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...

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