When the worst thing happens

The worst thing I can imagine happened to a friend of mine this week. I started writing this the morning I found out (Wednesday, December 12, at 4:30 am). Then I had to put it aside to finish up my semester here at MIU, but now I am picking it up again. So it’s a little rough and uneven, but honest. I have the mother’s permission to write this, but I decided not to use their names, for privacy. This is my personal reaction, nothing more, so please take it in that light. Please be aware that the post discusses the death of a child and mentions suicide.

And hug your loved ones if you can. Be close to them in your heart if they are far away. Let them know you love them. Because you never know what will happen.


I google his name, and this comes up: “Police: Florida man killed 3-year-old daughter, then himself.” “Father kills 3-year-old daughter in apparent murder-suicide.” Then, nonsensically, “Breaking news: Father accused of killing daughter then himself.” How can you accuse someone who is not there to hear the accusation? my shock-addled brain wonders. It’s such a legalistic term applied to such a devastating event; I can’t make sense of it.

 I google the mother’s name, and it’s still pre-death reality; professional and personal sites only. No horrific tragedy. Two time streams, but only one of them contains death. The other is the one where she can still hold her girl, hear her voice, see her face, feel her breath, call her name. The one I’d rather be living in right now. But it’s only a matter of time before her name will be in the stories too, and they will invade this space as well. The streams will merge, and there will be only one. One where this horrible thing has happened.

I read the stories, and I read her Facebook post asking for people to send her memories and pictures of her little girl, her precious chickpea, who has been taken from her in the cruelest way by someone who that little girl should have been able to trust, her own father. My face is wet. I am sobbing. I can’t take it in. I read them over and over again.

I have the same reaction I have always had when I learn about a child’s murder. How could someone? How could they? As a parent, I’ve joked with other parents about wanting to kill our kids. I don’t think I will ever make that joke again. Anyway, I haven’t made it in a very long time. Maybe not since my kid was…three…

Three is such an amazing age. All ages are, but three is when a child is really starting to understand so much more about their world and has words to express it. To share their ideas and thoughts and reactions with other people. I remember when Emma was three vividly. We moved to Pittsburgh (and back) that year, so I remember three.

I never met this particular three-year-old, but I have seen plenty of pictures. Plenty of stories about a curious, happy child full of laughter and love, with a mother who so clearly adored her and cared for her. They are a stunning pair in those pictures, so buoyant and loving.

How could someone? It’s so hard to fathom. I realize I missed so much of my friend’s life, which happens, because people move around, they move away. I had had the idea of visiting them with my own child, introducing the children, one so much older than the other, but seeing the two of them together. I always had this idea that we should do that someday. Now, someday is gone. It’s just gone, like that, in the flash of a father’s hands.

I realize how much I have missed; I knew they were splitting up, and that she was having trouble with him. I suspected he was abusive from what I knew about him, from what he seemed capable of.

I never thought he was capable of this. How do you take a child away from her mother? It’s an act of ultimate spite, of hatred, of…desperation? Anguish? Despair? Sickness? Certainly sickness. He was struggling, I guess, like many of us are. But people can be struggling, abusive, desperate, despairing, and they don’t kill their own child. I will never understand it. It’s too horrific.

And what about her? The Mother, as the court documents label her. How will she wake up in the morning, day after day after day, without hearing that laughter, seeing that grin, holding that little body in her arms? I re-read her Facebook posts from the last few weeks. November 22, the girl’s birthday and Thanksgiving, brings on renewed ragged sobbing. A smiling, glowing woman on a swing, her arm wrapped around the child snuggled against her. “My heart sings. My three-year-old chickpea.” And in the comments, responding to the happy birthdays, “Thank you! I can hardly believe it. So so so so happy to be her mama.”

“So so so so happy to be her mama.” I know that feeling so well. We are united in motherhood, in love for a single child, that one person we will see through life and all it brings our way. Until this. This horrible moment, when suddenly you learn the worst thing possible has happened. When you know you will be carrying her forward through life in your mind and heart, but not in your arms. Never again in your arms.

I can’t imagine what she is feeling. But I have thought many times of what it would be like to lose Emma or have her taken from me, and I can imagine nothing worse.

And all of this before 6:30 in the morning on a Wednesday.

I have to wake my daughter up and get her off to school. Every morning, I walk her out to the taxi that takes her to school. This morning, walking away from that taxi back to the dorm is the hardest thing I’ve had to do in a long time. Irrational fears flood my mind—what if she’s in an accident? What if I never see her again? All I want to do is keep her home and hug her tight. But off she goes, out into a world that is unpredictable, capricious, cruel.

Then, I have to go to work. To be normal. To give a final exam, but not think about it, not cry in front of my students. And then have an exam review with another class. And things are almost normal, except for that familiar ache of grief I have been experiencing much of lately.

When I get home, there is more to read, more to absorb. More news stories, and emails from the university department where we all – me, the mother, and the father – got our PhDs. And once again, I am grateful for the Internet, for Facebook, for as much as we like to revile it, it’s an easy way to keep in touch with many people. Slowly, I see the story spread. I see posts of shock, horror, sadness, grief. And love. Most of all, posts of love. Love for my friend and her daughter. People wanting to surround them in love, hold them close, comfort, protect.

Eventually, another story starts to emerge, one that has been lurking underneath. One which I suspected, but didn’t know the details of. There’s a more investigative news story that lays out the struggles my friend had with the court, trying to protect her daughter from an increasingly erratic and unpredictable father whose mental health was deteriorating. An all-too-common story of a parent who uses a child to hurt the other parent. And the court failing miserably, as courts often do, because they are not designed to protect; they are designed to be “fair,” even if that “fairness” is terribly unfair to the children.

This time, the court’s response was irrevocable. Final. Lethal. My friend filed an emergency motion to pick up her child when the father refused to give her back at the end of his agreed-upon visit. Instead, the judge issued an order to both parents to follow the custody schedule. As if that would make a difference. Instead, days later, the child is dead. No court order can restore her to her mother now.


There are many more things to say about this. But I will stop here. We are getting ready to go back to California for an all-too-brief visit, to see family, friends, and dogs. It will be good to be there, to be with those who had become our tribe before we left for Mongolia. I have to grade papers, pack, and make sure I have everything for our trip over. I think it’s because of all the loss recently, but I’m feeling very insecure about the trip. Worried that I’ll forget something crucial, that we won’t be allowed to go. That somehow everything will go wrong. It will be good to be on the other side, to be landing in San Diego, to see friends at the airport, to see our house, to be at our other home.

4 thoughts on “When the worst thing happens

  1. Reblogged this on Two Vegetarians in Mongolia and commented:

    This was three years ago this week. The murder happened on December 6, but was only discovered on December 10, 2018. I learned about it on the morning of December 11, Mongolia time. This will always be a difficult week. I feel very bleak right now. I’m looking for the light. I will find it, but maybe not today.

    This post is very raw, “as it happened” (as they say in the news business that I teach about). I’m not going to change it because it was my initial reaction.


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