In the East a funeral for a mother; and in the West a funeral for a father–as if pain was a child–requiring a hand on both sides of our state.
Fires and floods, murders and accidents. How much will Southern Vermont be required to take? At first I thought the curse was on Brattleboro, but there seems to be a similar infliction on the Deerfield Valley.
This morning, friends in the West attended the funeral of not one, but two fathers–both killed in the same tragedy–one by accident, the other by anguish.
I headed East for another two taken–Rita Corbin died 11 days after the collision that also claimed the life of her 17 year-old grandson. But it was love, not loss that echoed in Rita’s absence; just as it had after the fire and the flood and the murder. And so it is, that I offer the echo of love to our friends in the West, in the hope that a sweeter balance can be restored.
A friend comments that Richard isn’t a danger to anyone else, suggesting that–theoretically–he could be set free until the trial; but, of course, that would be wrong. VERY wrong. You can’t kill a man and rob a family of their loved one and keep going on with your life. You have to suffer as much as possible. It’s only fair.
Actually, it’s not even fair. There is no fairness in this situation. There never will be.
This makes me ponder the point of prison. It’s punishment right? No doubt Richard deserves punishment.
On the other hand, as a parent and lifelong educator, I know that punishment isn’t very effective in terms of changing behavior. It actually exacerbates it. Then again, the threat of punishment, can serve as a deterrent.
It’s too late for deterrents for Richard.
Do people, who feel murderous, really not kill someone because of the consequences?
What about the death penalty?
Have any lives been saved because someone thinks to herself, “Hey, I’m in Texas, and they have the death penalty, so I better drop this gun and walk away.”
They don’t have the death penalty, and apparently killers there serve an average of 14 years jail time. Anders Behring Breivik, the good-looking man who massacred all those students in July, will serve the longest sentence available–21 years. Even so, those with the maximum sentence can be released after serving two-thirds, and many are given weekend parole after one third.
Despite being “soft on crime” however, Norway has a lower crime rate than us, and their incarceration rates are among the lowest in Europe.
I’m inspired by the thought that how we respond to criminals says much more about us than it does about the acts they commit.
Are we a murderous, vengeful, punishing people?
In the case of Richard, what do want?
Is death really fair?
Wouldn’t having to live a long life in the face of his horrid act be more in line with justice?
Given the irrevocable loss of Michael Martin, it’s hard to imagine Richard doing anything nice. Visiting with his wife. Reading. Meditating. Working out.
That’s when I have to turn my thoughts away from what he did to what I want or what I don’t want. I don’t want a world filled with any more murder, vengeance or hatred; and I don’t want to support the idea of “us” and “them” because within that separation is permission to do all manner of things which have terrorized humanity forever.
When I enlarge the context like this, I know that Richard’s “time” must be more than punishment; and I know that I must find my way to allowing him his smile.
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.
A reporter for the New York Times has been in Brattleboro for the past two days interviewing townspeople about you know what. Our murders.
Murders happen everywhere, but what’s different about ours is the response.
While we can’t change what happened in the Co-op, we are responsible for how we respond; and I know that many like me are moved by how much grief and compassion has been expressed.
In my mind, this vulnerability defines the strength of this community. We aren’t perfect, but neither are we numb or blind. We feel. We hurt. We question. We respond.
Sabine Rhyne, the Shareholder and Community Relations Manager at the Co-op, had this to share about our community’s response:
“I wish you had been by my side on Thursday morning when we opened. First, there were a small group of people milling around outside, regulars, who wanted to be there as soon as the doors opened. Then, two long-time co-op shareholders walked in, carrying a large box full of vases of flowers from their garden to set on each checkout counter. Then, a delivery of bagels and cream cheese from our friends at the vitamin company across town arrived for the staff. And bit by bit, the store filled with people and flowers and cards, many folks touching and hugging, almost all smiling and tearing up simultaneously.“
After the initial news frenzy, there hasn’t been much in the coverage about the Co-op tragedy; but beginning last night, at the two-week mark, I noticed new headlines–this time with a community focus:
“Co-op copes with shooting aftermath”
“Co-ops across the country send support to Brattleboro”
“Vt. co-op receives support after fatal shooting”
When the New York Times reporter asked me how we would rid ourselves of this tragedy, I replied that we couldn’t; that it had become part of who we are; part of our history.
When she asked how we would move on, I said that I didn’t know; but that I trusted that with the abundant heart and creativity and compassion of this community, we would find our way, one step at a time.
When she asked what I felt most strongly about–whether it was that someone I knew committed such a crime–or that it happened at the Co-op, I said that it was both of those things in the beginning; but now my attention has shifted to the community–how we respond, how we support the Co-op staff, and how we compost such a horrid act.
In exactly two weeks, “BFC Tragedy” climbs its way to the top of the list of writing topics on the sidebar of this Vermont blog–from a tiny thing at the bottom, to where it sits now–boldface, beside the prominent category of “Autumn.”
In retrospect, I wish I’d tagged this collection “BFC Healing” instead of “tragedy,” but at the time I never imagined that so much compassion would flow from murder.
Doesn’t it seem like a lifetime passed since the Co-op mutated from haven to hell in an instant?
Earlier this afternoon I passed tourists at the corner of Elliott and Main–two moms and a young son looking for a place to eat. I recommended the Co-op; and then wondered if I’d made a mistake. If I was visiting, would I want to take my kids there?
I’ve left my own kids at home, but my husband has accompanied me again. I watch with tenderness as he approaches one Co-op staffer after another to offer an embrace or a pat on the shoulder.
I feel too shy to do the same, and wish I could wear a button that says, “I gave at my blog.”
“At least go see Tony in the wine department,” my husband says, over a bowl of soup.
Instead I suggest that I come back with cookies or candy–something easier to share than sentiment.
Perhaps the staff has grown weary of compassion anyway, I argue internally. Maybe they’re trying to move on. But the truth is that my biggest concern is that they would feel that we’ve moved on–without them.
Whenever I’m faced with uncertainty around connecting with those in grief, I think back to my friend Trish whose 18 year old brother was killed in an accident the summer we all worked together at the shore. Everyone at the Crab House was heartbroken, but they avoided talking about Tommy so as not to make it harder on Trish.
Finally I asked her. “Does it make it worse when I talk about him?”
“No,” she answered. “I couldn’t feel any worse, and he’s on my mind all the time.”
Maybe it’s that way for everyone at the Co-op. Maybe this tragedy is always on their minds whether we acknowledge it or not.
I wonder how long it will take until I walk into that store and it’s no longer on mine.
As we crossed into Vermont, it occurred to me that we could pick up a few things at the Co-op, even though our car was stuffed with luggage.
“What if we stopped at the Co-op for a bottle of wine?” I whispered to my husband, and then I sucked in a deep breath at the thought.
“Okay,” he answered quietly.
“It might be good to get it over with,” I explained, “especially all together.”
When we took Exit 1 into Brattleboro, I prepared the boys, checking in to see how they felt about heading into the store after the tragedy. Once down Canal Street, we noted that the new construction had enjoyed a growth spurt since we last saw it in July–adding an entire floor to our soon to be store.It felt good to know that the work on our new space continued, even while the tragedy temporarily closed the Co-op’s doors just a week before.
The parking lot was bustling with activity on this Tuesday evening, and we were lucky to find a spot for our car. I took my time getting out–both searching and avoiding faces.
Once inside, I surprised myself by stepping right toward the wine department where I picked up a new sustainable chardonnay, without looking for Richard. Just as I placed a bottle into my cart, a shopper approached me to thank me for my writing. She had attended the vigil, but was saddened to note that there was no mention of Richard. “What must have he been going through to do what he did?” she asked before heading off with her young son to finishing shopping.
In addition to the bottle of wine which initiated this bold re-entry into the Co-op, I went even deeper into Richard’s department and lingered by the beer cooler to find just the right brew to hold onto summer. It was only then that I glanced up into the office booth where I noted two strangers, and then Tony–who was always there when Richard wasn’t.
My husband and I then ventured down each aisle of the grocery store to jump start our return to a kitchen after two weeks of eating out on vacation. I noted that there were a lot of “connections” going on and I imagined and hoped that the Co-op management loosened up on the caution against socializing during work.
As we rounded the corner past the Red Hen seeded baguettes, my sons’ eyes caught a board filled with pink paper hearts beside the customer service window. We stepped up to this impromptu altar and took in the expressions of love, but felt unable or unready to take part ourselves.
As we finished our shopping, we paused in the Natural Living Department where my son asked the clerk to help him find Emu oil from the scar left behind by the stitches. Before Peggy pointed him in the right direction, she thanked me for my writing and then embraced, before she got back to business.
I continued toward the checkout numbly, and pushed my cart up beside Tom– the cashier who I knew the best from my days on staff. Neither of us said a word about what happened, and I wasn’t sure if I was being considerate or afraid or wise.
Perhaps the Co-op needs to get back to business as normal, I rationalized. But why were there so many unfamiliar faces on the floor? And how is it that I didn’t know Michael Martin, when I know most of the other managers by name.
Overall, it felt good to return to the Co-op and to fill my cart and to restock their registers; but it came at a cost. By the time we arrived home in Marlboro, 20 minutes away, I was still shaky. It had taken all my self-control not to weep as I stood in the wine department or passed the back office space. Thankfully, my sunglasses were still on.
At home the guys set to unpacking the car while I began packing a picnic for South Pond. If I hurried, we’d catch the sun before it dropped behind the mountain, and I needed that. Although I’d been the one who offered to put away the groceries, I noticed my husband beside me pitching in. He had already emptied the car while I had hardly made a dent in what I had offered to do. The trip to the Co-op left me unable to focus.
We were hungry by the time we got to the pond, but I had grown too nauseous to eat. I had also forgotten the glasses and the plates and the napkins, and most important of all–the wine opener. Friends frequently remark on my ability to pack in a dinner, and tonight they would have found my forgetfulness even more remarkable.
While my husband took a dip in the cool August waters, I began slicing our first harvest of tomatoes and cukes and peppers. I used the same small cutting board to cut the Red Hen and then the fresh mozzarella. I tore the basil into tiny pieces and then doused them with olive oil for dipping.
“It’s weird to be sitting here near the tennis courts,” said my husband, as he joined me at the table. It was this time of day that Richard and his wife would leave the pond with rackets in hand.
As we shared a simple meal, the water sparkled one last time, and a large plane flew overhead–dramatically punctuating the harbinger of summer’s waning–as the sun disappeared behind the hillside.
It had been a mistake to go the Co-op on our first night back, but it had felt right to do so.