|“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”
– Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
June 24, 2010 began as an ordinary day. That night, there was a big union membership meeting, preparing for the fight against layoffs threatened, organizing to keep everyone working.
After the staff meeting, I went outside for a smoke and sat in the late afternoon sun. Right before workers started showing up (blue collar workers show up early — and hungry!) I felt the sun pass behind a cloud, felt a cool touch pass me by. I shivered and went back to work.
Folks told me later that I was inspired that night. We started with a prayer, right after the Pledge of Allegiance; avowed agnostic that I am, I’d never done that before.
Leaving the Union Hall, Elise came back in with me to use the bathroom. Finally in the car, I had 19 unheard messages from Don. The only one I listened to brought me to my knees. “You need to get to the intersection of Sunset and Elysian Park,” it said. “Right now.”
Marlene from the Mayor’s Crisis Response Team stood with me for hours in the middle of Sunset Blvd., barricaded and blue-lit, waiting to confirm that the young man shot in the back of the head on the floor of the Higher Path medical marijuana dispensary was mine. She has a Jack Russell Terrier. I’ll never forget her, holding me up that night, and all the volunteers who respond to LA’s tragedies and emergencies.
“The pain of losing my child was a cleansing experience. I had to throw overboard all excess baggage and keep only what is essential. Because of Paula, I don’t cling to anything anymore. Now I like to give much more than to receive. I am happier when I love than when I am loved. I adore my husband, my son, my grandchildren, my mother, my dog, and frankly I don’t know if they even like me. But who cares? Loving them is my joy.” — Isabel Allende, In Giving I Connect With Others, NPR’s this i believe, April 4, 2005
Matthew was born on Thursday, March 17, 1983. I woke up not feeling well, and Sharon and Martha drove down to Long Beach to bring me a typewriter so I could work on a proposal for an initiative for a statewide California lottery. I spent much of the day sitting on the floor typing.
At 6:30 PM, my midwife Elaine Barnes knocked on the door. It was raining.
March 1983 was the rainiest March I’ve enjoyed in Southern California. I hope this March will be rainier.
Matthew Benjamin joined us at 11:25 PM on March 17. For years we used the coincidence of a St. Patrick’s Day birth as the theme for his birthday. When he was 8 or 9, he sat me down and asked: Can we not have a green cake?
After Matt was killed I spent three weeks in a Spanish language immersion program in Costa Rica. I asked for a loud, large family and loved every noisy minute of it. (My Spanish still sucks.)
A working family in a San Jose neighborhood, my family was Mama and Papa and three adult kids, 11 month old twin grandsons, and a sweet Schnauzer named Chispa. Papa supports the family working in healthcare and we were able to talk union shop talk (I think). (He’s a steward, I believe.) Mama works all day; the pressure cooker goes non-stop. They don’t have a clothes dryer. Somehow she knew I needed kind mothering and she came to my room to kiss me good night every night.
Simple, giving love. For each other. (For nature as well. In Costa Rica, people know how many trees are protected, for example, and proudly share those statistics. They have no army. ¡Pura Vida!) Every time a Solano Rodriguez left or came home, entered the room, left the room, went to the restroom, ran out to dump the trash – every time! – hello and good-bye, they kissed each other, often hugged, occasionally kissed both cheeks. Every time. I heard some version of te amo in many an affectionate exchange.
Richard Alarcón gave me a copy of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, personalized as only a parent who has lost a child can do.
“Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?…The response would be…to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all…no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
So many people have lost children. At my first meeting of Parents of Murdered Children, I was welcomed, so warmly, “to a club I never knew existed, certainly wouldn’t ever want to join.” Mothers and fathers held pictures of (mostly) sons, some killed years ago, some fresh, like mine. Telling their stories, speaking their names, members support each other in court and in meetings and with little things like prison notification forms.
POMC resources helped me write our Victim Impact Statement:
Matthew Benjamin Butcher was born on a cold, rainy St. Patrick’s Day in 1983. His first word was ball followed closely by dog, pronounced “Dawwwwdg!” with great excitement, and for a while our little world was divided into balls and dogs. He was a sweet baby, a delightful child, smart, stubborn, and inquisitive as an art, or for sport.
God, I loved him!
Matt was a gifted athlete with a smart eye and a big heart. The condolence notes I received from Matthew’s coaches across the years shared many kind words about his competitive spirit, selfless commitment to the team, love of the game.
He was a good man.
He was his mother’s son, never crossed a picket line, always rooted for the underdog. He worked at the Higher Path because he believed in the healing benefits of marijuana.
I’ve heard stories – stories a mother would never otherwise hear. Matthew was a good man, a good friend, a lover, not a fighter, a kibitzer, a committed golfer, a better brother than anyone except Steven Butcher knew; he treated women with respect – the prayer of every mother raising a son.
I miss him every day.
I wear his deodorant. Every morning I put on his scent, something manly and Gillette-y.
Read the rest here.
Luisa (aka “our” Luisa) was working for LA County’s Victim Services out of Hollywood LAPD when she saw Matthew’s name. I’ll never forget her first call: she also lost a son – Anthony – in the same way, near-by our Highland Park neighborhood. No, there’s no need for you to see pictures of Matthew dead. First, you’ll see them at trial, God willing. Second, if you ever get a wild hair that he’s not really dead, and that doesn’t really happen, the pictures will forever live in a police file. Matter-of-fact yet with so much empathy and love, Luisa took me by the hand and helped me through it all. And when the mother of Matt’s murderer thought it a good idea to offer me a hug in the women’s room of the Criminal Courts Building, Luisa stepped between us like an experienced herding dog.
Out of abject sadness, in the face of tragedy, it is love that gets us through.
The Compassionate Friends – Providing Grief Support After the Death of a Child
“The Compassionate Friends is about transforming the pain of grief into the elixir of hope. It takes people out of the isolation society imposes on the bereaved and lets them express their grief naturally. With the shedding of tears, healing comes. And the newly bereaved get to see people who have survived and are learning to live and love again.” — Simon Stephens, founder of The Compassionate Friends
Andy Stern was among the kindest. It’s like a nuclear bomb, he told me. At first the pain is searing and aflame. It would always be like a nuclear bomb, he assured me, but after a very long eventually, the memories would gradually and unimaginably bring comfort.
We talked about meeting strangers. “How many kids do you have?” seems like an innocuous question. Sometimes I lie – three adult sons, I say – as I’ve found myself comforting people I don’t even know, crying over my son! The last thing I want to do is make you cry!
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” – Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
After his wife Erica died, Mark Siegel told me he’d heard a country-western song that brought him to his knees. “Erica hated country western music,” he added.
I only like orange juice when I’m sick. Happily sickies after sucking on snotty toddler fingers, I recovered slowly from my last cold. Days later I thought to ask Don why he’d bought pulp-free orange juice. I like pulp. You? It was Matt, I realized. Matthew didn’t like pulp in his OJ (he was a particular eater from childhood). All those years, we bought pulp-free orange juice for Matthew; still we reach for pulp-free.
I wear his deodorant every day.
The night before Matthew was murdered, he was sitting in back of the couch when I got home, getting ready to go out, happy and smiling. “I love you,” he told me.
All the people I’ve talked to in grief, the one commonality, the singular regret? The unfinished conversation, love unexpressed. That’s it. “I wish I could talk to her/him just one more time, to say good-bye, to say I love you one more time.”
I love you too, Matt.
LA County Victim Services (800) 380-3811
Mayor’s Crisis Response Team (213) 978-0697
Parents of Murdered Children (888) 818-7662
Compassionate Friends (877) 969-0010
Matt Butcher Memorial Foundation (323) 516-4411
Everytown for Gun Safety 646-324-8250