Notes from the road

This year in July, I find myself staring up at the night sky in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I don’t know how it happens, but every year for “State of the Re:Union,” during July or August for the past four years I’ve been in the Southwest, usually outside of Tucson, bordering the Sonoran desert. Something keeps bringing me back. Maybe it’s the landscape; I love the ocean, but there is certain poetry in the desert that sings to me. Maybe it’s the people; the folks I’ve encountered here seem to stay with me long after I’ve left. Or maybe it’s the heartbreak. The stories I’ve worked on in this part of the country have always been hard: Migrants dying in the desert, ranchers being killed by drug dealers, and communities trying to pick up the pieces. I’m not saying the Southwest is a tragic place, but some of that stories I’ve covered here have been.

This trip is no different. My producer, Delaney Hall, and I interview a family whose child was murdered in their backyard. We sit in their home surrounded by pictures of their children, including the deceased. The mother offers us water and the father’s handshake is firm, but he has a tenderness in his eyes.

The conversation starts off with pleasantries, but there’s a slight uneasiness to the whole affair. As Delaney cuts on her recorder, a collective breath is taken and we dive in. I know they had told their story before, probably many times, but hearing it from them it feels like they are exploring their pain for the first time. Together, we map the landmarks of a tragedy that has completely shifted the axis of their world. Their son had schizophrenia, which may, or may not, have played a part in his murder. The family had done everything in their power to keep their child safe, but in the end it was all for naught. As they speak I keep glancing into the backyard. I don’t know what I expect to see, a monument to his passing? His ghost? Police tape? I don’t know. But all I can see is a average backyard, small trees and a porch. It’s all very normal, and yet it isn’t.

As we sit in their house, listening to their story I can feel this anger percolating inside of me. I ask them questions to clarify what happened – even though it’s a pretty simple story, I’m having a hard time grasping it. All the while bigger questions that I know they can’t answer keep coming to mind: What is it about humanity, that we are able to be so generous and kind but also so callous and cruel? The more impossible the questions the angrier I become. I’ve felt this way before during interviews, a pulsating tension deep in my gut, but never like this. Violence: I want to strike the perpetrators of the crime like they’d struck this young man. Barely in his twenties, so much to live for, and yet he’s dead, and I’m here talking to his grieving parents, and the killers are still loose. The more they talk the more it pumps through my body, mixing with my blood stream. Anger, kill, hatred, and yet his parents are so full of grace; so present in the love they had for their son, that it shames me. They have walked through the valley and come out on the other side, who am I to hold this anger? But it’s there and it stays through the entire interview.

As the interview wraps up, I put my hand on the father’s hand. And I tell him I will hold his son’s story. That I will tell it, respect it, and remember him, the best I can. In that moment the exchange happens: The father, this man who has been through – who is still going through – pain that I have only seen the edges of, takes my anger and lets it go, and I take the story of his son, and hold it. In that exchange, as the anger leaves my body, I understand humanity.

We are all flawed vessels. Every one of us. And those flaws are exactly what gives us the capacity for great love and tragedy. I knew it in that moment, but today it’s lost to me. But that’s life right? We are always relearning, and remembering the truth we find in the cracks… at least it is for me.

This night, the couple walk us out of their house. Stand on their lawn, and watch us leave. For the rest of my life, I will remember looking out the rear view mirror and seeing this mother and father watching me drive away with the most precious thing in their lives, the memory of their son.

Article written by Al Letson

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