Hard Story

Trying To Make Sense
By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Part 1: Aftermath

It was before I could make sense so I didn’t write about it. I wasn’t ready. Write to make sense, I knew. Still, I didn’t write about it.
Since the tragedy in Tucson there is much talk about heroes, shifting from the tragedies to stories of heroism at the site of the killing. I am wondering if this is a media-inspired lightening for the audience, because we want to depart from these stories with a residue that doesn’t over-burden. I so distrust the public place of ideas these days.

There was also a shadow story of the tragedy in Tucson, the family members of some of the victims meeting or not meeting with the family members of the alleged perpetrator, it brought up so much for me.

I know a heroic story that emerged out of tragedy. I wasn’t ready to tell it as it was happening. It is a well known story in my town, was in the newspapers and on TV, and I can tell some of the story but not all of the story in respect to the participants themselves. It was too difficult a story to tell until it became The Story. So maybe it’s time to tell it now.

A friend of mine was killed in my town trying to break up a petty robbery at a coffee shop. He was run over by a car driven by the thief.

The deceased’s brother is an even closer friend of mine. I was asked to do the funeral though no one in this story is Jewish. It was a horrible story. The kid who was responsible for the death was twenty years old and a lost boy, it was a stupid senseless tragedy.
We sat at the hospital for the few days my friend’s brother held on, then he passed. We buried him, large funeral, big Church. He had many, many friends.

My friend, his brother, decided to memorialize his brother best at the site of the killing, a coffee shop. We planned an informal gathering at the coffee shop. My friend planted a tree in memory of his brother at the very site where his brother was killed.
The day of the planting ceremony, my friend attended the sentencing for the boy who was convicted of the crime of involuntary manslaughter and several other crimes. The boy’s family also attended and my friend and the boy’s father entered into conversation. My friend invited the father to the ceremony. He came with his small family from a large city southeast of us.

There we were together, relatives and friends of victim and relatives of victimizer. It was hard, there were so many complex feelings flying about, but my friend, the brother of the deceased, felt this was the right thing to do. I don’t think it was a particularly measured response by him. They walked out of Court together and my friend invited the father of the victimizer to the memorial that day. It just felt right.

It’s been several years now and the story has deepened. When the boy who drove the car was released from jail, my friend, brother of the deceased, asked me if I would accompany him in a meeting with the boy and his father before they returned to their town. Again, my friend felt it was the right thing to do, not only to give this kid another chance at life through an acknowledgment of mistakes done with devastating irreversible consequences, but the necessity for my friend himself to move beyond recrimination and vengeance as if to say: in this story, let there be no more hurt.

We met in a lobby of a hotel. Again, my feelings were complex but I felt as if this wasn’t my story, it was my friend’s story — and his family, and the perpetrator and his family — and the deceased. The meeting was hard, but we all talked honestly, not avoiding anything, never minimizing, there was talk and tears and a good deal of silence. It wasn’t simple and it wasn’t comfortable, it was just true.

I saw my friend, in the ruins of his mourning over his brother, lift himself out of his sadness and claim life not only for himself but for the victimizer/kid and his family sitting across from him. He gave this kid another chance at life. He also moved through the shreds of his own grief and proclaimed (to himself mostly) I am going to live honorably and beyond my former borders, in memory of my brother. I am going to rise up and out of this mess, and make not-mess.

I had become part of the story, too, I suppose, because being present at these events of forgiveness and heroism pushed me beyond my own uncertainty. I arrived at a new place, brought there somewhat reluctantly by the heroic forgiving nature of my friend who insists on living his life from a higher place than events had placed him.

Every time I tell this story, I thank him for including me.