Seventeen years ago, my family met its Sept. 11, but with no one to hunt down or indict. In the days following our catastrophe, local newspapers printed a few accounts ("Family Argument Turns to Tragedy"), but we were soon left alone to begin our years of sadness.
We buried my father and my sister at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City in August, 1985. Aref and Leslie. So much of their lives were intertwined: their dancing, the garments that he manufactured and she wore, their long, parallel falls from grace--and their deaths.
For most of the last 17 years, forgiveness for the person who sealed their fate was the last thing on my mind, despite advice to the contrary. "People who are unable to forgive create cutoffs and these can be lethal," a family therapist once told me. "It affects your children and your grandchildren." But I could not hear him.
The years did not soften my resolve. But the agony of a nation did. Whether the Al Qaeda terrorists are hunted down, whether the last bandit is snuffed out, the survivors of those who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the fields of Pennsylvania may arrive where I arrived last year.
Last March, for the first time since the deaths of my father and sister, I found myself cresting a hill at Holy Cross Cemetery, amid the drum of the cars below on the San Diego Freeway and the sound of my feet avoiding the graves of strangers. I weighed the enormity of my family's loss and finally allowed myself to wonder about what can be forgiven--and what cannot.
August 2, 1985. It was a Friday. I had just arrived home from work, looking forward to playing with our newborn boy, who was lolling with his mother on our bed in a small brick row house in Washington, D.C. The phone rang. My first reaction to what my brother said ("Greg, I'll need you now for the rest of my life") was to laugh. That sort of sentimentality did not seem like him.
I even laughed when he spat out that our sister Leslie had shot and killed our father at the family print shop, and then killed herself. A co-worker and a customer managed to crawl out through the front door.
I assumed it was one of his attempts to catch me off guard, so I waited for the punch line. There was none, only the silence and heavy breathing of someone who is pricing each breath for the first time in his life.
Just days before, I had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my sister before a baptismal font. My wife and I had asked Leslie to be our son's godmother, and she had flown with my mother from Los Angeles to attend. We thought it would bolster my sister's spirits. We also thought we could detect evidence that she was emerging from her long bout with mental illness. It was only after Leslie was dead that I discovered that her hospital records mentioned schizophrenia. No one ever used that word while she was alive; she was "troubled," "down," "low," "depressed."
Soon after the call, I was on a late flight to Los Angeles. My mother Rose was in England, visiting her youngest brother and his family, so I was greeted by five shocked aunts. After they left, some friends and I stayed up for a while; as if hardness were a blessing, we finally fell asleep on the floor.
The next morning, my oldest friend, John Millsfield, whose father-in-law had just died, called and said there was much to do; he would walk me through it. Our first stop was the funeral home, where we were greeted by a sallow young man in a rumpled shirt and brown pants. He led us into the casket room, and after a stilted introduction to the various models, I selected two caskets--one of oak for my sister and one of mahogany for my father. The latter was more expensive, and I resisted the subtle pressure of the mortician's assistant to put them in the same wood, to show equality in death. I wanted my sister to be buried in something cheaper than oak. Maybe pine would do, or, for all I cared, cement.
We then drove to Holy Cross Cemetery, where I surveyed the family plot. A St. Joseph statue stood close by, and I thought that fair, as my father's middle name was Joseph, the patron saint of--among many other things--a happy death.
Was my father happy?
In spite of the gruesome way he had been felled, my father had been smiling. At least this is what the first detective on the scene had said.
Det. Joe Diglio was my next stop. Before opening a folder, he looked at me and said quietly: "I am very sorry." He was shaken. I did not expect this, and somehow it helped brace me.
The detective pulled out a pad of paper and began drawing a crude schematic of the store. He placed my father at a copy machine in an open space behind the counter. He wasn't absolutely certain where my sister was standing as she began shooting, but the trajectories and damage appeared to place her firing from the back of the store outward, probably in the back corridor with its stacks of supplies.
Then Diglio showed me where the bullets hit. He found two in the spiral jacket spines hanging on the wall to the left, one in the frame of the door to the back corridor, and one in my father's back.
"Yes. From the scuff marks I could tell he was trying to get away."
I couldn't believe it. Aref Orfalea almost had a foot amputated because of his feverish work as a paratrooper messenger at the Battle of the Bulge. I'd seen my father risk limb, if not life, in breaking up fights between men at baseball games or in traffic. I thought his first instinct would be to tackle her.
"There wasn't time." Diglio said. He thought my father was about eight feet from my sister--close, but not close enough to disarm someone who is firing point blank.
Diglio pulled a drawer out, took something in hand and placed it on his desk in front of me. The iron slug, slightly tarnished, gleamed in the light of the desk lamp. Attached to it--I don't know if Diglio saw this--was a small hair. It had been found in the ceiling of the back corridor. By his gestures I was made to understand that she had pointed the gun at her temple.
But I wanted to ask about the first shots. "Was she aiming?"
Diglio nodded. No one could know for sure, but the scuff marks and the trajectories pointed toward that conclusion.
"I don't think she'd ever fired a real gun before," I said. "How could anyone be that accurate?"
"When you're not used to firearms, or you're angry or unstable, or worse, both, the gun pretty much fires itself," Diglio said.
He stood up and paced, as if looking for something. He had been collected and sympathetic, but suddenly, he let himself go for a few seconds. I've seen it all, but not this, he told me. A daughter and a father. Gone in an instant. And for what?
One news report had described an argument over a salary advance; another, a disagreement over the price of a photocopying service, but what really got Joe Diglio was the gun.
"What kind of gun was it?" I asked.
"A .38-caliber Smith & Wesson. It's not a cheap gun. She paid $234 for it right up the road here--National Gun Sales. That's the kind of gun that's standard issue for a police force."
"When did she buy it?"
Diglio fished for the receipt. "March 15."
Then I knew.
I was home that day when my father gave my sister a tongue-lashing for being late to open the store. Leslie flipped out. She had smashed a bathroom mirror at work and driven herself to an emergency room to have her bloody hand bandaged. She returned home after visiting my father's sister, Jeannette, who told her to calm down. But Leslie didn't calm down. Two hours after trashing the store's bathroom, her dark brown eyes were dilated, her speech was staccato and she was hyperventilating.
After her outburst, I had paced the floor of our family den in front of my parents and told them of an eerie incident. During a previous visit home, my edgy sleep had been broken by my sister's screams from her bedroom; it was if she were fighting somebody off. I got up, opened my door intending to walk down the hallway to her room, but instead found myself facing my sister, who had stalked down the hallway to my bedroom. Her eyes were wide and wild, she was breathing fast and I saw her hide something behind her back.
"Leslie, you go to bed now and stop that shouting," I croaked. She stalked back to her room and slammed the door. I pulled the bed in front of my bedroom door. For the only time in my life I was terrified of someone I loved.
"I'm not coming home until you commit her again to the asylum or do something to get her away from this family," I told my parents the night before I left. My mother thought I was overreacting; I don't think my father said anything. After a long period of unemployment, he was trying to get a new business off the ground, to hold onto the family home, and himself, all the while giving employment to an unstable person who happened to be his daughter. I imagine he was driven by his natural instinct as a father to love and protect her before himself.
"She shouldn't have gotten that gun," I said to Diglio.
His eyes grew large and reddened. Moving to leave, he touched a photograph of his daughters--smiling, sparkling in the backyard--and said, "Can I walk you out?"
"Which way is the gun shop?" I asked.
A gun disaster urges fiction. you "develop" scenarios and settings to offset the concern or morbid curiosity of others. The truth is too hard to spit out--and you don't want to alienate people. So you dodge:
It was not pretty.
Intruder at the store.
We lost two.
Even if a gun is mentioned, it's a murky loss--to a robber, or a carjacker, or an accidental shooting (as my mother still believes it was).
You dodge because it's a way of negotiating the bottom of a well, because it's a way of shouting: Don't equate me with this insanity.
Even now I fear being misjudged by it all.
On the evening of that Saturday, the first day after the shootings, I called my uncle's home in London. I figured my mother would be asleep, that my Uncle Gary would answer the phone. When I told him what had happened, there was a lot of silence across the Atlantic Ocean in that fiber-optic nerve.
"Are you sure?"
"My God, what do we tell your mom?"
"You can't tell her the truth. Remember? She had to be hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat when her father died. But we have to get her here for the funeral. We have to concoct a story."
"Let her sleep. But at breakfast, tell her there has been an accident, a car accident, and Dad is in bad shape. Don't tell her that he's dead. Hold out a thread of hope that he might make it. That will get her moving fast."
"What about Leslie?"
"Don't mention her. If she asks, just say she's at home. For all I know, that's no lie."
That ramp at LAX's international terminal is imprinted on my brain. My grandmother came off first, tired but ready for the worst, then my mother, followed by Uncle Gary. My mother did not look tired. She was alert, her onyx eyes bright.
"Where is your sister?" were the first words off her lips, and then, "How is Dad?"
"Come here, Mom. Let's go this way." My cousin, a doctor, and I moved her toward the elevator, which would take us to the second-floor first aid station. I coughed and made ridiculous, empty gestures, saying only: "It's hard, Mom, it's hard," until we got in the large elevator. She grabbed me, demanding to know where my sister was. I told her. She screamed and flung herself back and forth against the elevator. For a second, I feared she would jar it loose. Her eyes were wide and crowded with sudden wrinkles. She hyperventilated.
We ushered her quickly to the aid station, where my cousin gave her smelling salts to keep her from blacking out, and then a tranquilizing shot. She lay back on the cot, moaning, turning her head from side to side.
Later, Gary told me that all the way across the Atlantic, my mother had asked him for the truth. Each time, he leaned away from her and faked a conversation with the stranger next to him, nodding his head up and down, a courageous pantomime.
Father John Columba Fogarty, my high school literature teacher, the man who officiated at my wedding as well as the funeral of my paternal grandmother, came from Chicago to lead the double funeral at St. Mel's in West Hills. At times in the ceremony, I heard his voice crack.
"Leslie and Aref are dancing with the angels," he said, and then he wept. It was an incomprehensible image. Yes, my sister and father liked to dance together, but on this day a suggestion of joy seemed profane. It was too early and raw to suggest mercy.
My overriding concern at the cemetery was to get someone to speak for my father and sister. I tried several people, but everyone was tongue-tied. Finally, an adopted "cousin," Dr. Nicholas Habib, did the honors. After a long silence, stubbing out a cigarette on the freshly dug earth near the caskets, he spoke eloquently of my father's feel for those down on their luck or lonely, of his own informal "adoption" into our family. He saluted my mother and asked all to help her in the years to come.
But no one volunteered for my sister. Finally, the silence was too unbearable, and two stepped forward. Not family. Two workers at the family store, one of whom crawled out during the shootings with his life. I cannot remember what they said.
After I fell into the roses heaped on my sister's casket, cutting my face, a good, strong man, Victor George, helped me up. Thus, in the tall shaft created by the shootings, I grasped a slender thread, and am doing so now, weaving it as I go into a strong rope.
We filed a lawsuit against the gun store in 1986, a year after the shootings. In those days, it took some time to secure a lawyer who would even take such a case. Gloria Allred's firm refused, saying we didn't have a chance. Her firm had just reached an out-of-court settlement for the family of a young woman named Tara Ann Katona, who had killed herself with a gun sold by National Gun Sales in Northridge.
Katona's mother had called the shop and begged the store not to sell a gun to her daughter, who was getting out of a psychiatric hospital and had been talking suicide to an inmate. The store sold it to her anyway. Katona lost her life; her family received $175,000. Allred declared a victory for gun control, lost in the back pages of the newspaper.
"Did your mother tell the store not to sell the gun to your sister?" the Allred lawyer asked.
"No," I said. "She was living at home at the time, but no one could possibly guess she'd buy a gun."
I found out some years later that this was not entirely true. We took our case to another firm, which agreed to pursue it, and deep into our lawsuit, my mother told me that my sister had bought another pistol from National Gun Sales in 1982, three years before the shootings. She had told my father the gun gave her a "sense of power." But somehow he had coaxed her into turning it over to him, and it was disposed of through a neighbor. As far as I know, my mother and father told no one in the family about it. The gun purchase, like her mental illness, was so horrid they pushed it out of their minds.
In the lawsuit, we argued that the gun store, in selling the pistol to my sister while she was having a "psychotic event," was negligent. We hoped to have testimony from those who witnessed her severe agitation on the day of the gun purchase--me, my mother, others at the gun store, the family store and the hospital emergency room. We planned to argue that the gun-store clerk should have called the phone number on the purchase form to get some information about her visibly disturbed behavior, which, by law, should prevent such a sale. (That phone number turned out to be my parents'.)
After four years of answering hundreds of questions sent by the lawyers for the defense, dealing with dozens of depositions and affidavits, listening to expert witnesses during depositions, and having my sister's records and writings combed and recombed, we found ourselves totally exhausted. In one deposition, the clerk who sold my sister the gun testified that he could not remember her bloody, bandaged hand (although he could remember that she wore a brown dress). The law firm representing the gun store filed a cross-complaint--subsequently dropped--that accused my parents of failing to adequately supervise Leslie.
Finally, in 1990, our case was thrown out of court. Our attorney explained: "The judge [Richard Adler] was of the opinion there was no evidence to indicate Leslie displayed bizarre behavior at the time she purchased the gun. The judge was not willing to impose any greater duty upon a gun seller than those required by the existing statutes and regulations." The fact that my mother and I testified that we saw her out-of-control state and bandaged hand just after the purchase and that hospital personnel testified they witnessed her distressed state while bandaging her hand did not seem to matter.
Frustrated in the courts, we took our grief elsewhere. Shortly after the August shooting, my mother and I were welcomed into the Washington, D.C., office of Pete Shields, who helped found a public-interest group, then called Handgun Control, to combat gun violence after his son was shot to death in 1975 in San Francisco by the so-called Zebra Killers. Shields was very empathetic, the all-too-rare "real article" in a city filled with hired guns for one industry or another. He put his arms around my mother and they both shook with tears. A few months later, she opened a memorial fund at Handgun Control in the name of her husband and daughter.
In 1992, our family helped lobby for the Brady Bill and its five-day "cooling off" period in the purchase of a gun. My mother met with her then-L.A. congressman, Democrat Anthony Beilenson of Woodland Hills, a pivotal vote on 1994's Brady Law and assault-weapons ban. Though the sorrow at times felt endless, these modest victories for sanity brought our family some measure of relief.
According to Handgun Control, now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, firearm deaths nationwide have declined 27% since the Brady Law was passed. Still, 28,600 Americans shot and killed each other in the year 2000. Many in Congress have resisted passing new legislation--such as gun registration and ballistic fingerprinting--that might further curb those deaths.
Some years after the shootings, I walked into National Gun Sales, located on a dry stretch of Parthenia Boulevard along the railroad tracks, off by itself in the dust. Shotguns and assault rifles were spread along the walls like the wings of a flock.
What did my sister feel coming into this dark den? Did she know she was entering her death? Did she think the gun would melt and enfold her like a protective cloak?
The clerk came toward me and saw me staring at a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson. "Nice piece of equipment," he said quietly.
"You want to see it?"
He brought it out and laid it slowly on the glass. Just enough for the trigger guard to tick. I picked it up. It was cool, the butt pocked for a good grip. Not light.
I wanted to buy a gun. For the first time in my life.
"You'll like it. No one ever brings one back."
He spoke and moved, back toward the ammo, under the gun wings, arms folded like the director of the universe. He moved directions on an orange card in front of me. "Here's a shooting range down the block. If you want to try it out. They've got 'em there."
The door opened on the light, the light shined in the darkness, but the darkness grasped it.
For almost 20 years, Leslie Orfalea was a healthy, balanced, playful person who loved acting and dancing. Even in the next 11 years of her bizarre descent into mental illness, my sister had many stretches of sanity, pleasantness and cheer. The week after the tragedy, a customer came into the family store wondering what had happened to the sweet girl behind the counter.
Perhaps my seniority didn't help. I was born 10 months after my parents wed. By the time my sister came along, I had ruled the roost for four years. I was also the first-born male of 10 grandchildren, and that was a place of high honor in my family. It didn't help that when she was little, I threw a dirt clod at her that scratched the corneas of her eyes.
As a teenager Leslie struggled to live up to or even surpass my hyper-involved school performance. But in her own eyes, she always came up short. After I copped the presidency of my high school, she lost a run at her school's vice-presidency. I went to Georgetown for four years; she went to the University of Portland and left after one year and a bad relationship. Even before her mind snapped, she would tell me: "I have lived so long in your shadow." And I wondered how on earth I could change that.
After transferring to the University of Denver, she began to hear voices. It was her ears, we thought, and so she went to a specialist. But there was nothing wrong with her ears. It was her sleep. And a doctor gave her sedatives, but more sleep didn't quiet the voices. It was her diet, but no concoction of rice, sprouts, yogurt and vitamins dulled what was calling at her. Perhaps it was a tumor, but a CAT scan showed nothing abnormal.
Ironically, during the onset of her illness at 20, she had some success on the college stage. A klatch of talented and concerned friends surrounded her. She had what seemed like a sweetheart of a boyfriend. But in fact, he introduced her to psychedelic drugs--pure poison to someone with a predisposition for mental illness.
Two years after graduation, she traveled to Oklahoma with a dinner theater company and things took a turn for the worse. The details are still sketchy, but she fell into an affair with the director, who constantly berated her during rehearsals to the point of a nervous breakdown. How she ever managed to drive herself back to Los Angeles is beyond me.
All of this was bad enough, but 1977 also saw the demise of my father's once prosperous garment business and the beginning of his five-year battle with unemployment. After being vice president of another firm, he took part-time work in advertising and sales.
In slow horror, the family watched my sister coil into a dance with my tottering father; she was pulling him into an abyss. I remember him walking the circular drive of the family home in his bathrobe in the late morning. It was a bewildering time for him at best.
In the fall of 1977, my sister was referred to a psychiatric hospital, where she lived for eight months, enduring, among other things, a knife attack by a patient and a dosage of the wrong drug that nearly did her in. Alarmed, my parents pulled her out, but when she emerged, the Leslie we once knew was gone, and in her place was a bottomless stare.
Upon entry she had been diagnosed with psychoneurotic depressive reaction, which quickly changed to psychotic depressive reaction. She admitted not only hearing voices but seeing "funny lights in front of her." But it wasn't until she'd been there for seven months that the word "schizophrenic" entered her psychiatrist's bimonthly summary. If Leslie hadn't been hospitalized, he wrote, she "may have ended up in a severe schizophrenic break."
Reviewing her records today, a team of psychiatric professionals tell me it's very likely my sister was suffering from schizophrenia before she entered the hospital--and after she left. Since schizophrenia is known as a genetic disease, I searched our family's history, but came up with no one that fit the description of the illness. About as close as I could come was a great-aunt who was said to have had a breakdown after having 10 children.
Leslie's drug usage didn't help. Her hospital records stated that the "patient has admitted to massive psychedelic drug use of several years' duration." Her desire to take illicit drugs "outside" as she appoached her release, was "an increasingly important issue . . . otherwise she will have a psychotic decompensation since she is extremely sensitive to marijuana or psychedelic drugs."
In its "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--Fourth Edition," the American Psychiatric Assn. suggests that the use of LSD can precipitate schizophrenia. A recent report in the American Journal of Epidemiology indicates that marijuana use can lead to "psychosis in psychosis-free subjects," and other studies suggest the symptoms can worsen if a patient is taking antidepressants and smoking marijuana at the same time.
Whether she would have benefited from further hospitalization elsewhere, her time at this facility was literally life-threatening, the diagnoses spotty at best, and my parents got her out of there, with no other concrete help in sight. Over the next seven years, she was treated by other therapists but never entered another psychiatric institution.
In 1983, my father became a partner in a print shop. He set about fixing it up and put in place a business that posthumously became a bigger success than his dress firm. He gave Leslie work thinking, as any son of an immigrant would, that a little work cures a lot of woe. That was the store where it happened.
It came to me one day, thinking of the shadows my sister lived in. The gun not only took the voices away, it brought her center stage and onto the front page of the newspaper and gave her final release from craven boyfriends and the furrowed brows of loved ones. In taking my father with her, in some sort of twisted logic, she was saying to the one person who could not resist her, "Come. I don't want to be alone anymore."
Some years after the shootings, I regarded the slumping figure of my friend Dan Hill as he entered a Georgetown University reunion. A strapping Robert Redford look-alike in our college years, Dan was using a cane and had aged drastically. He soon told me why. He and his wife were driving down a long stretch of Arizona roadway when an approaching vehicle suddenly plowed straight into them. They barely survived; his wife's face was severely disfigured and Dan was in a coma for well over a week. One knee was pretty much destroyed.
At the end of the reunion, Dan looked at me as he took his cane and said: "Forgiveness is where it's at." That magnanimity was startling, coming from a man who had been robbed of his athleticism and good health. It was like a stone thrown in the pool of my soul. The ripples would not be denied.
It's hard to admit--it may be the hardest thing of all--but some good came from the shootings 17 years ago. It's as if Dylan Thomas' words "And death shall have no dominion" were taken in deep. My heartbroken mother assumed control of the family print shop and was so good at it she opened two more stores and was lauded at a company meeting as a role model. My mother, primarily a homemaker before the tragedy, made a better income as a retail businesswoman than my manufacturer father. Score one for tenacity.
She fought back in other ways: art classes, reading to seniors, championing gun control, hosting classic July 4 swim parties for family and friends, giving herself totally to her sons and grandsons. All in all, a miraculous resilience that spoke to many.
My father died more or less in the line of duty. Score one for courage and a quick death. Thank God there would be no cancer or slow rotting for a man of such vitality.
My relations with loved ones deepened after the tragedy. My marriage endured and grew precious. My wife and I had another boy the year after the shootings, and then another. My father's oldest sister, Jeannette, and I became extremely close. We traveled together to southern France and Belgium, representing my father at the first return to the killing fields of World War II by members of his lost battalion. I ended up writing a book about them.
For every friendship that withered from the shootings, another grew tighter or was born. One old school friend I hadn't seen for 15 years, Philip Pictaggi, literally emerged from the crowd at the double funeral and became a great supporter of my work on the battalion book and of me.
Unchartable good out of evil. It seems to be one of the strangest, but truest, lessons of life.
But the parallel reality, and the more obvious one, is that our family, and to some extent our friends, lost too much.
My three boys never knew their grandfather. My mother, successful as she became, grew a tough crust to survive those years and worked herself so hard she had little time for romantic love. My father's sisters, except Jeannette, and his brother became more inward, hardly ever going out, except for Sunday Mass.
For my wife, California became a dark place. I hunkered down in Washington, D.C., and hid myself in bureaucracy.
Imagine a country in hiding. From itself.
"The whole purpose of forgiveness is to become free. Whatever you don't forgive imprisons you." --Marco Pardo, L.A. family counselor
The rind of a decade and a half first cracked with the shootings at Littleton, Colo., and was then splintered with Sept. 11. An inner wall had been hit by the ax of mass violence. It was how I came to be threading my way through the lids of the dead at Holy Cross Cemetery last year.
For all the justifiable outrage over Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, the hue and cry had begun to make me wonder about the nature of revenge. Yes, they need to be brought to justice. But more than half the battle in staving off a recurrence of such heinous acts is to try and understand why they happen in the first place and to do something about the milieu of deprivation, injustice and hatred that brings people to such an abyss.
I finally realized that I couldn't begin to think of forgiveness until I looked closely at the human face that took my loved ones, the history of that face, and understood the depths of despair that mental illness brought. I had to face my sister, in the way I have been given to confront such things: through writing.
At the cemetery, my mother filled a jug of water at the tap by the road and handed it to me. She carried with her two miniature rosebushes--one yellow, one fire-engine red. It took a while to find the graves. "I always get lost," she said, angling from the grotto of St. Joseph down through the gravestones, searching for the pine tree she always used as her marker. When she spotted the tree, she walked straight to the graves, two black stone markers side by side like a table setting for two. She knelt and with a cloth wiped away the markings of snails, dead insects and dirt. Soon the darkness shone below her knotted hand.
I busied myself uprooting the shaggy grass along the edges of the black stones, just as my father used to do for his parents' graves here--as if you could tidy sorrow itself. The crab grass was thicker on Leslie's grave. Mom gave me her scissors, but I said I needed a spade, and she produced one. We placed the two small pots side by side--red for Dad, yellow for Les--and watered this bridge between them before arching our backs to pray.
My father's grave reads: "Aref Joseph Orfalea, Beloved Father and Husband, 1924-1985. Go Get Em." That last was his favorite imperative to all who would truly live, and I was glad to see it. Then I caught the figure on my sister's grave: an angel kneeling, hands clasped, wings drawn up. The prayer etched there startled me: "May you be dancing in the light of God." It was a less profane, more redemptive version of Father Columba's words--"Leslie and Aref are dancing with the angels"--that had struck me back then as impossible, even absurd. My mother had produced a spiritual upgrade, a sign of her instinctive forgiveness, and she had done it very early on.
I hadn't. I had held onto my anger like a stone as black as their graves. But that day at the cemetery these words fell out of me: "I forgive you, sister. Forgive me." The grades. The anger. The judgment. The distance. The dirt. I also said to myself: "Forgive God."
When I stood up facing west, it was colder. A cloud had covered the sun. I looked straight ahead. There, downhill through a hole in a stand of pine past the San Diego Freeway and the town of Inglewood, was the sea. It shone like a melted coin. If I moved slightly left or right of either of their graves, it disappeared.
I pointed this out to Mother, who smiled and said she'd never seen it before, had never looked beyond the graves that way. We both agreed it was a great vantage point, and almost worth 17 years of heartache to discover. She muttered something about poets seeing beauty everyone else misses. A shaft came through the cloud. It touched on the St. Joseph statue and slowly crept across the grass. I thought, of course, that it was leading to us. Then I took my shadow off and walked with Mother back to the road.