Some people go through their lives without ever experiencing the death of a loved one. My husband was one of those people. The grandparents he liked died when he was a young boy. He only vaguely remembered them. His other grandfather died before he was born. The surviving grandmother was a person he actively disliked, a woman who was initially uninterested in him and then actually hostile toward him as he grew up. For the most part, his relatives lived for a long time. His father died at 98 and his mother outlived him, dying at 96. Death made him uncomfortable. He didn’t like thinking about it. He hated funerals and memorials. When he got sick with his deadly Merkel cell cancer which was already metastatic, he looked at me in wonder and said, “the first person I mourn will be myself.” I felt tremendous sympathy for him. He was an innocent. I was not.
Death was familiar territory to me. It was always part of my family’s conversation, along with illness and disease. Michael and I always likened our differences to that movie scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen’s family was shouting about diabetes and Diane Keaton’s was talking about rummage sales. Worlds apart.
The deaths which affected me most started when I was thirteen and my baby cousin died on the day I graduated from 8th grade. My parents went off to be with hers.
I struggled with emotions ranging from a deep sadness to guilt that I was upset that my mom and dad wouldn’t see my walk down the aisle, with my blue and white ribbons pinned to my dress and my gold honor roll pin with blue writing in its center.
That was just the beginning. As I went through my teens, the only grandfather I knew died. That was sort of normal. Then as I entered my twenties, the suicides started.
The first was one of my cousins, Dennis, who shot himself. Next my grandmother died, a normal death from old age. In my 30’s, it was my other cousin, Eliot who committed suicide. Eliot was like a little brother to me. He leapt from a building in Chicago. I attended his funeral with my baby son under my arm. The year after he died, my friend Fern committed suicide. I have yet to recover from that death. She was a victim whose mental health was destroyed by others. I’d call hers a wrongful death. Despite trying everything I could think of to stop her, it happened anyway.
The year after that, my parents both got cancer. My mother survived but my dad died at 67. At the time, I thought he’d had a long life. My, how getting older changes one’s view of longevity. His death was my first bedside vigil. I cared for many of his physical needs as my mom was still recovering from her own illness. I crossed all kinds of boundaries between a daughter and a father. I knew I was changing from those three deaths in a row but I wasn’t sure how. I reeled from their absences. But there was nothing to do but go forward and recognize that being mindful of what was important in life needed to be something I could figure out. Fast. I think I could call that “afterward” period, just a few years before I turned 40, the time when I honed my best critical thinking skills.
I was very intellectually conscious of who I wanted to be, as a daughter, a wife, a mother and friend. I knew that I wanted to be present. I wanted to be available for people who experienced traumas similar to mine. I guess that’s because the process of grief and loss can be painfully isolating. You often wind up feeling like you have a contagious illness that everyone wants to avoid. So on I went.
As I passed through my 40’s and 50’s, people continued to die. There were the uncles and aunts. There were young teens who were friends of my daughter’s, kids she’d known from as early on as day care and grammar school. I wept at the unfairness of life and their wrenching funeral services. There were parents of my kids’ friends. I organized food trains and visited the patients and listened to them and their spouses. I stood in line by myself at their visitations as Michael never went with me. He couldn’t stand those things. My friends’ parents started dying. I went to as many of those events as I could. Dying is part of life, I would tell myself. Of course it is.
Then in 2012, just before my 61st birthday, Michael was diagnosed with his cancer. I couldn’t believe it. Not Michael, the strong, athletic beast, as my kids called him. Not the progeny of all those people in his family who were so long-lived. But there it was. And my grooming in the world of illness and death made me ready for what turned into our 5 year ride on the cancer rollercoaster, up and down, up and down. So many treatments, moments of hope and health, moments of despair and teetering on the edge of death. We talked about everything during his illness. Both of us felt that as devastating as it was, that we hadn’t reached the worst of the worst. That would be if one of our kids got terribly sick. Both of us questioned whether we could survive that. During the few years before his disease exacted the ultimate price, Michael hovered at the edge of life in 2015. My blows kept on coming.
My brother died that April. Michael was weak but pulled back from the brink in June with a new treatment. He was still trying to gain strength when my mother died in July. Her death was followed later that week by the death of our beloved collie, Flash.
I was learning about all types of grief, the sudden, the acute, the drawn out. The surprise grief that bursts out unexpectedly, just when you think you have your act together. And then after a brief respite, it turned out that Michael would never have to face the question of whether he could stand anything awful happening to our kids. After a heroic effort to stave it off, his sneaky cancer returned with a vengeance and took him out, after a grim struggle for life that lasted from January, 2017 to May 28th of that year. I spent myself down to tatters in those months. I stayed with him in the hospital for 32 days and nights. I was able to get him home where through herculean efforts, he survived for close to three months in a blur of home health visits, treatments and eventual cognitive decline. But he died where we’d lived our life, with me holding his hand and our children beside us.
After that, I was whatever is beyond exhausted. My son departed to his postdoc across the world in Guam and my daughter and her family began to resume their normal life. So I could recover and my son could participate, we delayed an event to honor Michael until December of 2017. That’s when I began to understand that this sadness about Michael had a life of its own. I was going through my days with the spirit of Michael on one side of me and this active pain, almost physical in nature, on the other side of me.
Then, about a week and a half after Michael’s death, a dreadful crime was committed in our community. A foreign national graduate student who’d just recently entered the country to begin her work was kidnapped and quickly assumed murdered. The case got a lot of press. An all-out search began, but within a very few days, the FBI had identified the person who they alleged had committed the crime. He was arrested at the end of June. Public outcry was enormous. The student was Chinese and the university in our community has a large Chinese population.
My daughter is a federal public defender, locally based. When I heard about the case, my first thoughts were, please, please don’t let this case fall in my kid’s lap. Our whole family was reeling with fatigue and grief over Michael’s death. Something this enormous was terrifying to me for her, just having lost her dad, at a time when we were so stunned with sadness. Then came the welcome news that a local law firm had been retained for the case. I breathed more easily and slipped back into focusing on trying to comprehend Michael’s death at the now early-to-me age of 67, the same age as my dad was when he died, that I’d once considered old. I was working hard to cope as was everyone in our family.
Our little unit of four was always a tight, intimate group. Such a huge piece was now missing and we were trying to negotiate that big hole. Who thought that a new pressing issue could push its way into our void? But that’s exactly what happened.
Despite the fact that Illinois abolished the death penalty in our state years ago, the federal attorney general, Jeff Sessions, attached the death penalty to this local case in one of his last parting shots in his position. Twenty states have abolished the death penalty. Nine others have a formal moratorium on it in place. That this could happen in a state that clearly banned capital punishment was astonishing. Although most progressive countries have quit this practice, our country remains among the ones where it is still allowed. For me, I have always considered the death penalty to be institutionalized murder. I’ve never understood how family members of a crime victim can derive any solace from the execution of the perpetrator. Their loved one is still gone and will never come back. A personal opinion, yes. But to me, murder is murder no matter who is doing it.
In early September of 2017, the private firm that had been handling this sensational and ultimately gruesomely detailed case, withdrew from the defense, thereby handing it over to my daughter’s office. Suddenly, barely three months after Michael’s death, my daughter was going to be a primary attorney in a case where the client’s life was at stake. I don’t think she ever thought she would be on a capital case. Why would she, in a state that had eliminated the practice? Suddenly a new heavy weight was thrust onto our family’s shoulders. In addition to carrying our pain about Michael, we now had the burden of wondering what this case would do to my kid, who had to rapidly learn the management of a murder trial with death as a possible sentence.
As time went by, the demands on her time increased in many ways. She needed to travel to conferences and to receive training. That meant absences from her husband and children in addition to me. All jobs mean that time must be taken away from family life. But this was different. The stakes were high. I knew my daughter was laboring under the onus of feeling that she was now responsible for a life or death verdict for her client. She had other attorneys and investigators on her team but as time moved along, it was apparent that she would be in a primary role in the case. I could feel the pressure on her, pressure that was coming from within. My daughter takes her job and its constitutional definition very seriously. Throughout her life, she has always given everything to the tasks before her. As a serious athlete through much of her life, at the end of a competition, she wanted the ball in her hands, to try to attain a victory. And I knew that she would, as the athletic expression goes, leave everything on the floor. But this case appeared to be a slam dunk for the prosecutors. What would happen to my daughter’s psyche? The grief I was, and still am, experiencing over Michael’s death was like no other. But I recognized that my daughter would really need me to be her mother during this unexpected situation. Not just the sad, lonely mother missing my husband and her dad, but the mother who I’d been in “the before,” in the time when worries were considerably less than in this new combination of nightmares.
How in the world would I negotiate this situation? I never felt that I lost any part of myself when Michael died. He and I were both strong and independent. Being strong all the time gets old, though, and I was now in a position where letting down could affect my daughter at a time when I felt like she needed me. Her own family needed her. Struggling to be the best attorney, a good wife and a good mom was huge. The last thing she needed was for me to be in some pathetic state. We went through all of 2018 and the first five months of this year, barreling closer to the time when the trial would begin. Because the public opinion in our community was so visible, there’d been a change of venue and while my daughter hoped to come home every weekend, the workload for a trial like this didn’t allow for that. So she moved away for the duration of the proceedings. What a nightmare for all of us. Could there be anything harder than being separated from your loved ones in the most intense time in your life?
That’s what my kid faced as well as those of us who love her. During the guilt phase of the trial which began in early June, the defense admitted guilt on the part of their client due to powerful evidence that the prosecution had assembled. It was ugly. There was an endless stream of negative social commentary from who I call the uninformed haters, the people who don’t understand what the law says and who were vengeance-driven and angry at my daughter for doing her job. There was also support but it took awhile for that to become evident as many people didn’t actually know what was happening. Perhaps they might have been more vocal earlier along if they had. The admission of guilt meant that everything would come down to the penalty phase when the jury would have to decide whether the defendant would receive the death penalty or life in prison without parole. This case was like the proverbial dark cloud, hanging over us all and encasing us in it at the same time that we were mourning. Now it was a question of life or death. My daughter who had for almost the duration of this case had been missing her dad, who’d slid into death before her eyes, now held a life in her hands and seemingly in her power. We talked about whether she was prepared for a death sentence and I know she was trying. Last Wednesday, a week after my knee replacement surgery, I limped into our local federal courthouse which provided a live feed of the proceedings to the local community.
The prosecutors presented their case first and at the end of their statement m, said death was the only correct penalty for the case. Then my daughter stood to present the closing statement for the defense. I was mesmerized by her. She spoke with no notes and away from the lectern in the room. She spoke from her heart for 64 minutes and when she finished, I wept. She spoke for life and I sat there remembering all the deaths and the struggles for life I’ve seen and the complexity of what it all means. For the first time I thought there was a glimmer of possibility for saving a life. The jury deliberated a day and a half and finally told the judge they couldn’t be unanimous in their verdict.
That meant an automatic life sentence for the client. My valiant daughter had pulled off a miracle with her genuine and sincere closing statement. I feel terrible sadness for the family of the victim. But I still believe that the client death would never assuage their pain. I am incredibly proud of my daughter for her strength and conviction. She came home Friday and I saw her a little bit then and a little bit yesterday. She is exhausted and needs rest for a long time after this intense haul.
I will always wonder if I might have felt any differently during my process of grieving Michael, absent the extra load of this nightmare. For my daughter too. I’ll never know. What I do know is that today, I feel the relief of this case having ended. To avoid the blistering heat, I sat in my house relaxing, doing busywork and listening to music. My music stream, which plays many artists’ stations at random, managed to play, one right after another, virtually every meaningful evocative song that makes Michael’s face appear in front of my eyes, although I was heaving and sobbing so much, seeing him was difficult.
I finally unplugged and fled to my garden where I watered and pulled weeds from a seated position and pondered if I’m going back to that place I might have sealed off right after Michael died. The writhing in agony place. There wasn’t enough room for it as I practiced my mothering skills. Maybe I won’t go back there. We’ll see. But in the death and life moments, emotions and grief are mutable and unpredictable. That is one thing I’m sure I know.