Elizabeth Kaeton recently brought us the story of the 33rd stone. Katelynn Johnson, a student at Virginia Tech, decided to place a stone in memory of Seung-Hui Cho in addition to the 32 memorial stones set up in memory of his victims. Katelynn was quoted as saying “You don’t get to pick who’s in your family.”
What is even more remarkable is that Katelynn was not alone in thinking of Cho as someone who was or could have been a family member. Many have been flooded with memories of family members lost and broken by mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, and relentless behaviors destructive to self and others that were beyond the comprehension and control of those who loved them.
It brought to mind a memorial stone I recently visited. My brother-in-law J, whom I never met, is buried under a beautiful white, marble stone in a Veterans’ cemetery. He served in Viet Nam. Before and after his tour of duty, he suffered from mental illness and substance abuse. I’m told that before he left for Viet Nam, he said he hoped he would die there. When he returned, very much alive, he made numerous suicide threats and attempts. Finally, he hung himself. Just before he died, he telephoned his mother and told her what he was doing. He left a wife and thirteen-old daughter, as well as grief-stricken parents and brothers and sisters. His oldest brother, recently ordained as an Episcopal priest, presided over the funeral. He didn’t know which was worse – the horror of seeing his brother, dead on a slab, with a deep rope burn on his neck – or the realization that even in life, this was a person he scarcely knew. He did not know how he would find words to speak to the family, but somehow he did. His brother was buried in the VA cemetery.
Decades later, the same family was gathered together to bury the mother in the same cemetery where the father, a WWII veteran, was also buried. J’s widow and daughter were present, along with the priest and the other brothers and sisters. The memory of J and his death was still very much with everyone. Some of those present had led lives on the edge, themselves broken in various ways. Yet, miraculously, the strongest of the lot seemed to be J’s widow and child and one of her children, who attended. After the last burial rites for Grandma, we all went to see J’s grave, which we only found after checking out the map at the office. J’s stone was in the front row of a sea of stones of veterans from many wars. He may not have been anyone’s hero, but his widow and daughter could speak of him easily and with affection, as well as with some pain. He was part of their family, our family, loved and forgiven, despite all the terrible things he had done.