There are certain events that occur in every life that cannot be foreseen, or anticipated. You can call them fated, and perhaps they are. Sometimes these events can destroy the world as you knew it, and bring you into a new reality. A reality you never asked for, but one from which there is no turning back.
When BHS homecoming came around during the autumn of 1984, my girlfriend arranged to have her sister cover her baby sitting job for her, and for the first time in my life I had a date to a high school dance. It was early October, and the weather had begun to turn. I met Kelly at her house, and we walked up to the dance in the light misty rain. She introduced me to a seemingly endless number of girls that I had never seen before, until their names became a jumbled blur like the disco lights in the gymnasium. We danced to all the greatest hits of 1984, and made out in the corner by the bleachers with all the other couples. When the dance ended, I walked her home.
The next morning when we got up, we heard the news on the radio. One of her classmates, a friend of hers that she had introduced me to the night before, had been raped and murdered on her way home from the dance. I went to Kelly’s house, and she sat on the front porch crying and sobbing into my arms. It all seemed so unreal. For a small town of 16,000 souls, things like this just did not happen. That it was happening now made us begin to realize that maybe the world wasn’t just a big game of pretend.
The next few weeks were like a bad dream for all of Batavia. The murderer had been caught the same evening of the murder. He’d was some dirt bag 20 something that had gotten drunk at the Holiday Inn, then gone off in search of a victim. He’d strangled her in a backyard just a few feet away from her house. In doing so, he took something more than just the life of an innocent 15 year old girl. He took our innocence too.
If only she hadn’t walked home alone. If only he hadn’t run into her. If only one of us had been there to hear her cries for help. We carried that guilt with us as we got out of school to go to her funeral. Yet teenagers are a resilient bunch, and thoughts of mortality are quickly pushed out of mind.
I’d like to think that the tragedy sobered us up a little, and made us more cautious and aware of the danger in life. But I’d be lying. There’d been tragedies before in our town, and there would be more tragedies in our future; teenagers killed in car accidents; terminal illnesses that took kids before their time. We’d lose more in the years to come, but she was the first.
But life goes on for 15 year old kids, and soon the lost ones just become names memorialized in the year book. My girlfriend and I would date until the end of my freshman year in college, before we finally split up. We learned a lot in those years of playing pretend, and someday those lessons would come in handy when our lives began for real. It has been 25 years since we graduated, and looking back to those days it is hard to believe that a time of such innocence ever really existed.
In later years I took a summer job at our parish doing janitorial work and grounds keeping for Monsignor. Sometimes when they needed an extra hand he’d drive me over to the cemetery to help mow around the headstones. Her grave stood on the corner of a newer section of the cemetery. It had been 3 years since that fateful evening, but still no grass grew on her grave. Each morning her father would arrive in his car to water the flowers, and weed the dirt. He made sure that the grounds crew never planted any grass over the grave, and that it remained forever a raw clay scar on the landscape.
In the years since then I have often been reminded of those days when I see a story on the news about a child that has been kidnapped or murdered. I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child, let alone in such a way as that. I’m not sure I could ever recover from such a loss.
I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking about her this week. I feel like I do not deserve to mourn someone that I never knew. Even back then, knowing that I had met her on that very night, I could not remember who she was. I still feel guilty about that.
It has been 27 years, she has lived in the shadows of memory long enough. It is time to honor her memory, if by nothing else, then just by speaking her name. Somewhere in the fields of the Lord, I like to think she is smiling. I hope that somewhere her Mother and Father have also found peace and acceptance. In the end, the grass covers us all.