2020-04-29

A story from Courage Does Not Always Roar.

"In the midst of winter, I found there was an invisible me in the summer."

-Albert Camus

If you had to pick one word to describe me - it would be "mother." I am the person who hears "mom" in a grocery store and turns around, the one who opens my door to all friends and family and enjoys bringing them into my home and nurturing them. But a tragic event challenged my devotion to mothering. My son, Christopher Robin Hotchkiss, was murdered nearly 14 years ago. As a mother, I wanted to put the band-aid on, give the kisses and make everything fine again. This time, band-aids and kisses would not work

I was making lunch for my brother and a friend when I received the news from the sheriff that my 21-year-old son had been shot and killed by his roommate. I had just seen Christopher a few days earlier. He came to visit and I'd stocked him up with enough food for the week. We did his laundry together and when he left he gave me a huge hug and told me, "I love you, Mom," as his green eyes sparkled.

Shock set in. My body rocked back and forth. I kept saying, "They killed him." I cried rivers of tears. The shock was so much more physical than I'd ever imagined. I felt like I had been run over by a huge tractor trailer truck, without visible bruises or breaks. I was racked with emotions. It all seemed unreal, like a horror movie. But this was VERY REAL!

I realized very quickly our chapter with Christopher in it was over. I wouldn't watch him get married, wouldn't be a grandmother to his children. Our photo albums would not be filled by him and our lives would never be the same. No more memories with Christopher in them. Could this really be?

It is hard to remember everything that day. I did sleep; sleep was a safe place for me to be with my sorrow. I didn't know if I would ever smile again, be happy, feel pleasure, or even be able to walk into a room full of people. The violence of Christopher's death - he was shot with a handgun four times - made it more difficult.

The next morning, I awoke to waves of grief rolling into me, body and soul. My tears could have filled an ocean. I was still in shock. I would go outside just to feel the cold, so I could sense where my body ended.

My "Mother on Earth," Beth, (my biological mother died three days after Christopher was born) said, "You don't have to get over this, ever." That was a comforting thing to hear ... and still is to this day. I was relieved that people did not expect me to "get over" the death of my son. Why would I want to ever "get over" him? He is part of me.

When he heard the news of Christopher's death, another friend told me, "Radha, don't let this man take any more from you. He has taken more than he was ever entitled to. Don't move; go on vacation - LIVE - don't let this man take more from your life and the life of your family."

This was the first time in my life I was not taking care of everyone else. I was the doer in our family, the glue that bound us together. Now it was someone else's turn. I felt the need to give the tragedy of Christopher's murder my full focus and energy. I arranged grounding things for myself, regular massages and short visits with close friends. It was a time I needed to be kind to myself and not feel selfish for doing what I needed to do to get through another day. I learned that the shower and the treadmill were great places to cry, and I realized I had permission to cry anywhere at any time for the rest of my life.

It was a difficult time, coming to grips with the fact that the rest of the world was turning as usual. People drove to work and shopped for dinner while our world was turned upside down. Would life ever be normal again? What was normal? The first time I went into my local grocery store to buy food I remember thinking, "Don't all you people know how much pain I am in?" I realized, of course not. They did not have a clue.

We held a memorial service for Christopher and scattered his ashes on Mt. Tamalpais, where he loved to watch the sunset, under a beautiful and majestic California Bay Tree.

I joined Compassionate Friends two weeks later, a grief group for parents who have lost children. It was very hard for me to walk into the room for my first meeting, though it was good for me not to feel so alone. I took my daughter, Christina, to the meetings with me. It was important to me to include her in everything I did to help with grieving. I also started volunteering with the Trauma Foundation, part of San Francisco General Hospital, to work on gun control.

By Fall 1997, I was gearing up for "the biggest job of my life" - the trial for which our family had waited 18 months. After enduring five weeks in a courtroom, we had a verdict: Mark James Taylor was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 19 ฝ years to life.

After several months passed, I began to jump back into life, looking ahead for the first time since Christopher was murdered. I commissioned a quilt by a local artist, Liz Piatt, to capture the special events in Christopher's life, including a heart for each of Christopher's 21 years.

Liz called me to come get the quilt on the day before what would have been Christopher's 25th birthday. Family and friends went with me for the showing. Everyone gasped when they saw Christopher's quilt, and then happy tears started to flow. The quilt hangs in my bedroom, where I wake up to it every day.

At Christmas in 2003, I met Jacques Verduin, a clinical psychologist, who asked if I would be willing to work with him on the Insight Prison Project. He wanted to understand the effects of murder on people and their families, believing this was a missing part of his education in working with prisoners. After several sessions with Jacques, I was ready to go to San Quentin to share my story with prisoners in a group called Katargeo, a Greek word meaning "freedom from that which binds you."

Over the course of an hour, I slowly told 17 prisoners my story of Christopher, sharing photos and personal tales. As I spoke, I looked at each person's face around the circle. When I finished, I was in a roomful of men who were not just crying, but openly sobbing. I was moved by their reactions; in fact, I was overwhelmed. These men realized they had created this type of pain for a family, and everyone connected to that family. It is the "pebble in the pond" effect, the ripples far reaching. The prisoners saw the pain I live with every day without my son - and all of them live every day with the knowledge and pain of having taken a person's life.

On one of my visits to Katargeo, I brought Christopher's quilt into the prison, telling the story of the quilt and how it came to be. After this, I continued working with the group, even preparing a home cooked Thanksgiving meal for the men.

As the 10th anniversary of Chris' death approached in 2006, I went to see the Katargeo men at San Quentin, and they shared how significant they felt it had been to work with me over the past three years.

One man said, "You taught me that you shouldn't get upset about the small stuff. I killed my friend because he owed me money. That should have never bothered me like it did."

I cried softly and asked myself, "Me? I taught him that?"

Another man said, "I only have one word for you ....Grace." I was in tears and I was humbled. We don't get the opportunity to see how the steps we take in life reverberate through others' lives, and here were 17 men telling me I made a difference in theirs. This was a true gift.

Then one of the prisoners said, "We have a gift for you." I was surprised. I was already taken aback by their generosity. A large white garbage bag was put gently on my lap and as I opened it, a quiltrevealed itself. These men had made a quilt about Christopher! Two men held the quilt so I could read each square - 18 quilt pieces mounted on a large piece of black felt. All the materials came from somewhere in the prison. Fabric from a mattress, a handkerchief, a section of a shirt, even leather from the hobby shop were all part of the quilt. I wept, emotionally overwhelmed and grateful for this poignant sharing.

Since the day of Christopher's death in 1996, I had been working on "finding comfort"... a place in my soul and spirit where I can be peaceful with the tragic event of murder. I found part of it in a very strange place - San Quentin.

For almost seven years, I have been working with a number of the men in San Quentin, helping them to come to terms with all the consequences of crime. One thing I know for certain: Christopher's death does not mean my death. I live fully for my family and friends here on earth, and in that way I honor my son. He might not be here in body, but he's here in many other ways.

I want to honor the process of grieving, to hold my heart open, to follow this journey to where it has taken and will take me. And I will always be thankful that I was able to mother my son, Christopher, for his short life on earth.

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