I thought I saw Julie today. I couldn’t have, she’s been gone since February 3, 1989. But the flaxen-haired, strong built woman I saw turned, looked at me and smiled. It wasn’t Julie’s warm and welcome smile. It was one of “Hi, there,” whoever you are, old woman.
I forgot that when Julie died, her hair had whitened from working with inmates at the correctional facility in Vienna, Illinois. She didn’t show her twenty-seven years when she took a job at Shawnee. Four years later and married for the first time, her hair had turned white.
I like to remember how she looked all the years before she became a correctional officer for the State of Illinois. It was a job she took on my advice. When she had surgery for a large lump of fiber glass protruding from her neck, working in a boat factory she was told the glass was probably in her lungs and would keep working to the surface. I joked: “you might as well be making more money if you’re going to die anyway.”
Oh, God, if I could only take back those words and take back the influence my late husband used in putting her in a position of danger, I would.
There never was a more gentle, loving, forgiving girl in the world, I think, and she never saw “nonredeemable” in anyone. She said of the inmates at the facility, “Mother, they’re no different than the rest of us, they just need more discipline.” No matter how hurt she was, grudges didn’t enter her mind. She was generous with money to a fault. Her car wore a bumper sticker: “Being of Sound Mind and Body, I’m spending my money as fast as I can.”
I excruciatingly remember the last time I saw my first-born. It was at the prison, I had a class to teach back in the far building and she escorted me there. On the way, an inmate fifty feet ahead of us yelled at her, “Orange, why did you write me up?”
She laughed, and said, “Turkey, I told you one banana and you took two.” He turned with a smile on his face and walked away. She had a certain rapport with the inmates I later learned from one of them. He told me when I met him on the outside. He said, “She was consistent. Not one thing one day and something else the next. We got permission to send special flower arrangements from us inmates to the funeral home.” I needed that.
The call of Julie’s and David’s death came late one morning after I was jerked awake around three a.m. by a voice yelling: “Mom!” It sounded like Julie calling out to me, but she wasn’t there. I sat bolt upright and couldn’t go back to sleep.
I remember because I still to this day wake up each morning around that time. I rolled over, waiting for time to shower, eat, dress and go to my office in the Secretary of State’s building in Harrisburg. With things to do around town first, I arrived at nine-thirty, and had just settled into my chair when the phone rang. It was Julie’s best friend.
“Lois, where have you been? I’ve tried to reach you since seven-thirty this morning! Julie and David’s house burned down last night and they were in it!”
“Where are they? Which hospital?” I screamed as the news sunk in.
“They’re not in a hospital, they didn’t get out! Lois, they’re gone.”
“Nooooooooooooo,” I screamed. “Tammie, this isn’t funny! Don’t joke with me!.”
“I’m not joking,” she said, her voice breaking.
“I won’t listen to another word! Somebody take this phone!” I screamed and one of the office girls took the phone from me to find out what was going on. I was uncontrolled from there on.
I hadn’t the faculties to call Springfield and tell them I wasn’t available today, the office girl had to do it.
Frantically, I tried calling my husband. The phone was busy or he didn’t answer, or something. I had someone call the city and locate my son to come and get me. I was helpless.
I couldn’t even think about driving a car. My only son, Brian, came after what seemed forever. We tried to get hold of my other daughter and couldn’t. I insisted we rush home to find my husband. Our preacher was there and I was angry and embarrassed. He knew I was upset with him because he refused to perform Julie and David’s wedding eight months before.
He didn’t want to go against my husband’s belief that they shouldn’t be married. Oh, he used some flimsy excuse, but I knew. Very angry, I grabbed my son and rushed out of there. We screeched to the other daughter’s house, where she was dragged to the door by insistent pounding.
“Why didn’t you answer the phone? Julie’s dead!” No hello, nothing, just screaming. I didn’t think about the shock. I was just angry. This couldn’t be happening! Sandi dressed and we three rushed down to Belnap in Johnson County to view the house and try to believe it really happened.
There it stood. Pieces of walls smoking and an eerie smell in the air. We clung to each other. A fireman, a friend of David’s, had tears in his eyes as he told us how they found the two of them in the bedroom, David by the door and Julie lying beside the bed. A farmer outside to milk cows alerted someone about six-thirty, he said. I couldn’t listen.
There! The tragedy was real. Julie and David’s vehicles, parked away from the house, were scorched, but not burned. I wanted to walk over and pound on them for surviving. There was nothing left in the ashes but metal lumps silhouetted against the sun in the cold air. The bodies were long gone. It was fifteen degrees below.
Somebody convinced me to leave and we left to find out where the bodies had been sent. I didn’t like having to ask her in-laws. She had only been in their family for eight months. I wanted nothing to do with that family right then. If my daughter hadn’t met and married David last year, she would be alive and living across the street.
I was in such a state, I forgot to call my youngest daughter, Trish, in Texas, and fill her in on Julie’s death. Some one else did it for me.
The double funerals were unreal to me. The night before, a massive amount of floral arrangements had to be removed to a tractor trailer to make room for the hordes of uniformed officers, well-wishers and grief-stricken families. I remember the bouquet-starved nakedness of the room at the funeral the next day. Julie’s father sat down by me.
“We didn’t do too bad with our four kids, did we?” he asked. Maybe he needed reassurance, I don’t know. I don’t remember who all was there. If they weren’t, it meant nothing.
As they wheeled out the closed casket I crumbled. The numbing shock suddenly wore off and grief swallowed me. This torture of loss lured me time and again to that cemetery to stand there and yell at God, “You could have saved her if you wanted to!”
I would cry and stare across the field to the burned down home not three acres from the grave.
I visited the site constantly. I would rake through the embers, once striking a dog with the rake because it was nibbling at what I smelled to be burnt flesh from the odor in the air. How dare that animal eat my daughter’s flesh! I couldn’t eat a grilled steak for years afterwards. David’s sister had the burned-out hulk bulldozed to rid us of the silent reminder.
I finally I changed my route through that county so I wouldn’t spend so much time at the cemetery. I had to collect myself, get on with life, return to sanity. I had three other children and two grandchildren.
I haunted the sheriff’s office, the property, David’s sister, searching for an answer. I found evidence that the fire probably was set, but the fire Marshall didn’t. It was accidental, he ruled. Of course, he wouldn’t have to poke around at fifteen below zero for clues that way. Filled with grief, I reasoned that he must have been a political appointee who didn’t care. To someone else I pointed out the discrepancies.
It was agreed the fire was suspicious and I was off and running. There was no serious investigation of any kind, not even by the coroner who was mandated by law. He seemed angry that we had the funeral somewhere besides his business in the same county.
Veiled threats, demands to return to work, nothing held me back. I was bent on solving this mystery. Then my husband died. I crashed. It wasn’t worth it anymore even though I had hints from relatives of other correctional officers that Julie and David were murdered.
Everything changed. I spent the next year and a half of trying to maintain appearances, now and then arriving each day at the proper place in my twenty-one counties. I gave up, but not until I realized life is only worth living if your children live.
Everywhere I went and everything I did reminded me of the baby I lost. David had made her happy for eight months, but I resented it. She stood back and watched two sisters marry while her hazel eyes spoke volumes of sadness over her own unfulfilled life. I cannot forget that look, but I cannot forgive David for putting her in a position to die.
When the day to teach in the prison again arrived, I fell apart. Julie’s friend Tammie escorted me out. I never taught there again. No one in Springfield insisted that I go in there again. The class was just dropped. All this time I had to live with the memory that the last chance I had to talk with Julie by phone the day before they died, I told David I would talk to her later. Later never came.
I rambled around trying to be in the right place at the right time after I was forced to return to work by the department head, even though my husband had died weeks after Julie. That was the beginning of the end. I was in trouble more than out. Julie’s death haunted me. I would think of all the times we shared before she married. I built a shrine, watched her wedding video over and over. I was justly reprimanded for that. A son-in-law impolitely jerked the video out of the machine. I cannot find it now.
With my husband gone, I developed ulcers, missed more work, fell and broke my elbow and finally after a year and a half of death of friends and relatives, I called it quits and moved to another state. I missed only Julie at first, but later, my husband’s death haunted me. Why wasn’t I with him the day he died? At his funeral I had screamed at God again.
“First Julie, now Dee, what else can you do to me?” It was the tip of the iceberg.
I’m not a frequent visitor at Julie’s grave now, with it’s heart-shaped stone and the engraving: “Forever Sweethearts.” I forgave myself, I think, for not being a closer mother, but every time I visit her smiling face on my computer screen, I see the long blond hair, and the hazel eyes smiling at me from beneath high-arched, black brows. Julie’s smile, there from birth, is God’s treasure now. Seventeen years is yesterday.
It’s time to remember that God didn’t give me that baby by a hundred thousand miles, He just thought I needed some sunshine and loaned her for awhile.
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