More Than a Headline

She was more than a headline.

I remember her giving me a pageboy haircut in my kitchen. And the time she painted my face and hands green for Halloween, the year I was a witch, then added the finishing touch of a wart on my nose.

I remember the night she tried to teach me how to dance at a block party. The way she always put too much salt on her French fries. And whenever I’m near someone who carries the smell of cigarette smoke on their clothing, I think of her.

She was with us at the store when my mom bought me my first training bra, and she embarrassed me in the particularly crushing way only a tween can be humiliated.

One day she and my mom picked us up after school and took us to the zoo, and I remember once when we even took a cab into the city to go shopping. I remember how special that felt, as a little girl, riding into the city like that. How special I felt.

She went through a phase where she wanted to learn more about photography, and we still have at least one picture she took of me. There I was, posed on the bench of the organ we had in our living room, with what I probably thought was a wistful, faraway look on my face.

She loved to sing, and listened to the sort of music people who love to sing listen to. She was definitely of a certain era, and the songs of Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand regularly filled the house she shared with her mother. And I should know, because we lived just next door, with a thin wall between us.

She and her mom also loved Queen, especially Freddie Mercury, and encouraged my brother and I to develop that same sort of love as we got older. To say that we did would be an understatement.

I know she loved us, my brother and I, having known us since we were very small. And when I was young it was almost as if she was a big sister. Granted, one who I understood very little about, and whose raucous laughter and enormous personality could sometimes be overwhelming. But she was familiar, and she was creative, and she was interesting.

And she died yesterday.

But that’s not the entire story. Not by a long shot.

Something happened to her many years ago that changed her. She and her mother had both always been eccentric, and that’s probably part of the reason why I found them fascinating. Like people from a foreign country or even another planet.

But something shifted. This woman who had the filthiest sense of humor of anyone I’ve ever met and whose colorful use of language could make a sailor blush experienced a sort of religious awakening. I remember her deciding that she wanted to become a nun. This made no sense to any of us, as she was about as far away from a nun as you could possibly imagine.

But she was eccentric, even going so far as to legally change her name from the plain sounding “Melissa” to “Melizza” – a name she felt more closely befitting the vocal sensation she planned to be one day. In light of this level of eccentricity, I think those of us who knew her wrote her new career aspiration off as a whim.

And it was a whim, since she never did become a nun. In fact, she got into a relationship with a man and eventually gave birth to a son. Hardly the activity of a nun, wouldn’t you say?

Still she was determined to serve God. And her devotion turned to fervor.

I remember her giving me a book when I was 14 years old. It was about the end of the world, and translated the Book of Revelations into current-day terms. The author predicted that the world would end in the year 2000, and described all sorts of hellfire and horror for those of us who would be left on earth after the rapture took place.

I was deeply upset by this book, and actually believed much of it – being as impressionable as I was at that age. Needless to say, the world did not end in the year 2000. We continued.

And so did the religious fanaticism into which my mother’s closest friend spiraled further and further.

Eventually she, and her mother with her, lost touch with reality. We were aware that their electricity would occasionally be shut off. But, Melizza told my mom, God would provide.

And after their relationship had ended, and my mother stopped speaking to her friend, we heard rumors that their water would also be shut off from time to time. We wondered how they were surviving, the three of them in one house. Two grown women and a growing boy.

Because he was growing. He was a year younger than my youngest sibling, and they were friends in the early days. The way children who are raised in the same proximity, with mothers who are long-time friends, tend to become friendly.

Only it was never a deep friendship, mainly because Zach was not developing the same way my brother was. Physically he was smaller, but it was more than that. He seemed to have a wildness to him, the way you expect a young child who had not been raised around many other people would be wild. And it was strange for my brother when he’d spend time with this un-socialized child, so unlike himself. But my brother’s a sweet kid, he always has been, and he still considered Zach a friend.

Then, when he was very young (in the lower grades), Zach was pulled from school. All I remember is that his mother alleged that another child had touched him inappropriately, the inference being that the touch was of a sexual nature, and refused to send him back to school. She decided she would homeschool him instead.

She also pulled him from the sports teams that he was playing for. Once again, she did not want him to be around other children. Her paranoia was growing.

I know that DHS was involved at some point, and that they came to visit and inspect the living conditions in the house. And I believe that part of the reason Zachary was originally locked up in the house was so DHS could not find out that he was living there – I can vaguely remember that she said something to that effect. She intended to hide him so as to prevent him being taken away from her. She didn’t even want the neighbors to know he was there.

And I believe she was hiding him from the world as well. Trying to protect him in the way she believed she needed to, and I don’t know if this stemmed from religious fanaticism and the fear that he would become godless, or if it was really a matter of trying to protect him from a cruel and harsh world in which she was afraid he would be hurt. I really don’t know how it started or why it continued.

I have to admit that we all felt deeply sorry for him. My dad would offer to take him to the park to play along with my brother, but Melizza would refuse for one reason or another. Any questions or raised eyebrows she faced were ignored. Unfortunately, anyone who has ever tried to reason with someone who is mentally ill knows very well that there is no reasoning with someone who is mentally ill. There was no convincing her that Zach should be allowed to live a normal life. To her and her mother, their life was normal.

And so they kept odd hours, sleeping during the day and being awake to watch movies and play video games through the night. We knew that he had just about every type of creature comfort a child could ever want – he was treated like a prince when it came to toys and gadgets. His early birthdays were like a second Christmas, full of presents. We wondered where the money came from for these gifts if they couldn’t pay their bills regularly – but then, maybe that’s where the money went, into toys and other things.

And yet even with all this “stuff”, he was never allowed outside to play. He was not allowed to have friends or to experience life as a little boy. He lived in a world largely populated by himself and two other people: His mother and his grandmother.

We knew that this could not possibly end well. We feared for him, despaired for him. Wishing that there was a way someone could get through to these women and explain that the world was not such a bad place, that they didn’t need to close him off so tightly, that there was life out there waiting for him to discover it.

But there is no reasoning with someone once they’ve gone so far down a certain path.

Even when you see something coming for years, there’s no preparing you for when it actually happens.

As I said, years ago my mom cut ties with Melizza. I imagine it as a matter of self-preservation, needing to remove oneself from a toxic situation. Having to witness something so sad and so tragic and not be able to do anything to help. Still, there were a few times when she saw Melizza walking down the street, but Melizza wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t say a word. Maybe she felt that she needed to remove herself from my mother’s life just as my mother felt that she needed to remove herself years before. Who’s to say, when someone is so deeply entrenched in paranoia and illness?

And now we’ll never know for sure anyway.

Yesterday morning, my sister called so my brother, the one who is a year older than Zach, could read me a story from the Channel 6 website. As soon as he started, maybe within three sentences, I felt my stomach turn to ice and knew the gist before he finished reading: There had been a stabbing in our old neighborhood. In a house on the same block as the house I lived in until I was eight years old. Three people were involved, two women and one young man.

I kept saying “no, no, no” even though I knew it was true, and though there was no address listed or names given at that time, we all knew who it was about. Like I said, we had feared for years that this would end badly.

What we did not know, what we found out as the day went on and the story grew deeper, was just how bad things had gotten in the past several years. Allegedly, neighbors called the police multiple times – 12 times in the past year, in fact – based upon what they saw or rather what they didn’t see coming from that house. They allege that Zach was never allowed outside, but that they could hear his screams coming from inside the house.

And yet, nothing was done for him. Just as nothing was done when he was a little boy, and we so hoped he would be taken out of the house. Because anyone could see that these women were not fit to raise a little boy.

Yesterday, police discovered that the house had no running water, and human feces were found throughout. Hazmat suits were required. I can’t imagine living in that sort of environment, and how bad a person’s mental state has to get in order for things to devolve to that point. I’m sure we’ve all seen shows like “Hoarders”, and wondered how someone’s life could unravel to where such a lifestyle seems normal. And that’s exactly what I wonder right now.

She died yesterday. The woman who loved me when I was little, who became so sick and removed from the world. She was repeatedly stabbed in the face by her 19 year-old son, the morning after neighbors heard him screaming from his room words like “let me go” and “don’t do this”.

Her mother was also attacked, and at the time I’m writing this she’s still in critical condition, also having been stabbed in the face as well as her body.

Yesterday I combed through online articles and the comments of strangers with no deeper knowledge of this story than the details shared on the news. I felt the need to speak up for Zachary, and I still do.

He didn’t have a choice but to stay in that house – how could he do otherwise? I’m willing to bet that his schooling never continued as it should have. He had no money, no skills, and little exposure to the outside world. I always hoped that things would get better for him, than the reigns would be loosened as he grew up, but evidently that wasn’t the case.

The authorities did nothing for him. His father’s family did nothing for him. Of course I don’t know the details of either situation – we only ever knew what Melizza told us when Mom still had a relationship with her, and what neighbors gossiped over after that. Frankly neither source could be judged as 100% trustworthy. Still – he was living there. And nobody with actual legal recourse to make things otherwise did anything about it. I know that there’s only so much police can do – after all, my dad was a cop for many years – but still. Didn’t they see something was wrong? Isn’t there someone who could have been given the heads up?

And of course I wonder what, if anything, we could have done. What we should have done. Was there anything? I don’t know. If the neighbors heard screams and called the police, and the police saw nothing of consequence in or around the house, what could we do? I just don’t know but it doesn’t stop the guilt.

I’m mourning. I’m mourning for the women I remember, the way I remember them. Welcoming me into their home, letting me watch NKOTB concerts on cable when my family didn’t have it yet. Babysitting us when we were young. Patiently watching my little “plays” and applauding when I sang. I wept yesterday, remembering the people they were before their lives became overshadowed by mental illness.

And I mourn Zachary’s lost youth, and the suffering that drove him to do what he did. I mourn the fact that no matter the outcome, he’ll have to live with the knowledge of what he did to his mother and grandmother, and with his memories. I pray, fervently, that he is finally given the help he needs and is not just thrown into a prison where he will most certainly not make it.

I can only imagine his mentality and maturity level – the fact that he blamed the attack on intruders, but then showed police where the supposed attackers hid the knife that came from his own kitchen conveys his level of maturity – and the depth of suffering he endured, and I hope that there are officials and employees of “the system” with enough sense and empathy to understand that he’s going to need a lot of guidance and a lot of time if he’s to eventually live any semblance of a life. He was locked up for 19, nearly 20 years – it’s time he was free, or as free as any person can be after starting life the way he did.

I’ve learned in the past 24 hours that what’s presented on the news is not the whole story. I mean of course any adult knows that, but there’s a difference between knowing and understanding. Yes, they present the facts – for instance, a home with no running water, with human waste throughout, and a woman pronounced dead on the scene after being stabbed by her son. What they don’t present – what they can’t possibly know – is the human story of the people who lived and eventually died there.

This is something I’ll keep in mind for the rest of my life when I see a horrifying story on the news. That there are actual people involved, that no crime occurs in a vacuum and that both the victims and the perpetrators have a story to tell.

That to someone else, they are more than a headline.

2 Comments

You told it like it was. I’ve never heard it told so beautifully. People wandered why I was friends with her at all. But like I said, you told it like it was. She was a caring, loving person back then. A little strange sometimes, but she had a very good side to her that I will always remember when I think of her. She did love the two of you and would have protected you with her life. I believe that, and I know that where ever she is, she will always pray for you. Because now she is also free. Free from whatever demons possessed her.

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