When the phone rang at 5:30 a.m., I already was in the shower.
My husband gently tapped before entering.
“It’s the phone.” He halted. “It’s your Mom and Dad.”
In that split second, I knew something was amiss.
“What is it?” I asked knowing it couldn’t be good.
“It’s John,” my husband said. “He’s been shot.”
John: my big brother; protector; antagonizer; friend.
I turned off the water.
“Is he OK?”
“No,” he replied as I raced by him, wrapping a large, fluffy bath sheet around my dripping body. When I got to the phone my dad, a self-made, proud, successful man was there alone, crying. My mom put down the extension to answer the door. This was the first time in my 32 years I ever heard my very independent, very Italian father cry. It wouldn’t be the last.
“Diana, Johnny’s dead,” my dad sobbed, using my brother’s boyhood name although he was nearing his 40th birthday. John wouldn’t make it to his 40th birthday.
The rest of the phone call was a blur. I was too numb to cry. In the ensuing hours before my husband, 18-month-old daughter, and I made the 5-hour drive to my only brother’s home, I functioned robotically. I called in-laws, cancelled a hair appointment, talked to my sisters.
When we arrived in my brother’s city, my parents and I met with the homicide detective, whose tenderness and compassion I remember over 22 years later. John was shot 9 times. Harry, who admitted to the killing in the presence of 5 police officers, put a gun to his heart and attempted his own demise but failed. He was in the hospital in critical condition. He was John’s best friend and former business partner.
During the initial ordeal, I was numb, very talkative and busy, a pillar of strength. At least that’s how it appeared to me on the inside. You will need to talk to others about my outsides.
It finally hit home when I walked into the funeral home and saw my brother lying in a casket. I looked briefly and had to avert my eyes. It was a sight I couldn’t bear. He didn’t look emaciated and drawn as someone in a casket should look. He looked vibrant, healthy, robust. John, for heaven’s sake, get out of there! You’re scaring me! I burst into tears.
Two days later, I eulogized my brother. It was something I wanted and needed to do. I talked about fond childhood memories. He was seven years old when I was born, so he just always was there. I’m the third of four children, sandwiched between two sisters. He would sometimes pick on me or tease me, but always was there to protect me if any of the neighborhood children were to do the same. From a very young age, Johnny was intrigued by electronics. When he was in eighth grade, he brought a battery to school and wired it to a flashlight lamp that would turn on when he opened his top-hinged desk. It was no surprise to anyone in the family that he became an accomplished electrician, wiring new homes and apartments with speed and efficiency.
In one of his more creative moments, Johnny decided to send a friend a post card with a hand-drawn stamp. Although he copied the stamp with great detail, of course it didn’t pass muster. Fortunately, the local mailman intercepted the attempted delivery. This did not save my brother from parental discipline, though I know they quietly chuckled and shook their heads about the incident for a long time afterward.
And now it was my brother John who lay in that casket as I recited Longfellow’s Psalm of Life as a conclusion to my tribute to him. I’ll never forget the way he looked; or the way my mother looked two months later when we scattered his ashes from a Montana mountaintop. Over seven years from that day, Harry would walk away a free man.
If the end of those days were the end of my story, it would be easy. But anyone who’s lost a loved one, especially to violence, knows that recovery is not a short-lived process.
One thing I had in my favor was my relationship with my brother: not always perfect, but we both knew we loved each other. I also held tightly to the knowledge that John wouldn’t want me to ruin my life because of the way he left his. Nobody exits this planet alive, so we must do the best we can.
A tool that I used as an aid to overcoming this unbearable grief was my faith in God. Although I do not practice the religion of my youth, I have studied many and found truth in all, which I used to my benefit.
Third, I followed some early advice. I allowed myself to feel all of my feelings: anger, hatred, revenge, sorrow, pity, disgust, grief, regret, resentment and others. However, I did not wallow in them; not for long, anyway. I let them be and then let them pass.
Fourth, I used the services of a professional counselor. I did not seek him initially for my grief, yet all of my experiences came into those sessions with me. My grief helped shape both the things inside me I wanted to keep and wanted to release. A detached but compassionate counselor can go a long way in helping overcome the most difficult of obstacles. Grief support groups offer similar benefit.
Many years have passed and I sometimes have to revisit those feelings. I do not treat them as evil robbers at my threshold. Instead, I treat them as necessary assistants, showing me where I need to work next.
Living a decent, joyous life despite John’s murder is the best tribute I can give my brother. He wouldn’t want anything less.