makes you appreciate the miracle of life. In fact, that is the title of one of their songs: “Life’s A Miracle”

Tell someone you love them, there's always a way

And if the dead could speak I know what they would say

To you and me, don't waste another day

Show someone you love them, don't be scared to care

And if they fall into your arms you'll be surprised to find

The weight that you can bear, yeah, because

Life's a miracle

Paddy’s been dealing with some serious health issues lately, but he still writes beautiful, uplifting music.

One of my favorite P.S. songs is called “One of the Broken.” Paddy puts words in God’s mouth. God acknowledges the communication problem between him and his children. He advises those who want to connect with him to reach out to the broken, hurting people in the world. It’s a song inspired by Jesus’ identity with the least among us. A lesson in kindness. A lesson in love:

Sing me no deep hymn of devotion

Sing me no slow sweet melody

Sing it to one, one of the broken

And brother you're singing, singing to me

I never wanted to be the object of anyone’s pity, but I can’t deny that I am one of the broken. Countless times over the last 3-1/2 years I have heard words to the effect: “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” I often sense in these kind sentiments a note of regret. I understand. These good people want to do more - and would if they could. But a tragedy like ours forces us to acknowledge that that we are powerless to fix some situations, some things are irreparable. There is no bringing Rachel back.

I collect quotes. My first room-mate in college had a deck of notecards on which he had written positive statements. He would review them religiously, sitting on the edge of his bed or at his desk. To be honest, at the time I judged him to be a little out of step with the rest of the world. I found a new room-mate as quickly as I could. I remember him now as a harmless, decent person. I wish I had been more like him.

Anyway, one of the quotes I came across lately is from Padre Pio. He said, “Love is the first ingredient in the relief of suffering.” My mother used to kiss my boo-boo’s when I was a little boy. Her kisses didn’t stop the bleeding or the heal the wounds, but somehow they made me feel better. Now I know why.

I have said before that Jill and I prayed faithfully for the welfare and safety of our children. It has been a monumental struggle to come to terms with the fact that we prayed for Rachel’s safety in the morning before we knew she was already dead and her broken body was lying in a morgue awaiting an autopsy. Since then, it has been a challenge to find a good enough reason to bother to pray.

But, even before Rachel was killed, she was gone. She had moved to Irvine to pursue her dream of becoming a forensic scientist. A few years earlier, we had moved her from her home in southern California to an out of the way country town in northern California. Rachel always made it clear that she was a “So-Cal Girl At Heart,” and would return as soon as it was in her power to do so. When the time came, we had to let her go.

How does love bridge the gap of miles or years? We called her. We texted her. We emailed her. We thought of her constantly - worried for her, wondered about her. We prayed for her. Nothing we could do seemed like enough. With love, isn’t that always the way?

Another quote I found recently has helped me gain some perspective. St. Teresa of Avila said, “Prayer is an act of love.” The Bible says that prayer is a waste of breath without love. But when it springs from “the will to love,” as St. Teresa says, the message gets through.

One of the writers of the Philokalia said, “Love is greater than prayer.” I still have no confidence in the ability of prayer to secure my requests, but one thing I can affirm: my prayers for Rachel each and every day of her life were an act of love. That makes me feel a little better. I did what I could do, even when what I did looked like nothing so much as nothing at all. Maybe compassionate thoughts and heartfelt prayers and other acts of love are useless. But so are many beautiful, precious things. God knows my heart and yours, and, if what the Bible says is true, Rachel now knows perfectly well how much I have always loved her - and always will.

Prefab Sprout has another song that has spoken to me lately called, “God Watch Over You.” Obviously, it is a prayer for God’s protection. At first, it raised my hackles, cynical as I have become of the utility of such prayers. But, when I listened closely, I discovered that Paddy subtly reminds us that God can answer this prayer in different ways. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. We are never out of his care:

I pray that god protects you...

God watch over you

every minute, every moment

God watch over you

every minute, every moment

God watch over you (and if you fall)

May he stretch out his arm and catch you,

keep you from harm, or sweep you

into his palm...but...

God watch over you

God watch over you

Love is never wasted. The Bible says, “Love Never Fails.” I can’t stop thinking of Rachel because I still love her. I still pray that God is watching over her - it’s all I can do.

There is a door it may seem locked

But in a little while, don't be shocked

Above the noise, behind the glare

I know you're listening out there somewhere, somewhere

I can't wait to meet you there, somewhere

I can't wait to meet you there

“Doo-Wop In Harlem” by Prefab Sprout

Monday, August 8, 2011


The following is the Victim's Impact Statement I made in Riverside Superior Court, August 5, 2011 in People VS Elva Diaz, convicted of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter and sentenced to the aggravated term of ten years. It was one of eight Victim's Impact Statements presented to the court on that day and one of 31 submitted in writing for the court's consideration. It is by no means the best.

Honorable Judge Mark Johnson:

My name is Steven Winebrener Elliott. I am the father of Rachel Amaris Elliott.

First, I want to thank you for presiding over the trial in such a fair and reasonable manner. I don’t say this to flatter or manipulate you in any way: This is simply the only opportunity I may have to express my gratitude.

Because of the way you conducted the trial, I have the confidence that you will justly sentence the woman responsible for killing my daughter.

During the trial, you recessed the proceedings for a morning so that a juror could accompany her minor daughter to the airport. You said more than once that you honored the juror’s request because you are a father of a 14-1/2 year old daughter yourself and would want to send her off personally if she were going on a trip on an airplane. From this, I know that you understand a father’s love for his daughter. There are things words cannot express. My love for Rachel is one of them. I am grateful that I have the confidence that you already know what Rachel means to me, because you obviously love your own daughter and can imagine the horror of losing her.

Your Honor, Rachel didn’t deserve to die. Rachel wasn’t sick. She wasn’t careless. Her death was not an accident. It was not her fault. It was senseless and sickeningly violent. Rachel loved life and made the most of it. I want to impress upon you and everyone else in this courtroom who never had and has now forever been denied the opportunity to know Rachel personally, the kind of person she was in life, and the precious daughter she was to me.

My wife and I tried to teach respect for the law, personal responsibility, compassion, and the value of hard work to our children, and we have tried to model these virtues in our own lives. Rachel learned these lessons well, and was a remarkably capable, responsible, and caring young woman. She knew even before she learned to drive that driving while intoxicated is dangerous to human life, and she worked hard to prevent it.

I am a family man. I don’t have a college degree. I have worked hard, long hours in construction all my adult life to provide for my family. The best I have to show for my efforts is a loving wife and two wonderful children. Now I have one.

I married the woman I love, and we decided to raise children together. We had just two, and God blessed us with first a girl and then a boy. Before the kids went to school, Jill, my wife, stayed home to care for them. It was difficult, but we managed to scrape by.

The night of June 23, 1989 was the most wonderful night of my life. I recognized instantly that Rachel was a miracle straight from the hands of God. I felt the weight of responsibility as I held her in my arms. I wanted to prove myself worthy of this priceless gift. I made it my life’s devotion to nurture and protect her.

Rachel was a precocious child. She began talking when she was only 7 months old, and, to my delight, her first word was “Da-Da.” Every night before I put her to bed I would take Rachel outside to say, “Good-night” to the stars. I would read to her, pray with her and for her, and sing her to sleep.

As she grew, Rachel continued to give me cause for wonder. She loved to sing, and had a beautiful voice. She was bright and beautiful and affectionate and a delight to everyone who knew her. When she was in junior high school, she asked me to baptize her. She revealed a tender, compassionate heart, a passion for justice, an incisive intelligence, and a native drive for achievement and excellence that we, her parents, only wish we could take credit for. Jill and I simply marveled at the outstanding woman Rachel was becoming in every way right in front of our very eyes.

Just like every other human being, Rachel wasn’t perfect. She was strong-willed and so intelligent that maintaining our authority as her parents was always a struggle. Sometimes we had to concede that she honestly knew better than we did. I always had the suspicion that the very traits that sometimes made life with Rachel difficult would eventually prove to be her greatest strengths. We tried not to break her independent spirit, but to foster in her a desire to use her power for good. We tried to encourage her to use the gifts and opportunities she was given to bless and benefit others.

And in her short life, Rachel did. I was always proud of her. I was never more proud than on the day this photo was taken. It was taken at her Senior Awards Ceremony. She literally received more awards and scholarships than she was able to carry back to her car by herself. We had to help her. I am not alone in my conviction that Rachel could have been or done anything she desired. Her gifts and abilities were matched with the drive and ambition that is essential to achievement. Sadly, some of the scholarships Rachel received that day had to be returned. She didn’t have time to use them.

A Victim’s Impact Statement is supposed to be about how I have suffered and what I have lost personally. But it is difficult to speak about my losses when I measure them against what Rachel has lost: Her life, upon which every other gift, right and privilege depends. Obviously, I have lost a daughter; a good daughter; my only daughter. I have had no greater joy in this life than being Rachel’s Daddy. As a husband and father, there is nothing on this earth I cherish more dearly than my family. I would gladly give my life for any one of them. I wish I could trade my life for Rachel’s. I wish I could have bargained for Rachel’s life as Elva Diaz has bargained for her freedom; I wish I could have defended Rachel’s life as Aimee Vierra has defended Elva Diaz’ freedom. The lives of my family are the only thing in this world I would not, under any circumstances, willingly give. Nevertheless, Rachel’s life was taken from her, from me, from this world, by a 28 year-old mother and former ambulance driver/emt who couldn’t be bothered or persuaded to find another way home after a night of binge drinking. It is so infuriatingly and tragically senseless...No excuse or explanation can change that brutal fact.

I want Ms Diaz to know something: Rachel might not have been alone in her car the night of February 21, 2008. Our son, Erik, was visiting friends down here in Riverside the night Rachel was killed. Before she left to visit the family of her junior high school friend in Corona, she invited my son and their two friends, Spencer and Emily Osborne, to go with her. By God’s grace, or dumb luck, they declined. Otherwise, Ms Diaz, the life-saver, would have been responsible for the deaths of four wonderful young people that night. She would have completely wiped out the work of the best 20 years of our marriage and left Jill and me with nothing to show for it but memories and ashes. She would have been responsible for the devastation of two families. When she refused to be dissuaded from driving home drunk from Sportman’s Bar, did she not care that it could just as easily have been her own child rounding the curve in the opposite lane of traffic? But it wasn’t her own child: it was mine.

The news that Rachel had been killed came on a day like so many other days, catching us in the middle of our routine. In many ways it was like we too were hit head-on by an SUV.

Imagine your cell phone rings as you are on your way to work in the morning. You are making the same drive you have made a thousand other mornings, past all the familiar landmarks. Thoughts of the day’s obligations occupy your mind. But this phone call is unlike the thousands of others you have received at times and places like these. Everything has changed for you; you just don’t know it yet. Your life as you knew it is already over. Every hope and dream you had of a happy and joyful future is dead. While you slept your precious daughter was dying. While you went about your morning routine, you had no idea that the life you built with the woman you love was already in ruins. Your little girl, the only one who called you “Daddy”, is gone and there is no bringing her back. You answer the phone and take the news.

Suddenly you are thrown into an unfamiliar universe. You have considered what your family would do if you were to die unexpectedly. But this possibility has never entered your mind. It’s not supposed to happen like this. People are sympathetic, but they need answers: What will you do with Rachel’s body? Will you have a funeral or memorial service? When and where will it be held, and who will officiate? Will there be music? What charities will you recommend as memorial recipients? Will you write an obituary? How will you summarize your daughter’s life? How can you? There are too many deadlines... Everyone you look at is confused and in pain. Everyone needs help, but you have nothing to offer, because you can’t even help yourself; you can barely function. And that was just the beginning of sorrows...

I have suffered in every way imaginable over the three and a half years since Rachel was killed. My father, wife and I run a small business. Three-fourths of our work-force has been crippled by grief and the financial and time demands of a fugitive hunt and this judicial process. I have suffered emotionally and spiritually, though I can’t begin to describe it: The light of my life has gone out, and I fumble in the darkness. I have been plagued with depression and mysterious, stress-related digestive disorders that have gone undiagnosed for almost 2 years. I am not the man I was. I believe I never will be.

Sometimes I glimpse a young woman with the sunshine glowing on her shoulders and the breeze ruffling the little hairs at the back of her neck. Her reality reduces me to tears - just the simple, miraculous fact of her life. Rachel was a real girl like that once. Rachel should be laughing in the sunshine, texting her friends, ordering take-out, falling in love. She should be.

One of the most devastating effects of Rachel’s death has been what it has done to the young people who knew her - our son, Erik, Rachel’s brother, especially. Rachel was the one who kept her friends out of trouble. When they would drink, she would insist on driving them home. She studied while they partied. She worked while they played. She cared while they pursued their selfish interests. When a person like Rachel is deprived of life and denied the rewards that come from her hard work and personal sacrifice, how do you rationalize it? How do you convince her brother, her friends, that it is still worth while to make the effort, to work hard, to be a good citizen? Imagine a 17 year old having to deal with the death of the person he lived with every day of his young life and having to face the rest of his life without his only sister who loved him fiercely. I can’t stand to think of it. He wasn’t even able to write a Victim’s Impact Statement.

Your Honor, as a family man, I ask you to imagine watching your wife, your surviving child, and all the other family and friends who knew and loved your dead daughter suffering around you. There is nothing you can do to shield them from the pain. There is nothing you can do to make it better. You must watch helplessly as they fall apart. This has been the pitiless torture I have only just barely been able to survive. And, to tell you the truth, often, I really haven’t wanted to. What do I have to look forward to? I feel my best days, when my daughter and I shared this world, are behind me now. I will never again hear Rachel’s sweet voice, her laugh; I will never feel her little hand in mine; I will never smell the scent of her silky hair under my nose as I kiss the top of her head. I will never see the remarkable woman she should have become. I will never hold her children. I am the husband of a wonderful woman and the proud father of a fine son, and for that I am grateful. They inspire in me the strength I need to go on living. But I miss her. I always will...

Your Honor, I believe Elva Diaz deserves the most severe sentence allowable. She gave Rachel a sentence of death and those who love her a life-sentence of sorrow and suffering without the benefit of a trial. I reject the notion that Rachel died so that Elva Diaz could be taught a valuable life lesson. As a 28 year-old mother and former ambulance driver, she should have known better than to drink and drive. I believe Elva Diaz’ best service to society will only be as an example for others, as a caution against the foolish and heartless course of action she chose.

I trust Your Honor to do what is fair and just in the eyes of the law. I know that no judgment you make will bring Rachel back. That is the one and only thing I desire, and the very thing you are powerless to give. I will never see my daughter’s face again in this life. I can only hope there is another.

Thank you for listening, Your Honor. And thank you for your service to Rachel, to the community that loves her, and to this country in the cause of justice. God bless you.


We thought it would be a huge relief when the trial had concluded. There was a month between the end of the criminal trial for Elva Diaz and the sentencing hearing on August 5, 2011. We had to be away for two weeks for the trial, and when we returned home, we found that we had a lot of catching up to do: the bills had piled up, the garden and the yard was overgrown, and the to do list had increased at work - urgent demands all vying for our attention. We found ourselves unexpectedly stretched thinner than we had been in long time.

To add to our distress, we were tasked with writing a Victim’s Impact Statement. We had known for three and a half years that the day would come when we would need to submit one. And we have dreaded the prospect for as long as we have known about it. How could we possibly hope to articulate what Rachel means to us? How could we describe the kind of person she was? How could we convey how her death has impacted us? Multiply them as we may, we knew mere words could never bring Rachel to life. Every attempt to capture her essence, the depth of our pain, or the quality and magnitude of our love is doomed to failure.

Sentencing. Making a sentence. A sentence is something meaningful - but it is also an artificial construct, a symbolic approximation of truth, an interpretation of reality at some remove. For us sentencing meant making a declarative statement of our love and our loss of Rachel, however inadequate it may prove to be

Our Victim’s Impact Statements were to be read and considered by the Probation Department for sentencing recommendation and by the judge for sentencing determination. We invited anyone affected by Rachel’s death to submit a statement. We never knew how much our words might influence the actual decision making process, but we hoped, at least, to impress upon those who read or heard them what we all have lost in losing Rachel. A surprising number of people - over 30 in all - submitted statements. Each one captured something unique about Rachel and her impact on the person who wrote it. Jill compared the final package we put together to a multifaceted jewel, each perspective revealing a slightly different aspect of Rachel - the whole an impressive thing of beauty. Reading them was an intense emotional experience for us, and we will treasure each one as a precious gift for as long as we live.

We were surprised both by who did and who didn’t submit statements. We don’t resent those who didn’t, because we understand the difficulty and futility of the task. Some people tried and never succeeded in finding words. Some people were silenced from the outset by the overwhelming impossibility of the task and never actually put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as the case might be). I sat down at the computer one Saturday morning with much fear and trembling, not knowing whether I would be able to find the words or not, fearing that I wouldn’t. I was nearly paralyzed with anxiety, panic increasing as each moment passed, trying not to entertain the idea of failure, powerless to banish the thought from my mind. I didn’t want to let Rachel down. Early on, as I had imagined the task, I fantasized about my statement being the best thing I had ever written (since it was without question the most important). But, mercifully, I realized that was unrealistic, demanding too much of myself, and I settled for just getting the job done with some degree of authenticity. I accepted that my words would be inadequate and that my love for Rachel could never be satisfactorily expressed. I gave myself the freedom I needed to hazard the attempt and to fail.

In the end, I did write a statement only four typed pages long. I can’t judge whether it is good or bad, adequate or inadequate. I was just relieved I would have something to read to the judge in Elva’s presence at the sentencing hearing. Jill’s statement was 12 pages long, and that was not enough to say all she wanted to say. Judge Mark Johnson was touched by the words of the eight people who read their statements in court, though, and it was clear by his bearing that he sympathized both with our loss and the difficulty of our task. To him, Rachel was as real as our pain. That he understood what we had lost is a surprising source of comfort to us. For that, more than anything else, we are grateful.

A sentence is finite. We understand endings. A sentence is a punishment with an end in sight. For Elva, the sentence put a period on the term of her punishment. It is, I suppose, ultimately a hopeful thing. There will be a predetermined end to the unpleasantness of the legal consequences for her crimes. Judge Mark Johnson sentenced Elva Diaz to the upper or “aggravated” term for Gross Vehicular Manslaughter. Ten years. Perhaps, in the bewildering calculus of the legal system, three or four years with credit for time served. Now Elva Diaz knows how long she will have to suffer.

But it is not so for us. Our sentence is indefinite and continues on for as long as we can imagine the future. A run-on sentence. It never really makes a point, never reaches any sensible conclusion...

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Thursday, June 30 the attorneys gave their closing arguments to the jury. The prosecution, Kevin Beecham gave a clear, persuasive, and impassioned summation of the evidence for conviction. He told the jury that it was not Rachel who was in the wrong place at the wrong time the night of February 21, 2008, but, rather, Elva Diaz. With her life experience as an ambulance driver and e.m.t., and because she had just been warned by at least one other person - her Placentia Police officer boyfriend, Zachary Palumbo - not to drive, she knew better than to drive while intoxicated; she knew better than to drive 84 mph in a 50 mph zone; she knew better than to cross the yellow lines and drive on the wrong side of the road; she knew better than to accelerate into a curve near an intersection. Ms. Diaz never even used her brakes before she slammed head on into Rachel’s car. And while Rachel was dying, Elva Diaz was lying to CHP officer Penneau, blaming Rachel for the crash; lying that she only drank one beer at 8:00 pm; lying that she had just been driving home from a friend’s house; and protesting that she couldn’t have caused the crash because she knew better than to drive on the wrong side of the road since she had been employed as an emt.

Elva Diaz surprised the court by taking the witness stand. Unfortunately, under oath she admitted only to remembering details that conveniently supported her defense: she remembered eating pasta for dinner; she remembers giving her keys and her license to her boyfriend, Placentia Police officer Zachary Palumbo (who has subsequently been promoted to protect and serve the public as a detective). Under cross examination, she denied that she knew that driving 84 mph in a 50 mph zone is dangerous to human life; she denied that she knew that crossing over the double yellow lines and driving the opposite way on divided roadway is dangerous to human life; she denied that she knew that driving while drunk was dangerous to human life. She was however, conscious and considerate enough for her own safety to fasten her own seat belt.

The jury believed her, and acquitted Elva Diaz of 2nd degree murder. In her closing arguments, Aimee Vierra, Elva’s defense attorney, fought back tears as she expressed what an honor it had been to defend her client.

Before they were sent out to deliberate, both attorneys adjured the panel that they must make their determination with an “abiding conviction” as to Ms. Diaz’ guilt or innocence. Each of them explained that an abiding conviction would give the jurors peace tomorrow, next year, and every year for the rest of their lives that they had made the right decision. It was a sobering admonishment, and one that impressed me with the awesome responsibility with which they now were tasked. I did not envy them their job.

The jury deliberated for more than a day, taking the rest of the afternoon and into the next to reach their decision. Thursday afternoon we were exhausted and mentally and emotionally spent. No one slept well. Friday was no easier. We went thrift store shopping with my Aunts Jill and Patty and my cousin Jennifer and her daughter Allie. But I felt sick all day. I had a splitting headache. When we got home, we had a perfunctory lunch and then I collapsed on the couch, waiting. At 3:15 we got a call from our victim’s services advocate, Carlos Romo, informing us that the jury had reached a verdict, and it would be read at 4:00 pm. We hurried to the courthouse, shaking and in tears.

Before we got out of the car, Jill, Erik and I prayed for justice and the strength to accept whatever verdict we were about to hear. We prayed for Elva’s family and for Elva as well. It had been a dark night for all of us, Elva and her family included, and we knew that whatever the decision there was no happy ending for anybody involved in this tragedy.

We took solace, though, in the knowledge that for better or worse this ordeal was about to end. The conclusion of the matter lay just down the hall of the third floor of the Riverside Hall of Justice and through the double doors of Department 31.

In a criminal case, the decision for guilt or innocence must be unanimous. The foreman handed the forms to the court clerk and their decision was read, just in time for the 4th of July holiday weekend. The jury unanimously decided to acquit Elva Diaz of second degree murder and to convict her of the lesser charge of Gross Vehicular manslaughter. Because of this, she will receive a sentence now on the order of someone who steals mail or forges a check.

The jury was thanked for their service and excused from the courtroom. Elva and her attorney, Aimee Vierra, embraced in tears. To them it was a victory for the cause of justice.

So now we have it: for the official record, it is a case of manslaughter, a really bad mistake, and not the result of someone who should have and did know better.

Immediately outside the courtroom, we were approached by members of the press. They asked us if we had received justice. I don’t know what I said to them, but my answer is “NO”. Justice depends upon the truth. The jury never got the chance to hear the truth.

We will have to learn to live with the decision the jury made on July 1, 2011, just as we have had to learn with the irrevocable fact of Rachel’s death.

I could go on and on, but I will take a deep breath, and remind myself of all I have to be proud of and grateful for: a daughter who died too soon but during her short life was a beautiful example of the goodness humans are capable of; a wonderful son who survives and has comported himself like the good and decent man he is through the worst of this terrible ordeal; the confidence that the Riverside District Attorney’s Office spared no expense or effort in the prosecution of this case; the personal friendships we have forged with all of those who have come to love us and Rachel by serving her cause; the abiding conviction that as a family and community that loves Rachel, we did all we could do in the pursuit of justice. In that we take comfort and will find peace.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

God On Our Side*

The courtroom is a strange congregation. I am reminded of nothing so much as a wedding, where the attendants are seated according to their relationship with either the bride or the groom. Only this isn’t a wedding. We avoid eye contact across the aisle. It is rather a somber assembly -. more somber, perhaps, even than a funeral.

Like a funeral, one of the principal players is conspicuously absent: the victim, namely, Rachel.

We have dreaded the day of the arrival of the trial since we learned that Rachel had been killed by a drunk driver. We knew it was coming. It took 3 years, 4 months, and two days to come to fruition - long enough for Rachel to have graduated college; long enough for her friends and contemporaries marry and have children of their own.

When Jill and I finally got the news that the actual trial date was confirmed, our hearts started pounding in our chests. We tried to use techniques we learned in yoga, breathing deeply and consciously to relax and calm our troubled hearts enough so that we could sleep. We both lay awake in bed all night, feeling our hearts pounding out their distress signals through the mattress. We wondered if they could keep the pace through the night or if they would simply giving out from exhaustion. It’s a strange thing: I didn’t think my mind was overly anxious - I told Jill and reminded myself that this was Elva Diaz’ trial, and not ours. But somehow our bodies were unconvinced by our reasoning.

We haven’t experienced such a bodily reaction since the first weeks after Rachel was killed. We felt as we did when we planned, attended and spoke at Rachel’s memorial services. Only this time the terms under which Rachel could be mentioned were scrupulously regulated: No mention could be made that the trial began on her 22nd birthday. No representations of her image or her name could be visible. A friend of Rachel’s who got a tattoo in her honor was forced to cover it up.

Strangely, though, once the proceedings began, Jill and I felt better. Our hearts slowed to something approaching their normal rate. We were able to sleep. Perhaps the anticipation really was worse than the reality, as with so many odious things in life. Perhaps there is something about the mind-numbing mundanity of the judicial process that makes what would normally be intolerable possible to endure. Perhaps, even this is a blessing.

It is out of our hands, now. Though how much we have ever been in control is questionable. There is something pacifying in the knowledge that whatever could be done has been done and that all that is required of us now is to show up and witness the proceedings.

Not that it has been easy to sit quietly while the facts have been intentionally distorted, confused, and covered up, while those who have sworn before God to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth have done no such thing. Not in every case, but often enough that I can feel the anger rise in my chest like a fist. I swallow hard and keep my mouth shut.

But we have been strengthened by those who have sat beside us day after excruciating day. And we know that those present with us in court represent only a small portion of a much vaster congregation of love, present to us and for Rachel in the ways they are able. One dear friend who could not attend the first day of trial described to us how she had got on her knees in the restroom at work to pray for us as the trial began. Many who hardly know us but who have been touched by Rachel’s story and share our pain, have sent encouraging cards and emails, assuring us of their loving thoughts and prayers. All I can say is that we are truly, truly, humbled and grateful. I feel I owe a debt of love I can never hope to repay. And that has given me a new appreciation of grace.

On Sunday evening we decided to walk the trail to the cross at the top of Mt. Rubidoux. We shared the trail with more people than I imagined. It felt like a pilgrimage. There was a celebratory atmosphere, and an infectious fellowship that made perfect strangers exchange pleasantries and make small talk as we made the ascent. We shared a higher purpose, a common aspiration - making it to the top of the mountain.

We reached the summit just about sunset. The view from the top was spectacular, with a 360 degree view of the Riverside area, so often obscured by smog. Families mingled at the cross and read the inscriptions left in honor of Father Junipero Serra and other local historical dignitaries. We spotted lizards and kangaroo mice. We watched the sun drop behind the coastal mountain range.

In the failing light, we made our descent. The mountain was covered by or made up of huge boulders. On one boulder near the top I saw chiseled into the rock an inscription of the words of Jesus: “Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled...” Jesus spoke those words to his disciples when they received the distressing news that he would be leaving them soon. It was a boulder such as this that sealed their Lord’s tomb, and, against which all their hopes were dashed. But after it was rolled away, the boulder was transformed into another affirmation of God’s ability to overcome any obstacle and to keep his word. Countless people around the world have taken courage from the words written on this rock over the millennia and no doubt thousands have been inspired by them on their way up to or down from the cross on the mountain. Still, they spoke personally to me, again. I took the message to heart.

The following day, as were seated in our places in court, Jill turned to me and said, “Ray is here.” I didn’t understand. I didn’t know who she was talking about. I turned to see my dear friend, Ray Houle, who had traveled all the way from Connecticut to share this difficult ordeal with us. I couldn’t have been more surprised or pleased if God had dispatched an angel straight from heaven. In every way that really counts, I suppose he did.

I’m not saying God or the universe is on our side. I recognize that each person in the courtroom is a precious child of God, and he has no favorites. I have consciously reminded myself of this as I have looked at each face present. Tomorrow, Thursday, June 30, the jury will be tasked with deciding Elva’s level of guilt for her crimes. The outcome is uncertain, and it is out of our control. But I know now more than ever that love is with us. And, since God is love*, that is enough.

Monday, June 27, 2011


We are in the midst of the criminal trial. I can’t talk about that now, as much for discretion’s sake as because I am at a loss for words. We want to hear the truth and expect justice will inevitably result. But, somehow, it seems, the process is not that simple...

I want to step back a little. A few weeks. Jill was away for a few days, attending another of the many pre-trial hearings in southern California. I encouraged her to stay through the weekend with her father at the cabin in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead that he and his wife have recently remodeled. Janet, his wife, would be away for the weekend, visiting her daughters, and it would be an opportunity for the two of them to spend some time together. From the front deck of the cabin, they could watch mountain bluebirds flit among the branches of the pine trees that grow just out of reach and feed the tree-squirrels that come to beg for the peanuts kept handy for their frequent visits. Time with her Dad, a change of scenery, the beauty of the mountains and the fresh air - Time well spent is good for the soul.

So that left me home alone. What does a married man, whose children are grown or gone do under such circumstances? I don’t hunt or fish or bowl or play poker. I tried to catch up on some reading. I dared to attempt to write. I watched movies I thought Jill would appreciate missing. Jill is long-suffering in her tolerance of my film choices, but every saint has her limits.

I watched “Rabbit Hole”. The film is adapted from a play by David Lindsay-Abaire. It is about a couple, played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhardt, who are grieving the death of their young son. Not exactly a feel-good movie. The disc had remained untouched for weeks in its Netflix envelope. I couldn’t find the right time to suggest to Jill that we watch it together. I knew that Mother’s Day wasn’t the right occasion...

The title of the film comes from a graphic novel that the young man who had the misfortune to unavoidably run over the little boy is creating. The premise of his graphic novel is that ours is only one of many possible articulations of the multiverse. Nicole Kidman’s character forges an unlikely friendship with the troubled young man, drawn to him out of the communion of their shared pain. She likes the beautiful idea that somewhere out there another version of herself is happy and her son is alive and well, though she doesn’t really believe it. It is another example of magical thinking. We all do it. Sometimes a little willing suspension of disbelief helps.

I was as inconsolable at times watching the film as the characters themselves. As painful as it was to watch - which is, no doubt, a testament to the authenticity of the writing and the skill of the actors - I found it to be ultimately encouraging. The bereaved parents do find a way to move tentatively and hopefully forward, individually and as a couple. We can’t imagine how they can possibly survive, and yet, somehow they manage. It forces us to marvel at the resilience of the human spirit and the power of love to persist in the face of seemingly overwhelming devastation.

The film is faithful to the real experience of grief. It doesn't exhaust the gamut of possible responses, but it does touch on the big issues and difficulties that grieving people deal with. It is honest enough not to offer cheap and unrealistic prescriptions.

There is no way to predict how the loss of a loved one will affect and reorder one's life and relationships. It is an emotional tsunami.

Those who have walked this road understand. We surprise and disappoint ourselves and others by our reactions and the often bewildering strategies we devise to survive. Some people get stuck. Some try to numb their pain with drugs or alcohol or sexual indulgence. Some withdraw and isolate themselves. Some look to find help in the company of those who have walked the road before them. Some surround themselves with mementos of their lost loved one's life, and some need to rid themselves of the unbearable reminders of what they have lost. Some couples are driven apart. Some become closer. Some embrace the comfort to be found in religious faith, others blame God.

In the film, Nicole Kidman’s character’s mother has also lost a child. The circumstances of the deaths are vastly disparate (one was a little boy hit by a car, the other a 30 year old man who overdosed). This is a source of some friction between the mother and daughter - but they learn to accept the fact that they do share the stark and inescapable fact of loss. I share a similar bond with my mother, though the circumstances of my sister’s and my daughter’s deaths are not so different: they both died in car wrecks when they were 18 years old.

The two women have a crucial and poignant exchange in the basement of the family home while they are storing the little boy’s belongings away to make it less complicated to sell the home:

Becca: "Does it ever go away? "

Nat: "No, I don't think it does. Not for me, it hasn't - has gone on for eleven years. But it changes though."

Becca: "How?"

Nat: "I don't know... the weight of it, I guess. At some point, it becomes bearable. It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and... carry around like a brick in your pocket. And you... you even forget it, for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason and - there it is. 'Oh right, that...' Which could be awful - not all the time. It's kinda..."

[deep breath]

Nat: "not that you like it exactly, but it's what you've got instead of your son. So, you carry it around. And uh... it doesn't go away. Which is..."

Becca: "Which is what?"

Nat: "Fine, actually."

A year or so after Rachel was killed, Jill and I had dinner with a couple who had lost their own son in a motorcycle accident 10 years before. They were still alive. We couldn’t imagine ourselves in their place, 10 years down the road, without Rachel. We didn’t want to. In those days, our grief felt like a mountain had collapsed on us and we could not possibly dig ourselves out of the avalanche. If we could find the strength to dig, we didn’t even know which was was up. Our only hope, we thought, was rescue. We couldn’t help but ask the same question of our friends that Becca asked her mother: Does it get easier? Is there hope for us, down the road? Their answers were similar: “It never goes away. It does become more bearable. The emptiness you feel in Rachel’s absence is itself a presence that will never leave you. As improbable as that may sound to you now, it is strangely comforting.”

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The End of the Road

Today is June 18, 2011. Tomorrow is Father’s Day. Jill and I started the day out right, in our hot-tub, drinking our morning coffee. Afterwards, we had a quiet breakfast, reading the news, and then began to tackle the endless list of chores and minor projects to be done around the house. As we do so often, we turned on the radio and listened to NPR as we worked: we listened to This American Life, and a locally produced acoustic music program called Harmony Ridge. Both shows were appropriately topical, featuring stories and music that revealed and celebrated Fatherhood. I often moved about the backyard in a blur of tears.

Last night I dreamt of the house we lived in when we brought Rachel home from the hospital. Everything was different in my dream, as it would be in real life if we had the opportunity and heart to revisit it. The house was vacant, and as we walked around trying to decide whether or not to replace the carpet, I told Jill that I hand’t realized how much I loved our lives there - I wished I had known well enough to cherish it.

I acknowledge that some of what I feel is nostalgia and not pure grief. Rachel, even if she had not been taken away from us by a drunk driver, would be on her own, living her own life, and not with us. But, in my defense (not that I need to defend myself), I did my best to let go of Rachel when the time came, though my heart was not really in it. Selfishly, I wanted to forbid her to move to southern California to pursue her dream of becoming a forensic scientist. Sometimes, I wish I had been a selfish, overbearing father and pressured and manipulated her into staying close to home. If I had, she would probably still be alive. Does that make it right? It’s difficult in cases like this to separate the intent from the outcome. I think I could live with being a lousy father. I find it hard to live without Rachel, though, somehow, I must.

There is a poem by Ellen Bass that I read a few months after Rachel was killed. It is called “After Our Daughter’s Wedding.” The title is enough to bring me to tears. It describes a mother sitting on a lakeshore after her daughter’s wedding reception, weeping. Her partner asks her, “Do you feel like you’ve given her away?” No, she explains in the rest of the poem, she is weeping from relief that her daughter has survived to see this day, in spite of everything that can and so often does happen. She compares the perils of childhood to that of baby sea-turtle hatchlings hobbling across the beach, exposed under the moonlight - an image that reminds me of a harrowing scene from “Suddenly Last Summer,” where the vision of baby turtles being devoured on the beach by hungry gulls displaces the memory of the violent death of a young woman’s cousin. That movie horrified me, and the image from Ellen Bass’s poem resonates with every parent. As parents, our most basic, instinctual imperative is for us to deliver our children safely into adulthood. Sweet life. Survival. Every year I empathize with the worried birds that guard the yard as their fledgling offspring fresh from the nest test their wings...

I think I could be happy knowing Rachel was “Somewhere Out There,” even if I was denied ever seeing her again. And, to be honest, sometimes I have to pretend that is the case just to be able to survive another day. Just knowing that she is beautifully alive would be enough. I know, we always want what we can’t have...

This American Life featured stories of predictably distant fathers, fathers who could never find the words to say, “I love you.” Of course, it made me consider the kind of father I have been to my children. Clearly I wasted precious time on things that seemed so urgent to me then but, in hindsight, were not of primary importance: Making a living, paying the bills, a clean house, home improvement projects... In the end, love is all that matters. Recently Jill and I watched an episode of MadMen. Don Draper, a newly divorced father of two, seeks advice about his young daughter who is behaving strangely. He is justifiably worried about her. His female friend advises him that as long as his daughter is convinced that he loves her, she will be fine. I hope that is true. I know that love doesn’t make everything ok. But when all else fails, maybe it really is all we need. I hope Rachel was the remarkably confident, amazingly capable young woman she was in part, at least, because she could take her parents’ love for granted.

Thursday, June 23 will be Rachel’s 22 birthday. We have been getting graduation, wedding, and birth announcements from her friends. We are happy for them. We truly are. As much as we can be. Rachel should be here, passing these milestones, and we should be sharing her joy. Instead, we will be driving together as a family - me, Jill, and Erik - to be present at the criminal trial of the woman who killed Rachel. It appears that opening arguments will begin on Rachel’s birthday. Rather than holding our breaths while our daughter makes wishes for a happy future, we will be staring at the back of the head of the woman who killed her, as she tries to evade a reckoning for her crimes. We do not know if this is some kind of cruel joke, an auspicious sign, or maybe, just another one of life’s befuddling little ironies.

It has been a long road, and, I must say, quite a wild and horrible ride. Since February 21, 2008 we have known someday we would arrive at this destination: the criminal trial. It isn’t where we wanted or chose to go. For going on four years, the course of our lives has largely been determined by Elva Diaz - her choices and her actions. We look forward to putting this in our rear view mirror, and breaking the constraint Elva Diaz has on the course of our present life - though she has forever altered its shape and quality. We know that the end of the trial is not the end of the road. The road continues, and we must go on...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Swing of Life, or, Dance This Mess Around

Friday, May 13th was a typical day in the extreme, swinging from sorrow to joy.

Jill and I both went to work with a sense of dread. Not only was there yet another court hearing hanging over our head (this time on the defense’s motion to recuse the deputy district attorney, Kevin Beecham, who has been with us since the beginning of this ordeal) but Jill was scheduled to speak at Orland High School’s Every 15 Minutes program. Rachel graduated from Orland High School in 2007. The program was held in the gym where we chaperoned Rachel’s Senior Prom, where we sat through the difficult Every 15 Minutes program in which Rachel played the role of a DUI fatality, and where, a few short months later, we held her Memorial Service when Rachel was killed. Our family history haunts the place. Proud moments, happy memories and sadness. Simply walking into the building is an emotional roller coaster ride.

Jill was there to lay her heart bare by telling Rachel’s story. Many of those in attendance knew Rachel personally. Some of them remember her participation in the 2007 program. When Jill stood up to speak, the program ceased to be any sort of fiction. Everyone felt the gravity of the reality of the events portrayed. Everyone felt the pain of Jill’s heartbreak. It was almost too real, too much. I kept having to remind myself to breathe, as if not breathing might somehow keep me from falling apart completely. One of the hardest things I have had to endure is to watch my beloved’s heart break, knowing there is nothing I can do to stop or fix it...

You had to be there. The tears and the snot flowed freely as Jill described the events that led to Rachel’s death and the effect it has had on her and on us. People don’t get awards or medals for such things. Maybe they should. I have never witnessed a more courageous and selfless act in my life. I was in awe, and I think everyone else there was as well. I couldn’t peel my eyes off of Jill as she spoke. I was sitting in the front of the auditorium, so I couldn’t see the effect her words had on others. But, when we lingered after everyone else was gone, talking to people who were moved by Rachel’s story, I noticed that the floor of the gym was littered with wads of facial tissue. I wish I had a picture of it.

We were spent. Grief is physically exhausting. We went home afterwards, and climbed into bed. We slept for a while, and felt a little better when we woke. I suggested we grab an early dinner at my sister’s restaurant in town, Farwood Bar and Grill. It didn’t take much to sell Jill on the idea. Mary, our waitress at Farwood, told us that she had attended the Every 15 Minutes event. Because of some painful family history and difficult circumstances in her life, the event had a powerful emotional impact on her, and she told us she was wiped out. She marveled at our strength: She didn’t know how we could do it.

The truth is, neither do we. Before Rachel was killed, we were convinced we could not survive such an ordeal, and we marveled at those who did. We know we are not special or strong. The only explanation we have is that we do what we must. If we have any strength, it is faithfully supplied to us by the Lord simply because we need it.

We had tickets for a B-52’s concert. I remember the first time I saw the B-52’s back in the early 80’s on Saturday Night Live. I was disparaging, dismissive. They were silly. But over the years I grew to love the B-52’s because Jill does, and I love Jill. I bought tickets for the concert, hoping that it would give us something to look forward to beyond the difficult Every 15 Minutes event. We both almost regretted it. After the emotional wringer we had been through, we didn’t know if we had the energy to attend a concert an hour and a half away from our home that didn’t even start until 9:00 p.m.

We went anyway, trusting our instincts. I had bought general admission tickets - standing room only - because we wanted to dance. We had attended a B-52’s concert once before, years ago at Six Flags Over Texas, and security had strictly enforced a no-dancing policy. It was a cruel and unusual prohibition - and we resolved not to suffer it again. We got to the show a little early and staked out a place at the foot of the stage. From the opening beat, we abandoned ourselves to the music, looking and feeling foolish, a couple of aging empty-nesters thrashing out their heartbreak. It felt good. Silly and good. And even and as we danced I knew how silly it was to be dancing with my shattered heart barely held together by this slim thread of love. I really got it then. The B-52’s have known their share of heartbreak and pain - the death of Cindy Wilson’s brother, Ricky. But night after night they get out on stage and dance, dressed in their campy outfits, and sing their silly songs. They make people smile. They make people forget their pain - or dance in spite of it, dance in the face of it. It warmed my heart to see Jill laugh and smile and dance like she did when she was a girl, dancing and singing the silly lyrics of the B-52’s. I found myself fighting back tears even as I danced with abandon. Dancing with tears in my eyes. Joy and sorrow, despair and hope, love and heartbreak, holding hands, together. Dancing the swing of life.

I like to think that though Rachel would no doubt have been a little embarrassed by her parents, she also would have been pleased and proud that we choose to embrace life and its silly little joys, despite the pain.

After the show, Jill and I were tired, but refreshed - sweaty and thirsty and euphoric. We went looking for a place in the casino to get a milkshake for the long drive home. We walked past an older woman in a wheelchair, wearing a beatific smile on her face. She was reverently holding a pair of drumsticks. I recognized them from the show. One of the performers must have given them to her as he or she left the stage. I watched as the woman in the wheelchair took a picture of them with her cellphone camera and sent it off to somebody with whom she wanted to share her joy. I thought of the difficulty of her life, all she must have suffered, must suffer daily. But there she was - and she had received a gift she would have missed otherwise.

In the words of the B-52’s:

Dance this mess around.

Don’t that make you feel a whole lot better?

I’m just askin’