“We were still standing in the kitchen when Heather arrived,” my mom wrote in a story of her own recollection of the day we found out daddy died. “Heather fell into my arms. Jason wrapped his around us, and we cried. We cried so deep that it sounded like hurt dogs yelping.”
She’s not wrong. It sounded awful.
“We cried because we could feel our lives being torn apart and scarred forever. The pain left us numb. We were not even aware at the time what had really happened to Johnny,” mom wrote.
This is the moment I thought of on 9/11 because this type of anguish features Superman-strength muscle memory. That same gutting feeling splits me down the middle like a tauntaun every time I hear about someone dying. In those times, I go back to us standing in that little kitchen in the house my single mom bought when she was 36 years old and I was beginning the sixth grade.
Tuesday, July 21, 1992, began with me searching for my missing father. No one had heard from him since Sunday, almost 48 hours earlier. Just after lunch, I called my mother to let her know we couldn’t find dad.
“Mom, where have you been?” I asked without saying hello.
“I’ve been at lunch. What’s wrong?” mom replied. I’d been waiting for her to get back to her cube at Alltel Information Services in west Little Rock.
“They want me to file a missing person report on dad,” I said.
“Who wants you to file?” she asked. I told her his friend, Sam, and his attorney, Jeff, two people she knew. My parents were divorced, which made me the next-of-kin as the 18-year-old child, so it would have to be me who filed a missing person report.
It was a gorgeous, summer day–the smack-dab middle of summer, you might say. Sitting behind dad’s huge solid wood desk in his office, I heard the hum of the hot tubs bubbling in the swimming pool store showroom where I worked that summer before starting college. Every time I heard the main entry door open, my head cocked right to study the reflection in a picture frame dad had strategically hanging on the wall. It was never daddy walking in.
“Maybe he’s been in an accident, and no one has contacted us yet,” mom said.
“Maybe he got arrested and not able to get his one phone call yet,” I suggested.
“Maybe. I wouldn’t put it past your dad,” mom said. It was a much better outcome than filing a missing person report.
Whatever happened, mom was coming to the police station with me to file the report. But first, she wanted to call Jeff to get his opinion on how to proceed. He suggested hiring a locksmith to get into daddy’s house because no one had a key. While Jeff waited for the locksmith at daddy’s Canal Pointe home on the Arkansas River, mom and I waited for news at the pool store. But around five o’clock, I got restless and wanted to meet Tim at his house to thank him for the roses he’d sent me.
“I knew she really wanted to run to the nearest shelter,” mom would later write. “She asked me to call her there when Jeff called and let her know what she needed to do. She refused to believe anything was wrong with her dad. She hid her feelings like him.”
The Last Time I Saw Daddy
Sitting here at the desk, I fanned through the sorority rush photos I’d dropped off to share with him. They still sat on top of a pile of papers. On my drive to work that morning, I imagined him putting one of the photos under the glass top on his desk and another in his wallet. It was insane to not hear from him for this long. Where was he? We had things to discuss, like a recap of my vacation with Tim and his family in Dauphin Island, Ala., before I headed to freshmen orientation at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville on Wednesday. Daddy and I hadn’t always been close, but we were starting to get to know each other better now. I was growing up and getting comfortable in my own skin as an adult, yet still always seeking his approval.
July 10 was the last time I saw daddy. We’d just spent the Fourth of July on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Ark., like we did every year I can remember. And here I was preparing to take my fresh sunburn to the Gulf Coast. Daddy had called me into this office, where I was now holding court over his two land lines looking for him. Like most times when he wanted a private conversation, he flipped a James Bond-style switch under his desk, and the door closed behind me. I took a seat in one of the mauve wingback chairs in front of his wooden desk with the glass top, under which he kept several photos of Jason and me. We were never far from his thoughts. Inside that closed office, we talked about my upcoming vacation to Dauphin Island, Ala., with Tim and his family. He reminded me to mind my manners and have fun. I left work early that day.
The hot summer wind whipped through the gap between the main front doors of the showroom as I approached them. Standing with my back holding open one of the doors, I turned back and called out to him one more time. He was talking to one of his salesmen, Richard Yielding.
“I love you,” I called out from the door.
I intended for him to hear me, but my words got lost in the chlorinated ether or maybe it was the hum of gurgling hot tubs. I remember saying those words and looking at him in deep conversation, using his hands to talk, and thinking how this is how it always is: he always put work first. He’d said what he’d said earlier, and I’m soft spoken, so I didn’t want to be weird and yell to repeat it. That’s how I felt about it then. But now, I would say to be weird and yell it loud!
How I Found Out He Was Murdered
Friends and neighbors filed into the kitchen through the garage door the same way Tim and I entered. I remember crying, hugging and more tears and snot. Sometimes just standing there, stunned into a catatonic state. There was no hiding place for my feelings that day.
About half an hour had passed since my grief clock started ticking, and all I knew was daddy-found-dead. I waited for more information, and it came intermittently.
People don’t always know what their reaction would be in a traumatic moment. Trauma usually arrives without consent. I felt violated and unprepared. I wanted to fight the reality. I wanted to freeze with shock. I wanted to flee the bad dream. But when someone, I don’t remember who, told me daddy was murdered, a flood of new feelings poured out of my heart and into my bloodstream.
Initially, I didn’t think to ask, or even wonder about the details surrounding the murder. The where and how did not matter because instinctively, I knew in my heart who had killed him. When I first heard the word “murder,” one person immediately came to mind. Since then, I pay attention to the victim’s family gut feelings.
“How could she do this to us,” I said out loud to no one in particular as I slid into a barstool seat at the kitchen bar. People paced around the kitchen, waiting for more phone calls from the yellow phone.
“What do you mean, Heather?” my mom asked. “Who are you talking about? Who is ‘she?’”
I had just one word: “Scharmel.”