In the days and weeks following the Co-op tragedy, I’ve wondered, What is Richard doing?
I’ve never been imprisoned or even spent a night in jail so I have a hard time imagining how Richard’s hours are shaped–beyond the stark horror of his act.
How does he sit there, day after day, staring at such devastation? How does he read a book or write a letter or take a breath–apart from it?
Does the murder hit him like icy water when he wakes each morning?
Is the pain as sharp as it is for Michael Martin’s wife?
How does Richard find permission to move on?
What does he say to his wife when she visits?
How about his mother?
His best friend?
“I shot my boss in the head.”
What do they say in return?
Does he make friends? Does he try something new? Does he begin to heal despite the never-ending pain of his crime?
Over two months have passed since Richard entered the Co-op that Tuesday morning with a gun.
How is everyone else doing now that the shock has worn off?
Does the icy water of remembrance hit you in the face from time to time too? Like when you’re standing outside of Sam’s flood sale on Flat Street and glance across the brook to see the Co-op’s loading dock? Or when you’re pushing your cart toward the yogurt and have to pass the opening for the back offices?
I can’t concentrate at work. Each day I am more tired. And even though I am eating right, getting exercise, spending time in quiet, I’m feeling the toll of so many days of angst.
Today, I drive through West Brattleboro, for the first time since the flood, and I am surprised, and almost sickened, to see edges of black top missing, dangling into run off, yellow line and all.
I haven’t been on Route 9 since the days I walked it with dozens of other neighbors to take in the devastation; and this neglect of Western Avenue leading to Route 9 brings the trauma of that pilgrimage back.
“Road Closed,”says the sign at the base of the road, and so I turn my car around, and then roll down my window to check in with another driver who looks perplexed.
“What am I supposed to do?” he says. “When I came down from the college to go to the store, that sign wasn’t there.”
“You know the back way, don’t you?” I ask. And he shakes his head ; so I say, “Follow me.”
I always feel better when I help someone. It gets me out of myself, and channels my grief into something that moves, instead of puddles.
Ames Hill was nightmarish then, with only a single, rugged lane, flanked by deep caverns beneath the jagged edges where the road had been eaten away.
Once we made the decision to proceed, there was no turning back or pulling over; and if we abandoned our car, which I would have liked to do, emergency vehicles wouldn’t have been able to get through.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I was making sure that the young man in the van with out of state plates was following me–past Lilac Ridge with the bright sunflowers, and around the turn to head up toward the Robb Family Farm where the cows used to moo.
It was then that my body began to re-live the tension of that nightmare ride home, even though there was a boy playing ball on the lawn in the afternoon light instead of a car dangling over a deep ditch in the dark.
I noticed my stomach tighten, without any thoughts, and I realized that my body had some more letting go to do, even if my mind didn’t.
I tried to get onto Route 9 this morning too, but there was work going on, and I didn’t want to interrupt it, so I turned around and took the long way again.
As I passed the post office, I realized that it had been days since we fetched the mail, and so I stopped, and heard how Marshall spent three hours trying to get to work last week, and finally headed back home to Brattleboro, where he took a long walk with his wife, and saw all kinds of unusual things in the water: propane tanks bobbing, an actual car, and even a house, upside down, floating like a boat on its attic.
Perhaps we need to get my friend Susie and other artists to create a large canvass upon which we can all release what we have seen.
Another Lisa took a trip down the Augur Hole yesterday to help Peggy move back in, and Lisa’s stricken face said more than any words to describe what it was to see that road missing, and the wide, rocky stream bed that was now it its place.
I haven’t been to Wilmington, but having lived there for several years, I feel a strong kinship to that community. I can’t imagine what it must be to see the devastation downtown.
As I climbed the stairs to second floor office this morning, my legs were heavy with this grief–and that of Texas, and of Japan, and I noticed that the flood had carved out much more room inside of me for compassion, and that it was taking more energy than I was used to giving.
And yet, as I come down MacArthur Road, past John’s place, and Jason’s apple trees, and Gail’s berries, and Robin’s sky, I notice that the sun, though hidden by the clouds, is shimmering its way through in a perfect offering of light.
Despite the life-threatening floods, the devastation of my road, the loss of power–and phone–and internet, I’ve been generally upbeat.
Then I got tired. And my mood soured. And I felt desperate–even after my power and my phone and my internet and almost my road were restored.
You know why? Because it was a gorgeously, hot late summer day and I couldn’t go to South Pond.
Isn’t that pathetic?
Here I have friends who have lost their homes or their businesses, and I’m depressed because they’ve closed all the swimming holes in Vermont on Labor Day Weekend.
Then again, if I withheld feeling sorry for myself until everyone else in the world had it better, I’d never get my turn at self-pity.
And what about joy? Should that be limited until everyone has it back too?
Is it okay to create a pond simulation with an outdoor bath, and glass of white wine, and a view of the setting sun in the West? (What about dancing last night to Simba on the Putney Green?)
My mood changed after my bath, and here I am writing again in my own home instead of searching for wi-fi outside of others homes and businesses.
You should have seen the Farmers Market this morning. (Yes, I even went to the market and ate Thai food and got a massage when others were cleaning out flooded buildings and residences.)
Anyway, the Brattleboro Farmers Market was washed away in the flood on Sunday, but they rebuilt it, as a community, on Thursday. At 8:00 that morning, the parking lot was already filled with volunteers and a grater at work.
A friend of mine told me that just as he put out the last picnic table on the freshly seeded dirt at the end of that day, some travelers arrived in the parking lot, walked down the hill, and set themselves up with a picnic–with no idea of the miraculous efforts that preceded it.
Isn’t that the way?
I’m told that another guy pulled in with his truck asking about the logs lying around, saying, “Wow, you guys were lucky that you didn’t get any flooding here.”
For your reference, here’s how affected the Farmer’s Market was:
And here’s what it looked like this morning, just 6 days later:
My first few trips there were unnerving, to say the least; but today’s trip had me all but forgetting that there was a murder inside–because I was so engaged in talking to others about their homes and their roads after the flood.
Things change; and that’s a good thing, even if it sometimes makes us feel forgotten or ignored or irrelevant, like the water that could care less what was supposed to be its bed and what was meant to be our roads.
That first morning after the flood, I wrote about the apocalyptic change the water brought to my dirt road, and to the highway a half-mile away.
Two days later, however, I returned to those forever changed places and found them relatively restored.
This change was almost as mind-blowing as the first.
It feels good to be relieved of the burden of shock, but is that truly a good thing? Is surrendering to murder akin to accepting it, to tolerating it, to allowing it to become a norm?
I know that I cannot go through my days somber and distraught, but how can I shop in my grocery store without feeling the bloodshed spilled there? Won’t I be dishonoring the man whose life was stolen when I talk to friends in the aisles as if it never happened?
It’s not just the Co-op that’s tainted from this murder. My own community of Marlboro is too. Last night I stood under the stars with friends at an annual summer party, but I couldn’t get our neighbor, Richard Gagnon, out of my head.
When I pulled into the pond this morning for brunch, I cringed at the thought of the tennis courts where Richard played with his wife; and later that afternoon, I cringed again, when I thought I saw him walking across the beach with two friends.
Am I afraid of Richard? Of someone like Richard? Or am I simply traumatized by the fact that someone among us carried out such an act? That someone else could?
For the first time ever, murder is a topic at our family dinner table. “Are you talking about Richard?” My eleven year old asks. “No,” I reply. “We’re talking about the other murder.”
The other murder.
How is that phrase spoken in our home? That we can talk about it at all feels good, because until now it hurt too much to admit that it had crept into our world.
Maybe that is why we all walk down the aisles of the grocery store, or gather at the pond, or under the stars without saying much about the crushing loss we must accept if we are to endure.
This tragedy does call into question so many things, that indeed should be questioned:
Why did we grieve the second murder but not the first?
How can we claim to have such a strong community when we kill each other?
What could we have done to make a difference?
What could the Co-op have done?
I felt compelled to write about this tragedy when I discovered that someone I knew had been taken into custody. I continued to write each day after, trying to make sense of how this happened. As the days passed, the comments grew, and it is the readers who grapple with this question; and I watch, ever so slowly, as grace and grief are replaced with blame. It is my teenage son who labels it so.
“Did you ever see the South Park episode when a house is burning down and the community stands around asking what happened?” he said. “The kids tug on the parents, saying–Shouldn’t we help? But the parents answer–No, the important thing is to find out who is to blame.”
I think it’s good to tell each other who we blame, for no other reason than to let it drain from our minds so that we are better prepared to help. But our blame must be conscious in order to be healing, otherwise we will dwell in it at the expense of actually doing something to make things better.
Hindsight makes it easy to blame as is evidenced by the subtext of the readers’ comments I see:
If only Michael Martin had never been hired.
If only Richard Gagnon had been fired a long time ago.
If only the Co-op had done something to mediate sooner.
It is only natural that we want to find someway to escape this pain, and blame is a strong distraction.
“Captain Hindsight always appears just in time,” my son says, recounting another South Park episode. “He’s the Super Hero who tells people what they did wrong and how they could have avoided it. This makes people feel better even though it doesn’t change anything.”
But the truth is that there is no escaping grief if you intend to heal; and if you don’t, you add more suffering to the world.
I don’t typically follow sensational news stories. For starters, I don’t have television. And news journals are too hefty for me–both in size and content.
I enjoy the local paper now and then, especially for the classifieds and the obituaries, but my entire day can be thrown by one sad extraneous story from across the country. I’m hard-wired that way.
Occasionally, there’s no avoiding the news–either because it’s posted all over Facebook–as with the Kasey Anthony saga, or it is so compelling that I can’t ignore it–like the massacre at the youth camp this summer in Norway.
I’ve continued following that story because I know that Norway treats its criminals with greater dignity than others societies; and I suspect that this gross violation of humanity will challenge that distinction. I hope it doesn’t.
I’ve never been in favor of the death penalty, and never wished death on anyone until the summer when a cousin’s young friend was raped. I remember thinking that it was a good thing that I was not the officer who pulled over the car and found the missing nine-year old girl stuffed under the rapist’s back seat.
I would have strangled that man on the spot; And this realization made me more grateful than ever for our judicial system–in that it doesn’t allow people like me free range with grief.
After the atrocity in Norway, I was heartened to see a quote shared on Twitter by 18 year old, Helle Gannestead, who had been among those attacked at the youth camp:
“When one man can cause so much harm – think how much love we can create together.”
I find the same spirit alive in Brattleboro. Despite the pain that Richard Gagnon’s act has inflicted on so many, the response of this community has been one of true beauty. Though no beauty can replace life that is stolen or take away the heartbreak of those most intimate with the loss, there is hope that something good can come of that which hurts us.
Though I can’t explain it, I’ve always had a heart for those labeled “criminal.” Perhaps this is due to my early steeping in the tender teachings of Jesus, or that as the oldest of eight and later an elementary teacher, I could see that even the most hardened criminal was at one time an innocent child.
There is a quote that I know to be true even though the truth of it confounds me in the face of such horrific acts as rape and murder:
“The real measure of a society is how it treats its prisoners.”
This truth runs tandem with that which I also know to be true–that we cannot separate ourselves from our problems; that there is no way to simply get “rid” of them: The toxic chemicals that we dispose of leach into our water and air. The children that we abandon in cities grow up to hate us. The elders that we dispose of in institutions become ourselves. The hurt that we stuff inside one day acts out.
Though we cannot change what Richard did, we are responsible for how we respond–in our community and in ourselves. Like Norway, I think Brattleboro is up for the challenge.
“The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms.” Santayana