Today is February 10, what would have been your 25th birthday. You were shot and killed 4 years and 3 months ago, on a dark Kentucky Road, by a 55-year-old man, father of three, a gun collector with a 3rd grade education, a poor man with disabilities, a beer-drinking Soldier of Fortune magazine reader. He was a little drunk that night, when he grabbed the handgun out of his son’s hand, stepped out on his porch, and began firing into the darkened car so whoever it was out there wouldn’t come back and try to “whup his boy” or whatever it was that was going on between an 18- and 20-year-old. Firing into the dark, Leland Burns put three bullets into a tree in close proximity and one into the car, where you, seat-belted, fuming and probably hollering out the open window, were heading for home–until that fourth bullet entered your shoulder and traveled through your lungs, your pericardium. I have lain awake countless nights wondering what your final thoughts were–a minute later or a mere 40 seconds–before you lost consciousness. I know in my heart that they were directed toward us, your daughter, your parents, home.
About six months ago, your dad and I and your oldest brother, met with the attorneys to put an end to the civil suit. The man who killed you had already served some 3 1/2 years and this settlement was a reconciliation of sorts, a recognition that he’ll be out soon, no matter what we do or say, having served the typical 60 percent or so of his state sentence–the federal charges on gun violations are an additional sentence, and he’ll serve something less than 18 more months. For this meeting, we requested an opportunity to talk him. We’d spoken with our lawyer about our desire for an apology, and she spoke with his lawyer, for this is how things unfold in the Courts–lawyers talking to lawyers, statements of the grief-stricken having their place, usually at the end, when decisions have been made. She had said, “Do you think an apology will have value if you request it, if it doesn’t come voluntarily?”
I found myself thinking about the times we made you kids apologize to each other for some misdeed. Did it mean anything? Were we teaching the usefulness of the hollow “I’m sorry” (“sorry about that”)? Or is the habit of apologizing something that grows on you, gathering meaning as you learn how to shape the words?
My answer was, “Yes, it will still matter.” I thought that I could look at his face and know if he was sincere.
As we crowded into a tiny room behind the Courtroom in the Warren County Justice Center, my heart leaping at my throat, I knew that an important reckoning was about to happen, but I didn’t realize what a mashing of the superficial and profound it would be. We sat there staring at Burns, while the jaded old toad of an attorney interjected now and then and the Commonwealth Attorney stood by the door, respecting that this was important to us but unmoved by the regret expressed. They handed us this letter, typed on an ordinary piece of white paper.
I think I tried to read it but the words were meaningless–later, I read it maybe twice more, but except as a token for you, it has no meaning for me. I could pick it apart, but I don’t want to. The spoken words were more important, and so I want you to hear them now.
Your dad said something to Burns, some gesture of kindness and expression of regret that you had driven over to his house–nothing about the craziness that ensued, just a reaching out. I wanted something more–more than was possible in that room crowded with Court representatives. I wanted to hear the workings of his mind.
“Why did you do it?” I asked him. He answered that everything had happened so fast as to be nearly impossible to untangle. “I wished I could go back and redo that night,” he said.
I wanted to know what his internal life has been like, so I asked, “What have you gone through these past 4 years?”
“That’s difficult to say,” he said. “I got nothing. I lost everything–my wife, my home.” He tapped his heart with his right hand, “I’m sorry, I really regret what I did.” “They was just kids being foolish.” Tapped his heart. “I’m sorry, I wish I could take it back.”
And then, Casey, my voice broke and I told him, “I need to know you feel remorse because I couldn’t bear it if the man who killed our son didn’t care about what he did.”
He tapped his heart. “I am sorry, I truly am.”
I wish I could talk to you, to know what you think of all this. Do you believe the apology? Do you think he suffers over the taking of your life? Do you enter his dream scape, terrifying? Please tell me that you don’t think his only regret is that he “lost everything.” That he is that empty. Had I the wherewithal, would you have wanted me to say to him, at that moment, “nothing? You have nothing? You have your life, Mr Burns, and the opportunity to live it however you want.”
I want to share this excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke:
Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
So you must not be frightened, Dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.
Do I find passages like this because they provide answers? Or, more questions and a beauty of expression that reminds me of you, child of god, my suffering brave warrior of a son, father, brother.
The most terrible thing I’ve ever known is losing you. If I’m to listen to Rilke, what is the helplessness therein that could possibly get help from me? What if “everything terrible” (Mr Burns) is the “something helpless” who wants help from “us” (from me)? These are questions I cannot answer, though I want to believe that life has not forgotten me–or you–and that it has those of us still here in its hand, though we are missing you.
And we all have a “you” to miss . . . or will.
From “Memento Mori”
I know the feel of your head in my hands,
your body tucked in the bowl my elbows made.