This week, I’m serializing the beginning of my completed, unpublished memoir, Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming-of-Age Story Between Two Shootings. Links to previous chapters can be found at the bottom of this blog.
Actually, this is probably the last entry in this series. A blog is just not the right place for this sort of thing. Blogs are fast-paced and play to the deficit in our attentions. A book is compelling in a different way. I hope one day I can share the full story with you all, but this will have to do for now:
Mom shook, her forearms and hands vibrating intensely with anxiety and fear. Her mind raced as she paced the floor briefly and hatched a hundred different plans to make what she had to do next possible. She turned the music in the living room off quickly. My brothers and I waited for understanding. Tyler, my youngest brother, was two-years-old. He was the only one who didn’t stop playing.
“What?” I asked. “Mom, what’s going on?”
“It’s your father. Something’s happened and he’s—they’ve taken him to the hospital. I’m going to call my parents and I want you to come with us to the hospital. Your brothers are going to stay here, but I want you with me.”
“Is he all right?”
“I don’t know.”
“But something happened to him?”
“I don’t know.”
My grandparents lived just a few blocks away, so it didn’t take them long to arrive. Even so, the wait was excruciating. Within its space bred a million possibilities. Some of them pretty terrible. Most of them involving a gun.
Mom called a couple of women from church to come over to be with my brothers. She only wanted me with her. Just me. There were times when being the oldest had its perks, and getting to go to the hospital and drinking chocolate milk when something important was going down was certainly one of them.
My four-year-old brother, McKay, was a spoiled brat—an unfortunate and irritating affliction of personality brought on by a defect in his heart that sped it up into a dangerous double rhythm whenever he got too worked up over something. Crying would do it. So would swimming, oddly enough. If you took his teddy bear and he cried, you had to give it back or buy him one that talked or sang or pooped its pants. Anything to make him happy or else he would have an attack. The upside? Anytime McKay had to go to the hospital, I went too and got to pick something out from the vending machines in the cafeteria. I always chose chocolate milk.
It was the closest thing to candy Mom would allow us to have outside of Halloween. Cool, creamy chocolate milk in that little paper carton. As a bonus, and given the hour, I knew I might even get to stay up late that night. There really was a lot to get excited about.
As we made our way downtown in my grandparents’ car, I wondered if there might be something wrong with me. I was supposed to be consumed by the enormity of the situation, not scheming how I could manipulate it into a sugar rush. I tried and tried to look at things objectively and feel the weight of what was happening. But I just couldn’t. I was too excited. If Mom was bringing me along for comfort, she was destined for disappointment.
I was so grateful telepaths existed strictly within the confines of X-Men comic books. A telepath would see through me right away. They’d see that while my father was potentially hurt, shot, suffering and/or dead (no, not dead), all I could think of was the great fun of it all. No way I’d be going to school in the morning. When I eventually did come back in, say, a couple days or even a week (!) later…my dad had been shot. That was cool. And if he was dead or was going to die? Well, he wasn’t, so I was free to do some guilt-free fantasizing about what it would be like if he did. I’d be that kid. That kid whose dad had died. I’d get to play with that for a while and it could only work in my favor when it came time to choose teams for kickball.
It wasn’t that whatever was going on with Dad didn’t feel real. The whole situation actually felt inevitable, which is just about the best, most comforting version of real. Something bad happening to Dad at the Shop was always a possibility. Dad never had any qualms about pointing out that possibility over and over again. He sold guns. That’s a dangerous profession and it was only sensible to think he might be hurt at some point. We didn’t watch the news and think, “Well, at least it’s not happening to us.” Instead, it was “Gee, I wonder when that will happen to us?” And there was no fear in that. Only acceptance. Dad said the bad thing was coming and he didn’t fear it. So why should we?
The other kids in my neighborhood felt like their dads could handle anything, but with my Dad it was actually true. My dad was built like a tank and could probably take one down if it dared to mess with him. He wasn’t going to die from this thing at the hospital… whatever it was.
It was January 17th, 1989, three days before my twelfth birthday. Three days. (A cool part of the eventual story I’d be able to tell.) The worst thing that had happened in my life up until this point was when the family dog, Orf, had run away. Well, I always said he must have run away. Dad was convinced our Hmong neighbors had eaten him “because that’s what they do.” He was tough, not perfect.
When we arrived at the hospital, Grandpa helped my still shaking mother out of the car. Grandpa was tall and lanky, good for leaning on for support, but not at all imposing. Both he and Grandma were good about always being there when we needed them, but also hanging back to allow my mother to do what she needed to do according to how she understood to do it. They gave counsel, not lectures or opinions that were not to be argued with. We all followed Mom’s lead to the emergency room.
I’d never been to an adult ER before. I was expecting something noisier. Where were the people screaming about their severed fingers and the doctors rushing about wildly, arms flailing as they waved off the impossible-to-meet demands of put-upon nurses and bleeding patients? What about the gurney (that’s what it’s called, right?) with the dying man being rushed to an operating room while his frantic wife ran alongside him weeping until the nurses pulled her away? Where this picture of what the emergency room was supposed to look like came from I didn’t know, but the eerily quiet scene in front of me was the last thing I expected.
The voices I did hear were few and hushed, many of them interrupted by coughing. The low-ceilinged room was full, but not to capacity. Most of the people huddled together in groups around campfires of germs and bacteria, seated in chairs that looked like something straight out of Star Trek with their bowl-like shape and many bright colors. No one had any loose appendages or a barely bandaged head. They just looked really sick. Most of them were Hispanic. I knew we were on that side of town, but I wondered why that was.
Once through the Emergency Room, a nurse led us to a secondary waiting room for, I assumed, family members of victims of awesome crimes. Inside the softly lit room were a small couch and a few padded chairs. In the corner between them sat a tiny table with a lamp and a phone. My grandparents and I were ushered in, but a doctor took Mom away immediately. Whatever secret knowledge awaited her, the rest of us weren’t allowed to hear it. My grandparents and I sat and waited quietly and in that silence I thought more about chocolate milk, school and telepaths. I couldn’t wait for my friends to find out what was going on.
When Mom finally came back, she didn’t have much to tell us. She seemed calm, but it was the kind of calm people adopt to convince themselves that they’re all right and that their home isn’t really burning. That it’s not cancer in those X-rays. That the car wasn’t just hit by an oncoming truck. That the dog wasn’t eaten by the neighbors.
That your husband wasn’t just fatally wounded.
The blankness in her eyes was a sign that the calm was just a precursor for what would come next. Whatever she was about to say to us hadn’t hit her yet. At that moment she was hanging on to whatever scraps of the moments before she knew this terrible knowledge she could grab. Once she let those go, there’d be nothing left with which to fight the oncoming emotions. She sat down next to me after closing the door behind her and began to speak, the tremor in her left hand slight but visible as she used it to lean on her chair.
“There was a robbery and… Bill has been shot. Many times. They’ve got him stabilized right now. He’s in critical condition and th-they’ll start working on him soon.”
“How many times?” I asked.
“T-they don’t know yet. It’s too hard to tell. Some of his wounds are where the bullets came…went in…and some of them are where they went out.”
“Can we see him?”
“Not right now. They let me see him for a little bit…I talked to him…but it’s hard for him to say anything right now. They don’t want anyone else to come back just yet. There’s a chance you could see him later…when they’re transporting him to surgery, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Great! It was almost 8’o’clock and in another hour I normally would have been going to bed. My brothers were probably already getting ready and putting on their PJ’s. Suckers.
“Jill,” Grandpa began to ask. “What’s…”
I found it impossible to focus properly on the conversation between my grandparents and my mother. Some confusing medical terms were thrown around, but I got the gist: Dad was in a bad way and the doctors were going to work on him and it would be a while before they knew when—or if—he’d survive. Probably not something we could count on having answered that night.
“Dad, what about the boys? Can you call home and talk to Sister Vance and Sister Pennington for me? Tell them…”
I knew Mom was concerned about my brothers, but I also knew her well enough to see she was using them as a distraction from what was going on. She would busy herself as best she could until the doctors came back with some (hopefully good) news. Until then: paranoia, worry. That was Mom. Me, I knew Dad was going to be fine. We were in a hospital (at night!), the place-that-makes-everything-better. The only real question, the only one worth asking, was: When? When would Dad be okay? And that’s when it hit me—what about my birthday party?
She was still talking to Grandpa.
“W-what? Brock, what?”
“Mom, do you think that we’ll still be able to go to the game?”
“The hockey game. For my birthday.”
Some people think hockey is a sport. It is not a sport. It’s a live stunt show. You can almost always guarantee there will be a fight either on the ice or (preferably) in the stands. The games themselves are barely contained madness and completely unlike anything I’d seen on television or been bored by at school. The players skated so quickly and turned so sharply and stopped so suddenly that the very ground beneath their feet gave way into a quick puff of white. How did they do that? It defied all my understanding of what a person could reasonably do with their bodies without breaking them in half.
And then there was the snack bar. I knew it was a fountain drink and that (supposedly) the same ingredients were used in the back rooms of the Selland Arena as those at my local 7-11, but it was only at hockey games that I got to taste the sweet, sweet nectar that was the best Sprite known to man. One sip after a bite of that other, delicious staple of any hockey watchin’ diet—nachos—and you’d have had a hard time convincing me that Heaven didn’t have its own ice rink. Nachos and Sprite—that’s what was at stake.
“No, Brock. I don’t think your father is going to feel up to that.”
“Oh.” I suspected that might be the answer and I didn’t try to hide my disappointment. I recovered quickly. “Can I call Matt and Nathan and Wes? To tell them what’s going on? They think we’re still going, but if we’re not then I need to tell them. I could call them right now. I mean, there’s a phone here and we’re just waiting anyway…”
“I don’t know…”
“Please? Mom, I’ll make the calls short. I promise. I’ll just tell them what’s going on and then I’ll get off the phone.”
“All right,” she said with a sigh. She was far too tired to do battle with me that night. “Go ahead and call them.”
I grabbed the receiver from the phone on the table excitedly. They were gonna freak. I called Matt first, calming myself down beforehand in order to act appropriately concerned. I didn’t want to be thought cold or uncaring.
Me: Hey Matt, I’ve got some bad news.
Matt: Okay, what’s up, bud?
Me: Um, we have to cancel my birthday party on Friday. My dad was shot and he’s in the hospital now.
Matt: You’re kidding.
Me: No, it’s bad. It doesn’t look like he’s gonna be well enough to go to the game, if he comes out of it at all. We don’t know for sure, but it’s probably better to just cancel the party. Maybe we’ll go next week.
Matt: Wow. Uh. Uh…okay?
Me: I gotta call the others. See ya.
Matt: Um, see ya.
Matt’s reaction was typical. By the time my calls were done I was quite pleased with myself. I knew that immediately after hanging up my friends would dash over to their parents to tell them what had happened and they, in turn, would dash back to the phone to tell everyone they knew. It was a safe bet that within the hour every member of our church who knew my family even in passing would be well aware of the situation at the hospital that night.
It was both the natural consequence and the function of belonging to a church that believes all of humanity is a rather large and very real family—so much so that Latter-Day Saints even refer to themselves as brothers and sisters. If one of their brothers or sisters is hurt, the LDS person offers whatever services they can—be it food or comfort. It’s the responsibility all Mormons share with each other. Cain’s ancient question rendered moot by lasagna and green Jello salad.
Sure enough, within an hour, thirty people had shown up. The hospital was crawling with Mormons and it occurred to me that Mom knew what would happen if I made my calls and probably wanted exactly this.
They were all adults; none of my friends came to comfort me. Okay, yeah, it was late, but how often does your dad get shot and nearly die? (Nearly, mind you.) I was disappointed. I felt robbed. Mostly, I was bothered by all the hugging.
There was no way the little waiting room was going to hold us all. The hospital staff moved us away from Emergency and towards the elevator leading to surgery. Along the wall in the hallway was a long bench upon which my mother sat at one end and I sat at the other. Friends of my mother and mothers of my friends sat and stood by us, wherever they could fit.
A part of me liked the attention, but the greater part wasn’t exactly sure how to behave. I felt small. Awkward. I didn’t know what was expected of me, but I was sure I wasn’t coming through for them. Everyone seemed to be in distress, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t feel it. Dad, after all, was gonna be okay.
What if they’re right to be so concerned? What if I’m wrong?
I hadn’t given that possibility enough attention. All these people were worried and seemed to really think something might be not okay at the end of this. What if they were right and I really was just being self-centered and selfish? I couldn’t help it though. I wanted my chocolate milk.
There was one person who got it.
“Brock, I saw a vending machine down the hall over there. Is there something I can get for you?”
Brother Willingham was our Home Teacher. Once a month he visited my family, taught us a spiritual lesson and made sure we were doing okay. If we were sick, Brother Willingham was the man Dad would call to come assist him in giving us a blessing. He was a large man. Wide shoulders. He reminded me of Dad, just taller and in a suit.
That night, the thing that was of the greatest comfort to me was a pack of M&M’s. I couldn’t ever remember having a pack all to myself like that. This was way beyond what I could even hope to have on Halloween Night, the only night—until now—I could reasonably expect chocolate candy of any magnitude. It was better than chocolate milk. Plus, bonus, Dad was in no position to swindle it away from me.
I wondered why Brother Willingham bought them for me. It was his own money he had spent. He had sacrificed for me. The one who wasn’t shot. The one who wasn’t crying. Why buy me M&M’s at a time when there was so much else to worry about?
Look here, son. Your father is lying on a table bleeding to death and may die within the next 24 hours. You know what you need?
What’s that, Brother Willingham?
This was no solution to our problems, but it was a solution to my problem. I relaxed. I didn’t have to put on a show for anybody or pretend I felt anything other than absolute sureness that my father would make it out of this alive. All I had to do was eat my M&M’s and wait it out. I felt better knowing someone was on my side and not waiting for the full body shudders and the tears in my eyes that would prove just how broken up I was by… my father… dying.
I looked over at Mom. Now, with people to lean on, she fell apart, collapsing into sobs as all her strength left her. Later, her mind would wipe the memory of the night clean.
I watched her in wonder and agony. Seeing Mom that way twisted my insides into knots. How could I be so sure? How could I be so blindly confident that Dad wasn’t in mortal danger when people far more educated and experienced than I had decided it was unknowable?
The answer: Because this was not the end of the world.
I assumed it would feel like the end of the world if Dad was going to actually die. I had been taught in Sunday School to trust my feelings because that’s how God communicates with us. All my hope and confidence in my life continuing from one moment to the next was in my parents. If one of them were truly going to be taken from me, then there would be an indication. I was convinced God would not allow something of such magnificent impact without telling me about it first.
I could see that Mom’s fear was easily overwhelming whatever other feelings might want to enter in. That’s why I was there, wasn’t it? Because she couldn’t help but think of the horribleness of it all and I couldn’t help but think every other way.
I wondered how I might tell her and if she’d believe me. I knew I could convince anyone of anything given enough time and if I spoke persuasively enough, but she didn’t seem able to hear it right then. Sure, there was a lot I didn’t understand about what was going on, but that didn’t mean I was wrong. Would she see it that way? Or would she doubt me?
I moved over and sat beside her. She quickly wrapped her arms around me and buried her head in my shoulder. Softly and quietly, I told her.
“Mom, I think everything’s going to be okay. I think Dad will be all right.”
She held me tighter and cried some more.
That’s it for now! Thanks for reading.
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Raised By a Dead Man Archive:
Book Logline and Prologue – “Ready”
Chapter One – “The Shooting”
Chapter Two – “The Call”