San Diego Union, June 3, 1967: Evidence at the scene caused the police to throw a curtain of secrecy around the case. And within an hour, Lt. Ed Stevens of the police homicide squad was rushed to the scene—an unusual procedure in cases where death is by accident.
The curtain that the police threw was not just around the case, it was around our house, and around all of us who lived in it. Each of us was taken aside and privately interviewed about the death of the little boy that the paper described as the “blue-eyed, brown-haired” first grader whose mourning father, Richard Sr. had been quoted as saying, “We loved him very much.”
I had been there when they found his naked, scratched body slumped on top of his damp clothes in an old latch-handled refrigerator in our back yard, so had Mama. Still stunned and reeling from what we had seen, we had been rushed into our house as the first police act of “throwing a curtain of secrecy” around the case.
Immediately each of us were grilled privately about our whereabouts on the tragic afternoon of June 2nd— even Mama who still had been at work when Ricky took his last gasping breaths. And even 6 year-old Mary, his sometime playmate, was interviewed alone, without Mama or Daddy, my 10th grade sister Melody, or me present. It was a searing experience for my “baby sister” and her memory of it has never become fuzzy or faded or less intense over the span of more than four decades.
She remembers that the police were very kind to her, but the fact that she had been “abandoned” by her family and was all by herself as they questioned her cut very deeply. She clearly remembers telling her interrogators that from inside her room that had a window to the back yard, she heard Ricky call repeatedly. She remembers that she kept telling him she was changing her school clothes and would be there shortly. She remembers going to the yard and not finding him anywhere and then going with me to the bank.
But of everything she remembers about that time, the most profound experience was the sudden recognition that there was “someone” standing beside her with his arm around her offering her the comfort and assurance that she was not alone. She believed without a doubt (and still does) that it was Jesus wrapping her in the eternal embrace of God’s steadfast love and mercy. It was saving grace to her in the bleak darkness of her short life.
I did not know about her experience of divine presence until several years ago. Ricky’s death and the great sorrow and shame for our family were not things we talked about or ever worked through to a sense of healing. Instead, we did what we always did by silently shoveling it onto the family mountain of sorrow and shame: Daddy’s alcoholism and violence; the continuous displacement we had experienced even before Daddy became a U.S. Navy Chaplain; the financial chaos of Daddy’s get-rich-quick schemes gone to pot; the inability of Mama to seek safety or get help for herself or her four girls from the six-foot-four man she had spent 26 years trying to change.
My 20 year-old sister, Becky, had already left the family. She had married two years before and remained in Georgia with her husband and daughter. But she was the first of the “Vernon Girls” to learn how to cover up shame and sorrow with a thin patina of normalcy and respectability. We all learned it well for Daddy was a minister who had preached love, peace, and forgiveness since he had felt a “call” to pastor a church at 19 years of age.
Mama met Al Vernon at the Christian college they both attended in Eugene, Oregon. She went there because she had been determined to marry a minister; she thought it would ensure that her childhood family nightmare of alcoholism and poverty would be a thing of the past. She found out about his violent behavior three weeks after she married him in 1943, but she felt she could not go back to her parents. (Indeed, in 1962, when she finally mustered enough courage to take her four girls to Seattle and seek help from her mother, my grandmother told her, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”)
The violence of their marriage stayed in the background of their children’s lives until Daddy joined the Navy in Great Lakes, Illinois to try to make a living that the small churches he pastored could not provide. Suddenly he was exposed to alcohol and to the military expectations of cocktail parties and “schmoozing” at the Officers’ Club. But, it wasn’t until after he returned from spending a tour of duty in “Gitmo” during the Cuban Missile Crisis that I realized Daddy's strange behavior was because he was drunk.
We were living in Quonset Point, Rhode Island when we began to know, when I first began to know, the terrors of an alcoholic parent with an “enabling” spouse: violent, drunken rages (even while driving with us in the back seat); midnight awakenings by slamming doors, thudding walls, broken cutlery; black eyes and battered spirits.
By the time I was 12, I began to join in the fray, with the intention of keeping Daddy from killing Mama (which, in fact I did a time or two. By then, I was taller than her 5 feet 5 inches and was younger and stronger. My other sisters never felt the need to join us because I represented us all. They were the silent watchers. Daddy didn’t mind having two targets and quickly found reasons to vent his rage on me. And by the time I was 13, and we were living in Beaufort, South Carolina, I found reasons to provoke him.
My therapist says it is normal in families like mine: feeling the build-up of an explosion, I provoked him to get the inevitable blow up over a lot more quickly. It saved hours of looming agony. Years later, Daddy and I talked a little (very little) about those epic battles. That’s when I learned that he actually had no memory of them—for him they were “black outs.” The brain cells destroyed from the alcohol kept him totally unaware of what he did. And the dysfunction of our family kept us from telling him when he was sober what he did when he was drunk. We also acted “normal” the next day—a situation for which the word “irony” was coined.
Daddy eventually did stop drinking (he met his third wife in an AA meeting), but he never did the painful job of truly-and-ceaselessly working the 12 Steps, so his making amends came in the form of bringing pies and jellies to our family reunions we had for several years before he died. So, he never did the “fearless inventory” or the “making amends” that is essential for true recovery. Consequently, he never actually apologized to me and I never had the opportunity to forgive him while he was alive. Confession was a step he could preach but not enact.
I had heard about confession every Sunday of my life. I had heard about “divine presence” and “saving grace,” and I had prayed for it unceasingly, but it was to little Mary who had never known a life without violence and fear—it was to my sweet little Mary, that God came the day that Ricky died within her hearing and reassured her with a sense of comfort and love that still abides within her today.
For me, the body-blow of the tragedy and the intense investigation into our family life, was truly a plunge into the shadow of the valley of death. Mary had been the last one to hear little Ricky. I had been the last one to see him alive. He had flitted in and out of my sight that day like a mosquito, and the guilt and the shame of my “responsibility” were unbearable. I really was too tired and worn-down to try to bear it, so I decided to end it all.
Will you pray with me?
O Abiding Love,
Our quest as human beings is to find meaning and redemption in the face of tragedy and evil. We believe that you assume responsibility for the world as it is, but even as we proclaim You to be the Source and Power of all things--we question why You would allow the world and all its creatures to suffer in agonizing and unimaginable ways. Even as we proclaim You to exist as Eternal Steadfast Love and Mercy--we dare to wrestle with You. We wrestle and wrestle, and come away limping. It is not for us to know, only to accept that we are helpless and that You are our only hope.
Accept as prayer all broken hearts and trampled spirits--Love, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer all drowning doubt and engulfing anger--Grace, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer all groaning grief and stony thoughts--Peace, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer, O Blessing Goodness. . .
. . .our rooted despair and feeble faith
. . .our splintered minds and blurry vision
. . .our limping humility and tethered patience
I pray today for Ricky's family--his parents and sisters and extended family who lost their dear loved one in such a tragic way. And I pray for all of those persons and families who are now wrestling with You in the abyss of wrenching loss and despair. Give them the spiritual eyes to see that there is “someone” standing beside them and grant them the comfort and assurance that they are not alone. In their bleak darkness, be their light and saving grace, and bring them--and us all--to that promised time when we shall know as we are known.
In Your holy name I pray. Amen