Season 1 Episode 15: My Next Move
The room has fallen down around you.
The hour late.
And somewhere in this house a cold bed waits.
For now, I know only that I am lost, listening,
for the music that will lead me home.
- from the poem “woman playing the lute” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
I was once on the jury of a murder trial. I, morbidly, was really into this, unlike most people who despise the idea of jury duty, because I thought it would give me the chance to see the real life workings of the crime world that I so often rendered in fiction.
During the course of the trial, I spent two weeks taking copious notes while sitting in the front row of the jury box. I listened to the testimony of the medical examiners, firefighters, detectives, and from this, gained a clear sense of the chain of command, and rules that govern a murder investigation.
This was the second time this suspect had been on trial for this murder, the first time resulting in a hung jury, meaning that the jury couldn’t agree on innocence or guilt, leading to the case’s dismissal.
This second jury, of which I’d been a part, would also be hung—though I’d been dismissed before final deliberation, sparing myself from the grave responsibility of having to decide someone’s fate.
The reason the jury was hung twice, in my opinion, wasn’t just because the details of the murder were unclear, but also because of the mishandling of evidence and the incompetence of those involved. One example is that the medical examiner had asked for a blood sample from the suspect to match it to the blood found on the victim’s black hoodie. And the police simply never provided it.
Why? I don’t know.
What this trial taught me was how solid a case must be in order to see it through to resolution. If evidence doesn’t explicitly follow the chain of command, it can’t be used. It doesn’t matter if it’s a smoking gun with the suspect’s fingerprints on it. It will be inadmissible in court.
Because so much can go wrong even in the most clear of circumstances, and because my uncle has more than one hundred dismissed charges, I’m left with an overwhelming doubt that my mother’s case will ever see court or that justice will ever be served.
When I express this doubt to anyone, they always try to counter it.
They say, You never know. The universe may surprise you.
They insist he should be held accountable for all that he’s done. And that my lack of faith might be a way to protect myself from more disappointment. Either way, none of it is within my control.
Only one thing is—how I will process my mother’s death and grieve her. How will I put all of this darkness and despair to rest. What sense will I make of our story?
I’m reassured by countless sources that grieving is normal, natural, and absolutely necessary.
The University of Washington counseling services claims that grieving is healthy. By grieving we’re allowed to free up energy that was bound to that person, that situation, and reinvest this new energy elsewhere. That grieving isn’t forgetting or wallowing in the past, but realizing the importance of our loss, synthesizing that wisdom into our working intelligence, and hopefully, finding newfound peace.
That it’s important to remember grieving is only temporary.
It doesn’t feel very temporary.
I have to say that right now, it feels like things will be shit forever.
And if I had doubt that I was grieving my mother’s murder I need only look at the list of grieving symptoms: difficulty concentrating, apathy, anger, guilt, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, withdrawal, irritability, intense sadness or tears when a memory is triggered, numbness, loneliness or sense of isolation, and loss of life’s meaning, to confirm exactly where I am.
Yet being the overachiever that I am, I make a “grieving to do” list from this research and outline the steps and activities required to work through my grief.
I do the journaling, the meditating, the talk therapy. I try to be kind to myself. I created this podcast, trying to share my life with her, as a way to understand my mother’s story in a more cohesive way than I ever have before, and make sense of it all. I do everything I can and yet, when I begin to see any improvement whatsoever, I hit a wall and the pain comes back, white-hot and unforgiving.
It’s a voice that stops me, a relentless narrative that won’t quit.
This internal critic says: stop crying. Get ahold of yourself. Why are you falling apart like this? You have to learn how to compartmentalize your emotions. If you can’t do that, it’s because you’re weak. Because you’re pathetic. You’re too emotional and if you don’t get a hold of yourself you’re going to be just like her. Unstable. Broken. She couldn’t overcome her past, her problems, and you’re going to be the same way. If you’re suffering, it’s your own fault. It’s because you can’t pull yourself together. Why are you even crying about it after everything she did to you. Her death isn’t the problem. It’s her own fault. This sad, screwed up world isn’t the problem.
You’re the problem.
It’s a voice that won’t quit. Sometimes it’s thunderous, others more quiet. But it never leaves me. And I know this voice.
I know it very well.
My mother met my father (David #2) in 1982. He heard about her because his mother had come home from church and said, “Davie, there’s a beautiful young woman visiting our church with her mother and she has the voice of an angel. You have to see her.” And so he came to church to watch my mother sing. But by then, she was already dating my father’s brother.
Yet this brother, who’d given my mother a bible with her name engraved on the cover, couldn’t compare to the tattooed bad boy who rolled up in the church parking lot on his motorcycle.
And within three months of the bible-gift, my parents were married. It was September 11th, 1982. He was twenty-four, she was nineteen. It was a second marriage for both of them.
By November, she was pregnant with me.
I don’t remember what their relationship was like before he went to prison, I have only a handful of memories from the before time and of course, what I’ve been told.
But in the early days of their marriage, he worked as a building maintenance man for an apartment complex as well as an electrician. She stayed home with me. That his childhood was also difficult. He had a physically, mentally, and verbally abusive stepmother would beat them, starve them, make them do chores for hours and hours and if they disobeyed, she would lock them in dark closets.
She was a Jehovah witness who’d forbidden the celebration of birthdays and holidays. That they were very poor until by 9-years-old he was working as a shoe shine boy, carrying his box of supplies from bar to bar to make a bit of money for himself.
His father was a passive husband who didn’t protect his children from this abuse. And his biological mother was a violent alcoholic who once hit him in the head with a frying pan.
I’m sure, it was for all of these reasons that my father’s hatred for women was already well developed by the time my mother came into his life. Yet somehow she’d managed to harden this hatred into permanent contempt.
I don’t know anything about the woman who accused my father of rape. Considering it was a second-degree rape charge means that she was either under age or perhaps she’d been unconscious or otherwise unable to give consent. Whatever the circumstances, my mother had been asked to testify during the course of the trial and she did.
When my father spoke of his arrest and trial, which wasn’t often, I was given the impression that he blamed my mother for his conviction and sentence. That perhaps had she not testified, or said whatever she’d said, he wouldn’t have gone to prison at all.
Did my mother have a reason to speak poorly of her husband during his trial?
Years later my mother would show me a picture of me, one or two years old, tearing into an easter basket. She’d point at that picture and say, right before that he’d slapped the hell out of me.
Apart from the times he supposedly hit her, he often cheated on her. This was the sort of relationship that carried on until he was convicted of second-degree rape on August 11, 1988. Just two days after my fifth birthday.
During my mother’s testimony, did she tell the truth about their relationship and he didn’t like it? Or did she embellish his crimes? What that must’ve been like for her, to have her voice heard for the first time and with all the pomp and circumstance of a courtroom?
After years of being raped by her father and silenced, only to now finally have a full tribunal, a rapt court, willing to listen?
Whatever did or didn’t happen in 1988, I do know is that when my father returned from prison (he was released March 27, 1992), his hatred for my mother was a palpable experience. The anger coming from him could be felt like heat against your skin.
He would show me the custody papers of when he “won” me from her, as if I was a prize to be taken, a means to hurt her. He was clearly proud of the fact he’d beat her at this game of “who deserves to have our child more.”
He would was never hesitant to tell me what a bad person my mother was. Conniving. Deceptive. A compulsive liar. A nutcase, basket case. Crazy. A whore.
And every mistake that my mother made, only solidified this opinion.
One summer, he brought me to visit her at my grandmother’s. He’d been out of prison for a year or two and I’d just spent the school year with him. I’d missed my mom—this was the longest I’d ever been away from her—and was excited to see her again.
But we’d only been in the house for about thirty minutes, when my father reached across the counter island and squeezed my mother’s arm. I don’t know why he grabbed, but when he did, she cried out.
So he yanked up her sleeve to reveal the track marks from the cocaine she’d injected with the help of David #1—the ex-husband who’d been leaning against his car in my grandparents’ driveway when we’d pulled up.
“Get in the car, Kory,” my father told me, as my mother began to cry. “We’re going for ice cream.”
He didn’t let me kiss my mother goodbye. Or say anything to her before he ushered me into the car and began backing out of the driveway.
At the end of the driveway, his eyes still fixed on my grandmother’s house, he said, “you know we’re not coming back, right?”
“I know,” I’d said, waving to my cousins in the doorway.
But my father wasn’t sad for me. Nor did he acknowledge how disappointed or heartbroken I was to have my summer plans, a happy reunion dashed.
He’d been elated, no doubt bolstered by the knowledge that yet again he’d won. He’d succeeded in making her look and feel like shit.
Later my mother would visit us in Illinois where we’d lived. I was ten or eleven years old when she flew up to stay with us. We ran into trouble almost from the start when my father and I arrived at the airport to pick her up, and she was nowhere to be found.
After much panicked searching, speaking to the authorities, and gathering what information we could, we finally discovered that she’d left with another man.
I don’t remember how we found her, but she did eventually end up at the little cape cod house I shared with my father.
That night when I snuck out of my room to check on my mom, she wasn’t on the sofa where we’d left her. And there were noises coming from upstairs. The next day, after my father went to work, I crept up to his room and found my mother sleeping naked on top of his sheets.
I snuck out without waking her and pretended like I hadn’t seen her like that when she finally came down. Almost as soon as she saw me, she began to cry.
“I came here to get back with your dad. For you,” she told me. “But I can’t do it. I’m sorry, Kory, I can’t do it.”
I watched as she began to pack up all her things.
Including things that didn’t belong to her. Money and clothes and anything of value. Anything she could resell for cash.
I didn’t stop her. I knew she was going to run, and that there was nothing I could do to make her stay. To make her want to be here with me.
When my father came home from work, I told him she’d left. I don’t know if he was mad that I was there by myself, or if he was mad that she’d stolen his stuff.
“She’s sick,” he said, obviously disgusted. “This is what sick, demented people do. You have to stop expecting anything else from her, Kory.”
It’s hard to explain why I valued my father’s opinions so much.
Before my father had been released from prison, he’d sent me drawings and letters. Micky Mouse, a unicorn. All seven of the dwarfs and Snow White painted on what I suspect might have been panty hose stretched over wire hanger frames. I assure you they were more beautiful than this sounds. I’d hung each of his drawings on the wall of my bedroom, opening his packages with barely controlled excitement.
I think from these limited interactions, and gifts, I had developed an idea of what my life would be like when my father came home from prison. And I was excited for the day when my life would finally be normal. Steady.
When I would have a parent would be locatable at all times. When wouldn’t have to worry about their physical safety, or if/when they would be back. Someone who might be interested in me and what I do. That I would finally get the care and attention I craved, that I was starved for.
Which is to say expectations were probably unrealistically high when my father finally came back into my life and I went to live with him just before my tenth birthday.
And it’s true that he got me to school every morning. That I never went hungry and I always had my school supplies, and clothes, my lunch money. When I wanted to spend time with my friends or buy something, I usually could. He funded my school trips, including two international trips, and bought me get a car.
When all the kids in middle school had these huge Adidas jackets, he got me one too—even though I know they weren’t cheap, and he was struggling to get his business off the ground back then.
One of my favorite memories is how he would pick me up from school, and take me through the Dairy Queen drive-thru.
We would get vanilla milkshakes with whip cream and nuts.
He took care of me when my tonsils were taken out, soothed me when I cried over a rabbit dying. He made sure my needs were met. He was the strong, steady presence that I’d been lacking.
But this stability came with a price. Whenever I excelled or behaved in a way that he approved of, it was because I was like him. “You get that from me” which meant I’d done something right. But when I did something wrong, if I questioned him, or refused to bow and be obedient, I was just like my mother.
His criticism was near constant. If I wasn’t washing the dishes the way he wanted, he would shove me away from sink. If my sweeping skills were subpar, he’d snatch the broom away. If my grades slipped, it’s because I was screwing around. If I gained weight, he was sure to comment on it.
My crooked teeth were ugly and not white enough. If I had a pimple it was because I didn’t know how to wash my face. He complained about my pigeon-toed walk and told me I asked too many questions.
One particularly memorable day is when I was twelve years old. My father had picked me up from school and we were almost home.
Our home was no longer a two-bedroom cape cod bungalow that he’d started in when getting out of prison, but a large multi-level home. Four bedrooms, four baths, with a finished basement and thousands of square feet. Not to mention the full-wrap around porch.
His business was doing better and it showed.
I don’t know what I did to disappoint or anger him, but I sure do remember his response: “I think that no matter what you do in life, no matter how well you do in school or if you succeed, you’ll never be better than your mother.”
It was like a sword through my heart.
Because I knew he hated her. I knew that he thought she was absolute trash, the scum of the earth. The epitome of a worthless human being. I’d listened to him degrade her for years, so I wasn’t confused at all about what he meant.
My father thought I was trash.
This narrative of me as my mother’s trash daughter would replay over the years. And with each rebuke, I got angrier and angrier. My offenses against him became more deliberate. I talked back more. Whenever he criticized me, I fought back. I once went so far as to steal money from him. Then I stopped. I didn’t like who I was becoming. I didn’t like what all this anger was turning me into. And I knew the truth of it—nothing I did would convince him to see me as my own person. Anything bad I did would only ever be because I was my mother’s daughter. It was certainly never because of anything he had done to me.
In March of 2020, months before my mother died, I’d spoken to him on the phone. I reminded him of this conversation on the ride home from school that day and I don’t know what I expected him to say. Maybe “Sorry. That was a shit thing to say. I was stressed over my business” or perhaps even “I didn’t mean it.”
Instead what he said, “That was all intentional.”
When I asked for clarification he added, “I knew how much you cared about my opinion and I knew it would push you to work harder. To be better.”
Fuck you, buddy, I’d thought. But seeing as I was trying to maintain a semblance of civility I said, “Or maybe I would’ve succeeded on my merits alone. I could’ve used my talents or intelligence or—”
He cut me off with a resounding, “No.”
“No?” I was astounded that someone could be so unapologetic about what was an obvious instance of verbal, mental, and emotional abuse.
“No,” he said. “Do you really think that?”
When my father found out my mother had died, he texted me this: “I can tell you from firsthand knowledge she’s been trying to kill herself for a very longtime. It’s really simple. Your mom chose her path and I’m surprised she lived as long as she did. If you live life by the sword, you die by the same sword you wield.”
If this is the man my mother had been married to, her tearful goodbye that day when she told me “Kory, I’m so sorry, but I can’t do it” makes a lot more sense.
It’s clear that his opinion of her hasn’t changed. Nor has his opinion of me, I’m sure. He will continue to believe he knows my mother, her full story, though he hadn’t talked to her in over twenty years. And he’ll continue to believe that my success is because of all that he’s done for me. That his criticism has been anything but a debilitating handicap that I have to work every day to overcome.
And truly, that’s not my problem. That’s his work, if he cares to do it. Maybe one day he’ll look around and wonder why so few people are in his life—and what the reason for that may be.
In the meantime I have my own work.
My last real hurdle. That I’m left with his voice in my head, blocking me from my grief.
His words and constant disdain for my mother make me afraid embrace her. To accept the parts of me that came from her. The negatives: The melodramatics. My deep emotions. My tender heart. All the heartbreaks I endured because of her.
By the time I was an adult, my father had me thoroughly programed to believe that the only way to escape my family’s history: the poverty, the violence, the mental illness, was to completely and totally reject my mother—and by proxy. Myself.
But this also means rejecting the good things she gave me, too. Her courage. Her beauty. Her great sense of humor—particularly in the face of hardship. Her curiosity. Her kindness. Her musical gifts. Her creativity. Her love of stories. Her open mind. Her willingness to accept anyone, no matter who they were, what they had done. Her deep sympathy and connection to the pain of others. Her resilience. Her love. Her ability to forgive.
Whenever I am challenged, whenever I feel my most vulnerable, and unsure of myself: it’s my father’s voice that fuels those fears. My father saying, you’re not good enough. You won’t succeed. No matter what you do you won’t rise above this because you’re not enough. You’ll never be enough.
And it’s my mother’s voice that is the antidote. Her words that give me the strength to go on. To get up. To try again. I love you. You’re perfect. Look how far you’ve come. Look at everything you’ve accomplished so far. Look at everything I put you through and yet you’re still here. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met. Baby, you’ve got this. I believe in you. Don’t ever give up.
It’s still difficult to explore this dichotomous truth that she loved me but also couldn’t take care of me. That I loved her but also couldn’t save her. But I did have her love. In the shadow of her wildness, I was able to live free in a way I couldn’t with my father, a man who consumes all the breathable air around him and leaves nothing for anyone else.
But when my mother said, “you’re talented, you’re beautiful, you’re everything I’m not,” she was wrong. When I looked at her, I didn’t see what she saw. I saw her beautiful blond hair and shy smile. I heard her infectious laugh and gorgeous singing voice. I saw a woman who was fun, funny, loved scary movies and would listen to you like you were the only person in the world. Someone who would give someone the last dollar in her pocket.
If there’s anything to reject inside me, anything to rise above. It’s not the parts of me that came from her. If I want to move on, if I want to heal, I have to take these fractured parts back. I must embrace all of her.
And all of me.
“Healthy Grieving.” University of Washington Counseling Center.