10 years ago today, my 34-year-old cousin was murdered by her on-again-off again fiancé. Shot in the head on her own sofa.
May 7, 2006, I was returning on an early morning flight from the out-of-town wedding of my now-husband’s eldest brother. Running on three hours of sleep, stale airplane coffee, and a slight hangover, we made our way home. We stopped at my eventual parents-in-law’s house to pick up my car when I realized I was far too tired to safely command a vehicle. So, I took a 30-minute nap to regain some semblance of human brain function. When I awoke, only half-zombie now, I remembered my cell phone was still off due to the plane ride. I turned it on. Numerous voicemails.
I listened to one message after the other from family members telling me to call them. One, from my male cousin, urged me to call him immediately. I had never heard these words from him. I ran outside to get better reception and called.
“Joy is dead.” What??? We didn’t know anything except that her live-in fiancé had been present. Details were scarce and contradictory. I asked after my aunt, the mother of my three cousins. “She’s sitting in a chair. She’s quiet.” “Where are you?” I asked. They were at his sister’s — Joy’s sister’s — house. “Come over.”
I closed my flip phone and stared at a crack in the driveway. “What was that all about?” Hubs asked, still half-zombie himself. “Joy is dead.” I said vacantly. My mind couldn’t process the words. The exhausted mental wires were firing and fizzing but no connection resulted. I was numb.
Hubs drove me to my cousin’s house. I sat in the passenger seat for the hour long drive switching between talking to family on the phone, trying to find out anything that made any of this make sense, and staring silently out the window. “Joy is dead” I kept thinking.
We arrived at my cousin’s home. Everyone was there. We were processing, rehashing our stories of how we heard the news, sharing what little information we knew, trying to comprehend our reality. We kept glancing at our phones, as if at any moment a call would come through and this nightmare would be extinguished.
Over the next eight months the police investigation was messy. Media enjoyed the story. Official assumptions were offered and rescinded. Evidence was found and lost. Deals were made and ammended. In the end, there was a trial.
The on-again-off-again live-in fiancé, indicted on first-degree murder and using a handgun to commit a felony, plead down to manslaughter and a gun charge. He got 10 years, with the mandatory 5-year gun sentence to run concurrently with the manslaughter time. He served 6 years.
My 34-year-old cousin who loved life, took in his children as her own, helped him through medical challenges, supported him through addiction, and aided him during financial hardships was dead due to his actions. Yet he served 6 years.
It took me years to let go of the unfairness, to release the nagging questions about the fated night’s events, to accept it all as a part of the family path and my story. It was what it was.
10 years later, I put myself in Joy’s place; she was just a year older than I am now when she was killed. I look back on how I’ve changed, how my life has changed, who has been added to and subtracted from our living family since she left us. I think about how different life may have been — how different I might have been — if Joy was still alive.
I reflect on how the holiday season is different without her. How family gatherings are quieter. How I’ve had to actively redirect my initial reaction to all the signs and decor featuring “JOY” in bold, festive letters from an aching pit in my stomach to a contented reflection. I can now smile outwardly — though not always inwardly — at the sight. I am a work in progress, but I am determined.
I reflect on how I’ve purposefully trained myself to react to poignant dates with a celebratory demeanor to honor her life, instead of pointlessly lamenting her death. How I’ve reminded myself over and over that Joy’s death was but moment in the vibrant life she loved so much. How I’ve instructed myself that her death isn’t — and shouldn’t be — demonstrative of her life. How focusing so heavily on her death diminishes the beauty of her existence.
I reflect on how I have to think before answering questions about how many cousins I have, or what tense to use when referring to Joy. Because, “my cousin was murdered by her fiance” isn’t exactly prime conversation material. I don’t want to lie, I don’t want to pretend she was never a part of this world, but few have experienced murder with any closer proximity than through a television series.
10 years later, I have resigned myself to the truth that we will never know what really happened that night, that nothing will ever feel just, that nothing will bring her back. Closure is simply not ours to have.
Some things in life we aren’t supposed to know, control, or understand. We are just to live. So I do.