In 2008 I wrote an essay about my brother Mike, who was murdered in 1981. It’s called “Through a Dark Age.” It begins with the harrowing night he was murdered, and follows the effects his death and subsequent media coverage had on his family in the ensuing years.
I’m reprinting the essay here. It was originally published in the Wapsipinicon Almanac in 2009.
THROUGH A DARK AGE
On the night my brother died I saw a skunk crossing a road inside the city limits. The squad car in which I was riding had just turned off University Avenue onto Progress, where the cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls merge. The skunk staggered as it walked, and I commented to the officers that it must be rabid, but they only looked at each other with sad bemusement. It was Monday, July 13, 1981, at 3:30 a.m., still nearly eighty degrees, and I was freezing.
“Can you crank up the heat?” I asked.
“Sure,” said the bald cop with unfeigned sympathy, switching off the air and twisting the knob to hot. A thin crescent of gray illuminated the crown of his head in the lights of an oncoming delivery truck. The car’s cherries flashed outside the windows, engulfing us in a pulsing aura of red and blue. The policemen were taking me to my aunt Joan’s house, where family and friends were converging.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked the other officer. He was a wiry fellow with dark hair and a moustache. Yeah, take me back four hours in time and let me warn him. I didn’t say this, of course, for it would have sounded like sarcasm.
We were now on the side streets that lead to the Waterloo subdivision known as Alabar Hills. This was the place of my childhood, a place transformed and embellished by memory into a wonderland of snake, frogs, turtles, and ground squirrels, where salamanders were a currency that could be bartered for anything, where Tom and Bob and Kevin and I marched in imaginary armies, fighting dinosaurs and villains with penknives and stick-guns, where Kristi nursed our wounds with prescient earnestness, and where an adventuresome neighbor girl once showed us hers when we showed her ours. The Alabar Hills of my past was a Shangri La of such carefree joy that every subsequent event in my life has been measured against it, and found wanting.
In those days we were a family of six. My parents, Wayne and Peg, had had four kids, Mike (1952), me (1956), Cindy (1959), and Patti (1961). We ate supper together, just like Ozzie and Harriet. We marveled at Flipper on the first color TV in the neighborhood. We played with our dog Bandit. We wrestled and fought, and every summer from 1963-1971 we went on vacations to places like Washington D.C., Yellowstone, and Mexico. Otherwise I didn’t hang out much with my siblings then, nor for many years afterward. There’s nothing odd about this. At that age siblings are rarely friendly, let alone friends. As adults we may wonder why this is, why we didn’t at least make the effort. We realize now that we won’t have each other forever—but who knows at 8 what he might lament at 25? Happiness can’t be hoarded in advance and then parceled out later to dull life’s traumas. It’s not a winning bet that can hedged against future losses: our lack of foresight can only be recognized in hindsight.
It was regret, as much as grief, that nagged me as I was trundled toward Joan’s house that sultry July morning, regret that I didn’t say more and do more and feel more when I’d had the chance. At seven minutes after midnight on Monday, July 13, our family of six had dwindled to five. That was the exact minute my brother Mike, a Waterloo police officer, died after he and his partner were shot during a routine domestic call. They had asked some people to turn their music down, and were killed for it. His partner had died instantly, Mike fourteen minutes later.
Ironically, perhaps, the movie Dead Man’s Curve had just ended. I had turned off the TV around 1:00 a.m., then listened to the radio in my Cedar Falls apartment as I typed a letter to a friend. It struck me later in the police car, and has bothered me ever since, that had I been paying attention to the radio I might have heard about the tragedy on the news. Not the names, of course—we had not been notified yet—but that two Waterloo policemen had been slain. As it was, I pecked away at the keys in blissful ignorance, using the sounds of the radio as background noise. Around 3:15 a.m. somebody knocked on my door. I was surprised to find two Cedar Falls patrolmen standing in the hallway. My first thought was that my neighbors above had complained about the banging of my old manual typewriter. That, however, was not the reason for the officers’ visit.
They said I should sit down, then told me Mike had been shot. And when I asked the question I dreaded to ask, the question I had to ask, their answer was three simple words:
He is dead.
It’s a curious thing what happens when a person receives news like this. Some, I’m sure, must weep hysterically, or collapse in a faint. Some vomit and scream (as Dad did). Some sit and quietly sob (Mom). Perhaps some go into denial. Others pray. I did none of these things. Instead, all of my senses suddenly became super attenuated, surreal, as if I were experiencing first-hand Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory, with its eerily melting clocks. Every sensation, every detail, became intensely clear, yet distorted like images in a carnival mirror. I noticed everything and felt nothing.
Clad only in blue gym shorts, I pulled on a pair of white painter pants, tennis shoes, and a polo shirt with red and blue stripes, then walked out to the police car in that sticky summer heat and began to shiver. The officers helped me into the back seat. It was shock, certainly, that made me so hyper-alert, that made me note the skunk and the light on the top of the policeman’s head. It was shock that made me ask aloud why it couldn’t have been me instead of Mike. I had no wish to die, but that night I meant it. He had a wife and two young sons. I was single with, at the time, no romantic prospects. He was an upstanding citizen with an important job, maybe the most important job; I was a hanger-on with a college degree working part time at the university library and taking occasional graduate classes while I waited for my life to begin.
I shed no tears, then. But I was cold. So cold.
I saw the skunk on Progress. We passed Pumpkin Park on Sager Avenue. At Saint Andrew’s Church, I recalled how as kids my friends and I used to “drown out” ground squirrels from their holes in the churchyard. (This method of capture was harmless to the rodents, although it did require getting them wet, which annoyed them.) The pastor at Saint Andrew’s paid us 25¢ a head to take them away so he wouldn’t have to poison them. We removed the creatures during the day, then released them back into the churchyard at night so we could recapture them the next day and collect our quarters again. It was a lucrative little enterprise until the pastor caught on.
Was it irreverent, disrespectful, even, to reminisce about childhood shenanigans at a time like that? Ground squirrels, when my older brother, my only brother, had just been murdered? Conning quarters, as I was on my way to face heartbroken parents and grieving relatives? Or was there something more, or less, to my reflections than that? Something as simple as regret that my friends and I had never invited Mike to join us in the churchyard?
On the other hand, I had not been to Alabar Hills for a long while, although I only lived a few miles away. When better to think of my days of innocence and petty piracies? Mike may not have shared those adventures with me, but he shared something far more important: the times. He wove threads through the tapestry of my past, always present to add a bit of color here, a texture there, a frame, a shape, a feel, a look. Mike was there, a part of the whole without whom the Alabar Hills of my recollection could not have existed. And so, for a moment on that terrible, terrible night, he gave me back pleasant memories, made bittersweet by the circumstances.
As we turned right onto Sheerer Street I saw that a dozen or more cars had already gathered at Joan’s house, halfway up the block. My parents were going to be the hardest, facing their grief and knowing there was nothing, nothing, I could do to ease their pain. How must my father feel, I wondered, having spent twenty-five years as a Waterloo police officer without once having drawn his weapon, only to have his son gunned down at 28?
The officers dropped me off at Joan’s, wished me well, and drove away. The front light was on, and as I entered the door Dad rushed to me, wrapped me in a bear hug, and cried, “Mike’s dead!”
“I know, Dad,” was all I said, all I could say. I found out later that he had wanted to break the news to me himself.
Always an emotionally demonstrative man, he dashed through Joan’s house, back and forth, unable to contain his dreadful grief. “I was so goddamned proud of him,” he shouted over and over. Then he’d rush outside to throw up. When he came back in the cycle repeated.
Mom was quieter. She sat with Joan, her sister, at the kitchen table, sobbing softly. Coffee cups steamed untouched in front of both women. No mother should outlive her child. Her eldest son had just been murdered, so she had every right to self-pity. Yet her concern was not for herself, but for Mike and his family. “Now he won’t get to see his boys grow up,” I heard her say. That was Mom.
I mostly sat on the couch under a blanket as more relatives straggled in. Each new arrival brought more tears. My sisters didn’t get to Joan’s until around 4:30 a.m., and Dad did break the news to them. They’d known only that Mike had been shot and was in the hospital.
“How is he?” Cindy asked.
“He didn’t make it,” Dad said, wrapping his arms around both girls.
“Oh, no,” Patti whimpered, and once more the crying erupted, spreading throughout the house like a round, first my sisters, then each relative in turn, adding his or her own voice, repeating and reinforcing this song of mourning.
Again I was powerless to comfort them. It wasn’t until several years later that I
realized they didn’t need me to comfort them. Grief is an intimate and private emotion that every person ultimately must come to terms with alone. For the most part, closure comes from within, not without.
I also learned that in trying to be strong for others, I was refusing to acknowledge my own feelings. Repressing one’s pain allows it to fester and grow beneath the surface, changing it from honest, cleansing grief into something uglier, more insidious, and, if possible, more devastating. But in July of 1981 that rough beast—depression—was still almost a year in my future. On the night of my brother’s death I was naively agonizing over my inability to help my family.
I was heartened somewhat by a conversation between my Dad’s brother Dale and aunt Joan. Both devout Christians, the two were long-time friends. At some point they found a chance for a quiet word together in the kitchen. Joan told Dale that Mike had accepted Jesus and so had been saved, which I hadn’t known. Dale wept with relief. I am not a religious person. Unlike my aunt and uncle, I harbored no hope of ever seeing my brother again, in this world or the next. But at that moment I was gratified that their faith gave them a measure of peace. They believed they would see Mike again. How could I not be envious of that?
Mike’s wife Denise and their two boys, Michael and Travis, were with Denise’s parents in Cedar Falls. At about 6:00 a.m. Dad, Mom, my sisters, and I drove over to see them. Denise had finally gotten to sleep, but woke when we arrived and immediately began weeping. The boys were playing, too young to understand what had happened to their father. This was demonstrated two days later at the visitation, in what was to me the most heartbreaking incident of the entire ordeal. My brother, dressed in his favorite blue leisure suit, lay in his casket in the back of the parlor, his face calm, almost as if he were sleeping. Little Travis, then 3, rushed up the aisle and grabbed my finger, pulling me toward Mike and saying excitedly, “Come and look at my Daddy.” Come and look at my Daddy. So innocent, so beautiful, and so completely unaware, a small boy in a green outfit asking me with such pride to look at his dead father. Who could witness such a scene and not be moved? I wish the killer could have seen Travis that day, and Michael, too. Perhaps then he would realize the magnitude of what he had destroyed.
We stayed with them for a couple of hours, numbly trying to wrest sense of the senseless. Then it was time to make Mike’s funeral arrangements. Dad and Mom dropped my sisters and me at Joan’s again and left to perform that grim task.
I may have eaten something, may have gotten some sleep, but by 1:30 Monday afternoon I was awake and restless. Unable to remain idle, I decided to walk through the old neighborhood, reminiscing about snakes, frogs, turtles, and ground squirrels, and the exchange rate for salamanders. That Monday was hot and humid, as Sunday had been. As I headed south on Sheerer toward Downing I thought about irony. It was ironic that Mike wore his bullet-proof vest 90% of the time but hadn’t when he needed it most. He’d taken it off because of the heat. Had the night not been so hot, he might have survived, for the fatal wound was to his chest. It was more ironic that he’d been there at all, answering that domestic call. He hadn’t been scheduled to work, but agreed to come in for someone who needed time off. I have never blamed the officer in whose place my brother died. It wasn’t his fault. He had requested the night off not to avoid death but because he had something else to do, something routine, adjusting his schedule as people in every profession do all the time.
As I turned right onto Downing I started playing the “if only” game. “If only” Mike had not gone into work, “if only” he had worn his vest, or, for that matter, “if only” his killer had never been released on parole in Kentucky and come to Waterloo.
Maybe there’s a parallel universe where “if only” come true. In this universe Mike stays home with Denise and the boys and watches TV. Yes, but then, just before Dead Man’s Curve comes on, he impulsively decides to take Michael and Travis to a convenience store for a soda. En route his Blazer is broadsided by a semi, instantly killing all three.
In another universe they get back safely from the convenience store, but one of the boys plays with a lighter, ignites a curtain, and fire guts their trailer home. In those universes Mike’s grieving brother laments “if only” they hadn’t gone out that night, or “if only” they had kept the lighter out of the reach of little hands. Or “if only” Mike had been scheduled to work…
After all, what bad could happen to a cop in Waterloo, Iowa?
Perhaps there are an infinite number of scenarios in an infinite number of universes, and somewhere one may exist where everything always goes right and there is no need to play the “if only” game. But that is not this universe. Horrible as Mike’s murder was, we can never know how many other tragedies were averted when he reported to work that night. What happened, happened. There is only what is and what was. It is pointless to wonder what might have been, because what might have been, wasn’t.
That was difficult to grasp on the afternoon following my brother’s murder. I turned right onto Scott Avenue, the street where I’d spent the first ten years of my life. As the sun beat down and I approached my old home, I noticed how little things had changed since I had last lived here, fifteen years before. The two elm trees that used to stand in the front yard had been removed, but otherwise everything was much as I remembered. Pausing momentarily at the foot of the sloping driveway where I had once ridden my bike, where I had watched a garter snake give birth to live young, I was surrounded not by ghosts but by the actual physical trappings of my youth. Mike and I had roughhoused in this front yard. Our dog Bandit romped in the back. Tom lived next door, Kevin across the street, Bob at the end of the block, and Kristi around the corner. All gone now, all of them, out of my life by death or distance. Only the buildings remained. I was struck then by the immense gulf that separates one age of our lives from another. We can walk the same ground and never touch the place we knew.
Mike had passed away. Every memory and every future experience would be forever filtered through that stark fact. The rose in the glasses had lost its bloom.
Still, all was not darkness on that sunny day, nor in the days that followed. Many uplifting events transpired in the aftermath of the shootings, a kind act here, a compassionate word there. Perhaps the most spectacular were the thousands of people, from all walks of life, who after Mike’s funeral lined the streets along the route to the cemetery, bowing their heads as his hearse passed. It was a touching gesture of respect, one Mike would have appreciated. His family certainly did.
The most personal of these experiences took place during my sojourn through my past that Monday afternoon. The parents of a young woman named Paula lived near the intersection of Scott and Sager. Paula had resided in Alabar Hills when I did, fifteen years before, although I hadn’t known her then. As often happens in life, we didn’t meet until we both moved away. In our case, it was in the dormitories at the University of Northern Iowa in the late 1970s. Even there she was never more than a casual acquaintance, but she knew who I was and had heard about Mike. When she saw me stroll by her parents’ house, she came out and joined me. We walked for blocks, never once touching, never once speaking. Paula asked nothing, expected nothing, offering me the company and silent comfort I didn’t realize I needed. Unlike Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, I have never depended upon the kindness of strangers, but on that day I did. I don’t know how Paula knew, but she did, and I will always be grateful. I have not seen her since that day, twenty-seven years ago. I hope she has had a happy, fulfilled life, and that, when sorrow came, she had someone to walk with her.
After parting with Paula I returned to Joan’s house to spend the next day and a half in a state of complete unawareness. I vaguely recall watching reruns of The Rockford Files at 10:30 on Monday and Tuesday nights—a program I once enjoyed but have never been able to watch since—but otherwise I have no memories of anything between Paula on Monday and Mike’s services on Wednesday. All I know is that we all stayed at Joan’s until the funeral.
And I know it was at the funeral, with Mike’s closed casket draped in a flag at the front of a Baptist church he had never attended, that the devastating truth finally sank in: my brother was gone, and he was never coming back. At last, at last, after three days, I allowed myself to weep. My uncle Dale, sitting behind me, offered me a handkerchief, and as I dabbed my eyes I felt my entire body shudder. I had not experienced death in any meaningful way since 1969, when my maternal grandfather succumbed to the injuries of a car accident. Even then, I was only 13, incapable of fully understanding what it meant when somebody died. Now it was no longer an abstraction. Death was here, hard and merciless as that coffin enclosing Mike’s body. There could be no appeal, no reprieve, and no more denials.
Mike was dead.
He was dead.
He was dead.
This is why we insist on staging funerals, to force bitter facts on the unbelieving, the appalled, the frightened, the desperate. It is an acknowledgment that one of our own has crossed into that undiscovered country, and will not, whatever our religious beliefs, return to this life and this time again. The service is the last time, ever, we will be in the physical presence of our beloved dead. We gather to sing and remember, to celebrate and grieve, to pray, wish, hope, and lament. We gather to hold on and we gather to let go.
Funerals mean goodbye, but they are only the beginning of closure, not the end. Next comes the committal service, the interment, the well-wishes of friends, the reunion with long-absent relatives (who will soon disappear again), and the aftermath, when we go home to our altered lives and face the question, “What now?”
Along with all that we had to deal with the media, at the church, at the cemetery, through the killer’s capture and trial, and continuing, to a lesser extent, even to this day. For the general public most deaths are noted by an obituary in the paper or a sound byte on the local news, but then memories of the departed are left in dignity to the grieving families. But in Waterloo, Iowa, bad things usually do not happen to police officers. When they do, it is news. Big news. Unending news. In the hands of the media this news is sometimes intrusive, sometimes sensitive, sometimes unfeeling, opportunistic, and cynical, sometimes well-meaning and inspirational, but almost always a ratings bonanza.
For us it was constant. Every local newspaper and TV news program carried the story every day. Every day. Every day.
At the cemetery my friend Paul resorted to interposing his body between us and the ubiquitous photographers so our pain would not be displayed on the front page of newspapers. (Although it was anyway.) A local woman took advantage of the occasion to espouse her personal political agenda, and the media jumped on that. A TV reporter called Dad a year later and asked if Mike’s death still bothered him. Letters to the editor. Front page, back page, every page except the sports. Lead story for hard news, fluff piece for human interest. Every day. Every day. Every day.
My family understood all this. We knew it was a big story that would go on for a long time. We knew the public had the desire, and the right, to know. We accepted that our grief would not, and could not, be private. But surely there comes a point, after the newness has worn off, after the bodies are laid to rest, after the arrest and trial and sentencing, when the needs of the families outweigh the needs of the public, when those closest to the victims must be given the space and the time to heal.
If that time ever came, it was too late, for the emotional scars left by that night are deep. The media certainly didn’t kill my brother and his partner, but they exploited the tragedy to their own benefit, and they replayed it continuously, as if it were theirs to use any way they chose. It almost became a regular feature, like a sitcom without the humor, or a blockbuster event during sweeps week. Except that this sweeps week lasted for years.
But in my anger there was hypocrisy. The human interest media focused its attention, rightly so, on Mike’s wife and sons, and on my parents. While outwardly I resented the papers and TV for not leaving my family alone, for forcing them to relive the nightmare over and over, there was a tiny, entirely contradictory voice inside my head that said, “Hey, what about me? I lost somebody, too. Why don’t you ask me how I feel?”
The media never did ask, but the people close to me did, and in the end that was what mattered.
Nothing can erase the emotions of such a traumatic event, but time blunts even the deepest hurt. I suffered my annus horribilis in 1982, a debilitating, year-long depression that started ten months after the tragedy, one so severe that the only reason I’m here today was because I knew my parents could not bear to lose a second son. With the help of family, friends, good counselors and, of course, time, I overcame the depression in 1983, although I still refer to that period as my lost year.
I’ve come through a dark age since July of 1981. The weeping is over. The sharp grief is gone. There is still an empty place in my life, unfilled and unfillable, but for the most part I have reached an accommodation with Mike’s murder, and, in a larger sense, with death itself. Since then I have lost both parents to cancer, Dad in 1989 and Mom in 1996. Aunt Joan succumbed to the same affliction in 2000. Watching loved ones suffer and decline was excruciating, but their deaths were natural and, ultimately, expected—and, except for obituaries, media-free. My sisters and I were our parents’ bedsides when they died, and I was with Joan until an hour before she passed away. Of course it was difficult to let them go, and I will certainly miss them, but we had made our peace. With nothing left unsaid between us, I can look back without the turmoil of “if only.”
Mike will always be harder, for his life was ended at age 28 not by accident or disease, but by the hand of another. Would he have chosen to die that way? I think not. In the line of duty, yes, but finding a lost child or rescuing a hostage, not asking some people to turn down their music. He would have chosen to live, to watch his boys grow up, and, after a long and satisfying career, to withdraw to a dignified retirement of well-earned comfort, with a nice house and regular visits from his grandchildren.
That was not to be.
He will be remembered in this community as a hero who died young in the performance of his duties—and maybe he was, maybe he was a hero. In any case, it’s good that people honor his sacrifice. But they know him only for his death. I knew him for his life, and so I choose to remember him not as hero or even police officer, but simply as my brother. That’s enough for me. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “He was a man, take him for all in all; I shall not look on his like again.”
His family endures. Cindy has one son, Patti two. Several years ago they moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where all are happy and healthy. Mike’s widow Denise is remarried, and his sons Michael and Travis are now fathers themselves.
I have never left the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area. The life I was waiting to begin in 1981 finally did. My part-time job at the University of Northern Iowa library blossomed into a rewarding, full-time career, and in 1999 I married for the first time. My wife Joni brought two great children into the marriage, Jon and Jovan. And so I am a father, too, of the step- variety.
I still have no religious beliefs. Perhaps someday I will find an answer I can believe in. If not, if I can never look forward to a reunion with my loved ones in the soft glow of an afterlife, then the time will come when at least I will join them in serene darkness, covered by the warmth of the earth and the beauty of the sky. That will be all right with me.
I hope my remaining family members are at my side when I die; that my thoughts return to Alabar Hills, with its snakes, frogs, turtles, and ground squirrels, with salamanders that could be spent like money; and that my last memories, que les éclairer se faner, are the faces of my Dad, my Mom, and, of course, my brother Mike.