January 1, 2007
It was 17 years ago on this night that my mother believing my youngest brother’s sickness was incurable shot him and then shot herself. That is the simplest way to tell the story, the facts of which are as stupefyingly shocking today as they were when I first heard them over the phone on January 2nd 1990. Our maid had discovered them.
I was sitting in an office in the Citicorp Building in New York City when I got the phone call. I was four months into my first post college job. It was 10:02 in the morning. There were three calls actually, the first two were the sounds of someone wailing. Not understanding what was going on I hung up twice. When I finally answered I felt as if someone was turning a knob forcing all my senses into an uncomfortably accute range. I could feel the air on my fingers, hear the sound of the wind on the windows, see the minute hand of my watch move second by second. It was as if all the filters allowing me to tune out distractions were ripped from my head. Preternaturally composed, I made flight arrangements to Texas. Then I walked down the hall and told my boss the story and said I would be leaving for a while. My boss followed me down to the street, flagged a taxi, and told me to take as much time off as I needed. I saw him standing there with tears in his eyes as we sped away. A friend and his girlfriend met me at my apartment. We packed in just a few minutes, but the flight wasn't for a few hours. Not knowing what to do we killed time at coffee shop on Lexington and 78th before heading to Laguardia. In the cab we didn’t talk. I kept thinking back a few day to when a black balloon had appeared outside my office window on the 53rd floor lingering there in the air seemingly in defiance of physics. It had floated away horizontally. My mind was turning slow irrational somersaults. "There must have been some horrible mixup," I thought, "none of this makes sense."
I was wearing an old shirt with buttons thinned by wear, and on the flight I remember rubbing the buttons between by thumb and forefinger. The facts were what they were of course and when I arrived home late that afternoon to a houseful of family and friends all in various states of anguish it all hit me like a sledgehammer. I first went to my grandmother kneeling before her and wrapped my arms around her. "I don't understand," she whispered in Spanish, "why?" That night I couldn't sleep and felt the need to write something. The first words that came out were: "I realize with profound clarity that we have choices. The type of life I will live is determined by the choices I make. Starting now."
In the coming days I immersed myself in the bureaucracy of death, getting police reports, ordering official documents, canceling credit cards, arranging the funeral... I remember a funeral director wearing a tieclip in the shape of a shotgun. He said, "Don't worry son, we all have pain in our hearts eventually." This was Texas after all. Having something to do was easier than trying to explain the question everyone kept asking. "Why?" I didn't know why and what I did know—my certainty that this was an act of extreme empathy born of blinding if perverse love—was unmentionable. Too difficult for others to hear or for me to say.
The police report said that my brother died instantly, but that my mother was probably alive for some time, maybe up to an hour before finally bleeding to death. She had missed her heart. That hour haunted me. I had been hit by a car as a 13-year-old and remembered vividly what it was like to lose blood and go into shock. The mind is not turned off in those moments, instead there is a brilliant clarity as in a dream, but the body is immobile and helpless. Was she wracked with regret and doubt, did the terrible folly of it all come crashing down on her? Did she think of us?
When you experience tragedy, someone will inevitably tell you that time will heal you by scarring over your wounds. But time becomes meaningless when you lose the people you love and sometimes you don't want to scar. The rawness of tragedy opens you up as a human being allowing you to feel as never before both the good and the bad.
It was almost two months after all this happened when I finally arrived back in New York on a late flight. My cabdriver was playing a Charlie Parker tape and despite the crisp February air, his window was rolled down so he could take drags from a cigarette. As we drove over the 59th Street Bridge clouds parted revealing the thinnest sliver of a new moon hanging over a glistening city. The vision of the city filled my eyes with tears. "I choose hope," I said to myself, "I'll be ok". Half a lifetime later I can say I was right. The question I sometimes ask myself on January firsts is, "Is it possible to fully enjoy the deep sweetness of life without tasting profound sadness." I don't know the answer but I ask it every year.
related: 1/1 2005