We play many roles in our life, some of us are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, we are professionals, non-workers, retirees, writers, readers, we are married, divorced, widowed, creative, analytical – we are so many different things in one lifetime that a dictionary’s worth of words does not come close to describing who we really are.
One of my roles that, early on I did not expect, was survivor of homicide. My mother, Lucia Elaine Roach Rothwell was murdered on April 2, 1990. Her body was discovered on April 3 and I, though I read the San Jose Mercury news every morning somehow missed the article. I found out about my mother’s death when I received a call from the coroner at work. My mother had a picture among her belongings of my brother and me. As I was married and had a different name, the only reason I found out about what happened to my mother was because someone I knew who worked at the coroner’s office recognized me and called me at work.
I remember every word of that call as well as how the inside of my head exploded as I fell to the floor screaming one word, no. If I shut my eyes even today, twenty four years later, I can hear myself screaming. My life changed on April 3, forever, but it really changed on April 2, 1990 when my mother was raped, murdered and left to be found near a chain link fence in San Jose, California, a mere five miles from my house.
My mother never did anything by half measures. She was a paranoid schizophrenic and before shock therapy as well as the medications necessary to mitigate symptoms and frankly, her fear of being shut away from society, transformed her exuberant and lively personality, she was creative, audacious, brilliant and frustratingly good at honing in on a person’s weaknesses. Oh my, did she drive my father crazy. And, oh my, though I know that motherhood was her favorite role, she could be terrifying in her madness. I must now, sadly, be honest about this last, when I was a small child she was often not present for me, or too present for me, and the war my parents waged with each other was almost always too much for my younger brother and for me. Knowing all of this, when my mother put on her mask of timidity I lost all the rest – from the rages to her bountiful imagination. I did not lose her courage. My mother remained courageous to the end.
In any case, back to no half measures – my mother’s murder was the jackpot of horrific crimes, she died a raped and murdered homeless schizophrenic who lived in a homeless camp so close to my – her daughter’s – house as to always raise questions about why I was not taking care of her at the time. The simple, sad, horrible answer is that I tried. I live with that sad answer even today. No one’s judgment about this, and plenty have judged, including the presiding judge at the first trial of her murderer, my ex-husband’s work associates and others, has ever been harsher than the judgment I have visited on myself – though this has made me far less judgmental of others and, hopefully, kinder.
My mother was the kindest, bravest, smartest and craziest person I ever knew. I did not appreciate all of the wonderful contradictory aspects of her nature when she was alive and I hunt for her kindness, strength of character and intelligence in every person I meet as well as in myself. If I can live up to even the smallest fraction of her true character, I will have lived a good life.
When she was alive and I was young, my mother took in every stray and gave completely of herself to help her friends, family and others no matter the personal sacrifice. No one else was ever as kind to her during her sad life as she was to every single person she met or knew. My father regularly put her on busses and shipped her back to her family in Tennessee, who then shipped her right back to us. These vacations from my mother were a part of my growing up. Yet, when as a family we drove to Tennessee to visit her parents, my parents held hands in the front seat of the car for the entire trip – one of life’s little contradictions. Life, I have found, is steeped in unappreciated contradictions. I am okay with these lapses; my life has trained me to expect a degree of upheaval and contradictory behavior.
When she was alive and I was young, my father would grow frustrated with my mother and beat her. I do not think many days passed when my mother escaped a beating of some sort, and yet when my father lost his temper at his challenging teenage daughter (who loved to talk back and often climbed out of her bedroom window at night) and approached me in a menacing way, she stood between us until he backed away. My mother was not even five feet tall and she was always very slight. I can picture her standing there, willing to take blows that were coming my way and I know in my heart the courage and strength and love it took her to stand there – I have never encountered a quieter or more steadfast courage since.
My father took great pains to make sure that my brother and I, but especially me, stayed far away from her. I grew up avoiding her – and, oh, how that must have broken her heart. My mother had the most expansive heart that I have ever come across. In comparison my own heart is a relatively lean organ.
I miss my mother’s intelligence, her insights and her frustrating ability to understand almost instantly the most complex situations and problems – she was by profession a teacher. She was, by all accounts, a very good teacher. People who knew her remember her as the smartest person they ever knew. My mother put this to work during my school breaks by making me read all the classics, which I secretly loved and never thanked her for making me do.
Lucia Elaine Roach Rothwell was murdered on April 2, 1990. I miss the teacher, the mother, the beautiful woman she was until shock therapy, medication and just the sad life she lived robbed her of her looks. Someone else robbed her of her life and my chance to make it all up to her. I miss her strength and wish I had half as much. I miss her kind heart, and wish I were a fraction as kind. I remember her now and always but on April 2, I remember everything.