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.
Murder has its own categories. At first we thought along the lines of a TV show: bullet, impact, death. But we gradually began to realize the extent of my parents' horror. Though anyone would want to banish the images of that night from their mind, it is part of the process that every victim goes through to play and replay the violent scenario. If we slept, our dreams were filled with blood; if we lay awake, our imaginings were filled with cries and supplications. I remember with gratefulness the doctor who wrote me a prescription for Halcion. Even now, a hint of violence on the television and I have to turn it off, but in those days it was reality that assaulted. A conversation at the police station gave me a keyhole into fear. The female detective asked me: Where did the anger come from? My fragile, birdlike mother, a crazed attacker with a long, sharp knife. The death certificate reads #22. DEATH WAS CAUSED BY: Multiple stab wounds. I keep to myself what I read in their autopsies.
My parents' last day on this earth was a Saturday. My father probably rose early because his hobby was going to garage sales. He was not a collector of any sort or someone who was buying for resale, it was just something he would do for fun. He would buy a tool, or an occasional piece of patio furniture, or a piece of costume jewelry for my mother's collection. My father could fix or remake anything, so garage sales were the source of his raw material. Because we had just passed through the holiday season my mother had been sporting a necklace of red seeds glossed to look like beads that my father had purchased at a garage sale.
Because my sister Cindy was questioned under sodium ambutal we were able to know all of the details of the last day. My father barbecued steaks. I think because my mother did the cooking for my father and their six children for years and years, she could hardly stand to cook anymore. Then, too, my mother never was a Julia Child in the kitchen. I always laugh to think that the only two spices my mother commanded were salt and pepper. Never once do I remember a clove of garlic in my parents' house. What I don't know about that last night is if my father made his famous blue cheese dressing, or if they used bottled dressing on their salad. My father guarded his secret recipe like an heirloom; he promised to reveal it to us at the right moment.
I know that my mother took cookies and hot chocolate to my sister Cindy while my sister was watching The Love Boat; that must have been between 9:00 and 10:00. I would like to think that my parents made love that night before they went to sleep, or that they kissed each other good night and cuddled in the spoon position for their last few hours. I would like to think that they knew how much they were loved by their children and grandchildren. But the world is so imperfect. Toward morning my sister heard a struggle outside her door and later heard the metal click of the gate as someone ran away. Later, when we were finally allowed into the house, we saw the stain of bloody footprints leaping from the back porch onto the patio. Later still, I remember my older brother David crying as he scrubbed away those footprints with a cleanser; we were getting the house ready to sell.
After the police left, the horror of telling others began. I called my sister in New Hampshire and told her. Then I realized she was alone in the house. So I called her mother-in-law and asked her to please run down to my sister's house. Then I called my mother's sister. She just kept saying No, no. It's not possible. And that's how it felt. Impossible. Surreal. There was nothing in our knowledge or experience that could lead us to anticipate this -- or accept it. Later that night some friends came over to comfort us. My sister Cindy was making her bed up in the study; she would live with us for the next two years. My older brother David was upstairs in front of the television. The news was on and I heard him scream. We ran upstairs to see our parents being carried from their house on stretchers. They were covered by a sheet, and their house was cordoned off with yellow tape. The next and last time we saw our parents they were in two small gold boxes, their beloved bodies reduced to ashes.
The district attorney initially issued a warrant for the arrest of someone who lived in Orange County. There was not enough evidence to retain this suspect. Later the police told us that it was likely a hot prowler who had just come in for my father's wallet. They suggested that the trademark in the little circles on the bottom of the murderer's tennis shoes linked him to a certain race. Nothing came of this either. Finally we were told that it was a deranged neighbor avenging the maltreatment of my sister; however, there was never any evidence to support that idea. No more warrants were ever issued. It is a terrible thing to not know who committed this crime; it is worse to not know why.
We lived in fear for a long time because neither the motive nor the murderer was ever definitively established. We renamed our house the Bunker. We bought a big dog and we fortified ourselves with weapons and people. My sister Karen left her family in New Hampshire and came to stay with us for more than a month. My younger brother Mel moved his family from Denver into our house. We sat on the front porch and smoked and waited for the police, waited for answers, waited for chaos to subside, for logic and order to return. But the old world was gone. The one where we slept in our beds soundly. The one in which our mother and father lived. I remember having this uncanny sense of more space and more light in the world as if giant old-growth trees had just been cut down. My parents' absence was that tangible.
The funeral for a murdered person can never bring closure, especially if the motive and the murderer remain unknown. In truth, I have no idea what the word closure might mean. What I have observed is that murder does not up the ante of grief. Whether the cause of death is cancer or murder or anything else, there is no measuring cup for loss, and there is no such thing as closure: as it should be. My parents' funeral was a mock funeral. We knew that the police were filming it, looking for a suspect, so it took on an imitative quality from the onset. Inside the chapel, fake birds chirped in their cages while a preacher freely stated that he never knew our parents and then proceeded to say inane things about them. And our parents were nothing, were not our parents, were pictures in a collage, ashes in a gold box. Our goodbye was a mock goodbye. When we left, we had the limousines drive home circuitously. We were afraid to reveal to the murderer where we lived.
My mother was always a great reader. She worked at the public library shelving books from the time we were young, so she was always putting books into our hands. The stories that influenced me most were the stories of families pulling together against terrible adversities: Five Little Peppers and How They Grew or Little Women, or They Loved to Laugh. For a while we were a family united against the world. We were fierce in our support for one another. One person cooked while another person called Victims of Violent Crimes to make a counseling appointment. Someone picked the kids up at school while someone else helped our sister with her SSI forms. But tragedy runs down fault lines like earthquake tremors. Gradually we were shaken apart.
In Phaedo, Plato says, "But the soul which has desire for the body...flutters about it for a long time and about the world." Like many, I experienced the sensation that my parents were still close after their deaths, only a blood pulse away. I felt they inserted themselves into my days; I took the smallest thing, a wasp's nest fallen on my windshield, an unexplained chayote (my father had just learned to cook them) in my grocery cart, as signs. Signs that my parents were near, that they wished to communicate. It made sense. Their bodies ripped so unexpectedly from their souls left them in some intermediate state. The phenomenon was so strong I remember going to the cemetery and asking their marbled wall who the murderer was. The mind comforts the body in generous ways. About a year after their deaths I was given a great dream. In the dream my parents came to my grandmother's old house in Pacific Beach. It was a hot summer day and the interior of the house was cool and dark. My parents were wearing baseball caps and were driving a yellow Volkswagen bus. They told me they had come to say good-bye; they were off to travel the universe.
I do not believe we are given trials to learn from or to learn to appreciate what we have by comparing it with what we have lost. I refuse this kind of God or cosmic logic. I have worried about how to write about this because such great loss should yield knowledge, yet I believe in the end nothing can be learned. When we witness another's tragedy we can only empathize with their grief and rejoice that it was not us. We are reminded that the most improbable, unimaginable event may happen to us or our loved ones at any moment. Are they driving on the freeway: then worry; are they coughing too much: then worry; are they sleeping quietly in their beds on a chilly January night: then we must pray to whatever powers we respect. After that, all we can do is what we should be doing anyway -- try to love the ones we love better and drag our feet on the ground like we did when we were little kids on the merry-go-round -- linger in each given moment.