Fahrenheit 451

You know me–the kid who always had her nose in a book.  Who grew up to be a bibliomaniac, with bookshelves in every room of the house, stacks of books everywhere that would not fit on the shelves, twenty-something boxes of books that were carted around from house to house, to wait in the attic or the garage for the day when there would finally be enough room to display them all.
John and I joked about our book addiction, which sent us to McKay’s Used Bookstore to get rid of books only to come home with more than we took, that drove us to carry home armloads from the monthly church book swap, that tempted me into joining book club upon book club.  And we were proud of our collections–the books about the English language and about Knoxville and the classics  in the living room on the best shelf, my treasured Eloise Wilkin picture books that I kept on the shelf in the closet in my bedroom to make sure they were safe, the box of lovingly accumulated–one Christmas Eve after another– Christmas books in the garage.
We thought it said something about us, these books that people could see when they visited our home.  I always peruse other people’s bookcases when I visit, looking for clues to what is important to them, to what they enjoy, to what kind of people they are.  We were the people with lots of books.
From our basement I salvaged some homeschooling books and some of my collections:  Pay Conroy, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell, Andrew Greeley, Diana Gabaldon, as well as John’s Star Trek book collection.  I don’t know if I’ve really saved them or if I will just be throwing them away later.  Can I get the soot off?  Can I get the smell out?  Do I want to cling to them enough to put up with the lingering smell of fire?  I don’t know yet.  They are in a 5 X 5 storage space. [Update:  They now live in our garage.  I clean them one at a time, whenever I want to read one.]
Pictured below is my 1980 set of Encyclopedia Brittanica which I received when I won the Regional Spelling Bee.  I’m letting them go, but it’s hard.  I’m also saying good-bye to the 1976 Wester’s Third New International Dictionary, which has pressed flowers from my grandfather’s funeral, provided pronunciations for thousands of word from Words of the Champions, settled countless arguments in the years since.  It was on the bottom shelf and those books are covered in debris.

It may sound like a crazy thing to ask, but I really am struggling with this question:  If I am not the person with all the books, who am I?  Who am I without my stuff?

The Flames of Experience

Most of my readers probably know that our home was destroyed by fire  a week ago.   I know now I really am a writer since I began composing blog posts in my head within a few hours of hearing this unbelievable, sickening, life-changing news.
We were not home, which was a blessing.  John’s 93-year-old grandmother had died the week prior, and John and I and our little kids were in Baltimore.  We had just returned to our hotel after the receiving of friends (they call this the “viewing” in Baltimore) and still had the funeral to get through the following morning.  Our oldest son had begged to be allowed to stay alone at the house but thank God we held firm and he and his brother were safe at my sister’s house.
The call came from the mother of Jake’s best friend.  I don’t think I said one word to her.  I looked down and I could see my hand shaking.  I grabbed John and pulled him into the bathroom to tell him what she had said.  Moments later our landlady called and confirmed the terrible news.  She was crying but from joy, because we left two cars at home and at that point many people thought we were inside, with flames shooting 15 feet above the roof.
Over 500 miles away from this unbelievable tragedy, with our devastated little kids worried about their cats and their favorite toys, we still had a funeral and surrounding events to get through before we could make the trip back to Knoxville.  It was Thursday before we even visited the scene of the devastation.  I got sicker and sicker as we approached the house.    There really are no words to describe what this is like, even though I have to try.  Looking at a corpse comes closest.  The house is dead.  The destruction is nearly complete.  I did not know what to expect but I had visions of this or that thing surviving.  It is true that several basement rooms suffered only water and smoke damage, but water and smoke do a lot of damage.  From inside the upstairs I have saved a badly singed wedding portrait of my parents, a fork from the set we received when we were married, and one laminated clipping from my trip to the National Spelling Bee.  John found (after hours of digging with a shovel in what was once our bedroom) several rings from the jewelry box that sat on his bureau.   I also have some soot-covered books from the basement that I’ve put into storage, my tendency being to want to hold onto anything that survived, although eventually they may have to be dumped.  I just don’t know.
And that’s it.  Our kids fared somewhat better–not much.  Gone, all gone–my wedding dress, thousands of treasured books, baby clothes dating from my own babyhood, all the afghans crocheted by my grandmother, the pastel portrait of my great-grandmother, my mother’s original watercolor painting, the flag that decorated John’s father’s coffin, his grandfather’s huge art deco cabinet radio . . . Well, I could go on.  The list of things that rises to my mind is different each time.  Your list would be different if this happened to you, but you understand what it would be like.
A week ago, if even one of those treasures had been destroyed–or even others less precious–I would have felt devastated by the loss.  The enormity of this tragedy–and I am using that word correctly–is such that I cannot even process it.  I’ve hardly shed a tear–whether because I am still in shock or because I am being held up by the prayers of so many, for which I am very grateful.
There is much more to say, but for now I will let the images do the talking.

One Short Life

A year ago today, a young life ended.  Today marks the end of the first year that Henry’s family spent without him, longing for him on every holiday and birthday, at the birth of his sister  and death of his great-grandmother, during family milestones and every day moments.  They say that the first year is the hardest, and I hope that proves true, but circumstances have prevented this family’s grieving from following the usual course. Henry’s killers walk free, and the people who are supposed to protect and serve and to seek justice have not.
Katie filed a civil wrongful death suit today against the couple and the clinic who supplied the methadone that led to Henry’s death.  Just days after he died, the family set up a foundation which is already awarding scholarships to young people with addiction whose families cannot afford inpatient treatment.  WBIR T.V. produced a documentary on Henry’s short life and death which they aired twice, commercial free, and which  is now available to the public, showing both kids and their parents that addiction–and addicts–might look different from what they imagined.  Katie’s writing has raised awareness in our community and beyond about the prescription drug addiction crisis, and in advocating for a thorough investigation into her son’s death and prosecution of the perpetrators under the laws that are already on the books she will very likely change the way these cases are dealt with in the future.    Henry’s life had meaning, and people will remember him.  He made–he is making–a difference.

Why has Henry’s story captivated so many, and why have I written so much about him here?  His mother’s honesty, emotion, and beautiful writing have played a major role.  I had been reading Katie’s blog  for so many years that while I had only met in her person a few times and had never met Henry at all, I felt that I knew all of them and I am sure I am not the only one who felt the same.  Anyone who spends significant time in any online community ceases to feel a huge distinction between real life and virtual acquaintances. I was horrified when Katie posted that Henry had been hospitalized.  I visited frequently to check for updates.  I rejoiced when it looked like Henry was going to make it after all.  And I cried when I read Katie’s Facebook update with nothing more than her son’s full name and the dates of his short life.   If you start at the beginning, as so many did, and read through the little more than a month of postings that cover Henry’s struggle from hospitalization to painful death, you will be captivated too.
Then there was the second part of the story, the part that Katie waited a long time to tell:  that despite overwhelming evidence, most of which she had to search for herself, despite laws on the books allowing for prosecution for homicide of those who deliver a lethal dose of drugs, the powers that be in Knox County had declined to pursue a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding Henry’s death.  This is another story well worth reading.  It will horrify and depress you, and if you live in Knox County it may frighten and even embarrass you.  Read the story, which lays out the facts of what happened to Henry at what the KCSO and the D.A.’s office have done in response.  Listen to the media coverage, both local and national, in the sidebar.
Henry’s cause is worth championing, but there is another very good reason that it is a fitting topic for my blog, which began as a continuation of my defunct column from the East Tennessee Catholic.  In the paper I wrote about life issues, usually abortion, but also assisted reproductive technology, euthanasia, the death penalty, even war.  I welcomed the chance that blogging gave me to branch out a little.  But what all the life issues share is the conviction that all life is sacred from conception until natural death.
People writing about Henry make much of the fact that he was sweet, handsome, talented, much-loved, that he was more than his addiction.  But those facts are not the reason that he deserves justice.  If Henry had been none of those things, if he really were the worthless junkie that some of the commenters on the Knoxville News-Sentinel coverage of the case–and even on Katie’s own blogs–would make him out to be, he would still deserve justice.  An “unattractive victim” is still a victim, a human being,  a child of God.

Henry’s life was his to live, and it was stolen from him.  He died painfully over several days.  It shouldn’t have happened and it shouldn’t go unnoticed and unpunished.  And if we believe that life is sacred and worthy of protection, we should all do whatever we can to make sure that nothing like it ever happens again, to anyone.
If you believe in the cause of justice for Henry, please go here and sign the petition asking for a full investigation into his death.  Thank you.

Justice for Henry

I became a fan of Katie Allison Granju at least ten years ago, when she was writing her column “Loco Parentis” in the Metropulse (that’s our alternative weekly for my non-Knoxvillian readers.).  It was near the back of the paper, I remember, and the first place I turned when I picked up my copy.  When she stopped writing for the Metropulse, I went hunting on the web for more of her writing and discovered her blog, and I have been a faithful reader ever since–through the aftermath of her divorce, her new marriage and fourth baby, and more recently the terrible tragedy she and her family have suffered with the death of her treasured son Henry.
Katie’s writing resonated with me, I think, because we seemed to have so much in common–we are almost exactly the same age; we both wanted large families in a time when that’s viewed as more than a little strange;  we were married and started families very young (again an oddity amongst the college-educated); and we both practice attachment parenting (she wrote the book on it!).   I was really thrilled when our online acquaintance moved into real life, as Henry started school at the high school my daughter attended and we became “neighbors”–participating on the same neighborhood mailing list and occasionally meeting at the Fellini Kroger.
Any dedicated reader of Katie’s blog could tell that all was not well with Henry as his teenage years progressed.  She mentioned him less and less, and when she did it was in the context of how raising a teenager was the most difficult task she had ever undertaken.  I wondered–I’m sure many readers did-what Henry’s problem was.  I would never, ever have suspected the truth.
You see, I always thought–maybe you did too–that any kid with a serious drug problem MUST have been messed up by his parents in some way.  Things like that don’t happen to kids from good home, with parents who love them and pay attention to them.  If it did, there must be something wrong in that home, something hidden and shameful.  That has been Henry’s biggest lesson to me.  Because Katie is a good mother–the best.  No one could love a child more than she loved Henry.  The more I have learned about what happened to him and what she and his father did to try to help, the more it has become clear to me that what happened to Henry was not his family’s fault in any way. 
At one time I also probably would have thought that Henry must have been a bad kid for making the choices he did.  But I now know that he was a sick kid–a sweet, sick kid who loved his family and felt just terrible about the pain his addiction caused everyone who loved him so much.  And I’m not trying to say that Henry and his family are an exception and thus deserving of some special attention.  Rather I believe that Henry’s story should make all of us realize that addiction happens everywhere–in good families and not so good, to smart kids with bright futures as well as the disadvantaged.  No child who dies as Henry did deserves anything less from law enforcement than the investigation and pursuit of justice that would be accorded any crime victim.  That he was a drug addict should make no difference.
But is has made a difference.  Justice has not been done.  His family has been treated shamefully by the Knox County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office.  For ten months Katie has kept quiet about the investigation, while carrying on her own.  She has waited on the legal system and has not used her considerable online clout to talk about the case.  But now she is tired of waiting for what is obviously never going to happen.  She is on the process of making public the entire story of what happened to Henry, as she has been able to piece it together through her own investigation.  This isn’t speculation–it’s backed up by text messages, cell phone records, interviews with people who were there–and Henry himself, on one of the last days he was able to communicate before succumbing to the effects of the brain injury that ultimately killed him at 18.
I encourage you to start at the beginning and read the whole thing.  There are eight parts posted so far.   Part eight is especially horrifying and disturbing.  That Henry’s family has been able to refrain from talking about it for so long, and that the KCSO has done nothing in light of what she reveals in that part–well, to say it is unbelievable doesn’t come close to covering it. 
Katie and Chris (Henry’s dad) have also been active on local media this week, both television and radio.  Their great hope is that someone will pick up the story nationally.  So I am asking you to consider contacting Nancy Grace, as Katie asks in this post.  If you know ANYONE in the media who might be interested in this story, please send them a link.   Express your outrage to the KCSO and the DA’s office.  Post links in your own blog, or Twitter, or Facebook page.  The internet has given the power to the people, so let’s use it!
I never met Henry.  I saw him only one time, when I was waiting for Emily to come out of KCHS and Henry came out and got in the car next to me, where his dad was waiting.  But I, like so many people around the world, have been haunted by his story.  Last night I dreamed about him.  It was one of those dreams where you know the person is dead and you are just happy that they’ve come back for a visit.  I remember thinking in the dream that I wished there was some way I could warn him, some way that I could prevent what was going to happen to him.  Katie writes that she has prayed and prayed for what she knows is impossible, that God would just send Henry back.  She can’t have him back, and it is too late to save him.  But with our help, maybe she can prevent this from happening to another teenager.  And she can get justice for Henry.

Prescription Addiction

My friend Katie has been writing frequently about the scourge of addiction to prescription drugs since her son died of an overdose and beating in May.  And now John and I have been witnessing this almost every day in our work.
Our practice is mostly appointed work–a conscious choice for several reasons, but that’s for another post.  We do a lot of work for parents who have been charged in dependence and neglect cases, and John also acts as Guardian ad Litem for the children in such cases.  Before you say, “Oh, how can you defend people who abuse their kids?” let me tell you that it’s not like what you imagine.  Almost every parent we represent has one major problem which leads to the removal of their children–they are addicted to pain medication.  These are people who love their children, who have never purposely hurt their children, who want to get their children back–which the system makes very difficult indeed.  Perhaps all the money spent on foster care and attorneys and DCS workers in these cases would be better spent on treating the problem and helping maintain the families instead of tearing them apart?  I don’t know, but I wonder.
Yesterday we got word that one of our clients, the father of four, died of an overdose.  His children had been taken away from him for the second time because of drugs.  I spoke with this man on the phone more than once.  He loved his kids and was trying to do what he needed to do to get them back.  Now he is gone.
One of the many dangers of these drugs is that they are so accessible.  If you’ve had surgery recently chances are you have a few in your cabinet right now.  My cat broke his leg this week, and the vet warned me to keep his painkillers in a safe place if anyone ever comes in my house who might have a prescription addiction problem.  Can you imagine being so desperate that you would try to get high on cat medicine?   I can’t, but growing numbers of people can–and it’s a problem that is not going away on its own.

Henry's Story

I’ve written a lot over the past few months about the tragic early death of Henry Louis Granju.  That story is now going to be told on television.  If you aren’t local (or, like me, don’t have t.v. in your home–yeah, right!), you will be able to watch it online after it airs next week.
Katie and her family are so generous to share their private pain in a public way because they hope to save lives of  other beloved children.  Henry came from a good family, he was loved, his family tried everything to help him.  If  it could happen to him, it could happen to any child, and that’s terrifying.
Remember, this is what a drug addict looks like: 

Don't Try Suicide

I’m feeling sad today about the death of Darrin Owenby, who took his own life early this morning.  A former Marine, Darrin apparently suffered from PTSD.  I didn’t know that, though.  I didn’t know much about Darrin at all, really.  Although we were in grade school and high school together, I was three years ahead of him and didn’t really know him; but as his Facebook friend I have a front row seat for today’s tragic event.
Looking at Darrin’s Facebook wall, at the sorrow and love and respect recorded there, it’s hard to fathom that someone so loved and admired would find life too hard to face.  We never really know, do we, the secrets in the hearts of those around us, even those we think we know well.  I am sure that Darrin’s family and his many friends are wondering if there was some sign they missed, some word they might have said that would have stopped this from happening.
I keep coming back to this:  two days ago Darrin planted a field of rhubarb in Farmville (trading Farmville gifts constituted our Facebook reliationship).   Today, he is dead.  How does that happen?  What pushes someone over the edge into such despair that death is preferable to the pain of living?  
One thing I know:  death is an awfully permanent solution to life’s problems.  Teresa of Avila said, “Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee; all thing pass; God never changes. Patience attains all that it strives for.  He who has God finds he lacks nothing:  God alone suffices.” I don’t know anything about PTSD.  And I don’t know what treatment Darrin may have sought in fighting his own demons.   But I wish he could have waited for this despair to pass.  I am so, so sorry he lost the battle–and especially sorry for his close friends and family, who will surely suffer even while knowing that Darrin, a devoted Catholic, is at peace.
If anyone reading this is depressed to the point of contemplating ending it all, please reach out.  There is help for you.  Change is possible.  Things almost always get better.

Private pain

 A WONDERFUL FACT to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

The above is from one of my favorite novels, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  Perhaps it has stayed with me because it so eloquently expresses a mystery I have often felt but have never been able to explain so well, the realization that all around me, others are going through their days, living their lives, thinking their thoughts, and those lives and those thoughts, of which I am completely unaware, are every bit as important to them as mine are to me.  I may see a person just once, through a car window, our lives just barely intersecting, and I will never know anything more about that person, her triumphs, his tragedies. 
Have you ever stared at the person you love most in the world and suddenly realized something similar, that he or she is a person just like you, with an inner life and thoughts you can never fully fathom?  All of a sudden that person starts to look a little too REAL, somehow, and you almost have to look away.  It’s too much to think about, too much to understand.
I’m thinking about this today for a sad reason.  I was thinking about how over the past several weeks so many of us have been following Henry’s tragic story, and it has become very personal to us, and painful, because Katie’s writing drew us in and she allowed us to become part of the story, to have the privilege to share her suffering.
But there is so much suffering and so much death, all around us, every day, that we cannot share.  This morning the headline story of our local paper told of the death of another teenager, this one a girl who was shot on her own front porch by a stray bullet as she tried to take her baby cousin to safety.  How many more have died from drive-by shootings, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time?  And just last week two teenage boys died in a terrible car crash while on a road trip.  Car crashes are the third leading cause of death for teenagers, after all.  
Almost exactly two years ago, our family members in Maryland were stunned by the death of Brian, who had just graduated from high school and was headed to the beach to celebrate when his car was hit by a drunk driver–a driver who had killed with his car before.  And I still remember vividly the case of the Knoxville Catholic High School senior, Sharon Gerard, who died in a motorcycle crash on graduation night when I was still a sophomore. 
So many tragic and early deaths.  If you are reading papers in other states, you’ll have seen different stories, equally sad.  Or you have personal knowledge of similar situations–perhaps your family has been touched personally by untimely death.  We read the stories of others, and maybe our eyes dampen a bit as we say what a terrible thing it is that has happened.  But then we go on, because there is only so much pain we can allow ourselves to feel.
Death and tragedy and loss are, then, universal.  We all suffer them.  Yet to the extent that we experience them privately and internally, our losses are singular and peculiar to us alone.  Everyone feels them differently and we can never know exactly how another is grieving.  Nor can we know what private pain that person we glimpse in passing through the car window is carrying inside, but we can be sure that there is something.

In lieu of flowers

Henry‘s mama has asked friends to publicize the scholarship fund his family has set up in his memory, which will pay for treatment for other addicted young people whose families could not otherwise afford it.  Henry’s guitar teacher wrote a lovely song in Henry’s honor; it is now available for download and he will donate all procees to the fund.  You may also donate directly.  You can read all about it on his mom’s blog
If you’ve been following Henry’s story via my blog and are interested in reading more about him, Katie’s friend and co-worker Shane Rhyne has compiled a list here of every blog post he has been able to find written after Henry’s death.

Joy mixed with sorrow

I might as well confess that I enjoy a good funeral.  The singing, the eulogizing, the visiting with rarely seen friends and relatives, even the catharsis of tears.  But implicit in my notion of the “good funeral” is that it is a remembrance for one who lived a full and long life.  Funerals for those whose lives have been cut tragically short are usually another matter.
But Henry’s family managed to strike the perfect balance in their celebration of his life today.  There were tears, yes.  Yet everything about the ceremony was oriented toward celebration and remembrance–the thousands of loose flowers carried up by younger family members, the candle lighting, the readings so bravely read by his younger siblings, the communal singing of “Let it Be” led by Katie’s cousin.
I am in awe of Henry’s father, Chris, for being able to stand before us all and talk about his son without breaking down completely.  His spoken words brought Henry to life for us just as Katie’s written words have.  He spoke of the sorrow of losing his son but also of his joy at having known him.  And he spoke of Henry’s final gift of bringing the family closer as a result of having banded together to care for him over the past five weeks, a legacy he said would last.
I met Katie through her blog, and rarely see her in person.  Like so many who have faithfully followed Henry’s story, I have longed to do something–anything–to help.  I’ve prayed, and I’ve commented with such feeble words of wisdom as I could muster, but for me the highlight of the day was being able to finally give her an actual hug instead of a virtual one.