San Diego — It was calm because it was Sunday morning. My son and daughter, 19 and 20, were upstairs in their beds. My husband and I were drinking coffee and reading. He was reading the San Diego Union; I don’t remember what book I was reading, but I remember the detective crooking his neck to see the title after I let him and his partner into the house.
No one knows the particular way tragedy will enter their door. Like a student in a classroom, we hope if we look busy that tragedy will not call on us. When I first saw them at the door, I thought they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were dressed in a formal civilian manner, and they were dressed in black. The woman detective was tall and thin with red hair. The man was younger but heavier. Later on I remember him wearing cowboy boots, but I can’t remember if he was wearing them that day. The woman showed me a badge at her waist and asked me if they could come in, said they wanted to talk to me about my sister Cindy. Cindy is my handicapped sister who lived at home with my parents at that time. I let them in, and the four of us moved to the round oak table in the dining room — I remember thinking, What possible kind of trouble could Cindy be in?
It was a warm day outside even though it was January. January 10, 1988. I was glad that it was clear and sunny because we had planned a farewell picnic at the Chula Vista Bay that afternoon. We had ten pounds of carne asada marinating in the refrigerator. The party was for my son, who was moving up north to go to college. Less than 24 hours earlier I had spoken with my mother on the phone. I had told her how sad I was that my son was moving away, how much I was going to miss him. She tried to comfort me, though she was going to miss him too; he was her first grandchild. In the ’60s there was a story about spiders that were given acid. The spiders forgot the thing most inherent in their being; after they were given LSD, instead of orderly patterns they wove wild, asymmetrical webs. Tragedy has a similar effect on you. Because of what the police were about to reveal to us, my son never moved up north. Our lives had lost their pattern.
After we sat down at the table, the detectives told me that my mother and my father, Melvin and Katherine Heine, were dead. At first they didn’t say any more; no doubt we too were under investigation. I don’t remember feeling sadness at that point, just confusion. The mind confronted with incomprehensible facts makes incomprehensible leaps. I asked if my parents had killed themselves. Why do you think that? they wanted to know. The stupid thought I had then was that because my parents had both been recovering alcoholics but had recently had a few drinks, they had somehow succumbed to depression.
Then they told my husband and me that my parents had been murdered. I am made of a denser material than my husband; it takes me a longer time to fully realize things. He screamed, It’s not possible. I remember the woman detective telling us we were going to have to be strong. Then the first wave of reaction came to me; I rolled like a pill bug on the couch and cried. It matters to me that I was wearing the long magenta sweatshirt my father had just given me for Christmas. I favored that sweatshirt for almost a year after their deaths. Now I have put it away so that it won’t wear out, so that I will always have it. Later, I remember asking the detectives if either of them had a cigarette, but they didn’t smoke. For me, and for my extended family, it was the beginning of a smoke-in — sin fin.
How can any of us imagine murder? It is a separate category. A thing that happens to other people. Car accidents happen, cancer creates itself inside a body; regrettably, many of us have experienced these. But murder? It’s a fate linked to wrongdoing, or politics, or Hollywood, or misfortune at such a great scale that it is outside our ability to conceive. When we lock our doors at night we may feel fright, but it is vastly different from the horror and chaos of a murderer inside our houses. My parents were two elderly retired people living a quiet life on a nondescript residential street; how could this tragedy open their door?
The day-to-day reality of my parents’ lives was placid. My father was doing some work consulting after retiring from Rohr Aircraft. My mother worked part-time at the National City Library shelving books. Both of them were homebodies, though my father had more of an appetite for going and doing than my mother. My mother’s idea of a good time was reading. She loved newspapers and had a stack going by the side of the couch, with articles marked that she intended to clip. From the couch she kept tabs on the world. Ironically, after newspapers she loved murder mysteries. Agatha Christie and Tony Hillerman kept company with her clippings of current events. What I remember most about my mother is that she was afraid of everything. If I had to compare her to something, it would be a nervous sparrow; she was a small woman with brown hair, and her anxious gestures gave away her fear of the world. She was afraid of driving, and she was afraid of flying. After her last trip to New Hampshire to visit her grandchildren, she confided in me she was never going to travel again. As far back as my mind can go, she relied on my father’s tall, strong body and frank way of speaking to mediate the world for her. One of the things I find most painful to imagine is my father battling to save my mother or my mother seeing my father slashed and stabbed; they loved one another so.