Jonathan’s Gift

During the course of one year I lost my only child to violence, my youngest brother to the ravages of illness and a grandmother to time. I survived these tragedies a better, stronger, and more determined person, because I was nurtured by the grace of angels.

The hand of God touched me on the day Polly was born. The first time I held her in my arms I experienced the power of unconditional love. This perfect baby was mine, and I would love and protect her forever. For me, this was the miracle of birth.

I was fortunate that Polly was my companion on this earthly pilgrimage. The strength of her commitment enhanced my understanding of the human condition and provided me with clarity of vision. The depth of her emotion taught me that caring for others could strengthen my own self worth and expand my horizons beyond material values. The purity of her love defined her final act. She faced her worst fears with courage worthy of the most seasoned combat veteran. On shaky knees, as the devil was stealing her into the night, her final words were, “Please don’t hurt my mother and sister.” My greatest teacher was only twelve-years-old.

That night the angels dipped their wings over Petaluma and re-claimed one of their own. In life Polly shared her gifts with those who were touched by her presence, but in death she touched us all. The welfare of a little lost girl surmounted religious, ethnic and political barriers. Millions of eyes were looking for her and millions of hands were clasped in prayer for her safe return. Her presence on earth set a course that millions of years of evolution, thousands of years of legislation and hundreds of years of struggle and strife couldn’t accomplish. She brought us together as one. Those were Polly’s angels.

The nation rose like a phoenix in the wake of Polly’s tragedy and demanded answers. For sixty-five days we navigated the murky waters of despair toward a fate that tantalized us with glimmers of light, and then doused our hopes with uncertain veils of darkness. Finally the prayers of Polly’s angels were answered, but not as we expected. Polly’s unselfish bravery in the face of doom provided the target and her commitment of love gave us the weapon to use in the eternal struggle between good and evil. In bitter irony we discovered that in order to win the war, we sometimes have to lose a battle.

Seven months later I visited my brother Jonathan on his deathbed. He seemed to be recovering and was excited to see me. I held his hand as he told me the following story. “Earlier today Polly visited me. She fluttered above me like a butterfly on tiny wings. I asked her why her wings were so small? She said that it was because she wasn’t ready to go yet. Then Polly said, ‘Get ready Uncle Jonny, because you will be joining me soon and there are a great big pair of wings waiting for you.’ I asked her if I should hurry? Polly said, ‘No, Uncle Jon, you want your wings to get as big as they can, and together we will take a ride that is better than anything at Disneyland.” Two days later Jonathan died. Now he is with Polly on a fantastic voyage.

My grandmother was very old, bed ridden and fragile, so we didn’t tell her about either of these misfortunes. Besides, she was riding horses, and wanted to get to the top of the mountain where Polly was waiting for her and the sun was disappearing over the horizon. She is now with Polly, and the sun has set and I know something that I never realized before. The angel we were seeking was guiding us all along.

Recovery & Redemption

It is said that losing a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. From 2000 to 2006 (the last year for which verifiable data is available) 367,844 children under the age of 19 have died in the United States. The parents of these children can attest to this nightmare. The parents of deceased children spiral into confusion whether the children were victims of violent crime, accident, suicide or infant death. They oftentimes feel betrayed by God and search for reasons to continue living. The challenge is finding the path to recovery and redemption.

Following the kidnap and murder of my daughter Polly, Violet and I joined the fraternity of survivors. We are trying to recover from the sudden, unexpected death of our child, and redeem our lives in the wake of her tragedy. We testify in Congress and State legislatures. We advocate in the media, in town hall meetings and in living rooms. We pursue righteous causes, and offer encouragement, support and hope to other families who are facing life without their children. We fear not, for we have nothing left to fear. For us, rejection is a hurdle, not a brick wall. We are everywhere, because family is universal, and death does not discriminate.

Our children give meaning to their lives, but it is up to us to give meaning to their deaths. We do this by fighting back. Instead of sleepwalking through life, we extricate ourselves from the abyss of grief by communicating the lessons that we have learned in hope of preventing future tragedies. We don‘t drown our grief in the sad downward spiral of substance abuse; we choose to give new purpose to our own shattered lives by ensuring that our children did not die in vain. We reject the unsustainable heartbreak of denial and instead try to ensure that tragedies are not repeated, that we can use our experience to support others similarly afflicted, and that some level of social benefit results from our actions. This is how we ensure that our deceased children are not relegated to data points.

Polly would want our lives to have purpose and value. She would want us to love and laugh and to find a future full of hope and substance. She would encourage us to take action, effect legislation, write poetry and touch lives. The process of burying our daughter exposed our emotions like dangling nerves. But, we survived the great depression. We take time to smell the flowers, listen to the music and appreciate all of the beautiful things that life has to offer.

The following dispatches were written in the spirit of recovery and redemption. We felt no guilt, harbored no malice and are forever grateful for the experience.