Memorials and minefields

There's a family gathering out in Houston this evening to remember and celebrate the life of a man I knew well. He was my first cousin. He died of a violent attack. His son sits in jail awaiting trial on charges of capital murder. Whether and how the son's long history of mental illness will influence the outcome of the case, is not clear.

At his memorial service, the families likely will, and with good reason, avoid any mention of the son, though he is blood relation to many of them. They usually have a slideshow of the deceased's life at these gatherings, and usually the man's children are stars of the show. I don't know if they'll show any pics of father and son back in happier times. It will be a much different affair than the one's I've attended.

Patricide is such an uncommon and unexpected cause of death.

I knew the son, too, from times his family would visit the old home place hereabouts. He and his brother loved coming here when they were little, fishing in the ponds, swimming in my dad's pool, romping in the woods. When the son got married and had a family of his own, he would bring his wife and kids here. This was a little rural paradise for them, too.

I remember with great fondness how the son's two older boys would get so happy and excited when my dad came tootling over to the old house in his Gator. "Uncle James!" they would yell together, and my dad would take them on a jaunt down the dirt road, or around the pond. He was actually a great-great uncle to them, and he was getting quite old and his mind slowing with Alzheimer's, but he cherished the joy they took in his company.

I also saw first hand some of the weird behaviors the son's mental illness was starting to brew. He disappeared from the old house early one cold, drizzly morning. Barefoot, dressed only in shorts and a T-shirt, he ran out of the house, following some unseen phantasm, down the dirt road and across a pasture, into the woods toward Cane Creek.

It had been storming with heavy rains for days. The creek was as deep and rushing as hard as I had ever seen it. A bunch of us gathered to search for him. We feared he tried to cross the creek and got taken downstream in the current. We looked all over, downstream, on the banks... nothing.

A cousin and I went to the other side of the creek and found footprints, we followed the tracks toward the highway. Helicopters were dispatched and found nothing. We drove all around in pickups, stopping at houses and businesses. A woman at a chicken farm said a crazy looking man stopped at the chicken house and asked for directions. We kept driving around the area but could not find him.

Finally, someone brought search dogs. They caught his scent and found him sleeping in the cab of a pickup truck in someone's yard.

At one point, while we were gathered, figuring our next move, a man who lived nearby came up to us. He made some crack about whether we were searching for some escaped convict or drug dealer, as if he should get his gun to help catch him. That pissed me off. I told him the guy we were looking for was a Navy vet and a good man, a husband and father, who was just having some mental problems beyond his control, but he wasn't violent, and if he was going to bring that attitude, he could just get lost.

What did I know?

A lot of members of this close extended family came to help during that episode. Those same people are gathering now with a very different view of things. I never expected patricide. I don't know if any of the others did.

There's a lot I don't know. A story like this is the kind of minefield that drives people to write fiction, because it's the only medium where you at least have a shot at getting to the truth without stepping on mines that makes personal relationships go boom.

The families will manage the memorial with grace and dignity, and no shortage of laughter and love. The old fella was that kind of guy, and his stories will get told tonight.

God bless him, and God bless that family.


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