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Death in the Family

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Sunday morning, a warm, breezy day, finally. I was in the shower, my wife was playing the Legend of Zelda, at the moment our favorite Nintendo game. Our five-year-old son asked for a turn, but she couldn't just stop. If she did she'd lose all the hard-earned treasures she'd gathered over weeks of play. The central character of the game, a cartoon boy named Link, would have to be sacrificed before our son could take his turn. We all play this game, and we all have our own Links, but they all look exactly the same. Coming out of the bathroom, I saw my son holding the control pad, watching Link take hit after hit. I asked him what's going on? He replied, "I have to kill Mommy so I can play." "Good," I said, "I'd hate to think you were killing yourself."

We're casual about death. Every day we speak of it. My son says he doesn't want to die, which is, I believe, a healthy way to feel. He told me he saw a commercial on TV saying if you drink Pepsi you'll live to be a hundred years old. I've never seen the commercial and he probably misunderstood, but he's young and he believed. He doesn't drink Pepsi. He wants to live to be more than a hundred years old.

At work that afternoon, I heard that some years ago several angry parents called a toy company to complain about a talking doll. They said they heard the doll squealing "Kill your mommy" to their kids. It turned out to be a big misunderstanding. Somehow, Spanish-speaking dolls had been sold as English-speaking dolls. The dolls were really saying "Quiero Mommy." The parents were allowed to trade in the dolls.

That night we watched a movie on Channel Seven, a docudrama from a few years ago called Right to Kill? based on the true story of the Colorado teenager who shot and killed his abusive father. It stars Frederic Forrest and Justine Bateman, formerly of Family Ties. Fortunately, Channel Seven ran the movie at 11, and the kids were in bed. Playing a psychotic IRS agent, that Frederic Forrest was one nasty bastard; I rooted for the kid all the way. Grace, my wife, mentioned reading about a study that found juries were more lenient to parents who kill their children than to children who kill their parents. The juries were more empathetic toward an abusive parent who went too far than toward a child who killed a parent in response to abuse. "The kids get abused and then if they react, they're abused some more," she complained.

I could see that. "This kid didn't have to kill his father to end the abuse," I said. "He should have just shot him in the kneecaps."

"Well what would that do?"

"If he can't catch him, he can't hit him."

Monday morning's headline was: "Teens Accused of $100 Murders." Underneath, it read "Boy Allegedly Hired Pal to Help Kill Parents." Parricide (as distinguished from patricide and matricide) is when both parents get it, but it's still too early to tell whether the kid got his hundred-dollar hit man to do one of the killings, or whether the boys killed the parents at all. In which case it wouldn't be parricide, technically speaking. The parents were stabbed to death. The boys' football coach described them as "average Joes."

Monday afternoon, it's raining again. There've been about five sunny days in the past five months, maybe. Grace sits on the floor with our one-year-old son between her legs; she's playing the Legend of Zelda. When the baby tries to turn off the game, she warns him "Don't even think about it."

They say the average kid sees some 30,000 murders on television before the age of ten, but that's just the average kid. I like violent shows, but I don't watch them when the kids are around. There's a Schwarzenegger movie where something like a thousand people get killed, Total Recall, I think. I know a guy who's watched it with his boys over and over. I suppose it's better than Earnest Scared Stupid, but I think he's asking for it. I think he's begging for it. "Go ahead Dad, discipline me. Make my day."

A kid I used to know, a friend of mine, saw his mother kill his father. He and his dad were sitting in front of the TV, but his dad had dozed off while cleaning his shotgun. His mother walked into the room, her eyes were glazed, she didn't look around. She picked up the gun and blew his dad's head off. I'm not sure what the word is for this kind of family violence, but the court called it "justifiable homicide." Dad was beating Mom every night, and raping the kid's older sister. Mom got a year in jail. I haven't spoken to the kid since the murder. He stopped speaking.

Grace watches Court TV. They're showing a trial of a mother and father accused of scalding their infant daughter to death. The parents say their two-year-old did it. The camera is steady on the father's face as a tape of his call to 911 at the time of the scalding plays in the background. A tear forms in his eye, and we hear the mother on the tape, crying piteously. The camera pulls back. Husband and wife have put their heads together to confer. Grace switches to the 4:30 news. It's still raining.

I have to go pick up our son from day care, and as I put on my raincoat, I hear that the standoff in Waco is over. They say all the children are dead.

The cover of an old Granta I have reads "They Fuck You Up: The Family." Family matters are rarely as simple as the terms "healthy" and "sick" or "normal" and "fucked-up" would imply. Thrown together by accidents of time and place and biology, we get in each other's way. We all have so much stress, we have so much to do. The family promises so much, delivers so little. It's dreadful and unbearable pain, and sometimes our only comfort. It's assumed that love is a cure-all. Love? What is that? The Freudians say that all boys kill their fathers symbolically. The father is diminished, his place taken by the son; sexual guilt begins in this fashion, as does manhood. Presumably, womanhood begins similarly. I did this myself, as did my father before me--"Father? What father? Old limp-dick over there? I put him in a corner years ago." Someday my sons will do the same with me. It beats getting shot in the kneecap.

There's a guy who guards the parking lot where I work. "Let me tell you about my little poodle," he told me on Sunday afternoon. He lives alone. He said when he gets home from work his little dog is so excited to see him she shakes all over. "Do you take her out?" I asked him, but he continued without hearing me. "She jumps all over me, and then you know what she does? She unties my shoes! Can you believe that?" he marveled, beaming with all the pride in the world.

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