Survival Trials Grief & Loss Courage

My Truth How Gun Violence Changed My Family Forever

I just started reading a book that talks about your "truth" and how you can empower yourself by telling your story. Being true to you. So, I feel the need to tell a little of my story. What makes me who I am. Figuring out who you are is a never-ending journey. But every time I think about who I am, I think about my experiences. And my family. Do your experiences define who you are?

Before you read any further, this is one of the most personal entries I’ve ever made online but it is a personal account of a matter of public record. If you shy away from “too much information,” turn back now! I have no reason to be ashamed (although there was a time where I was) or keep secrets and I know there are others who’ve had their families ripped apart by violence. I used to think the crimes of my brother reflected badly on me and my family and it was not something to talk about but in reality, there may be someone who stumbles upon this and is going through something similar… and to that person, I say: It might be hard right now, but whatever you do, hold on. It takes time. The pain doesn’t go away completely, but it will get better. I’m far more concerned with helping one person than having another think I’ve revealed too much.

So here it is: In September of 1993, my younger brother shot and killed my father and his girlfriend (common law wife). He was living with my father at the time. He was 16 years old but tried as an adult. He was convicted of two counts of second degree murder and is currently serving a sentence of 35 years to life. Without question, this was a surreal, life-changing event. Prior to that, the most traumatic thing that had happened to me was my parents’ divorce when I was 9/10. I had never lost someone so close to me.

I was 22 — and away at school — when it unfolded. I remember many things clearly about the whole experience. I actually talked to my brother the day it happened. I was calling for my father to thank him for sending me money. It was a Tuesday. Our conversation was short. He sounded odd and I asked him several times if he was okay. When I asked where Daddy was, he said “out and about.” That phrase haunted me for years because he cleaned up the house and concealed their bodies in the woods. He called their jobs and told them they were out of town on an emergency. He had a good-bye gathering where he hung out with friends and told them he was going away. They weren’t discovered until that Friday when he turned himself in.

I also remember the phone call I received from my mother that Friday. One of my housemates and I had been out the night before so I was sleeping in. I picked up the phone and my mother said, “I don’t want to alarm you but…,” and that, of course, alarmed me. She didn’t have much information, just wanted to know if I’d heard from my father. I told her no. She said she would keep me posted. It wasn’t long before I had an impending sense of doom — something was dreadfully wrong. My best friend helped me keep it together throughout the day as the details began to come in: They hadn’t been seen at work since Tuesday… their vehicles were missing. I remember being stopped at a traffic light in Buffalo that afternoon and telling my friend matter-of-factly that they were dead. I told her my brother did it. That he’d shot them but he was still alive. She said something like, “You don’t know that. Don’t think the worst.” I was certain.

The rest of the day was a blur. Later I learned there were blood stains and that my father’s house had been “cleaned up.” I ended up leaving Buffalo around midnight. I would have left sooner but my mother wanted me to wait until we knew more. It was a 5-6 hour drive but I knew I wouldn’t sleep. The only thing I recall clearly about that ride was coming over a hill on Route 17 at sunrise… seeing a cloudless blue sky beyond the tree-covered mountains. The leaves were outfitted in full fall colors and the sun lit them on fire. Brilliant reds and golds. Everything seemed so crisp and all I could think is, my Dad is gone. I arrived home between 6am or 7am that morning. My sister, mother and my sister’s friend were at the house. Mom had finally fallen asleep but we woke her to tell her I was home. She hugged me… looked me in my eyes and told me my father was dead. I think she expected a bigger emotional reaction than the one she received because she held me and squeezed me tighter than I ever remember being squeezed… but as I said, I already knew and had time to come to grips with that knowledge on the drive home. My brother had surrendered… he called my mother and she went with the state troopers to a neighboring county to bring him in.

The next few weeks were difficult but the months after that were far worse. I was home for about two weeks before returning to school. Long enough to bury my father and his girlfriend… to visit my brother in the county jail. I developed a fear of darkness and had to sleep with a light on. Sometimes I would sit in disbelief, other times I was just sad or angry. A few weeks after returning to school, I went to see a counselor on campus. I told her what had happened. She said I seemed grounded in reality and strangely calm about it. I made another appointment. I saw her once a week for a month. Exactly one month later, I walked into her office, sat down and broke into uncontrollable sobs. In retrospect, I think we fool ourselves into thinking we are “dealing” with losses and the resulting issues. I am a natural caregiver, as are the others in my family and we always want to make sure everyone else is okay. In doing so, we neglect ourselves. That was the beginning of my healing. I tried to get back into my studies but it was so hard to concentrate. That’s when I found out that death and loss have a way of rearranging life’s priorities. It’s also when I realized how inconsequential some things really are. I didn’t want to be in school. So I left.

Fast forward…

I survived. I’m still here. My brother has been “down” for nearly 12 years. In that time I have been to many prisons throughout NYS — even the infamous Attica — to see him. I still get angry because to this day, I simply can’t understand why he did it. It still hurts like hell. He has given us “reasons” but I considered him a Narcissist. I have never felt any depth to his remorse. But then, I used to feel guilty, like I should have been able to help him in some way.

I remember the fun we had when I was home from school. Before it all happened. And I think of how we fought when we were little. We’ve always been at odds. My father used to instigate… he let us fight, but didn’t let it get out of hand. He often made me mad. One of the most regretful things I ever did was smack him. Only once, and never again. As soon as I did it, I was immediately sorry. He was seven. He didn’t cry; just looked surprised. As surprised as I was.

I remain conflicted. I love him and wonder how. He is my flesh and blood, no matter what he’s done. And even when I don’t feel like going to visit him, I always feel better when I do. He’s still baby bro. And me and him… we look so much alike. We have the same complexion, same hair. I think about what he could have been… whether we’d live near one another. If he would have gone to college… he’s SO smart. He’s opinionated and tells funny stories — just like my father. But he’s had to grow up in the NYS Correctional system. And now, he’s in a situation where he thinks he’s in danger. He says he’s ready to die. But he’s also paranoid and on meds for various mental conditions.

My mother and I went to visit him recently in a state (correctional) hospital. He had me in tears (laughter) talking about the canvas tennis shoes they had him wearing. He called them the “suicide joints.” They looked like classic low top Chuck Taylor’s with Velcro closures. To me, he seemed stable and glad to see us and it was good to see him, laugh with him, roll my eyes at him… but in my heart, I am afraid of him and for him. While I don’t like to think of him dying in prison, I know it is a possibility. And I think of myself… how would I feel if something happened to him? I know it would be a tremendous loss but would there be relief? I don’t think his time is now, but I can’t know for certain.

Which leads me to forgiveness. I know I must forgive him. I have in some ways. But as I’m writing this, I guess I haven’t completely because residual anger still wells to the surface. I can’t forget or dismiss what he did but I watch my mother — always so dedicated to supporting her children regardless of where they are in life and I’m inspired. I look for ways to move forward. Maybe that’s what this is about. Moving forward and releasing the ties this situation has on me.

For what it’s worth, this is my truth. It’s what shapes me, makes me who I am today.  It’s why I value my family so much. It’s why I don’t sweat the little things. It’s how I know I can survive the lesser struggles of life, lost loves, etc. It’s how I know God loves me. It’s how I know just how strong He is.

Originally Written: March 5, 2005

OneHipSista

Hi. I'm Valerie. Glad you're here – come on in and sit a spell. I've never put so much of my writing online but I share my personal experiences in hopes that I help someone in some way. I hope you find something you read thought-provoking, amusing or encouraging. Reach out or comment if you like. Please forgive the typos, grammar and cussing. Thanks for stopping by.

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