Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Things Accomplished, Things Left Undone

Dear Rachel,

There are so many things I’d looked forward to doing with you that now I’ll never get to do: I wanted to walk you down the aisle, give you away at your wedding, and embarrass you by crying. I had hoped to get a call one day asking my advice about graduate school. I wanted to watch you watch Shaylyn win a track meet or kick a goal or demolish a debate opponent. I was looking forward to snickering quietly and looking innocent as you complained about how Shaylyn was “very bright, but soooooo lazy!” and asking how to motivate her to do better in school. (Apparently this bright-but-lazy thing runs in the family.) I wanted us to go to one more baseball game together. I had thought that one day during my retirement, I’d be sitting around tying flies or something, and wondering why I hadn’t accomplished more with my life; and then you’d walk in and seeing you would remind me that I’d accomplished quite a lot, really.

I thought I’d get to do all of these things, and many, many more, but I was wrong.

Still, there are so many things I did get to do with you: I took you to your first major league baseball game. (“Dad,” you said at four years of age, while looking over the immaculate field at what was then Jack Murphy Stadium, “Why doesn’t our yard look like that?” So we had our first—and last—discussion about what a groundskeeper does.) I got to bait your hook the first time you went fishing. (“Eeeew!” you said. “And we hafta do this every time?!”) I got to watch you change (almost overnight, it seemed) from a gawky, surly teenager (dragging your hair through your spaghetti as you ate while looking down at your plate) to a beautiful, kindly, sweet-tempered young woman. I got to hold your baby girl in my arms when she was only a few days old. (You were the best mommy I’ve ever seen. Lesley and I were amazed at your patience, your maturity, and your love.) I went to a slew of graduations—pre-school, elementary school, high school, and (finally!) college. (And I cried at every one of them.)

When I’m feeling down, I think about all of the things I’ll miss, all of those “firsts” in which I won’t get to take part. When I’m feeling better, I remember all of the things we did get to share. Today I’m feeling better.



Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Every Blog Has Its Day

Dear Rachel,

This whole blogging thing is a bit ironic. You and I spoke about blogs and blogging just a few months before your death. Neither one of us could see the point of it, really. I mean, some blogs are definitely cool, and a few are actually very informative, but we both wondered what happened to the essentially private nature of journal-writing when that “journal” became accessible to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. More than that, I think we both felt that, by-and-large, most bloggers just tended to ramble on about things that weren’t really particularly interesting or important.

And now, here I am rambling on, blogging about a person with whom I had only recently agreed that blogs were kind of silly. And who would be interested in this, really, other than family and a few friends?

But I’m going to continue blogging, for now. Right now I need it. It’s how I speak to you, now that I can no longer use a telephone or email, and now that I can’t look forward to your summer and winter visits. I’ve spoken with you pretty much every day—sometimes several times per day—for 24 years. Sadly, I took for granted my ability to do so. It’s a habit I’m not yet ready to give up.



Monday, November 28, 2005

Six Months Down, Forever To Go

Dear Rachel,

Today is the six-month anniversary of your death. Odd to think of it as an anniversary. I’ve always thought of those as something one celebrates: the anniversary of one’s birth, of a marriage, of the founding of something. In this case, it’s the anniversary of a profound loss.

In some ways it feels as if we had received that terrible phone call just yesterday. That poor Virginia Beach detective; I could tell he didn’t want to make the call he was making, but he did his job as best he could, knowing all the while that he was about to ruin a whole series of lives beyond the ones that were cut short the previous night in that condo by the beach. I wonder if the man who shot you knew how many lives he was really ending.

In other ways, it feels as if we’ve been living with the awful news forever. Day after day we grind through it, just trying to get by. There seems to be no end to it, and I don’t suppose there will be. We manage, mostly, but almost anything can set us off: a picture, a memory, a song on the radio.

But we owe you more than that. We owe it to you not merely to carry on, but to truly live. We need to rediscover the ability to feel joy, love, and peace. Maybe we can do that some day. We’ll try.



Saturday, November 26, 2005

I'm OK, You're OK. Pretty Much.

Dear Rachel,

If I were ever to write a book on grief, I think it would begin with this sentence: It’s OK, you’re not really crazy.

Of course, this is a lie, of sorts. Grief is truly pathological, as Joan Didion points out in The Year of Magical Thinking. If a person thought and felt all the time as one does while grieving, that person would be deemed ill; he would be examined, diagnosed, medicated, and possibly confined. That this does not occur is due only to the fact that we view grief as “normal,” its aberrations accepted as part of the grieving process. Most of us eventually “overcome” grief and our “illness” ends—or at least, we once again become functional. (Some of us don’t. A few of us are permanently damaged and cannot resume something approximating a normal life.)

But, those unfortunate few of us aside, the grief-stricken are not truly mad. We’re all temporarily deranged in some way or ways, yes, but we’re not permanently, irrevocably insane.

In spite of that, those of us with little previous experience grieving feel as if we’re going insane. We have strange thoughts; we’re guilt-ridden, even when we have little reason to be. We’re unstable, disconnected from reality. We think, “How am I supposed to feel? Would a sane person feel this way?” We engage in magical thinking—believing that if we do certain things, act a certain way, our loved one will somehow return to us. We lose ourselves in fantasies of revenge. We carry on stoically—in control for a day, a week, a month, even, and then fall apart for seemingly no reason at all. We feel anger toward our deceased loved one: “Why did he go on that trip? She shouldn’t have been hanging around with those people! He knew better than to…” and on and on.

And then we feel guilty about having such thoughts.

For the grieving, it’s normal to be abnormal. If you’re grieving, you need to know that every strange notion, every unkind thought, every bout of self-pity, every breakdown, every paroxysm of guilt is normal. No matter how bizarre or uncharitable your thinking, it’s what happens when you grieve. The only thing that will heal you is time, and it takes some people longer than others; don’t let others push you into “getting over it.” There’s no rush, and no way to rush. You will heal, although not completely. The open wound will close and scar over, but the scar will always be there, and it will always ache—some days more than others, like a broken and badly knitted ankle that reminds you on cold, damp mornings that you once did yourself serious bodily harm.

The bottom line here is that you’re OK. You, like all of us who are grieving, get (and deserve) a pass.



Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanks For The Memories

Dear Rachel,

The secret to surviving Thanksgiving, apparently, is to keep busy. Today I’m buried in CDs, DVDs, and assorted computer peripherals as I test two new Linux distributions (SUSE and Mandriva) for an upcoming article. I haven’t had much time—haven’t allowed myself much time—for dwelling on the fact that today is the opening round of the holiday season I’ve been dreading.

Yet, I have much to be thankful for: a wonderful wife, family, home, job, and all the rest. So many have so much less. I do appreciate these things; I do know how lucky I am, in so many ways. Still, it's hard to get into the holiday mode, difficult to truly be thankful in the midst of this pain.

Nice, though, that we've received so many calls and emails today. Friends and family just "checking in" to see how we're doing, letting us know that they're thinking of us during what they know will be a difficult time.

Of course, while I no longer have you, I do have memories of you: I remember that you were terrified (although I didn’t realize it ‘til much later) when the old orange Karmann Ghia died on the freeway and I had to push it to an off-ramp and then dive back into the car and pop the clutch to get us going again. I remember that one of your earliest memories (you must’ve been around three years old) was lying about how that paint got peeled off the wall behind your bed. (And how odd that I know this!) I remember playing catch on a camping trip, and how you “caught” the ball with your mouth, knocking out an already-loose tooth. (And how, forever after, you’d put on that sly grin and tell people how “Daddy once knocked out my tooth.”)

So many memories, some good, some bad, but all of them cherished because they’re now all that I have left of you.



Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Good Days, Bad Days

Dear Rachel,

For some reason, I’ve felt better the past couple of days. Monday was awful—felt very down and depressed; everywhere I turned I encountered memories of you. (I hope that some day memories of you will make me smile, but it’s not happening yet. Right now each memory is a searing pain; I find myself turning away from pictures of you, and then I feel terrible for having done that.) I put it down to the approaching holidays and was thinking, “Man, if the whole holiday season is like this I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

But then yesterday and today I’ve felt better. No tears, no choking up. Even caught myself humming a Christmas carol yesterday. So I guess it’s just more of that emotional rollercoaster I’m riding. I can be up and then down dozens of times in one day.

I’m not looking forward to the holidays, though. They were always my favorite time of the year, but not this time around. Still, Amy’s coming to visit, and she said she’d like a tree and decorations, even though Lesley and I had originally thought maybe we should just skip the whole thing.

I wonder what will happen when I walk into the house and see your special ornament on the tree....



Monday, November 21, 2005

Death By A Thousand Cuts

Dear Rachel,

I’ve been searching for a way to describe how this feels, but I’m not sure I have the words for it.

Things are a bit better now than when you were first killed. I no longer spend all of every day in agony, crying or on the verge of tears. (At first, I cried so much that crying came to feel normal. Not crying felt odd.) Now, coming up on the six-month anniversary of your death, I find that I can get through most of the day (most of the time) without too much pain.

That’s not to say I don’t think of you. I think of you always. There’s not a moment when you’re not on my mind, even if it’s just on the periphery of my consciousness while I’m working on an article or speaking with a friend or colleague. But that constant, deep-seated ache with which I had become so very familiar is no longer present all the time.

At first I thought of describing it as a rollercoaster. I can be feeling OK, just sort of vaguely sad, and then—out of nowhere—comes that kick in the gut. It’s not that I suddenly realize that you’re gone; I always know that you’re gone. It’s that the enormity of what’s happened abruptly strikes me. The sudden pain takes my breath away, as I realize—deep down inside—that my little girl was murdered, really murdered, shot dead for no damn good reason. (As if there could've been a good reason.) And it strikes me again, full force, that I’ll never again hear your voice. It’s enough to crush a man.

But describing it as a rollercoaster isn’t particularly apt. For one thing, rollercoasters are fun; people ride them on purpose. (Not me, mind you, but some people.)

This is more like an ancient Chinese torture, really: líng chí, death by a thousand cuts. Each memory slices into me, each realization that you’re really gone takes another piece of me, until eventually it feels like there’s nothing left and I’m left feeling emotionally flayed.



Thursday, November 17, 2005

Anger Issues

Dear Rachel,

Looking back at my previous post, I suppose I have what psychologists would refer to as “unresolved anger issues.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that they’d be correct. I am definitely angry. In fact, this whole grieving thing seems to be made up of equal parts anger, sorrow, pain, and guilt. And I suspect that this is normal, that most people in my position feel this way.

But the anger outweighs everything else, at least some of the time. When the sorrow gets to be too much, when the pain is more than I can bear, the anger takes over: Instead of being incapacitated by the sorrow, instead of being consumed by guilt, I focus on my hatred.

That’s a terrible (and perhaps unproductive) thing on which to focus, but I suppose that there’s a way in which it’s better than the alternative. At least I have an avenue for my emotions, a focus for my anger. I know who killed you. I can hate him with no trouble at all—I, who’ve never before hated anyone, really—and perhaps that’s better than blaming the whole world, or God, or having no one at all to blame. Your death was not due to illness, or a flood, or a freak accident. It was not just “one of those things” that sometimes happens for no apparent reason and for which no one is at fault. There is fault here, there is someone to blame.

So, yes, I have unresolved anger issues. I don’t see any way to resolve them, really, nor am I sure that I want to. I figure that I’m entitled to them.



Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Rule of Law

Dear Rachel,

Today is November 16th. You and two of your friends were shot and killed exactly 172 days ago. And today the man accused of killing you has a hearing in Virginia Beach. This will be the first of what I assume will be many hearings leading up to his trial, currently scheduled for next May.

I have no real quarrel with the U.S. system of justice; as flawed as it is, it’s probably the best around. Of course, I try to keep in mind that “system of justice” is probably a misnomer: Judging by the way in which the law is applied, justice is not really the goal of law; order is the goal of law. Justice, when it occurs, is merely a happy accident. And perhaps that’s the way it has to be.

I believe that this man deserves his hearing, and the hearings to follow; that he ultimately merits a trial in which all of the evidence is heard and in which his fate is decided by a jury of his peers.

I believe that, but I have to wonder: When do you get a hearing?



Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Black Magic

Dear Rachel,

Psychologists talk about “magical thinking,” the idea that one can believe in the manifestly untrue, or that one can invest in certain symbols magical powers. In children, it’s magical thinking that allows them simultaneously to believe in things they know intellectually to be false, but emotionally wish to be true.

I’d run into the term shortly after your death, while speaking to a social worker about Shaylyn. She pointed out that Shaylyn, at three years of age, is perfectly capable of understanding the concept of death; she can—and does—know that her mommy is dead, that you’re gone, and gone forever. At the same time, she’s young enough to engage in magical thinking: The understanding that Mommy is dead has absolutely no bearing on the fact that Shaylyn may still expect you to walk through the door at any moment.

But it’s not only young children who engage in such thinking. I know very well that you’re dead; I attended your funeral, I cried nonstop for weeks, I have your ashes in a box. (They’re all I have left of you, and I can’t for the life of me bring myself to sprinkle them in a forest or on a beach, as was my original intent.) In spite of this knowledge, this absolute certainty that you’re gone forever, I still catch myself expecting you to call, to send me one of your chatty emails, to walk through the door. I still find myself thinking, when I run across an interesting fact or a cool gadget, “Oh, I’ll hafta call Rachel about that! She’ll love to hear about it.” I still see you on the street, or in a shop window, or in the car that pulls up next to me.

I still feel you in my life and it hurts so very much to realize that the feeling is a lie.



Friday, November 11, 2005

Me & God: A Failed Relationship

Dear Rachel.

I truly envy people of faith, and by that I mean a belief in anything. Whether it’s faith in God, in a plan of some kind, or a more secular belief in the so-called “goodness of man,” I envy someone who can see a plan, a pattern, some causality in all of this.

I was always an agnostic of sorts; I figured that knowing God—or even knowing that He existed—was pretty much beyond me. I would live my life as best I could, I figured, and let others argue about God’s existence. If He exists, fine, I’d like to think I’ve done my part. And if He didn’t exist, well, there’d certainly be nothing wrong—and perhaps very much that’s right—in still attempting to live a good life, do “the right thing” as much and as often as I could.

But that sort of outlook has to at least admit the possibility of the existence of God, the likelihood—however slim—that there’s a reason for everything that happens. It presumes that the universe might proceed according to some sort of plan. It imposes on the world a rational structure of some sort.

I can no longer presume that this is the case, or even that it might be the case. Whatever tattered faith I might have once had has now been completely ripped away. If God does exist, He and I are no longer on speaking terms.

Ironically, you did have a faith. I gathered that it wasn’t particularly strong, but you did attend a church on a fairly regular basis. It might even have been more of a social thing than anything else, but I know that you believed in God, and occasionally worshipped Him in the prescribed manner.

I know many people who have a strong faith, and I envy them so much, especially now; I’d like to believe that there is a God, a plan, an afterlife. I would willingly suffer in hell if I knew that you were safe and loved in heaven.

But I don’t—can't—believe that there's a reason for everything, so I’m not sure what to do or how to resolve the anger that I feel. Perhaps the only right thing to do is to determine that, even though God doesn’t exist, we must live our lives as if He did.



Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Brave New World

Dear Rachel,

It’s a different world now, the one in which I live. It’s not as bright, nor as beautiful, and certainly not as benign. I used to view the world as a kind of palette with which I could paint: I could color it, affect it, change it; with some creativity and determination I could create in it a place for myself and my loved ones. Sometimes I saw the world as a giant tool chest: If I worked hard enough, if I learned enough, I could reach in and grab those tools, and I could then use them to build whatever I needed—a product, a career, a life.

Now it sometimes seems as if the world is simply something that happens to me. I exercise no control over it, I just exist within it and it washes over me, doing whatever it will. It acts upon me rather than me upon it. It’s a different world, and I’m a stranger in it.

But that’s silly, really; the world can’t have changed. It must be me that’s changed. I’m no longer as trusting, as joyful, or as confident as I once was. I no longer swagger or strut or stride through life. Instead, I shuffle like an old man, bent under the terrible weight of his years and the pain he’s seen.

I don’t want to be that old man. I’m not yet ready to be tired and beaten. I want my confidence back; I want to feel joy again. Maybe someday.



Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Hard Lessons, Quickly Learned

Dear Rachel,

You were so very, very bright. Sharp enough at five or six to carry on a conversation about paradoxes inherent in time travel as we drove home on one of those endless San Diego freeways. Smart enough to skip the very grade that I failed. (As you never tired of reminding me. Warning to parents: Never keep a box of your old report cards sitting around where your child can find it.) Clever enough to zip through high school without really having to work very hard at it. Smart enough to get great grades in college in spite of working 20-30 hours per week and raising a baby.

You were scary-smart. And because of that you gloried in those classes you were taking during your last few years in school. You’d call for no other reason than to talk about sediment, or some marketing concept, or to explain how the tides worked, or why algae blooms weren’t necessarily a problem. It was amazing what you’d learned.

But I’ve learned, too. With your death, here are some important lessons I’ve learned:

> There’s nothing in the world more important than family.
> If you don’t have a great, close family, do your best to marry into one.
> Some good friends will drift away; they don’t know how to handle death, don’t know how to love someone who’s grieving. It’s not their fault.
> Some people who were formerly just acquaintances will step up and become good friends; they know there’s no good way to help someone handle grief, but they’ll try anyhow.
> A few truly good friends will continue to be truly good friends.
> When you think you’re over it, you’re kidding yourself. There is no “over it.”
> People who say, “She’s in a better place now” don’t deserve your time; they’re not even worth your anger. There was nothing wrong with the place you were, and we all want you back.
> The death penalty may in fact be cruel and unusual punishment, but sometimes it’s not quite cruel enough.

In the end I suppose the most important thing I’ve learned is that the person you love most in all the world can be taken from you in an instant. So we need to make sure that the people we love most know today that they’re deeply, unreservedly loved, because one of you may be gone tomorrow.



Friday, November 04, 2005

Simple Acts of Desperation

Dear Rachel,

I’m surprised at the number of people who think that it takes “courage” to get through all of this. Some talk about being “brave” enough to do this blog or write the magazine column I wrote some months ago. Some comment on my being (and on Lesley’s being and Debbie’s being and Amy’s being) “courageous” enough to “go on” in spite of your death.

I don’t think it’s courage at all. What choice do we have, really? What can we do but go on? You’re gone and nothing we say or do can bring you back. But we need each other, all of us who are left to carry on. Lesley and Amy need me; I can’t just shut down, leaving them to find their way without me. And, of course, I need them, too. Perhaps I need them even more than they need me. What would I do without Lesley, who loves me in spite of my flaws, and who is stronger and braver and smarter than anyone would have thought? (She’s beautiful, but she’s so much more than that. I wonder how many people look at surface beauty and then, failing to look beneath that surface, decide that there’s no depth there.) What would I do without Amy to poke fun at me, and to remind me (again) that life goes on and that scrawny, bratty little girls sometimes turn out to be beautiful, smart young women? She’s the daughter who reminds me that there are still things to live for, that the story’s not yet over, that I need to watch her—and help her, if and when I can—grow up. (I’m so glad you two were so close, calling and emailing each other constantly, sharing secrets, giggling and hugging like the good friends that you were, more like friends than sisters, in fact. Certainly no one expects stepsisters to become such good friends.) And of course, I need to be around—want to be around—to watch Shaylyn grow up and become a young woman, a lovely, lively echo of her determined, beautiful mother.

At any rate, I’m not sure that courage has much to do with it. Sometimes living is an act of desperation.



Thursday, November 03, 2005

Lost & Found

Dear Rachel,

I realize that I’m being hypersensitive, but it really hurts when someone consoles me on having “lost” you. “I’m sorry to hear of your loss,” they’ll say. Or, “I heard that you lost your daughter; I’m so sorry.”

And they are sorry, and they mean well, I know. But when I think of “losing” something, I think of car keys or a coffee cup or a paperback book: something that I might have put down and then rushed off, forgetting where I left it. If I stop and think about it, if I retrace my steps, if I ask for some help, I can find that cup. It’ll be right where I left it, on the telephone table or perhaps on top of my dresser.

But I can’t find you. No matter where I look, and in spite of the fact that I see you everywhere I look, I can’t find you. No amount of help will bring you back to me, nor will hours of searching. I know because I’ve tried, and I’ve asked for help, and I’ve retraced my steps a thousand times.

I didn’t lose you. You were taken from me. You were unexpectedly and brutally ripped from my grasp, but you’ll be forever in my heart.



Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Pride & Prejudice

Dear Rachel,

You were always so proud of me; I’d like to think I deserved it, but I often wonder. When I was developing software you’d lie in wait at B. Dalton’s or Egghead and pounce on the unwary shopper who picked up one of our software packages: “My daddy made that!” you’d say with a smile. “You should buy it. It’s really good.” Perhaps you were bucking for a commission.

You were a bit older when I became the editor of a computing magazine, so you were a little more subtle. You’d just drag your friends over to the rack at Barnes & Noble, grab a magazine and point to my name on the masthead: “See that? That’s my dad. Pretty cool, huh?” Maybe “subtle” isn’t the right word.

I suppose every little girl is proud of her daddy.

But I hope you knew how proud I was of you. You turned out to be a wonderful, bright, witty, kind person. The day you finally got that college degree—just a few weeks before you were killed—was one of the happiest days of my life. We were all so proud of you for sticking it out: me, your mom, Lesley, Amy, and all the grandparents, too. We knew how tough it was, what with having to work, go to school, and raise a baby at the same time. It would’ve been so easy to quit, but you didn’t.

You never got to hold your actual diploma; you and all the other graduates marched across the stage holding a sheet of paper that looked like a diploma, but we got to see the real thing. Someone from ODU came by after your memorial service and dropped it off with your mom. I was reminded at the time of an honor guard presenting the flag to a fallen soldier’s mother.

Like the soldier’s flag ceremony, it was touching, and very kind of the university to make sure we got the diploma. But I wondered what those mothers really think when they’re handed that tri-folded flag. No, that’s not right; I know exactly what they think: No, thank you. You’re very kind, but you can keep your flag. I’d like my child back. Please. I’d like my child back. I’ll give you the flag and everything I own. You can have anything I’ve ever owned, and anything I might ever own, if you’ll just give me back my child. Will you do that for me? Please?



Tuesday, November 01, 2005


I’m terrified that I’ll forget you.

It’s an irrational fear, I know—and one that the literature says is not uncommon—but I find myself worrying about it nonetheless. What would happen if February 17th rolled by and I didn’t realize that it was your birthday? Is it possible that I could forget that you were murdered on May 28th? What if, recalling your face, I were to find that it had become progressively fainter and less well-defined, until finally it had turned into a vague, murky watermark that bore little resemblance to the real Rachel? What if I forgot to love you?

Intellectually, I know that this is silly. I’ll never forget you. Neither will Lesley or Debbie, nor your friends. And we’ll make sure that Shaylyn, as young as she is, never forgets her mommy, either.

In the end, I suppose I don’t really have to worry: You’re the last thing I think about when I go to sleep at night and the first thing I think about every morning. And since I think about you so often during the day, I guess what it boils down to is that I’ll always think of you, more or less constantly, and I’ll always love you.

Which, now that I think about it, isn't really so different from when you were alive.