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...