Death’s Valley Days: Prologue (Memoir)

Chapter 1: The Diamond in the Door (excerpt)

I had just put Austin down for the night, an hour before midnight, when my mother popped her head in the bedroom and said, “There’s a policeman knocking at the door.”

A few weeks earlier the city police department had conducted a SWAT team exercise at the vacant house down the street. Given that the police department was just around the corner from our house, I thought perhaps they were making neighborhood rounds to notify us about something. (I had just birthed a baby thirteen days prior — my critical thinking skills were blunted by new motherhood and sleep deprivation.)

I padded to the door barefoot, still marveling with each step that I was no longer pregnant, no longer waddling, and that I could once again see my toes as I walked.

It’s hard to know what sensate experiences will become memories, and what is destined for the dust bunnies of time, but I vividly remember the front door of our Craftsman style bungalow on West Wilshire Avenue.

It was about six inches wider than the standard house door, and the interior side was covered in matte brown paint — the color of fallen acorns that have been kicked around a few months. The door had scuff marks, too. There was a diamond shaped window at eye height, making it possible to see who was standing at the door. If you stood off to the side and looked at it, you could see the waves that rippled across the surface. Our house was close to a hundred years old; the window’s liquid glass evidence of the original packaging.

I peered through the window, and saw a middle-aged man with drooping jowls. He wore gold-rimmed glasses and a uniform; no cap. The badge on his chest looked authentic, but I was a new mother who had suddenly grown protective and cautious.

“Are you Mrs. Jonathan Burke?” he asked. I didn’t actually hear him, instead, I speechread his lips through the glass. Fortunately, he was clean-shaven.

“Yes”, I replied (through the glass).

“May I come in?”

“Why?”

“May I come in, please, Mrs. Burke?” His use of the “Mrs.” rankled. I had decided to keep my birth name, and I certainly had no plans to use an honorific that would identify me as married.

Slightly annoyed, I countered, “Show me your badge.”

He held his badge up to the window. It looked real enough, but I realized then that identifying law enforcement badges for authenticity was something that I’d never learned in high school. Maybe that life skill was taught after I dropped out my senior year. I shrugged and opened the door, poking my head out to see what he had to say.

“May I come in please, Mrs. Burke?”

“Why?”

“I have something to tell you about your husband, Jonathan Burke.”

The light dawned.

It had finally happened — Jonathan’s activism on the anti-smoking campaign had landed him in jail. No doubt he’d lost his cool and punched out a smoker, and the cop was here to let me know. But just as that thought raced through my head, a competing thought cancelled it out: policemen don’t go to someone’s house to notify them that a loved one has been jailed. They go to someone’s house to notify them of…

I yanked the door open, demanding, “What’s happened to my husband? Is he okay?”

The policeman crossed the threshold, “Please sit down, Mrs. Burke.”

I stepped backwards, keeping my eyes on his face so I wouldn’t miss a word. “What’s happened to my husband? Is he dead?”

The policeman waited for me to sit on the couch, and followed suit, sitting down in front of me. “Mrs. Burke, I regret to tell you that your husband Jonathan Burke has died in an accident.”

I looked at him. Hard. “That can’t be right. We just had a baby!”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mother at the desk, reaching for the phone to call my father.

“I’m afraid so, Mrs. Burke. I am very sorry for your loss.”

“What… What happened?”

“I don’t have much information, Mrs. Burke. There was an explosion, and he died. Here is my card; on the back of it is the Inyo County coroner’s phone number. Call him. He’ll have more information.”

Reading the card, I noted that he was a member of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, not a cop from around the corner. The county seal was on the card – three oranges and Saddleback Mountain in the background. Was that real gold leaf on the seal? How fitting. Gold, to go with our gold mine in the Panamints, the western range of Death Valley.

I noticed the deputy sheriff’s hands holding the card. Calloused and rough, they were spotted with freckles, or maybe age spots. Taking the card, I looked up, stared at his eyes through his bifocals. They were kind, marked with laugh lines in the corners. This couldn’t be easy for him, I realized.

I glanced over at my mother on the phone, talking to my father. She had an expression on her face that I’d never seen before. Later I identified it as a mother’s anguish, but at the time, it just puzzled me. She hung up the phone and sat down next to me.

“You won’t be alone tonight, will you, Mrs. Burke?”

I shook my head. “No, my son is here with me. He’s thirteen days old, did I tell you that?”

My mother added, “I’ll be here with her.” Turning to me, she said, “Dad is on his way.”

Just then Austin cried out.

I sprang to the bedroom to get him. Picking him up, I held him tightly. I whispered, “Daddy’s gone, Austin. Daddy’s gone. What are we going to do?” Flicking down my maternity bra flap with a practiced hand, I positioned him at my breast, still standing.

When we returned to the living room, the sheriff was gone.

And so was Jonathan.

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About Teresa Blankmeyer Burke

Just another deaf academic/advocate/activist blogging about life.
This entry was posted in Memoir and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Death’s Valley Days: Prologue (Memoir)

  1. Teresa, this is breathtaking. So moving. I am so glad you are writing this! The way you bring us into the story is powerful… and the way you let us know that you are hearing-impaired just by telling us you had to keep your eyes on the sheriff’s lips… I’ll be looking for further installments. Thank you for sharing.

  2. albee says:

    reading this with wet eyes … evocative and moving. being a widow myself, I relate.

  3. You capture so much detail, Teresa…. from many senses and emotional sources. EXCELLENT work. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. No critique necessary. You descriptions are vivid and allow me to experience the described space as I read. The descriptions of your responses are so real, so un-scripted/non-Hollywood. I will buy and read the book.

  5. Rochelle Keymer O'Donnell says:

    I have never known your story Teresa and am so sorry for you and your son’s loss. Margaret Randall said it so well…you take the reader in immediately and impart so much information so quickly. You are a wonderfully gifted writer. I hope there will be an opportunity to read more.
    Hugs and compassion and awe for a really special human being. XO

  6. Alison says:

    Teresa, thank you for writing this vivid account, sad as it is. I found it because someone posted it on FB. Now I feel I know much better the philosopher who was kind enough to attend so many sessions of this year’s Morris Colloquium in Boulder. I hope you enjoyed the remainder of your time in Boulder.

    Warm wishes,
    Alison

  7. Sheila says:

    I thought it was a sample and was looking for where to buy the book! Excellent.

  8. Robert Seidner says:

    Very well written. Very sad. Your love, feelings and emotions come through as if I was watching this in slow motion. I’m sure that it seems like just yesterday even though it happened many years ago.

  9. Maren says:

    That was very touchingly written. I remember some of the early years. You were very brave.

    Much love to you from Wyoming.
    Maren

  10. Winnie-Mae Hargis says:

    Teresa:
    I remember working with you on the HLAA Board of Trustees and how impressed I was with your ability to express yourself and your leadership skills. I had no idea of the terrible loss you had. As a widow, I too can relate to the shock of losing a loved one. However your circumstances seem to be more graphic and terrifying. I definitely support your writing your unique story and hope to continue reading what happened between then and now. Blessings on your writing… WINNIE

  11. Well done, my friend. So glad you’re pursuing this… Let me know how I can help.

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