Eighteen years ago this week, a mere two months before I met Don for the first time, one of my students was murdered. He had finished the graduate acting program, had done his final thesis performance (where he had an enormous breakthrough and gave a stunning performance) and was ready to go out into the world. Classes had ended. On Friday, he stopped by the office shared by my friend Rick (the head of the grad program) and me and we all went out to an impromptu lunch. John was warm and funny and smart and a wonderful guy. He was sort of the class clown and I could never be angry with him because he always made me laugh. (When you teach students in a training program such as the ones I worked in, you see them in class, on stage, you coach them, you spend hours with them and you get to know them very well.) The lunch was a delight. On the way back to the office, we stopped at a memorial rose garden – dedicated to a student that had been murdered several years before. We read a quote etched into a stone and felt sadness at a life ended so young.
Very early the following Monday morning, I got a call from Rick. I was barely awake. He told me that John had been murdered the previous evening. He and his girlfriend, a classmate, had been walking out of Balboa Park after a closing night performance when a truck pulled alongside of them and shots rang out. Both of them were hit. As his girlfriend (who was shot in the leg) struggled to get to him he said “I think I’m dying.” And he died.
I’ve lost many people in my life. And I lost several when I was quite young. I was no stranger to grief. But this, this was beyond grief. This was despair, anger, sadness, rage and an overwhelming “Why?” His parents had just been in San Diego to see his thesis performance. A more wonderful, supportive family you could not find. They had seen him triumph and then a few short days later, they got a phone call in the middle of the night. He was gone.
We all flew to Kansas for his funeral. I’ve truly never been through anything as difficult. I don’t know if I’ve ever cried so much in my life. Three years earlier, I’d lost my brother and that was devastating and heartbreaking, but he’d been sick and I knew that day might come. I’d had a chance to prepare. John, on the other hand, was here with us, full of life, one minute and gone the next. He was 24.
The murderers were caught. Three people. A guy in his twenties who was already a two time offender (under California’s Three Strikes law), another guy who was 18 or 19, also a two time offender and a girl of seventeen. The shooter? The girl. They tried to claim that it was a robbery gone wrong, but John’s girlfriend confirmed that words were never exchanged. They simply slowed to a stop and the girl fired the gun. Why? Because they dared each other. And they had easy access to handguns. I was already an advocate of gun control, but you can bet I became even more so after John’s murder. There’s no sitting on the fence on that issue when it becomes personal and the handgun has killed someone you know and love.
That summer I spent a great deal of time at the murder trial. We all took turns sitting with John’s mother, giving our support. I looked at that girl and I felt such anger, such rage. How dare she snuff out his life? How dare she take our John away from us? I wanted to slap her, punch her, shake her and yes, hurt her. And I was struck by what a waste it all was. The two males were going to jail for the rest of their life because they had committed their third strike with this act – they were accessories and, therefore, equally culpable. The girl – who wasn’t even of legal age – would be spending the rest of her life in prison. One of the best young men I have ever known was dead. His girlfriend was injured, not just physically, but emotionally. And all for what? A dare?
I will never make sense of it.
I miss him all the time, but this time of year is always bittersweet. I can’t believe it’s been 18 years. And true to life’s highs and lows, you can go through the worst thing ever and think you will never feel joy again and a few months later meet the love of your life. So when I remember that Don and I will be celebrating 18 years together this July, I am also reminded that John has been gone from us for 18 years.
The small theater that the MFA students perform in on campus is dedicated to John. His family came out to San Diego for the dedication. I’m so grateful to have known him. I continue to mourn for him. We lost a wonderful guy who would have contributed much to the world on that May day.
Though I helped Rick write John’s eulogy, I’ve never written about it before. This year, I felt the need to.
Thanks for listening.