How Do You Forgive an Unknown Killer?

Rene Cizio

When my brother was murdered, the police never found his killer, and my mom said, “Good, then I won’t have anyone I need to forgive.”

She was religious, righteous, or at least she tried to be, wanted to be. To forgive is divine, but without anyone to blame, forgiveness could not be expected of her. She felt she should be off the hook.

“I don’t think it works that way; besides, forgiveness also sets the prisoner free,” I said pointedly. “The only person you’re hurting is yourself, Ma.”

This was how she coped with her anger by thinking about forgiveness, not practicing it, but thinking about it. Her son had been dead only months, his killer unknown, and she was thinking of it — but technically, she had nobody to forgive.

She puffed her Marlboro Menthol Light furiously as she narrowed her eyes at me, the furrow between her brow deepening like a hatchet gash. They had the same brown eyes, David and her. The truth is she was angry as a viper. For her, being angry was easier than being hurt. She hurt so bad it was killing her.

How could she be mad at the person — the people? — who killed him when they were nameless, faceless nobodies? They could already be dead, too, for all we knew. She also toyed with the idea of being mad at the police for not being able to find David’s killer, but it wasn’t their fault. Then she wanted to be mad at God. But she also wanted to be righteous, and God was all she had left for that, so she took her anger out on me.

“So, are they just going to give up?” she spit the words at me like bullets.

I was the bearer of bad news week after week when there were still no tips and no witnesses came forward. I was the one who talked to the police and asked about the status of the suspect vehicle and gave them information we’d received from various sources. Though the sources were trying to be helpful, they never were. There was a reward for information but it only prolonged our misery by giving us hopeless hope.

I was the one still sitting here saying, “His case will stay open. His name is still on the board of unsolved cases.”

I said, “They’re doing the best they can.” She really hated that one.

“Well, it’s not good enough.” And we would both cry. God help us.

My brother’s death had brought us back together. My mother and I had been fighting our own private war for the previous two years, but after David died, I’d called a cease-fire. We could continue our fight, pick up those grievances again later. I still thought then that there would be a later for us.

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I wasn’t as soft with her as I should have been when she was angry or sad, which was always. I wasn’t as patient as I could have been when she repeatedly asked about police procedures and terms she didn’t understand. I wasn’t as kind as I would have been had I known the life was ebbing out of her by the moment.

And I should have known. I saw it begin to leave her the night they told us. She shrunk before my eyes, collapsing in on herself to become smaller, less than. Whatever length of life she may have had left was minimized. I watched it go. I didn’t realize at the time that’s what I was seeing.

David had been driving his SUV down a Detroit street on Labor Day. He was running errands before planning to head over to Ma’s house for our annual barbecue. I wasn’t going that year.

It was about three in the afternoon and the day was sunny and about 90 degrees. I envision him driving with the windows down, music loud, and his arm hanging out the side.

I was paddleboarding in a canal alongside the Detroit River with a few friends and swimming in the water, floating in the sunshine.

Witnesses said they heard shouting. Later, that shouting made the police classify the “incident” as road rage, but nobody could say exactly. They didn’t know what was shouted or if the shouting even involved my brother.

I’d gone home to change and meet another friend at the bar.

Five gunshots were reported. Or at least that was the number determined most likely. It was unclear. One witness said he thought the shots came from a black Cadillac. Not many people saw the car. When people hear gunshots, the police said, they tend not to look. They duck for cover. That is an inconvenient truth when you need witnesses.

I was at the bar, several drinks in before I looked at my phone. I’d missed 12 calls. Nobody ever called me. I called back the number. “Ma?” I said when she answered, sounding broken and not at all like the woman I knew.

Of the five shots they fired into the back of his SUV, one found its mark. My brother, shot, bleeding profusely, drove several blocks to a convenience store and laid on his horn in the parking lot until the clerks came outside. Seeing him in obvious distress, they pulled him from the vehicle and laid him on the scalding hot blacktop, noting the pool of blood already filling the plastic mat under the driver’s seat.

I think about how hot it must have been, that blacktop. While he was lying there, I had been floating in the river. As he was taken in an ambulance, I rode my bike home. His blood drained out of his body so quickly there wasn’t enough left to keep his heart beating. By the time I arrived home to change, David was already dead.

I’ve never been able to understand how I didn’t know right away. I’d always thought our link was more substantial. That, if ever severed in this final way, it would be felt and known immediately. I was certain I’d know the moment one of my siblings left the Earth, but I didn’t. My brother had died, and I was drinking beer and laughing and having fun.

The shouting witnesses heard probably did involve my brother. He had a temper. It was a carryover from his troubled youth, his one last bad habit coupled with a big mouth.

When he was a boy, then a teen, he’d been a hellraiser. That’s what the police in our hometown said years later, remembering him. “Just teenage stuff,” they said, “but a lot of it.” David was constantly getting into trouble: stealing, fighting, skipping school, illegal motor vehicle usage. Then there was the arson and fleeing and eluding police. That last trick landed him in a juvenile detention center.

He’d been on a dirt bike, riding it through the woods and then the neighborhood side streets — strictly illegal and he knew it. The police tried to stop him, and he tried to outrun them. He was 16 or 17 at the time. They chased him, sirens screaming, through the side streets of our small town before finally running him over and dragging him a block beneath the police car.

The doctors said his helmet and leather jacket saved his life. He lived another 28 years before dying in the street anyway. Funny, how life is.

When a life is taken horribly and unexpectedly, there are ricochets that damage those nearby and reverberate through time.

His time in juvie, though, turned his life around. Somehow, they took an angry young boy and turned him into a respectful, respectable man. He went to trade school, worked hard, and lived a life anyone would be proud of. Then, on a hot Monday afternoon one September, it ended. Probably because he yelled from his window at someone driving erratically.

10 years before David died, our cousin Bryan hung himself with a necktie from his bedroom ceiling fan. We grew up together, and Bryan was especially close with my two older brothers. They lived together their entire adolescence. Bryan’s death was hard for them to accept, and my eldest brother, Ricky, asked to see the photos the police took. He couldn’t believe it unless he saw with his own eyes.

In the photos, Ricky said Bryan’s body had already been cut down from the fan and laid diagonally across the bed. He wore only a pair of purple bikini underwear and a matching purple ring around his neck, which lay at an angle, his tongue sticking out. A tiny piece of the tie was still in the fan blade.

I didn’t see the photos, but Ricky told me about them. He said he could never forget seeing Bryan’s face that way. I can’t forget imagining his face that way either.

When we went to the morgue to identify David’s body, they took us into a room, sat us on a couch, and turned on a TV. It would only be a live feed of a body in a room, they said. They would pull the sheet back and we could see on the screen if it were him. It was me and Ma and David’s daughter and her mom. I told them I wasn’t going to look. I was only there for Ma.

“What do you mean you won’t look?” Ma asked.

“I don’t want to see.”

“But that’s why we’re here,” she said.“I’ll know when you know and that will be enough.”

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I didn’t look at the screen, but I knew when it came on because Ma sucked air in between her teeth. I knew too when they pulled the sheet back because my niece cried out, “No!” Ma sobbed, “Oh David,” and lifted her arm like she was going to touch him.

What I didn’t know is what his face looked like while he laid on that cold metal slab, and I never will.

Less than two years later, Ma would be gone too. The strain was too much and her heart just gave out.

A lifetime wouldn’t be enough to tell of the sadness that has stemmed from my brother’s death. When a life is taken horribly and unexpectedly, there are ricochets that damage those nearby and reverberate through time.

We never did find my brother’s killer. Not knowing is something I live with. It is an unsettled feeling, like being on a little boat and not knowing when it will dock — or if it ever will.

Ma had said, “Good, then I won’t have anyone I need to forgive.” But I would say, “Good because I have no one to hate.”

In the absence of closure, there is the blessing of blank space. Where the face of my brother’s murderer could be, there is nothing. In the place of a person to hate, forgive, or fixate on, I have none. There is a certain freedom in that.

So, when I think of my brother, I see his face only as it was in life, laughing and teasing and loving his family. That small divinity has set this prisoner free.

But the reward for information leading to the arrest of David’s murderer never expires, so still, my little boat looks for the shore — and maybe one day, forgiveness.

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