Saturday morning, one of those few perfect days in late spring – clear skies, temperatures in the mid 70’s and no humidity. Wayne, my fiancé, went out to run a couple of errands and on the spur of the moment decided to take Koko, our dog, with him. With the front door open as an invitation to the sunlight I headed back to my little home office to take care of a few things before they returned.
Sitting with my back to the door, I was struck by the realization that Koko wasn’t there to let me know of anyone approaching the house. The thought crossed my mind that horror movies have it all wrong. My script would make this the time for the bogey man to arrive – no one expects anything bad to happen when the sun is shining. I chastised myself for having read too many murder mysteries, but I went and closed the front door anyway.
As soon as Wayne returned from his errands I went out to our back deck where dozens of annuals were waiting to be planted. Fortunately Wayne had picked up more potting soil while he was out. There were way more plants than would fit in my container gardens, but the spiky dracaena, trailing petunias and sweet potato vine, mounding vinca. and lacy dusty miller in shades of blue, purple and silver had been just too hard to resist. I’d pot up whatever couldn’t be worked into the large containers and place them in groupings around the deck. I was in my element with the warm soil in my hands, bright sunshine illuminating the plants, birdsong the only sound and a gentle breeze stirring the tips of the flowers – God, there was absolutely nothing that could make that moment more perfect.
Wayne slid open the patio door to tell me there was a police officer waiting to see me. What? Why? Puzzled, I wiped the potting soil from my hands as I entered the house and went to where the officer stood by the front door. He asked me to verify my name and then suggested I have a seat. What? Why?
As I slowly lowered myself to the edge of the sofa, the faintest trickle of fear found its way into my consciousness. I couldn’t imagine why there was a police officer standing in the doorway of my home. I looked between him and Wayne as I began to feel a need to plead. For what I didn’t know, possibly just for the officer to admit he’d come to the wrong house and I could go back outside – back to my perfect day.
He then asked me if I was the mother of David Charles Watson. My firstborn, my charming, talented, troubled son who’d spent most of his adult life in and out of jail and I’d unfortunately been estranged from, the young man who’d been called Charley from the moment we met. I told him I was and silently wondered why it was necessary for a police officer to come to my door to tell me my son was in jail again.
He began, “I’m sorry…”
I cried out for Wayne. I needed him to do something, anything, just make it stop. He couldn’t – perfect days do not guarantee that your world apart won’t be torn apart.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, your son was the victim of a homicide. Here’s the investigator’s name and number – you can call him for more information.”
And with that he left. Left me in shock, left me crying uncontrollably, left me mourning not just the death of my son, but that we had not reconciled and now there would never be an opportunity to do so. He left me in a sunless void.
I tried calling the investigator once I felt I could string a few words together without falling apart, but he was out – it was a Saturday afternoon and there wasn’t a lot going on in Winchester, VA. My son’s murder had been the first homicide in the city in 5 years. It wouldn’t be long before the local newspaper reduced his death to a statistic. One of the other detectives was able to give me a little information – there had been a fight and the man who’d rented a room to my son had shot him. There wasn’t much else he could or would tell me – I’d have to wait until Monday to learn anything more.
I don’t remember Sunday at all. I think I talked with my brother in Georgia, but I can’t swear to it – that could have been Saturday night. I did not go back out on the deck to finish the planting. Ever. The deck and the annuals were now tied to the memory of receiving the news and I just couldn’t make myself go back out there. Irrational or not, I felt fear just opening the sliding glass door to let Koko in or out. I left the plants to fend for themselves while waiting for Wayne to finish potting them up.
Monday morning Wayne and I made the first of what would be many 160 mile round trips to Winchester from Springfield. It truly is a beautiful ride through the mountains, but on that day I was blind to the beauty and the peace. All I saw was badness – behind each tree, peering from the windows of the houses we passed and lurking in every shadow. I was lost in thought and memories of Charley as a child. Wayne and I barely spoke – we’d already gone over what we knew – and now we were going to the police station to talk with the detective.
I’m not sure what I expected when we arrived at the station, but it wasn’t the calm and quiet environment we walked into. We asked for the detective at the front desk and discovered Winchester is a big city with a small town attitude. It seemed that everyone just called him Andy. We were quickly escorted to a small interior conference room lit with fluorescents that buzzed and flickered on the same wavelength as my jangled nerves. It was here that the detective – Andy – introduced himself. Once we were seated, a small white Dixie cup filled with water and a box of tissues were placed in front of me. Andy said how sorry he was and began to tell us what he knew, based on the perpetrator’s confession, about the night my son died.
That evening Charley and his best friend, Joel, were drunk and sparring in the backyard while screaming curses at each other, a regular occurrence for them. Mark, went out yelled, “God damn it! You need to stop this shit, I’m sick of it. And Charley, I’m sick of you not paying your rent. You need to pack your shit and get the hell out. Now!”
“Fuck that shit! You can’t make me!”
Mark pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called the police to request that someone come and remove ‘the leech’ from the property.
The dispatcher could hear Charley and Joel yelling in the background and asked Mark if there was a gun in the house. Mark laughed and said, “Yes, but Charley won’t be the one using it.”
Walking back into the house as he completed the call, he climbed the stairs into his . Charley followed him in, still arguing about not wanting to move out. Mark walked around to the far side of his bed. Reaching underneath he pulled out a gun case. Placing it on the bed he opened it, removed a gun, checked to make sure it was loaded, turned around and pointed it at Charley.
Charley threw up his hands and said, “What, you’re gonna shoot me now?”
The bullet hit him in the center of his chest. Mark then walked over to where he’d crumpled to the floor, looked down and said, “Look what you made me do, you stupid motherfucker.”
The police officers dispatched to the house by the phone call were on the front porch, debating whether or not to go in when they heard the gunshot. They found Mark upstairs with the gun still in his hand. He admitted to the shooting and went quietly downstairs to be placed in the back of a cruiser. Charley was rushed to the hospital and my firstborn child was pronounced dead on arrival at 7:12 pm. He was 26.
Tears streamed down my face as I thought, two minutes? One? If the police had entered the house just one minute sooner would this story have had a different ending? Realizing that Andy was still speaking, I again focused on him as he said that Charley’s friends had begun taking up a collection for a memorial service. Everyone in town had known him. When he wasn’t in jail, he’d be set up on a sidewalk downtown drawing portraits of people or airbrushing t-shirts. When I stated that I should meet some of his friends, Andy said one of them was downstairs and he’d go get him.
When he returned a few minutes later, he was preceded by a young man who appeared to be in his early 20’s. He walked right up, wrapped his arms around me and said, “I’m Corey and I’m so sorry for your loss. We’re all doing everything we can to help the baby.”
“Baby? What baby?”
“Oh,” he said, “you didn’t know?”
No, I didn’t. I’d believed there’d be enough time to for Charley and I to reconcile our differences. Now my son was gone and I’d become a grandmother. Charley had left behind a 4 ½ month old baby girl named Hannah. Corey took out his phone and called Stephanie, the baby’s mother and asked her to meet us at the funeral home with Hannah so she could meet her Grandma.
Corey offered to ride with us to show us the way. He then suggested we stop by the house where Charley had lived and died. Within just a few minutes we pulled up in front of an old red brick house that appeared to have been built in the 1920s. The covered front porch that spanned the width of the house had once been white, but the paint had long since peeled and left it a dingy gray. The overgrown, weed-filled front yard looked as sad as I felt. We walked through the unlocked front door and Corey led us up the stairs to what appeared to be more of an alcove than a room.
It had a window on the far side, two doorways – one on either end – that opened on to the hall, and just enough room for a single bed and a small chest of drawers. Dozens of pieces of paper – most of them crumpled into little balls, a tennis shoe, a small pile of clothing were all strewn around the hardwood floor and the unmade bed. Corey told us that some of Charley’s friends had helped themselves most of his drawings and the few items with any monetary value, including his air brush.
Standing in the middle of the room I tried to get a sense of my son, but I couldn’t get past the protective bubble I’d encased myself in. I felt rushed and compelled to do something, to keep moving, but mostly to block the pain. I wish now that I’d asked to be left alone to just sit in that space for a while. Instead I gathered what was left of him – a few drawing pads that contained several sketches, a set of paint sticks, some acrylic paints, a handful of brushes and a plastic votive candle holder in the shape of a cross and then it was time to go. I looked over my shoulder as we reached the staircase. I desperately wanted some sort of a sign, a glimpse, a whisper … but he wasn’t there.
Despite the life changing news about the baby I was crying again. Wayne reached for my hand and squeezed it periodically throughout the short, somber drive to the funeral home. Corey spoke only to give directions. As we pulled into the parking lot he pointed to a woman standing next to a parked vehicle and said, “That’s her, that’s Stephanie.” Wayne pulled into a spot near her as I waited impatiently for the car to come to a complete stop.
And there in the parking lot of Oomph’s Funeral home, on another beautiful day, I met my granddaughter and her mother for the first time. My initial impression of Stephanie was that she was quite a bit shorter than me and had long blond hair. I didn’t register more than that – my focus was on the baby she was holding.
With my eyes on Hannah I said, all in one breath, “Hello it’s nice to meet you can I hold her?”
Without hesitation she placed my granddaughter in my arms.
For the first time since I’d received the news, I felt almost whole again. I held the baby throughout the entire meeting with the funeral director. I don’t remember many details of that afternoon, but I vividly recall the feeling of Hannah, my son’s daughter, on my lap. I felt overcome with a feeling of peace. It was the first time I’d really stopped crying since that police officer had walked out of my house. It’s been 13 years now and that little girl stills owns a very large piece of my heart.