By WENDY HODGE
There is a box of treasures in my closet … things that don’t have any real monetary value. But they’re priceless to me. Family photographs, a Bible with my name engraved on it that I got when I graduated from high school, movie ticket stubs from the 80’s, old keys that belong to houses I used to call home and a cassette tape. The tape has a purple label on it with these words written in black ink: The Kids.
I haven’t owned a cassette player in years, but I can still hear the voices on that tape. I listened to it so many times over the years that it’s almost a muscle memory. There’s my brother’s voice — deep and hardy, always laughing. My cousin Betty Anne sings an old Paul Revere and the Raiders song. My sister, Carol, tells a joke and cracks herself up. Words can’t tell how much I miss hearing them all.
Towards the end of the tape, after more music and background laughter, there is my favorite part — my cousin, Lamar, who would have been 15 years old, is trying to make me laugh. I was the baby by far in our stair-step of cousins. At three years old, I was everybody’s baby doll. My sister and Betty Ann dressed me up and carried me around. My brother and Lamar did their level best to be the one to make me laugh loudest. I wish I could remember those days firsthand, but this recording is the closest thing I have.
Lamar tries playing peek-a-boo, but there’s not even a giggle from me. Then he apparently stands on his head and makes faces, but I am silent. He can be heard tickling me and then bouncing me up and down on his knee, but still, I do not laugh. Then he says, “You leave me no choice, Wendy. It’s monkey time!” Loud chimpanzee grunts and chattering echoes from the tape. If I close my eyes, I can see Lamar jumping around, all gangly arms and legs, looking like a cross between one of the monkeys at the Monkey Park and Jerry Lewis.
And then I laugh, loud and long. So does Lamar. We laugh until we can’t breathe. Then you can hear my mother’s voice as she enters the room and says, “You kids — you’re a mess.” And then the tape runs out.
The fall of 1993 was cold. Lamar was a police officer, a veteran detective, by then. All “the kids” were grown with kids of our own. My sister had died the year before. We’d been living a half-life since then. I found myself living in Maryland with a young son and a burning desire to return home where I belonged. On a cold day in October that year, I did just that. I boarded a small passenger plane and, through thunderstorms and lightning, I flew home to help bury Lamar.
Here’s the official version of what happened:
Earlier that week, Officer Motley had been off-duty and headed to Walmart for office supplies. A woman had approached him saying she’d seen a boy in the back seat of a car that was parked close to the door of the Walmart. The boy was literally sitting on top of a pile of guns and seemed scared. Officer Motley approached the vehicle and asked the driver to roll down his window. He did so. Then, from a row of pay phones on the other side of the car, a woman pulled a gun and shot Officer Motley in the chest. Simultaneously, the man in the vehicle shot the officer, wounding him in the arm. Officer Motley had pulled his weapon and managed to shoot at the man, wounding him as well. The woman approached around the vehicle and fired a fatal shot into Officer Motley’s head. The officer managed to use his shoulder radio to call for help. He died shortly after arriving at the local hospital.
Here’s what my family knows:
Lamar offered to go to Walmart that day because he loved being out in the community. He loved Opelika and the people who live here. The woman who came up to him in the parking lot and told him about the little boy has never been identified. I can imagine Lamar’s instinct was to help that child any way he could. We know that the woman at the payphone who fired the first shot was a woman with a long history of arrests and rebellion against any kind of authority. The man in the vehicle was her common-law husband. Together they had blazed a trail across the southeast that left a path of stolen cars, armed robberies and violent assaults in their wake. We know that Lamar tried his best to disarm the man in the car. We know that he knew he was in trouble and that he made a desperate call to his fellow officers for help. We know that they came racing from all over our town and the next one because that’s what officers do when one of their own needs them. We know that Lamar knew he was dying and that he looked his killer in the eye as she stood over him and took his life away.
The man and woman fled and found themselves in a standoff with police. After a few hours, they surrendered. They faced trial, prison and death sentences. We faced shock and pain and a funeral with full honors. We were numb through the 21-gun salute at the memorial service and the four-hour drive to a tiny town in South Alabama, with officers parked and standing at salute at every stop-light from here to there, where we huddled together under an Alabama mist at the graveside.
We learned to live with holes in our life. My cousin lost her brother. I had lost my sister. We all had lost so much more than we could measure. Time slid by, as it always does, regardless of loss. I found myself hungry for details about my cousin’s killers. What prisons were they languishing in? Were they showing any remorse? Did they know what they had done to us, or did they even care? The answers to these questions weren’t satisfying, because they felt nothing. They weren’t languishing. They were taking law classes and having visits with family members. They were writing love letters to each other and planning for the day they would be released from their cells.
Members of our family took turns going to hearings and court dates. We spoke to the press. We cried together. We finally learned of an execution date for both killers. I thought that would bring relief, but it did not. In 2002, nine years after she killed my cousin, the female assailant was executed. I thought that would bring relief, but it did not. In 2005, twelve years after killing my cousin, the male assailant was executed. I thought that would bring relief, but it did not.
I learned this lesson: Vengeance is a lazy form of grief. Those killers deserved to die for the life they took. I believe that with all my being. But my family deserved peace. And the only way to peace is through forgiveness. Real grief, grief that heals and brings forgiveness, is hard work. It hurts, but it heals.
I’m ashamed to say that for years I never gave a single thought to the one person in that tragic series of events who was a silent victim. That little boy in the back of the car. Nothing was said about him in the papers. There is no record online of where he went once that day was over. I have no idea who took care of him. I don’t know what his life was like before that day, nor what it was like afterward. He’s a grown man now, if he has survived. What demons does he carry in his soul? Has he grieved and forgiven? If I had to guess, I would venture to say he probably doesn’t have a box of treasures with recordings of happy voices trying to see who could make him laugh the loudest.
The other day a 48 Hours episode aired. It was on the TV as I stood in the kitchen making my lunch. It was a segment on fallen officers, and I had no idea Lamar’s death was part of the story. But then I heard his radio call to his dispatcher. I heard him call for help. I heard the pain in his voice. That same voice that made monkey sounds and made me laugh. And it broke me. It turns out grief is a never-ending mountain trail. Sometimes there are peaks, and sometimes there are valleys. You just keep walking through it. So I’ve bought an old tape recorder online and I will listen to those happy voices again. Maybe they will drive out the echoes of my cousin’s last recording. And I’ll keep grieving and forgiving and hoping that the little boy lost is somewhere doing the same.