from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

It was not an April Fools story in 1985 

On Monday April 1, 1985 Villanova was about to play Georgetown for the NCAA championship. It was the Monday of Holy Week. At lunch I went outside to buy a Philadelphia paper to see how they were covering the game. And then I saw a story which shook my world. A man named Leon Moser had the day before, Palm Sunday (as it is today) had shown up at the church where his estranged wife Linda was attending with her parents and with her two little girls. Leon shot all three to death, turned the rifle upon himself, and at the last second flinched, and as he pulled the trigger through himself back on the ground.

The coincidence of the tournament this year with Palm Sunday inevitably reminds me, painfully so. This Palm Sunday and April Fools Day are not times of joy or merriment for me.

I have written about this incident before. When Tom Fox was being held captive in December of 2005 I finally came to the conclusion that I could no longer support the death penalty, and I wrote ... no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death

I have since then periodically thought about the case, and also read about it further. Leon had been treated for emotional disorders. But when he was brought before a judge of the Court of Common Please in Philadelphia he pled guilty to all three murders, and for ten years never wavered in his desire to be executed. A last minute appeal was filed on his behalf in 1995, alleging that he wasnot competent to make that decision. In a 1995 report of the Death Penalty Information Center I found this in The 1995 report of the Death Penalty Information Center:
Leon Moser in Pennsylvania was also executed by lethal injection. Moser, a former mental patient, wanted to die but it was not clear that he was mentally competent to make that decision. A federal judge had ordered a competency hearing and stayed the execution. That stay was appealed by the state and was lifted by a higher court. But the order for the competency hearing remained. Nevertheless, the state pushed ahead with the execution before the scheduled hearing. As the execution approached, the federal judge called the state's attorney to see if there was a cellular phone at the prison. He was told there was none. He was not told, however, that there was a standard phone in the execution chamber. The judge had wanted to determine Moser's competency before the execution occurred. By the time he was able to get through to the chamber, the lethal chemicals were already flowing into Moser and it was too late.

And in a a review in Sojourners of a book by Mumia Abu-Jamal there is a reference to Leon Moser:
THE MEN in this place don’t own their lives—the state does. To some, like Leon Moser, the inevitability of that death destroys them long before a lethal injection or a rush of voltage ever does. "To execute me won’t mean nothing," Moser tells Abu-Jamal, "cause that man ain’t alive no more. To kill me, Jamal, is just like puttin’ out the garbage."

For a Christian (a category in which I no longer place myself) this time of year is a period of hope. From the despair of the Passion Week, the depths of the Crucifixion, comes the renewed hope of the Resurrection. As a sometimes student of religion, and one who has himself wandered through a variety of religions, I am aware that the idea of resurrection from the dead is far from unique to Christianity. Yet as I reflect back on 1985 I am inevitably struck by when the murders occurred - on the occasion of commemorating Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem - a time of hope turned into something bitter in brief moment of violence.

I have wondered in the past if how devasted I was by this event was at all colored by the relationship I had with Linda. She was my subordinate for several years. She had married Leon when they were both quite young, but after the two little girls, Donna and Joanne, had been born, Linda continued to grow and Leon did not. Besides learning to be a computer programmer under my guidance (the wife of my boss was her friend which is how she got the job) she had a weekend business which was her love, going to crafts fairs and sellling what she made in the evenings after the girls were put to bed. She was gifted, and hoping eventually to do that work full time.

Our relationship had its problems. Linda was unhappy in her marriage then, and I was single. One evening several years before her death, when we were working late, she all but made a pass at me. Nothing came of it - I was already emotionally committed to Leaves on the Current, although we would not finally marry until December of 1985. But in that moment when Linda’s loneliness was expressed in a somewhat awkward way touched me. It was not when I first learned of her death that I remembered it, but later that day. It was not that I felt in any way at risk, but rather that I was connected to the unhappiness of the family.

When I read the story I immediately called the office where we had both worked. I had transferred to our Washington office in October of 1982, and had left the company in January of 1984, but I still knew many people - in an office of about 40 everyone knew everyone. People were in shock, crying, and the office had come to a complete stop as people grieved.

I had to take the rest of the afternoon off - I was too shattered. ANd even though I greatly enjoyed Villanova’s upset win that night, especially the large wager it won me from a co-worker, I could not easily put aside the experience of looking at that newspaper front page and the impact it had on me.

I have been far more fortunate than most people in the world. I have encountered relatively little violence in my own life, or among those close to me. I grew up in a comfortable middle class environment with two lovbing, albeit flawed, parents. I have had enough resources - financial, intellectual, and emotional - to recover from the messes I have created in my own life. The youngest death of anyone close to me, before 1985, wa my mother, who was not yet 48 when she died shortly after my high school graduation.

Since then I have been on the fringe of other things equally shocking. The older brother of a young man I knew in both middle and high school as a teacher, although not my students, beat a girl to death as part of a gang initiation. One student in that middle school was the young son of a former African dictator who had been killed, and he was being raised by his elder sister. In one of my early years at my current school two of our 9th graders killed a man they were trying to rob as he walked home from the local Metro stop. A popular young man at our school somehow got sucked into the side of a train and was so battered that he could not survive - that one devasted many of our students, as he was very popular.

But none of these, not even my mother’s death, affected me in quite the same way as Linda’s. Someone I knew, someone with whom I had worked closely, someone whose personal difficulties were a subject I had to address at least in passing as her immediate supervisor, was brutally murdered.

For many events in our life there are triggers that bring back memories, both good and bad. Smell is one of the strongest. If I smell a certain pungency of wood smoke it inevitably reminds me of the time I spent in the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos in Northern Greece, particularly the monastery of Simona Petra, which was my spiritual home for a decade, in the 1980s. A piece of music I have not heard for years can have a similar effect. Perhaps it will be a song from the 1950s orf 1960s that will evoke a memory of a time in school - that probably won’t be happy, as adolescence was perhaps the least sanguine time in my 6+ decades upon the earth.

Calendars don’t seem to have quite the same effect on me. That is, the mere fact of a month and day, although those dates associated in my relationship with Leaves of course are major. It is often a day associated with something else, like the Friday after Thanksgiving. In this house that is Elspeth day, because it was that day many years ago that I went to a pet store and came home with a small and irrespressible Shetland Sheepdog who taught me more about inextinguishable and irrepressible love than any human ever has.

I did not know until I looked it up that the Villanova game was on April 1st, which perhaps makes it appropriate for me to write about this today. This memory was invoked by the combination of Palm Sunday and the final four, just as it was in 1985.

I know that there was nothing within my power to prevent the tragic events of that day 22 years ago. That does nothing to lessen the sorrow, the shock, even after more than two decades.

Tomorrow starts our fourth and final quarter of the academic year. The students have been off for four days, and this is a four-day week before they go on a ten-day break. I do not know if I will share this experience with them. It is not directly relevant to their lives, but it is something that is a major part of mine, and I don’t normally hide things from them. I will have to see how it plays out. I am sharing electronically. That may or may not be appropriate. But we are all the product of an accumulation of life’s experiences. And sometimes those that shape us in important ways are not readily apparent to others who encounter us, even if only in virutal reality. For me, what happened in 1985 is one piece of the larger fabric, a patchwork quilt whose overall integrity and wholeness may not seem evident at first glance. Yet even those pieces on opposite sides tie together, not merely because they are part of my personal experience, but because each is yet another reason I find I can not disconnect myself from the larger universe, from the teeming humanity on this fragile ball in space we call Planet Earth.

In 1985 I was an Orthodox Christian. March 31 was not our Palm Sunday, so it was not my Holy Week (Easter was one week later, as it often is). This year the dates of Easter coincide for the Eastern and Western Churches. Some in my Quaker Meeting take Easter seriously, some do not. Next week I will attend the Resurrection service with my wife, who has remained in the Orthodox Church. And I will hear liturgical texts of hope and renewal, the words of a sermon of John Chrysostom written about 1600 years ago, a sermon that welcomes all, those who have kept the fast and those who have not. In the mind of the eastern Christian, the key are the words of the Troparion (hymn) of the Feast, words to which Chrysostom refers in his Sermon. The hymn goes like this:
Christ is Risen from the Dead,
Trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.

I am agnostic on the issue of life after death. But I am resolute in the belief that people live on in our hearts, our memories. And even in tragedy if we are to remain sane we must find joy, and hope. Perhaps that is the real resurrection, the rearising of hope that enables us to go on, even after the greatest tragedy.

The murder of Linda and Donna and Joanne was a tragedy for those who knew them. Perhaps in some way I have been able to offer them some continued existence in this reflection, perhaps not. The scope of tragedies is not a competition - the losses are felt individually, and deeply. Some seem avoidable, others senseless, far too many are both. And yet - even if we cannot prevent senseless and seemingly avoidable tragedies, we must go on, perhaps altered by the experience, challenged to make a difference someplace else. We are human, we fail as individuals and as that collection of individuals known as society to do all we could to prevent tragedy. I will not forget, for that would dishonor the memory of those we have lost. But I will go forward in the hope that in some way I can make a difference - that honors, and keeps alive at least in memory.

Thank you for allowing me to share this with you.
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