Thursday, September 23, 2010

T for Trials and Tribulations

Edited to add: I've gotten a couple emails saying people are having troubles commenting on this post today. I don't know if it's a Disqus or a Blogger problem, but it makes me sad, because I love to read what you have to say. If you click on the actual post title, and then scroll to the bottom, you should see comments available. If not, please feel free to email me. You can do that by clicking on "Send me a Note" under my picture at the top right of the page.

Mama's Losin' It

I’m participating in Mama Kat’s writing workshop today, and as I alluded to yesterday, this post will be anything but lighthearted. Also, it could get long; really long. The prompt I chose is:

Tell us about a day you were sure you wouldn’t get through.

This one is, unfortunately, far too easy for me. And while it will be hard to write, because it involves recalling memories that I'm not particularly fond of, I imagine that it will also be cathartic. The answer isn’t what you might think (especially if you're one of my six faithful readers). Of course after receiving the news that my youngest sister had been murdered, I was sure at least once per day in the following days, weeks, and months that I wasn’t going to make it through that particular day. I still wonder at how I made it through it all. I still marvel at the strength I never knew I’d had but that appeared right when I needed it most.

December to January, 2007, was a whirlwind of funeral planning, speaking with investigators, speaking with media, trying to figure out when I’d go back to work, clinging to my husband and family, attempting to celebrate Christmas if only for the kids, and adjusting to a life that would certainly never be the same again; and yet, it was also a blur. Everything happened so quickly but so slowly at the same time. It was like being in a perpetual nightmare, and if I could just wake up, I was sure everything was going to be okay.

I relished the approximately two minutes I had every morning when I was in that stage right between sleeping and awake; temporarily unaware of what had happened, what was yet to happen, and how life had changed forever. Then, I’d open my eyes and get out of bed, working hard to suppress the overwhelming nausea, the tightness in my chest, and the tears. I’d usually lose the battle, at least on the tears front, and many times would return to bed in the hopes that sleep would numb the pain.

Though there were times I was sure I absolutely would not—could not—get through the day. I did. I made it through. And, as we’d started to heal, and move forward with our lives, and things settled down and got quiet, I started to feel more relaxed and comfortable; there were even bouts of happiness here and there. Then, the murderer’s trial started…


The trial of Zachary Matthews started in the middle of October, 2008, and lasted about five days. Though I don't imagine that I'll ever forget it, especially since I took notes to keep myself busy and to document the proceedings from my point of view, there was one day in particular that I’ll certainly never forget. Not only did I not know how I’d make it through the rest of the day, but I was once again shattered, which I didn’t think was possible after all that had already happened. I found myself struggling once again to gather the strength to face something—someone—I didn’t think I’d ever have reason to question or the ability to lose my faith in…

We were about halfway through the first day of the trial, which had already proven to be far more difficult and emotionally exhausting than I’d imagined. The prosecution team went first. We’d heard witness testimony from some of my sister’s friends and many other people. There was the previously unknown to us woman whose life was forever changed when she returned from a meeting the evening of December 19 to find a burning car in her driveway. I cannot imagine how often the horror of removing my sister’s body from the car replays itself over, and over, and over again in her mind; tormenting her with the fact that none of her nursing skills could help the dead young woman who now lay in her driveway.

There were detectives and police officers who talked about crime scenes, canvassing neighborhoods, and collecting evidence. There was the medical examiner who talked about his findings during the autopsy and confirmed the cause of death. There was emotional testimony from my sister’s friends about the secrets they knew and regretted not telling until it was too late: Zachary had hit and punched and pushed and kicked Kristine, he had threatened her life, and she feared him. Many of Kristine’s family members, me included, didn’t know these secrets, but oh how we wished we did. The prosecution was working to establish a history of domestic violence in an attempt to prove that Zachary, my sister’s ex-boyfriend and the father of her child, was guilty of this murder.

My mother had been absent from the courtroom all morning. She wasn’t allowed to sit with my family to bear witness to the testimony and evidence we’d seen. Instead, she was barred from the courtroom until after she’d fulfilled her duties as a witness for the prosecution, lest seeing any other testimony or evidence should taint her own.

I was glad that mom wasn’t faced with the choice of whether to leave the courtroom or to see and hear graphic testimony regarding crime scene and autopsy photos. The rest of us thought we were strong enough, but it proved too difficult for some who ended up leaving the room halfway through the presentation of evidence. My mother probably would’ve been like me; she would’ve forced herself to stay. I was somehow able to separate my sister from the body in the pictures. My sister was a vibrant, living, breathing, laughing, smiling, human being; she wasn’t a body. My sister as I knew her had been gone long before the body she left behind was discovered and preserved for perpetuity in gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos.

As my mother was called to the stand, I looked forward to temporary relief from the shocking surprises and horrific evidence that had perforated the day, and I prepared myself to project strength. All of us wanted to be strong for my mother, because we couldn’t imagine doing what she was about to do. I was proud of her for having the strength to go on the stand to tell her story and the courage to face the monster who’d done this horrific thing that changed our lives forever.

My family has always been relatively close. We all talked to each other all of the time, so we were all always up to date on what was going on with who, who was doing what, and how everyone’s lives were going. If one of my family members so much as sneezed funny, I was sure to hear about it within a day of it happening. As such, I had no reason to suspect that my mother’s testimony would include any shocking revelations, because I was certain that I knew everything there was to know. I knew what she would talk about. At least, I thought I did…


She was going on the stand to tell the jury, the lawyers, and the judge about the time that Zachary had tried to strangle her when she had tried to break up an argument between him and Kris. She would talk about the restraining order she had against him as a result of the incident. She was going to tell the court about how we’d all accepted him into our family and provided him and Kris with unwavering love and support, and that despite that, he turned on her. She would talk about the violent temper Zachary had exhibited on more than one occasion before actually following through with real violence when he attempted to strangle her, and how that temper and that incident had caused concern for all of us over whether he was using violence against my sister or my nephew. She would confirm that none of us suspected that my sister’s life was in danger in any way, because my sister stood firm that Zachary was not abusing her or their child.

My mother talked about how, months before her death, Kristine had moved back home with Li’l D. Kris had gotten tired of Zachary’s unwillingness to grow up and take care of his family, and they had broken up. Kristine was in the process of moving on. My mother encouraged Kris to facilitate visitation between Li’l D and his father, and usually that happened by way of them meeting up in a public place like the mall. It was only in the few weeks before Kristine’s death that she had started bringing Li’l D to his father’s apartment so that father and son could spend the day and/or evening alone together. Kris enjoyed these little breaks, because it allowed her time to go out with friends, and she had also met and started dating someone. She had never gone alone when she dropped Li’l D off at his father’s apartment; until that fateful day when we lost her forever.

Then, the prosecutor asked my mother to recall a particular date. And as I sat and listened, I was stunned and shaken by a story I’d never heard before. My mother described the day, a few weeks prior to the murder, when she had woken up early and was surprised to see Kristine awake already. Kris appeared to be shaken, and my mother asked her what was wrong.  Kris said that she’d been asleep in bed when she thought she’d heard something. She rolled over and scanned the room in the dark, but didn’t see anything. Convinced that she was hearing things, she tried to fall back asleep. But, she couldn't. Something didn't feel right.

Once her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she realized that someone was standing in the corner of her room. She was paralyzed with fear. After lying still for a few minutes, she slowly got up to turn on the bedroom light. That’s when she saw that the person standing in the corner of her room was Zachary. He had somehow broken into my mother’s house and had stood there for who knows how long watching my sister sleep. When Kris asked what he was doing there, he said he was just watching her. He was making sure that she and Li’l D were okay. He cared about them, and he’d just wanted to see her. Kris told him to leave, and he did.

As my mother’s story progressed, I was overcome with emotion. It was as though all of the air had left the room. I started to sweat, my stomach was cramping as it tied itself in knots, my ears were ringing, and I could feel tears pushing at the backs of my eyes. I looked at MusicMan, who upon seeing the shock on my face, grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. He looked at me as if to say, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do, and I’m sorry.” I refused to cry. I willed my eyes to contain the tears that were threatening to burst forth at any moment.

I thought about running from the room, but I feared if I started running, I’d never stop. I didn’t know if I could get far enough away from my mother, that courtroom, this life that just couldn’t possibly be mine, or from the excruciating pain.

As the implications of what my mother said really hit me, the tears began to flow and I began to shake uncontrollably. She knew. She knew her daughter was in danger. She could’ve stopped it. She had a restraining order against Zachary, and he had broken into her home. One call to the police could’ve had him in jail for quite a while. Maybe even for enough time for Kris to completely move on and sever all ties and for him to calm down and get over her. Perhaps my sister would still be alive today. None of us would have to be here, in this courtroom, trying to maintain our delicately cobbled together hearts and emotions as the old, not fully healed wounds were torn open all over again as we relived those awful, horrific days.

My mother had failed to do the number one thing a parent should do: protect her child. Not only did she fail to protect her child, but having the knowledge she did—that the violence was escalating—she encouraged her daughter to enter the lion’s den under the premise that Zachary deserved to see his son. In my mind, which I’ll admit was in emotional overload, my mother helped murder my sister. She was partially responsible for the death that shattered my heart into tiny pieces and threw me into such a delicate emotional state that I could go from being fine one minute to crying in the car on the way to work the next.

I could barely breathe as I sat frozen, wanting to hear no more but unable to leave. I couldn’t even look at my mother. We’d had our moments, especially in my teen years, where we’d argued and she’d said cruel, cruel things to me; things that no mother should ever say to her daughter. But, I’d forgiven. Because that’s what you do, right? You only have one mom, and deep-down, I knew she loved me. At least I thought she did. I mean; didn’t she have to? She was my mother after all. I loved her. Despite her venomous words, some of which made my heart physically hurt, I loved her. Besides, moms are human and can make mistakes. But this?!? This was more than just a mistake. How could she have just sat back and let my sister walk out the door to her death that day?! HOW?! WHY?!


Court rested for lunch shortly after my mother’s testimony. As soon as the good and honorable jurors (that’s what the judge called them, and they truly, truly were) filed out of the room, those of us in the gallery standing as a sign of respect for them, I fled. MusicMan followed me while the rest of my family waited for my mother.

Safely ensconced in the elevators, I spoke for the first time. It was a hoarse whisper, “SHE KNEW!” MusicMan hugged me. I repeated it over, and over, and over again in my head and occasionally out loud; willing it to be untrue. The closer we got to the outside of the courthouse, the louder I got. Until we were outside, and I was screaming and crying hysterically, my legs threatening to buckle under the gravity of what I’d heard and the overwhelming emotions it had stirred.

“SHE COULD’VE SAVED HER! AND SHE DIDN’T!! SHE DIDN’T DO A SINGLE THING TO PROTECT HER OWN DAUGHTER! MY MOM KILLED MY SISTER! SHE KILLED HER!” MusicMan held me as I sobbed. I knew I couldn’t go on. After everything that had happened—learning of Kris' death, the funeral, the partial healing, and now reliving it all over again—I just couldn’t do it anymore. The trial was just too much. I didn’t have the strength to continue.

How was I supposed to deal with all of this? How?! How was I ever supposed to face my mother again?! How could I look at her and not accuse her of killing my sister? How could I look at her and not ask why she failed to protect her daughter? How could I avoid asking, “WHY didn’t you do everything in your power to SAVE KRISTINE’S LIFE?!”


I eventually calmed down, with the help of MusicMan and Cousinfriend. My rational mind finally took over a little more, and I realized that there was nothing that could be done now. I could hate my mother and I could scream my accusations at her, my words cutting deep into her core and hurting her heart like her words years earlier had hurt mine, but what would that accomplish? My sister was still dead; gone forever. Unfortunately, nothing was going to change that. It was a fact that all of us who knew and loved her had to face as we learned to live in a world without her.

And, I thought about the guilt I carried and how it ate me up…I didn’t spend enough time with Kris. I didn’t appreciate her while she was here. I should’ve answered the phone those times that I chose to ignore her calls. I should’ve asked more questions, and I should've forced her to answer honestly. I could’ve talked to her more, and maybe then she would’ve told me her secrets. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve…the guilt will consume you, if you let it. And, you can’t let it. I had gradually begun to learn that I had to let it go, because I couldn’t change what had happened in the past, and my sanity depended on letting go of the guilt and realizing that hindsight is 20/20. The same is true for my mother…

For the rest of her life, my mother will have to live with the fact that she maybe could’ve prevented my sister’s death. With the knowledge she had about the violence increasing, she could’ve cautioned Kris against ever spending time alone with Zachary. She could’ve opened her home to visitation, or at the very least allowed Zachary to come to her house to pick up Li’l D. Again: could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. The facts are what they are. Kris went there alone, and her life ended that day.

My mother has to deal with her own demons. She has to decide if she truly believes the excuses she gives to those who ask how she didn't know what was going on or why she didn't try to stop it. (The main one being, "She was 19; legally an adult. My hands were tied!") Someday she might have to deal with the grandson she's raised asking her those questions. That's her cross to bear. And, that's punishment enough.

We will never truly know if any of us could’ve done anything to change what happened on December 19, 2007. We will never know why Kristine didn't tell us she was afraid or why, despite that fear, she went to Zachary's apartment alone that day. We will never know why Zachary did what he did. We will never know the answers to all of the questions that swirl around in our minds. And we—all of us who knew and loved her—have to live with that. Because we have to go on living; there is no other option. It’s what Kris would want, and we have to make sure that her son has the life she would’ve wanted him to have, or better.

I survived that day and the rest of the trial. As hard as it was, I faithfully sat through each day’s proceedings, taking it all in and hoping that justice would prevail. And it did. The jury found Zachary Matthews guilty of first degree murder, and because of the severity of his crime, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. And that day? The sun was bright as my sister smiled down on us when we left the courthouse. And I knew that I was going to be okay, because I am a better person for having had her as a sister, even if it was for only nineteen years, and I'm stronger than I ever thought possible.

(And thank you so much, lovely reader, if you made it all the way through this post.)

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  1. Oh my gosh, I had no idea that you'd been through something so horrible. I admire your strength and your willingness to share your story so honestly, it really is amazing. I can't imagine going on after a loved one's death in any way, but by murder......that's just so horrible. You really are an amazingly strong person.

  2. Wow. I don't really know what to comment but I just wanted to let you know I read the whole post. It's very powerful and now I want to call my little sister in college (whose phone calls I sometimes ignore).

  3. I am so sorry for what you have gone through...I wish I could say something more profound.

  4. Reading through this gave me chills, remembering it all again is hard, through your eyes is even harder.

    I love you.

  5. I can't even imagine how hard that had to be for you. The more I read about this story the stronger I find that you are. I don't know if I could make it through what you have!

  6. I cannot imagine sitting through all that or the pain that your mother feels about it, wondering if she really could have stopped it. So heartbreaking.

  7. I read this post, and the one you linked about your sister's murder, and I couldn't stop the tears from streaming down my face. I cannot even imagine how you feel, and my heart aches for you and your family, and Lil'D.

  8. Thank you so much. Before her death, I never could've imagined going on after the death of a loved one--especially losing her in such a tragic way--but it is amazing the strength we all have that we don't even realize. I'm truly nothing special. And it's an easy story to be honest about, because it's so awful that there's truly no other way to tell it than exactly like it is.

  9. Thank you for taking the time to read the whole thing. To tell you the truth, if she were still here today, there are still moments I'd ignore her calls. It's only natural. And, I have to remember that when the guilt really kicks in.

  10. Thanks, Kathie. I appreciate your support and encouragement.

  11. I love you to, my wonderful cousin and friend. And I hope you know how much I appreciate all the support you've given and continue to give.

  12. Thanks, Margaret! As I said above, I'm truly not so special. I'm convinced that we all have more inner strength than we give ourselves credit for.

  13. Thanks, Shell. When my anger towards my mother builds up, I try to remember the pain she feels and the demons she battles as a result of all of this too. It's hard for all of us. And, we all have our own guilt and our own regrets to deal with.

  14. I always hate when I write a post like this, because I know it's going to make one or more people cry, and I cry writing them. And, I don't like to make people cry. I always fight with myself over whether or not I should even post it, and then selfishly decide that I need to get my story out. Thank you for taking the time to read all of it and to comment. Though the emotion in both posts is raw, and heartfelt, I can assure you that, for the most part, me, my family, and especially Li'l D are doing well. We are survivors, and we are so lucky to have a little piece of my sister left in Li'l D. We are also very fortunate for all of the wonderful stories about his mother that we'll get to share with him as he grows.

  15. I have no words. I wish I did, but I don't. I have no idea how you went through what you did and came out sane on the other side. You are amazingly strong.

  16. I'm typing through the tears running down my face and everything is blurry.

    I read the whole thing even though I wanted to stop and pretend it never happened, but then I remembered that you can't do that so neither should I.

    I have no words to describe how I am feeling (I actually did just sit here for a few minutes to try to find the right words and they are nowhere to be found). I am so sorry dear friend.

  17. Wow...thanks so much for persevering even though this post made you so sad and was so hard to read. You rock so hard. Thank you so much, lovely lady, for your support and friendship. (HUGS) It truly means the world to me that you put so much thought into reading this and commenting--especially that you continued reading even when you wanted to stop because you knew that quitting was never and option for me. Simply amazing.

  18. Oh my goodness! If this is not every family's worst nightmare, I don't know what is. I'm very close to my sisters, so this was hard to read...I can't even put my brain in a place to imagine the horrific things you've actually experienced.

    That being said, as a mother my heart aches for your mom. Please know that this beastly excuse for a man would have found a way to complete his crime whether your mom had stepped in or not. He sounds like a determined, sick man...he would not have let your mother stand in his way.

    Praying for you and your whole family!

  19. I foind this post through MamaKat's prompts for this week. I am just so sorry. That's all I can really say. Sending you a BIG HUG through the blogosphere!

  20. Wow, I'm speechless because I'm totally overwrought with emotion. I can't even imagine going through what you've been through. My heart broke for you and your family as I read this.

    I pray that as the days go by, the burden of grief becomes lighter. I hope there will be a time in the near future where you will be able to smile, instead of cry, as you recall memories of your beautiful sister.

    Thank you for sharing this, as difficult as it probably was to write.

  21. Forgiveness.... such a simple thing, until you try it.
    For yourself and your mother...
    I've read about your sister before and thought I could handle this post, knowing a bit of the background as it were...
    Umm, silly silly me. Can't type and cry at the same time so gonna say there's lots of heartfelt well wishes headed your way by many more than you can imagine... and I'm definitely one of them.

  22. Sweetie I am just at a loss for words.. my heart hurts for you and like you I am just as angry at your mother..

  23. Thanks so much for stopping by to read this! And, thanks for the prompt that encouraged me to write it. It truly was cathartic.

    I agree with you...When I really think about it, even her calling the police that day probably wouldn't have stopped him. It probably just would've delayed the inevitable, and we would've had my sister for a couple months longer than we did.

    Thanks for the prayers.

  24. Thanks! Hugs right back at ya!

  25. The burden of grief gets lighter each day, and some days are worse than others. I have many memories of my sister that I can most definitely smile over.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this and for leaving such a thoughtful comment.

  26. Thanks so much, Dawn. You are absolutely right about forgiveness...turns out it's a lot harder than any of us would think. I really appreciate your support.

  27. Thanks, hon. I have my good and bad days with my mom. Sometimes I'm still really, really angry and hurt, and then other times I realize that even if she'd called the police that day, it probably only would've served to delay the inevitable.

  28. I am at a loss for words. I knew about Kris' murder, but this part...this very part about your mom, makes my heart ache more.
    She'll carry it with her for the rest of her days, all of you will. Making it through the day, when you first heard what had happened is one thing, but how does she do it, day after day? The fact never changes. The what-ifs will always be there, won't they?
    I heart you Elle, and that's all I've got.

  29. We all have to carry it with us day after day, and some days are definitely harder than others. You're right, the facts never change, and the what-ifs don't seem to completely go away. That's why I have to force myself not to dwell on them at times, because the what-ifs will just tear you apart. I heart you too, Christine! Thanks so much for your love, support, and encouragement. I'm so blessed to have you as a friend.


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