Today is the first anniversary of my father's murder.
That word, murder. It's hard to say, even hard to write. I've been thinking about the word on and off this past year, stepping up to it and then shying away, but I rarely say or write it.
When I talk with people who I don't know well and have to tell them that something happened, I say:
My father died last March.
If I'm feeling particularly brave and/or strong, I might instead say:
My father was killed last March.
That at least leaves some room for interpretation. "Killed" might mean anything. You can be "killed" in an accident, perhaps by a drunk driver. You can say that something impersonal "killed" someone--cancer, for instance.
But I mostly haven't been able to say:
My father was murdered last March.
It's too strong, too scary to say. Partly because it's a lot to hit someone with, especially an acquaintance or co-worker, all in one sentence. Not "only" death (as if there's anything "only" about death), but a particularly bad kind of death (even though deep down I don't really believe there's such a thing as a particularly good kind of death--and yes, I know that death can sometimes be a mercy, and there's the whole cycle-of-life thing, but let's not get into that today). And partly because saying it makes it feel too true, and I don't want it to be true. I know it is, but if I don't say it out loud then some part of me doesn't have to deal with it being true.
But then again, sometimes I point friends to various of my journal entries from last March and they say things like "Oh, it sounds like your father died, sorry to hear that, but I didn't follow the links to the articles you pointed to so I don't know what happened." Which, although it's a perfectly reasonable response, always distresses me. Partly because it means I have to tell the story again; partly because it feels like they're being too casual, like they're treating this like a natural normal death of the kind that might happen to anyone. So I guess some part of me does believe this is a particularly bad way to die.
So for anyone who missed it or didn't follow the links or wasn't reading my journal back then, here's an abridged version of my version of what happened. I apologize in advance to a couple of people who probably disagree with my interpretation of some of the following.
Peter Hartman, my father, had been living for the past fifteen years with a woman named Nancy, up in Washington state. Mostly in Tacoma. They weren't married. (My understanding is that Peter was still married to his last wife, with whom he'd had no contact in over fifteen years. This story has roots that go way back, possibly even thirty years back, but I'm not going to go into that here.)
A little over a year ago, my understanding is that Nancy became suicidally depressed. There were various possible reasons for this: for example, she had been reading an awful lot of conspiracy-theory books and articles about the US's inevitable slide into a Republican-run theocratic dictatorship, and she apparently wasn't getting much input from any moderating voices. She was also upset about Peter's and her financial situation, which was related to the aforementioned stuff I'm not going into, and which Peter and Nancy believed was significantly worse (in a couple of specific ways) than it later turned out to have been; in particular, they were worried that they were going to lose everything they owned, including the house. But really, I don't think one needs a reason to become suicidally depressed; my personal feeling is that Nancy was no longer behaving or thinking rationally. (There may be some disagreement about that, but this is my version of the story.) In my version of the story, Nancy believed that Peter wouldn't have wanted to live without her (he had, in the past, expressed fear that she would leave him), so she decided to kill him before killing herself.
So sometime in February or so, she ordered a gun from a local gun store. She told them not to call the house when it came in. I gather that that's such a common request for women to make (or maybe for people in general to make?) that the gun store didn't see anything unusual about it. As far as I know, nobody else knew that Nancy had the gun. Peter would certainly have been very unhappy about a gun being in the house if he'd known, regardless of her plans for it.
I think it was the evening of Tuesday, March 1, 2005, when Peter called my brother, Jay, in distress. There was a court date coming up the following Monday, and I gather that Peter alternated between two statements in his comments to Jay: first, that Peter and Nancy were going to lose everything and would have to go live under a bridge; second, that Peter trusted in the Universe that everything would come out okay. Jay did his best to convince Peter that the living-under-a-bridge scenario wasn't going to happen; Jay pointed out that he and I wouldn't let that happen. This was, incidentally, the day that I posted that Any good news? entry; I had already been having a bad few days even before Jay told me about the phone call.
Jay and I weren't sure that Jay had really gotten through to Peter in that phone call, but apparently he did, because (we found out the following week) after getting off the phone with Jay, Peter apparently called his lawyer and left a message saying something like, "Great news! I won't have to live under a bridge after all! My son says he won't let that happen!"
But I think Nancy was still convinced that the living-under-a-bridge scenario was going to happen.
But of course nobody but her really knows what was going on in her head that week.
What we do know is that on Sunday night, after Peter went to sleep, Nancy shot him in the back of the head. He died instantly.
Nancy then spread clothing in long lines throughout the house, including up and down the stairs, and doused it all in flammable liquid. She shoved a bookcase in front of the front door, and I think barricaded the back door as well.
I'm not sure whether she originally intended to shoot herself or die in the fire, but at some point she decided to die of smoke inhalation. So she lit a fire in the kitchen, sometime after 3:00 a.m. on Monday morning (March 7), and went downstairs (where Peter's body was) to wait.
If her plan had succeeded, we would have been left with the charred remains of a house and two bodies in the basement, one with a bullet wound. We would never have known what happened.
Which is why we're very thankful that a neighbor saw the fire.
It had apparently been this neighbor's long habit to get up at about 4:00 a.m. and survey the neighborhood to make sure all was well. That morning, all wasn't well. He saw smoke coming from Peter and Nancy's house.
He ran next door and started pounding on their front door to wake them up. He considered breaking the door down, or smashing a window, but he'd had emergency training (perhaps had been a firefighter himself? I'm not sure) and thought that letting in too much oxygen might make the fire worse (the firefighters later confirmed this), so instead he called 911. There's a fire station only a few blocks away.
The firefighters rushed to the scene. They tried to break the front door down, but it was blocked. I'm not sure whether they eventually got in through the front door or the back.
They found Nancy and Peter in the basement. The house was filled with smoke. The firefighters couldn't see well in the smoke, and thought Peter was alive. One of them allegedly saw Nancy point the gun at another firefighter's head and pull the trigger. No bullets hit the firefighters, so we can't know for sure exactly what happened there; but regardless of what actually happened, I'm very grateful that no firefighters were injured or killed. That would've made this whole mess just that much worse.
At any rate, when they got Peter's body outside, they realized he was already dead.
The firefighters put the fire out, but the kitchen (where Nancy started the fire) was a wreck, and there was smoke throughout the house.
And Peter's address book had been in the kitchen. So the firefighters and police had no idea who to contact.
Eventually, the medical examiner's office (?) connected with Peter's lawyer, who gave them Jay's phone number. The medical examiner called Jay on Tuesday morning, more than 24 hours after Peter's death. Jay called me a little later, and Jay and Holly and Kam and I flew up to Tacoma and met the rest of the family there.
So that's the story. Or at least the short form of my version of it. (For more about my reactions and what I did that week, see various of my journal entries from last March.)
Nancy was charged with murder and arson and attempted murder (of the firefighter). Instead of taking it to trial, at her hearing in October, she pled guilty to the murder (with a handgun, which added time to the mandatory sentence), in exchange for dropping the other charges. The judge gave her the high end of the mandatory sentencing range, over 31 years in prison with no possibility of getting out early. Since Nancy was 60 years old, that probably means she'll spend the rest of her life in prison.
I have deep and abiding concerns about the US prison system. But in this case, the outcome of the hearing seemed to me the least of the available evils; I'm not seeing another option that I would have preferred.
Thank you to all who've been supportive through this whole mess. I really appreciate it. I still haven't replied to the condolence letters people sent a year ago, but I still intend to reply to at least some of them, and I'm still very grateful for all of them. They helped a lot.
Friends have been asking lately how I'm doing. The honest answer is that I don't know. I think I've been a little numb lately. The grief hasn't been hitting as hard or as often. Healing happens, slowly, gradually.
Last night, Kam and I watched the brief DVD slideshow/video that Jay put together last year, mostly photos of Peter throughout his life. That was good to see again, and it didn't hurt as much as previous viewings. (I was thinking of finally putting that online today, but I don't think I'll have time to do that.)
But there are a lot of things I've been avoiding that will likely tear some scabs off of some wounds. Going through the book boxes in my garage. Replying to condolence letters. Talking in more depth with various family members. Stuff I haven't felt strong enough to do yet.
I'm still planning to take some time off work when I finish my current projects. I'll probably try to make myself do some of the remaining difficult things during that time off. We'll see.
Anyway. That's all from me for now.