In memory of good men, I’d like to share this with you today, because it has been over a decade since their passing. Please take the time to read this, because it isn’t fiction. I want you to read this only in the hopes that these men will be remembered. They don’t deserve to be forgotten. Nor do the people that loved them—murder affects not only the victim, but everyone who knew and loved them. Please take a moment to see that these men were and are more than just a name and a death date in a news report.
This is what murder looks like from the eyes of a child.
The Polka Dot Dress
The grass is soft beneath my feet, springing up nimbly as my small shoes trod over it as I skip across the field, doll in hand, beside my sister while my mother and two younger brothers follow behind. We conclude our fruitless search of the grass for my sister’s lost doll shoe, and Samantha wears only one shoe home. Looking back, I think that shoe just might have saved our lives.
I glance up at the trees, my blonde hair swinging from side to side as I chase after my sister, the tall boughs far above my head swaying in the gentle breeze, the sun shining brilliantly. We cut to the left, towards the cracked sidewalk and street and away from the small cemetery that seems large to me from my small viewpoint. Being six doesn’t give you much height from which to view the world.
We run across the street, my sister and I, laughing, leaping over the grass and dirt of the front yard and up the two cement steps to the white porch and screen door. We are laughing as we pull it open, our arms laden down with carrying Kirsten and Samantha, our ever faithful companions. The robin’s egg blue floorboards of the porch are chipping under our feet, but we don’t even see them as we push open the heavier front door and step into the living room with its pale green walls and wood floors with knots and grease stains. Building toys are spread across the floor: Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, wooden building blocks, Legos, most of the morning’s creations stomped into the floor by small feet or swept aside by little hands. No matter, they will be rebuilt, bigger and better than before.
My sister and I slip off our shoes, still disappointed at the loss of the shiny black shoe that is absent from Samantha’s foot, but we will have to find boots for her to wear instead. Up the stairs with bare feet scuffing on the floor, we go, turning the corner of the hall and into our bedroom with its ugly, pink floral wallpaper that we no longer even see. We are hell bent on the tub that holds the doll clothes, in desperate search of shoes for Samantha’s feet. We find them, little mauve boots that are ugly as sin, but we think they are beautiful, and on they go, onto the little doll feet so that Kirsten and Samantha are now wearing matching shoes.
Mommy is calling for us downstairs, her voice echoing in the stairwell. Up we get, leaving the mess we have made and taking our dolls as we rush down the stairs, our little feet making a noise that could be likened to thunder.
“Get your shoes on,” she says. “Let’s go see Daddy. We’re already five minutes late.”
We scamper to where we have left our shoes beside the door, eager to make the short trek through the cemetery to the campus where Daddy teaches and climb the stairs to the little, dusty attic office where our artwork is taped to the door. Maybe we can go to the library, and run through the empty rows, listening to the echo of our footsteps or stand at the windows and stare at our house from stories up. Maybe. But we don’t.
Daddy comes through the door, but my sister and I aren’t paying much attention. We look up and smile, say hello, then focus again on putting on our shoes while the dolls sit beside us.
“There’s a gunman on campus,” I hear Daddy say.
Mommy doesn’t believe him. “You’re joking.” She almost laughs, but not quite. The shock keeps her from laughing.
“No, I’m not. There’s a gunman on campus.”
I don’t exactly know what is happening. Gunmen do not exist in my world. Or they didn’t, up until then. I imagine an old man with silver white hair and a hunting rifle. At least, I think I did. That’s what I imagined years later, anyway. Just then I was staring at my shoes on my little feet, and wondering if maybe we had left Samantha’s shoe at the neighbors’ or if it is still in the field beside the cemetery, waiting to be found.
I watch from the porch at times, from the screen door at other times, my hands pressed against the glass. The big white house I call home has become a safe house to more people than just me and my family. People come flocking over from the campus, through the cemetery, and stand on the porch or in the living room, their faces filled with shock and confusion.
The field that just minutes before had been subject to a search by children for a doll’s shoe is now a parking lot for emergency vehicles. Ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, news vehicles... They fill the field, trampling the soft grass into the earth with wheels and feet much bigger than my own so that it cannot spring up again and be just the same as it was before. Off in the distance, I see a helicopter land. It comes down slowly, touching down in another nearby field. It’s an emergency helicopter, but I don’t care. I don’t care that it is here to airlift injured people to the hospital because the ambulance is not fast enough. Life Flight means nothing to me. It’s just a helicopter, and I don’t often get to watch one land, so I cannot take my eyes from it. I can feel my sister beside me, her eyes fixed on it as well, captivated as I am.
“Mommy! There’s a helicopter!” I yell, and Mommy comes over and watches the helicopter for a minute, but it isn’t as fun for her as it is for me. It means something different to Mommy.
After a while Mommy and Daddy put on a movie and I sit between my brother and sister on the sofa, watching The Hobbit unfold on the old TV. I’m not even distracted by the people milling around. All I care about is the story.
“Can we check the news?” Daddy asks nicely just as we reach the part where Smaug is lying on his bed of gold.
My siblings and I nod, knowing that Daddy is only being polite and they are going to check the news anyway. On the table next to the TV is a little black radio, a little dusty, and a voice is issuing from it. I don’t pay attention to the radio, but watch as black and gray fuzzy lines wave across the screen and obscure Smaug from view.
The gunman shot four people, all of them monks. Friends of ours had to lock themselves in the basement and pray that they would be safe. Of the four shot, two died. The gunman, once he had wreaked havoc on this little world of monks and people living together in peace, entered the church, and slipped into the back pew where my family always sat. And shot himself.
Daddy is going to the funeral Mass. Daddy always went to work without me, so I don’t feel left behind. But then he comes home so that Mommy can go, too. And then I want to go. Mommy never goes anywhere without me, and I fuss to be brought along. But the answer is no.
I watch as Mommy dresses for the funeral. She never really wears dark colors, so she only owns a navy dress with big white polka dots. I watch her as she stands in the yellow bedroom, slipping into that dress, and then I watch as she walks to the full-length mirror with its big oak frame, where it sits in a corner. She is crying. Tears are sliding down her face, her hands pulling at the dress to straighten it. I am still unhappy that I am not going with her, but I am sad that Mommy is crying. Mommy does not cry. It is the first time I can ever recall seeing Mommy cry. But cry she does as she walks out the door and across the street and through the cemetery to the funeral, her back to me as I watch from the porch window, this time all alone. I watch her go, and then I turn and go inside to play with my brother and sister until Mommy returns. I don’t remember if she was crying when she came back. I don’t remember her coming back at all. She did, but all I remember is watching her walk away in the polka dot dress.
On Sunday, Mommy walks into the church, beautiful and composed. Mothers are always beautiful, but not all mothers are strong. And mine is strong. My mother is brave. She leads the way, carrying my youngest brother, and enters the pew. The very last pew. And we follow her, never questioning. All throughout Mass I am bored, and I stare at the wood of the pew in front of us, wondering if there is still blood on it. Everything had been cleaned away, but not a soul there can ignore the fact that the peace of the little world, even in the sanctuary of the church, had not gone unaltered.
After Mass, Father comes and kisses Mommy’s forehead, tears in his eyes, and he thanks her for taking her seat.
This pew is where Mommy always sits, kneels down to say her prayers, and scolds us for misbehaving, and she will take her seat, blood or no blood having been spilt there. That’s the kind of strong Mommy is.
I skip home, through campus and across the street, climbing the steps to the cemetery under the shade of the tree, innocent and happy, flanked by my brother and sister. But only a few steps into that blessed yard of stones, Mommy calls to us, telling us to stop and pray. She leads us to the graves, no stones marking them, and tells us to say a prayer for the poor souls who had died. She knows we can’t put faces to the names, because the good men we had lost were people to us, not just the names on the little plastic markers.
We say our prayers quickly, eager to go home and change into clothes for play, but as my brother toddles away and my sister hurriedly concludes her prayer, I slow down to finish mine.
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death...
I can smell the grass and the fresh turned earth as I crouch next to the two fresh graves, all the colors saturated and the breeze blowing, stirring my hair and clothes. I can’t resist, and I reach out, almost guiltily, knowing that I should leave the grave untouched. My small fingers touch the fresh dirt and I scoop up a small handful, letting it trickle down through my fingers, leaving a fine dust on my hand along with the scent of earth.
I finish the prayer and stand up quickly, dusting my hand off on my skirt, and run over the grass towards my family, eager to catch up with my sister so I’m not alone, leaving the graves behind me.
We never did find that shoe.
In memory of Father Philip Schuster, O.S.B., and Brother Damien Larson, O.S.B., gunned down in their monastery on the morning of June 10, 2002.