Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives - Gary Younge (2016)
Chapter 1. JAIDEN DIXON (9)
Grove City, Ohio
NOVEMBER 22, 7:36 A.M. EST
SCHOOL MORNINGS IN NICOLE FITZPATRICK’S HOME FOLLOWED A predictable routine. As soon as her three boys—Jarid Fitzpatrick, age seventeen, Jordin Brown, age sixteen, and Jaiden Dixon, age nine—heard her footsteps they would pull the covers over their heads because they knew what was coming next: the lights. The older two would take this as a cue for the inevitable and get up. But Jaiden, who had a loft bunk bed in the same room as Jarid, would try to string out his slumber for as long as possible. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he would first migrate to his mother’s room, where his clothes hung, and climb into her bed. Then came the cajoling. “I’d tickle him to try and get him to get up,” says Nicole. “And goof him around. I’d pull him by his ankle to try to get him to get dressed.” They had a deal. If he could get himself ready—“all the way ready. Socks, shoes, shirt, everything”—the rest of the morning was his. “He could play on the computer, play Minecraft, watch Duck Dynasty or a DVR from the night before,” she explains. “You get all the way ready to go, [ready to] walk out the door, and you can do what you want for that time frame.”
It was Friday, November 22, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The morning papers were full of nostalgia for the nation’s lost innocence. They might have found it on Nicole’s street in Grove City, a dependably humdrum suburb of Columbus that had been crowned “Best Hometown” in central Ohio for that year. It was precisely its dependability that convinced people to stay. Nicole went to school with the parents of the children her kids go to school with. Amy Baker, whose son Quentin hung out with Jaiden, was one of Nicole’s good school friends, and they remain close. Baker was the third generation of her family to go to Grove City High School; her daughter is the fourth. When Nicole and Amy were growing up, Grove City had a reputation as a hick farming town. Some disparagingly and others affectionately nicknamed it “Grovetucky”—a midwestern suburb that owed more to the rural ways of Kentucky than to its status as a suburb of Ohio’s biggest city. Back then the town’s border, appropriately enough, was marked by a White Castle restaurant. There was no movie theater. The Taco Bell parking lot was the main hangout for youngsters. “You had to leave Grove City to get a decent pair of shoes,” says Baker. “Otherwise you were shopping at Kmart.”
The population has more than doubled in Nicole’s lifetime and now stands at 38,500.1 Nicole and Amy remember much of the development, including the building of the large strip mall where I met Nicole for dinner one night. At just thirty-nine, she can sound like an old-timer. “There was nothing there,” she told Jordin, trying in vain to evoke the limitations of the world she grew up in. “It was all farmland. Corn. Farmland. Soy.” Nicole, Jarid, Jordin, and Jaiden lived on Independence Way, off Independence Street and past Independence Court, three thermometer-shaped streets—cul-de-sacs, each with a circular bulb at one end—without picket fences but with a hoop in almost every yard and a flag flying from many a porch. A yellow traffic sign stood by the house, warning, “Slow—Children at play.” On a breezy weekday morning it’s so quiet you can hear the wind chimes toll.
They’d been there for three years, and Nicole had recently signed another two-year lease. “I knew the people next door, the people at the end of the street. Everybody knew everybody. There wasn’t any crime. I had no problems with Jaiden being outside playing. The rule was I had to be able to walk out of the front yard and be able to see him. I never really needed to worry in that regard.” Jaiden was ready that morning with time to spare for high jinks. When Nicole threw him his socks, Jaiden wound his arm around and threw them back before telling her he wanted to try out as a pitcher for his Little League baseball team. He was playing on his Xbox and Nicole was packing his bag when, shortly after 7:30, the doorbell rang. This was not part of the routine. But nor was it out of the ordinary. At the end of the street lived a woman Nicole had gone to high school with. Every now and then one of her two teenage girls, Jasmin or Hunter, might pop around if their mom was short of sugar or coffee or they needed a ride to school. Usually, they would text Jarid or Jordin first. But occasionally they just showed up.
So when the bell rang, Nicole called for someone to answer it and Jaiden leapt up. He opened the door gingerly, hiding behind it as though poised to jump out and shout “Boo” when Jasmin or Hunter showed her face. But nobody stepped forward. Time was suspended for a moment as the minor commotion of an unexpected visitor’s crossing the hearth failed to materialize. Nicole craned her neck into the cleft of silence to find out who it was but could see nothing. She looked to Jarid; Jarid shrugged. Jordin was upstairs getting ready. Slowly, cautiously, curiously, Jaiden walked around the door to see who it was. That’s when Nicole heard the “pop.” Her first thought was, “Why are these girls popping a balloon at the door? What are they trying to do, scare me to death?”
But then she saw Jaiden’s head snap back, first once, then twice before he hit the floor. “It was just real quiet. Jarid was standing there in the living room and it was like everything stopped. And I remember staring at Jarid.” And in that moment, though she had seen neither the gun nor the gunman, she knew what had happened. It was Danny. “I didn’t need to see him. I knew it was him.” Jarid didn’t see his face or the gun either. But he saw the hoodied figure making its escape to the car. He, too, knew immediately who it was.
Danny Thornton was Jarid’s father. Nicole had met him years before at Sears, where he made keys. She was nineteen; he was twenty-eight. “We were never really together,” she says. “It was really a back-and-forth kind of thing. And that has just been our relationship ever since.” Amy Sanders, Nicole’s best friend, never liked Danny. The first time she met him Jarid couldn’t have been more than three. Danny knew she was Nicole’s best friend, and he hit on her anyway. “He was gross and he was mean,” Amy says.
Nicole hadn’t seen him since July. He’d found her over a year earlier, in January 2012, when he was in need of help. “He didn’t have anywhere to stay,” she recalls. “He was getting ready to be evicted, and we kind of decided to let him stay with us with the intention that we could help each other out. He could spend time with Jarid and keep him under control, and I could help him get a job and get him back on his feet so he could give us some money.” She gave him Jarid’s room, and the boys all shared a room. She put together his resume and e-mailed places where he might work. He got one job for a month and was fired. He didn’t find another one.
While he was staying with the family, he got to know Jaiden. He took him bowling. He once told Nicole he liked Jaiden because Jaiden made him laugh. He even said he preferred him to his own son, Jarid. The arrangement didn’t work out. Money and space were tight, and so long as he was jobless Danny had little to offer. Nicole needed the room. She tried to let him down gently. But anyway you cut it she was kicking him out. That made Danny angry. And Danny didn’t deal with anger well. According to court records, his criminal history dating back eighteen years included charges of felonious assault, domestic violence, aggravated menacing, disorderly conduct, assault, attempted possession of drugs, having a weapon under disability, and carrying a concealed weapon. He was also a semipro, super-middleweight boxer—five feet eleven and around 160 pounds—who favored the southpaw stance: right hand and right foot forward, leading with right jabs, and following up with a left cross, right hook. He’d fought as far afield as Canada and Florida and had acquitted himself respectably—in fifteen wins and fifteen losses, he’d delivered eleven knockouts and been knocked out fourteen times himself.2
“He was pissed,” says Nicole. “He moved all his stuff out. I don’t know where. I didn’t care.”
What she didn’t know for some time was that as he was packing up he told Jarid, “I have no problem making you an orphan. I’m not going to be living out of my car at forty-seven years old. I have no problem shooting your mom and shooting your brothers.” When he’d done with his shooting spree, he told his son, he’d end his life in a shoot-out with the cops.
Although he’d never directly threatened to shoot Nicole’s family, Danny had talked to her about shooting others. “We’d had this discussion before. He had twins. I don’t even know how old they are. He was pissed off with the mom for filing child support on him. He already had two other child support orders on him, and he didn’t work, didn’t have a job, already had a couple felonies on his record, so he couldn’t get a job. And he talked about if he knew where she lived he’d go over there and shoot her and shoot the babies. And I remember telling him, ‘Don’t shoot the babies. Why are you going to shoot the babies? They didn’t do nothing to you.’ And he said, ‘No. They don’t love me. I don’t love nothing that don’t love me back.’”
He’d once come close to shooting another ex-partner, Vicki Vertin. He’d told Nicole he had been on his way to shoot Vicki, their daughter, and her family when he got a phone call from a friend he hadn’t spoken to in years. “He took that as a sign not to do it that day.”
“He had a list,” says Amy Sanders. “An actual, physical list of people he wanted to kill. . . . He would talk about it whenever he met up with Nicole. Nicole was afraid of him. She always thought if she was nice to him she wouldn’t be on his list. And unfortunately she was the first one.”
Jarid was shielded from much of this. “They never said anything bad about him in front of us,” says Kayaan Sanders, Amy’s son, who effectively grew up with Jarid. “I never saw Danny get angry and aggressive in front of us. He’d always be the cool dad, that would be funny, said inappropriate things sometimes that would make you laugh. Jarid never said anything bad about his dad in front of me.” So when Danny talked about making him an orphan, Jarid thought he was just running at the mouth. He didn’t tell his mom about it until September. Danny had been absent for much of Jarid’s life; he didn’t know what Danny was capable of. “When Jarid told me [what Danny said], I stopped dead in my tracks,” says Nicole. “I said, ‘Jarid, he’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me.’ And Jarid said, ‘No he’s not, Mom. He’s just blowing off steam.’ I was petrified. Petrified. I told my friends if something happens to me go after Danny, make sure my kids are taken care of. I was preparing for it to be me.” But time passed. They didn’t hear from Danny, and she began to wonder if Jarid was right. Maybe he was sounding off.
Then Danny’s cell phone subscription expired. He’d been on her plan. She’d continued paying for his phone after he’d left in order to placate him. But Christmas was approaching and she could no longer afford to. She hesitated, mindful of what Jarid had told her and fearful of Danny’s response. On November 20 she sent him a text telling him his contract would end on Monday the twenty-fifth. “I can’t pay it anymore,” she wrote. “But the phone’s yours. You can go and turn it on at any provider.” The message sat on her phone for a while unsent. “I knew what he was capable of,” she says. “But I had to look out for my kids. I had to look out for me.” She pressed send. He replied within an hour: “What fucking took you so long?”
Nicole forwarded the message to Amy Sanders. “I swear he’s gonna kill me one day,” Nicole texted. “In two years, when nobody suspects him, I know he’s gonna kill me.”
“We were serious,” says Amy. “But somehow it was still more like a joke. Who can wrap their minds around a reality like that until it really happens? It’s not really real until it happens.”
And then it happened. Two days after the exchange, this was the man who sped away from Independence Way in a blue Toyota, leaving Jaiden with a bullet in his skull as Danny’s biological son desperately tried to revive his brother. “And I struggle to try and understand,” says Nicole. “Did he shoot whoever answered the door, or was Jaiden his target? Because honestly he could have stepped one foot in that house and shot me, shot Jarid, shot Jordin. We were defenseless. We opened the door and let him in. There was nothing to stop him taking us all out.”
DANNY LEFT A GRAY, circular hole on Jaiden’s temple and chaos all around. Jarid fled out of the house, screaming and crying, and asked a neighbor, Brad Allmon, to call 911. “He just shot my brother in the face. He shot my brother in the face,” he told Allmon.3 Once he got the emergency services on the phone he could barely make himself understood through the pandemonium.
“Sir, please calm down so I can understand what you’re saying,” says the operator. “We’ve got to learn what’s going on.”
“My dad just shot my baby brother,” says Jarid.
“What happened? What happened?” Trying to make out the pattern of events over the mayhem in the house, the dispatcher says, “Calm down, sir. Please tell me what happened.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Who shot him?”
“Danny Thornton. D-A-N-N-Y T-H-O-R-N-T-O-N.” Jarid alternates between trying to communicate with the dispatcher and trying to revive Jaiden. Desperation and the occasional expletive interspersed with formal niceties—“sir,” “ma’am,” “fuck,” “please God”—in an exchange between a public servant and a fraught teenager whose baby brother is dying in his arms.
“C’mon, Jaiden. C’mon, baby. C’mon, Jaiden. C’mon. C’mon.”
“Where are you now?”
“Oh my God. I’m going to fucking kill him. I’m going to fucking kill him. I’m going to fucking kill him.”
“Sir, that’s not going to help your brother.”
“Listen, he said he wants suicide by cop.”
“Where is he?”
“Oh God, please come. Please.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Oh please stay with me. Please. Please.”
“I need you to tell me where the guy is with the gun. Where did he go?”
“I don’t know. He walked up to the fucking door. Shot him and then took off.”
“Walking or driving?”
“He was driving a blue Toyota Camera, uh, Camry. C’mon, Jaiden, please stay with me.”
“Sir, you’ve got to talk to me, okay?”
“Yes,” said Jarid and then turned to someone in the house and said, “Hold his head. Hold his head. Hold his head.”
“Sir, listen to me. You need to answer my questions.”
Jordin also calls 911 and is on the other line.
“1916 Independence Way. My brother got hurt, I need somebody now, please.”
“Was he hurt from somebody or in a fall?”
“I don’t know. Just please get somebody here. Please.”
“Where is he bleeding from?”
“The head. There’s blood everywhere.”
“Did he take some kind of drugs or medication?”
“No, no, no.”
“Sir, how old is he?”
“He’s nine. Nine, nine, nine, nine.”
“He’s nine? Is he breathing?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Is he breathing, Mom? Is he breathing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he inside?”
“Yes, he’s inside.”
“Okay, I want you to get right down beside him and tell me if he’s breathing.”
“Mom, is he breathing? No, he’s not breathing.”
“Was he shot?”
“Are you right there beside him, sir?”
“I want you to lay him down on his back, remove his clothes, and place your hand on his forehead. Put your hand under his neck, tilt his head back put your ear next to his mouth. Tell me if you can hear breathing.”
“Sir, was he shot? Where was he shot?”
“In the door. He answered the door.”
“Where in his body was he shot?”
“In his face.”
“In his face?”
“In his head.”
“In his head? The front or the back? Can you feel any air moving?”
“I don’t know.”
“Alright. Stay calm. Is he in the house?”
“Where’s the man who shot him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know him? Do you know where he went?”
“I don’t know. Danny Thornton.”
“Did they do it on purpose?”
“I don’t know. I think so.”
“The person with the gun. Did they leave or are they still there?”
“Did he leave in a car or on foot?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sir, what’s your name?”
“Stay on the phone with me. Who shot him, do you know?”
“Danny Thornton, I guess.”
“Do you know where he went?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, Jordin, stay on the line with me.”
Jordin is sobbing. The dispatcher is calm and tries to be calming. “Do you know who shot him, Jordin? Do you suspect who shot him?”
“I don’t know. Can you please get me the police?”
“They’re on their way, sir. Jordin, I know this is very hard but I need you to tell me. Tell if you know where they went, okay?”
“I don’t know. I was upstairs, then I heard shooting and I came downstairs.”
“Alright, Jordin. Is this your little brother?”
“Can you feel any airwaves moving in and out of his mouth? Are you there with him?”
“Airwaves? No, no, no, no. Please. Please,” says Jordin, pleading for the police to hurry up.
“They’re on their way, Jordin, okay? Do you know where the person went?”
“I don’t know. Please, please.”
“They’re on their way, Jordin, okay?”
“They’re here. They’re here.”
“They’re right there, Jordin. Stay on the phone until they’re with him, okay?”
“They are. They’re here. Yes. Yes.”
“Okay, Jordin, I’m going to let you go, okay? Jordin. They’re right there. Jordin.”
“Who is with you?”
“My mom and my brothers and two cops.”
“The cops are there with you. I’m going to let you go now, Jordin, okay?”
Throughout, Nicole did her best to focus despite the hysteria. She put one hand over the wound and the other on the back of Jaiden’s head, where she could feel the bullet. She scooped Jaiden up, hugged him, rocked him, and then laid him back down. His eyes were closed the entire time as he lay straight with his hands down by his sides. Then, still unconscious, Jaiden lifted his left arm three or four inches off the ground and let it fall again.
“I freaked out,” she says. “I said Jerry, Jerry”—her nickname for Jarid. “He’s still alive. He’s still okay. We felt his heart, his pulse. He was never just dead. So after he lifted his arm up I was thinking this is what they do on TV. CPR. Mouth-to-mouth. And all it was, was just gurgle. . . . And I scooped him up again. And was holding him against my chest.”
The emergency services arrived and took over as the boys cried in the front yard and Nicole shook with shock. The fact that he had raised his arm, she felt, signaled there was still hope. “Now I know. But we felt his pulse and his heart beating. We could feel him alive. I hugged the boys and was saying, ‘Be strong. We’ll get to the hospital and get him fixed.’ Because I kept thinking the whole time, Just get him in there, get him to surgery, get the bullet out, and get him fixed. We’ll fix him. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”
“THE AMOK MAN,” WRITES Douglas Kellner in Guys and Guns Amok: Domestic Terrorism and School Shootings from the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre, “is patently out of his mind, an automaton oblivious to his surrounding and unreachable by appeals or threats. But his rampage is preceded by lengthy brooding over failure and is carefully planned as a means of deliverance from an unbearable situation.”4
Such was Danny, gaining his power from the fear he instilled in others as the full extent of his inability to cope with adult life—an inability to keep a job, a home, a relationship, or to financially support himself or his many children—overwhelmed and enraged him. Humiliation came easy to Danny. When Jarid was about eight years old Danny took him to buy a new pair of shoes. Danny wanted Jarid to stay the night with him afterward, but Danny’s visits had been irregular and Jarid didn’t feel comfortable going back to Danny’s house. In retaliation, Danny returned the shoes and told Nicole he didn’t love anyone who didn’t love him back. When Nicole asked how he could say that in front of his own son, Danny responded, “I wouldn’t care if he got hit by a car in front of me. . . . I wouldn’t even stop.”
“He was a sociopath,” Amy Sanders told me, as I sat with her and her four children in the living room of her home in Houston, where she’d moved in August 2013 to be closer to her father. “He never took responsibility for anything. He never had any conscience when it came to hurting other people. He’d say and do anything.”
“The amok state is chillingly cognitive,” writes Kellner. “It is triggered not by a stimulus, not by a tumor, not by a random spurt of brain chemicals, but by an idea.” The idea, argues Kellner, was best described by a psychiatrist in Papua New Guinea who interviewed seven men who’d run amok and summarized their self-images thus: “I am not an important or ‘big man.’ I possess only my personal sense of dignity. My life has been reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except my life, which is nothing, so I trade my life for yours, as your life is favored. The exchange is in my favor, so I shall not only kill you, but I shall kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am member, even though I might be killed in the process.”5
If such men can be found in Papua New Guinea, there is no reason why they might not be found in the suburbs of Columbus. But when they do appear they are, of course, a shock to the system. “That doesn’t happen here,” says Nicole. We’re sitting in the house she moved to after leaving Independence Way—a spacious place with a porch and a garden. “It never has. I’m not living in the ’hood. It happens in Columbus. It happens in Reynoldsburg. It doesn’t happen in Grove City. It’s boring. It’s secure.” Of all the places where children were shot that day, Grove City had the lowest homicide rate that year—2.7 per 100,000 inhabitants,6 the same as Bangladesh.7 The crimes Grove City residents are used to are mostly petty—car break-ins, burglaries maybe. When I ask Nicole and Amy Baker about violent crime in the town, they struggle to work out the last time anyone got murdered and settle on a domestic dispute two years earlier. As though to illustrate what qualifies as a nuisance, the police arrived during our interview to ask if Nicole could get her dog, Jango, to stop barking so loudly—it was 9:30 p.m.
But if a man like Danny running amok is a shock to the system, the system is nonetheless built to contain it. With the facts of Jaiden’s shooting both partial and evolving and Danny’s whereabouts still unknown, the suburb’s security apparatus curled reflexively into a tight fetal ball. Within five minutes of the first 911 call, Highland Park Elementary, just one block from Nicole’s house, went into lockdown. School hadn’t started yet, so the Grove City Police Department secured a perimeter around it, diverted buses, and told parents arriving in cars to take their children home, while ushering in kids who’d arrived early.
By that time Danny was long gone, heading eastbound on I-270 to Groveport, twenty minutes away, where his ex-partner, Vicki Vertin, with whom he had an eighteen-year-old daughter, worked as a dental hygienist. Vicki, unaware of what had just happened, came out to meet her unexpected visitor in the lobby.
She hadn’t seen Danny for twelve years but, like Nicole, lived in fear of his temper. “He told me one day he’d kill me,” she told a local news channel. “The day he walked in, I knew it was that time.”8 Danny was wearing a gray hoodie and had his hands in the front pocket. “Haven’t seen you in a while,” Vicki told him. Danny took out his gun, shot her in the stomach, and raced off again.
By this time, the 911 dispatch office was in overdrive. Calls were pouring in from all over. On the recordings you can overhear new information being received even as dispatchers struggle to process the facts they have. The dispatchers were not long finished with Jordin and Jarid when one of Vicki’s coworkers was on the line. With Danny now identified as the gunman in both locations, it took them six minutes to link the two shootings and realize they were dealing with an assailant committed to both murder and havoc: an amok man.
Two of his friends also called the police. He’d told them that he’d “killed two people and that he’s not going back to jail,”9 and “he will not go down without a fight with police.”10 More schools went into lockdown. Vicki’s family, who had been notified of the shooting, were taken to a protective room.
Nicole, meanwhile, had arrived at the hospital, where they paged for a neurologist to come to the trauma unit. As they took Jaiden for a CT scan, more doctors and a pastor came in. Detectives pulled her aside to ask if she had any idea where Danny would be going or whom else he might be targeting. That was when she found out he’d shot somebody else.
She told them that although she hadn’t seen the shooter she knew who it was. “Who would the gunman be targeting?” “Where would he be going?” “Where would he be staying?” Her mind was blank. Her thoughts were with Jaiden; she couldn’t get into Danny’s head to divine his intentions at the best of times. And this was not the best of times.
HAD JARID GOOGLED suicide by cop after the conversation he’d had with his father a few months earlier, he’d have found a 1998 paper published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. It was written by several academics and medical practitioners who reviewed all the files of officer-involved shootings investigated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department from 1987 to 1997 related to the phenomenon. It is a term used by police to describe incidents in which people ostensibly deliberately provoke law enforcement into fatally shooting them. Not surprisingly, the term is hotly contested because it can provide one more justification for police killings on the basis of a psychiatric state that officers can generally only guess at when they shoot someone. Exactly what Danny had in mind when he mentioned it we will never know.
The paper’s authors argue that to qualify, a case must meet four criteria: “(1) evidence of the individual’s suicidal intent, (2) evidence they specifically wanted officers to shoot them, (3) evidence they possessed a lethal weapon or what appeared to be a lethal weapon, and (4) evidence they intentionally escalated the encounter and provoked officers to shoot them.” By that definition they concluded that suicide by cop accounted for 11 percent of all officer-involved shootings and 13 percent of all officer-involved justifiable homicides during the time frame they reviewed. “Suicide by cop,” they concluded, “is an actual form of suicide.”11
“People who sought suicide by cop have to be in some kind of depression,” Dr. Harry Hutson told me in a phone interview. Hutson, who wrote the paper, is assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School. “The police shoot over four hundred people every year, and people know that if you brandish anything that looks like a weapon the police will act in self-defense or in defense of the community. So if you want to die, these people will do it for you.”
The subjects of the study were all between the ages of eighteen and fifty-four, 98 percent were male, most had a criminal record, and a third were involved in domestic violence cases. As such, says Hutson, Danny’s case sounds “pretty classic.” “He was depressed. He didn’t want to live anymore. He didn’t think he could carry on.”
An hour and forty-five minutes after he shot Vicki, Danny was traced to a Walmart parking lot in Easton Town Center, a twenty-minute drive from her workplace and not far from the motel where he’d been staying. At 9:46 he sat in his car trapped by two police vehicles. “Most of these incidents are over pretty quickly,” explains Hutson, with 70 percent of shootings taking place within thirty minutes of the police arriving. Sure enough, a shoot-out soon ensued in which one policeman was injured and Danny finally got his wish: suicide by cop.
Vicki’s first thought when she woke up from surgery was that he could still be out there. “Did they get him?” she asked her dad. “No,” he replied. Vicki tried to get out of bed. “Oh my God, he’s coming back to get me,” she thought. Her father clarified that Danny hadn’t been arrested but rather had been shot dead. She sank back down into the bed. She said it was the first time in years she’d felt safe.
Across town, Nicole was told that Jaiden wouldn’t make it. “His injuries aren’t survivable,” the neurologist told her. “There’s nothing we could do.” The neurologist said that Jaiden’s CT scan was one of the worst she’d ever seen. The bullet had taken a path straight to the back of his brain, where it had ricocheted around, causing irreparable damage. They put Jaiden on a ventilator while a decision was made about organ donation. “I don’t remember feeling anything,” says Nicole. “I don’t know if I cried. I was in shock and numb. ‘This cannot be real. It cannot be real. This is not happening right now.’ All I remember is having this image of him in his shoes. He’d just put his shoes on, and his T-shirt was on the floor. And now he’s in a hospital gown with a thing down his throat and a patch on his head. All in about an hour or so.”
Her last entry on Facebook, the night before, had been a link to a story about Merrick McKoy, a Colorado man who, four days earlier, had posted a picture of himself and his nineteen-month-old daughter on his page shortly before shooting both her and himself. “This is the very definition of a monster,” wrote Nicole. “What is wrong with people?!!” Her first posting after the shooting read simply, “I love you Jaiden. I love you so much.”
NEWS OF JAIDEN’S SHOOTING spread through Grove City like a bushfire. When convoys of police cars and news trucks roll up on a street like Independence Way, people inevitably start talking. For most of the morning few knew the names of either the victim or the assailant or their fates. All they knew was that a child had been shot. Jimmy Lewis, who lived across the road from Jaiden and worked at his after-school program at the local YMCA, had gone in early to work out. The Y is a bustling facility where children are fed, do their homework, and participate in either sports, arts, nature class, or “brain work” while they wait for their parents to pick them up. Jimmy got a call from his mother alerting him to the commotion taking place at the end of their street. His colleague Pamela Slater knew that Grove City was a small-enough community that, whoever the victim was, the YMCA would be impacted somehow. “There was a 90 percent chance that it was one of our kids,” she said. “The age and the connections we have in the community, whether or not it was an actual YMCA kid, it could have been a previous kid or a sibling. Somehow, someway we were going to be affected, and our kids would be affected because they would have known.”
Within hours, Jaiden’s teacher, his baseball coach, Nicole’s sister, and many others were at the hospital. They had to give the security desk a password to stop the media from sneaking in. At around noon, Pamela was pulled out of a meeting and told that the victim was Jaiden. With only a few hours before the children were supposed to arrive for after-school care, she had no time to process her grief or shock as she pulled together the YMCA’s various departments to draft a letter to give to the parents. Their priority was to protect the children from rumor and let their parents break the news to them. So when the children arrived, the staff said nothing. When parents came to pick up their children, they were given the letter.
“I know you heard about the shooting,” Pamela would tell them. “I know, it’s terrible,” they’d reply. “But there’s a little bit more detail,” Pamela would interject. “I know, it’s terrible,” the parents would repeat. “And then,” says Pamela, “you hand the letter to the parents. And you say, ‘He was in our program.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh no. It was Jaiden.’
“It was tough. It was difficult to have to repeat and repeat and repeat over and over. You could just see these levels and layers of the immensity of what we were talking about as I broke it to them. But we wanted the parents to be able to talk to the kids, especially because it was the weekend.”
Most children found out that night or over the weekend. Jaiden’s baseball coach, Brady—a mild-mannered man who clearly understood his role as primarily coaching children rather than coaching a sport—says he knows of children who were never told. When the children came back to the YMCA on Monday, there were extra staff for them to talk to.
“I can remember that there were some kids who were just devastated coming right in off the bus that Monday,” recalls Jimmy. “Our child care and metro department staff coached us on how we could support them. It was off and on all week. We serve meals every evening, and for a good week or so they kept an empty chair for Jaiden and even put a meal out for him. Probably wasn’t until after Christmas that you didn’t say ‘Jaiden’ and everyone starts crying.”
Several months later, while wandering through the YMCA before the summer break, Pamela was struck by how many art projects were devoted to Jaiden. “There’d be these hearts with ‘Jaiden’ on them or little wings with his name or crosses that say ‘Rest in Peace, Jaiden.’ I wasn’t even really looking for them. But once I started noticing them they were everywhere.”
AMY SANDERS AND NICOLE are like sisters. “We have a lot in common,” Amy explains. “We are both single moms. We both have biracial children. We were both struggling. She didn’t have family she was close to in Ohio, and neither did I. So we became like this team.” It was a very modern family. Two white women, coparenting their multiracial brood, who effectively grew up with two straight moms.
Sometimes Nicole might work two jobs and Amy would have the kids overnight and during the day, or vice versa. They kept them in the same schools. If any of them were in trouble, the school would call either mom. They raised the boys together like brothers. They didn’t need to pack bags to go to each other’s house—they always had stuff there. Amy’s youngest was a daughter, and shortly after she was born Nicole became pregnant with Jaiden. They were close in every way until Amy’s move to Houston.
Back in Grove City, Jaiden was being kept on life support until the doctors could remove his organs for donation. They wouldn’t declare him dead until they had done a test for brain activity. Nicole asked the doctors to put it off until Amy could get there from Houston. That would also give Jaiden’s paternal grandmother time to arrive from Akron. It was only a two-hour drive, but she kept having to pull over to cry.
When Amy broke the news to her kids, her sons Kamry and Kayaan started hitting things. Kayaan called Jarid. “Bro,” said Kayaan. “Bro,” said Jarid. “Literally me and him don’t talk,” explains Kayaan. “We just say, ‘Bro.’” But after a while they couldn’t even say that. They just sobbed until Jarid could get it together to ask, “When are you coming?” “We’ll be there right now,” said Kayaan. “Right now, man.”
It takes nineteen hours to drive from Houston to Grove City. They stopped for gas and one meal. Almost a full day of silence and grief jammed in a car. They made it to the hospital by early morning. When they walked into the hospital room, it was packed. “Everyone’s looking at us. Everyone’s crying. No one says anything,” recalls Kayaan. “After that brief pause they cried and hugged. Finally someone said something and conversation started.” Jaiden looked like he was sleeping, says Amy. “He was breathing. His heart was beating. The swelling had gone down. His flesh was warm. It was hard to believe he wasn’t going to go home with us.”
Jaiden was pronounced dead at 3:47 p.m. on Saturday, November 23. Once his death was official they could start seeking out recipients for his organs. It took a day for all the different medical teams from as far afield as Delaware and California to get to the hospital. (His lungs found a home in a girl from St. Louis.) The long wait evolved into an affair similar to an Irish wake—only without the coffin. Nicole and the boys were with him on and off the whole time. Nicole would lie with him until she couldn’t bear the fact that his eyes would no longer open, and then she would ask Amy to take over while she went for a walk. By the time they took him away to the operating room to remove his organs the whole family was there.
Jaiden hadn’t had much of a relationship with his father, Rosell Dixon III, said Nicole, but the relationship he did have was pretty good. (Rosell didn’t respond to requests for an interview.) They were never close but he would go over sometimes to play with his sisters, who were the same age. “His dad loved him and he did care for him,” she told me, “but it wasn’t the type of thing where he’d go over just to hang out with his dad.” But Rosell was at his side that night, as were his paternal grandparents, cousins, brothers, and sisters from his father’s side—all telling stories and saying their good-byes.
Up until the moment they wheeled him away for his final journey to the operating room, Nicole kept it together. “She held up really well,” says Amy. “It was like she was on automatic.”
But witnessing that final journey was too much to bear. “I wish I would have,” says Nicole. “But I couldn’t see the doors close. It was surreal. It was almost like they were taking him to have his tonsils taken out.”
It was around three a.m. on Sunday. Nicole had been up for forty-five hours straight, during which time her life had been turned upside down and then crushed underfoot. What happened next was a blur. “I just remember breaking down and crying and all these people hovering over me, and then somebody put me in a wheelchair and took me out of the hospital. I didn’t go back to his room to pick anything up or to get anything. I didn’t go back to the hospital at all.” The fog did not clear until the viewing. “It was maybe a week after he died,” she recalls. “He was laying in his casket. And I remember that because I’d been able to touch him so much at the hospital I went right up to him and I kissed him on the forehead, and I grabbed his hand and it was cold as stone and hard. And that was when the reality hit me. Oh my God. My baby’s gone. Until I saw him go into the ground it was like going through the motions.”
Nicole never went back to the house on Independence Way. She went straight to the Drury Inn and stayed there until Christmas, when she went to Dallas to stay with a cousin and then to Houston to stay with Amy before coming back to Grove City for New Year.
WHEN NICOLE WAS PREGNANT with Jaiden, she was convinced he would be a girl. She was going to call him Olivia, and then he could lyrically double up with Amy’s youngest, Khiviana: Livvy and Kivvy. But she was relieved he was a boy. “God gave me boys for a reason,” she says. At school she had been an avid and, by all accounts, excellent softball player, pitching for the Grove City High School team, which won the league every year and the state championship in 1983.
Tall and hefty, she was often teased about her weight during her youth. “I’ve never been a girly girl. I was a tomboy. My hair’s thrown up in a bun. I’m out there watching football games and yelling. I’m that mom in the basketball stands yelling at the ref because he made a bad call. So I’m glad I had boys.”
Jaiden’s home life sounded quite familiar to me. Like him, I was by far the youngest of three boys with a single mom at the helm. Jaiden was indulged; Jarid, the eldest, took on a lot of responsibility for him; Jordin, the middle child, was caught between the two; and Nicole ran from pillar to post trying to keep it all together. Like mine, theirs was a loving household full of camaraderie, tough love, rough and tumble, and considerable autonomy—Lord of the Flies meets The Brady Bunch with a touch of Roseanne. “They would fight. They would torture him. They’d torment him. They’d call me all the time at work. ‘Mom, they won’t let me play on the Xbox.’ ‘They won’t let me do this or that.’ And I’d just say, ‘Well, figure it out, boys.’” Jaiden was mixed-race—Nicole is white, Rosell is black—but much lighter-skinned than his brothers, whose fathers were also black. His skin was the color of straw. If Nicole was out with him alone he could pass as white, though he was often mistaken for being Middle Eastern.
The baseball coaches collectively called him Smiley. “Every kid has a bad day,” says Brady, his coach. “But he was always smiling. It just never seemed like the kid was in a bad mood.” In most pictures he wears a grin so wide it can barely fit on his face. At the after-school club at the YMCA, not far from his house, he was into pretty much everything. “He was the kind of kid I would love to coach,” said Justin Allen, who spent the most time with Jaiden of anyone there. “I would love to have him on my team. He was like a leader. Not in a vocal way. But just in the way he’d play the game. He was real enthusiastic and would get all the other players involved.”
Although Jaiden clearly enjoyed baseball, says Brady, he wasn’t a standout player. “He had the best attitude. But I don’t think he’d ever really been coached a lot. You could tell he was really interested and wanted to learn. But he hadn’t been exposed to it that much so he just wasn’t as familiar with the game as some kids his age might be. He was at that age where kids just start to catch fly balls. And Jaiden was one of those where it took a little longer to judge the fly ball.”
But the time he made the game-winning catch still sticks in everyone’s mind. “At the very last second he stuck his glove out,” recalls Brady, whom I met at Nicole’s house. “It reminded me of Sandlot. That movie. ‘Just hold your glove up and I’ll take care of the rest.’ He’s just standing there. And we’re thinking, ‘It’s over his head. It’s over his head. It’s over his head.’ And just at the very last second he stuck his glove out and caught it. It was third out so it ended the game and everybody just lost it. It was like they just won the lottery. They lost their mind.”
“He had the biggest grin on his face,” says Nicole. In the car on the way back he kept saying, “Did you see me catch the ball?” “Yes,” she repeated as her eyes welled up.
As well as most sports, Jaiden liked playing Battleship, hide and seek, and cops and robbers at the YMCA. He played Transformers with Ethan—he was Optimus Prime, leader of the autobots, and Ethan was Bumblebee, with the altmode of a compact car. They also acted out wrestling moves they’d seen on WWE.
His best friend there was Sidney, who was one year older. Sidney bears a slight resemblance to Olive in Little Miss Sunshine, the affectionate granddaughter who enters the pageant. There was no play fighting when Jaiden hung out with Sidney—though he did teach her to play “glide,” which involved jumping off a raised platform in her backyard with an open umbrella and “floating” to the ground. Most of the time, at the Y, they would sit on the bleachers in the gym, do their homework, and chat. She was his first valentine and he hers. They weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend, Sidney explained, but they were nonetheless betrothed. “This might sound silly,” she confessed. “But we said we would marry each other when we got older.” In the life they planned together he was going to be in the army and she was going to be a singer.
Jaiden was a giving soul. When he saw beggars he wanted to give them money. When it was hot he was always the last off the bus at the after-school program because he went up and down the aisle closing all the windows that other kids had left open. A day after his school book fair he came home with just one book and asked Nicole for a few more dollars. When she asked him what he’d done with the money she’d given him, he told her he’d given it to a girl who wanted a bookmark but couldn’t afford it.
He was also a big animal lover. Dogs, kittens, turtles—you name it. With his brothers preparing to leave home in a few years Nicole had promised they would get a dog once it was just the two of them. “He was super stoked and ready for them to be gone,” she says. “And when the boys would tease him he’d taunt them back: ‘When you move we’re getting a dog.’”
At home, when he wasn’t playing computer games, particularly Minecraft, he’d be out creating his own adventures. The back of the house led to a small wooded area that ran down to Marsh Run Creek, where he would join his friends to play “soldier army” with their Nerf guns. He once made a survivor video on his phone, narrating his abandonment in enemy territory. “Here we are out in the woods,” he said, like Captain Kirk dictating the ship’s log. “We don’t have many supplies. I have a cell phone but the battery’s low and I don’t have much service.” Then there was TV—Cartoon Network was his default channel. He knew the movie Cars by heart, and Jordin would often come downstairs to find him mouthing the words to nobody in particular. Finally, there were bikes. “Riding bikes, fixing bikes, swapping out tires,” recalls Nicole. “They’d just be at it all day—little boys working on bikes.”
His transgressions, like his passions, were very much those of a nine-year-old boy. “Not listening. Ignoring me. Staring into the computer world,” says Nicole, listing the things he’d get in trouble for. “Nothing serious. Nothing bad. Normal little boy stuff. He went to his friend’s house without asking once. Another time he didn’t tell me or Jarid that he wanted to go out and play.” She went out, looked left and right and couldn’t see him. It turned out he was down by the creek. “That was as bad as it ever got.” That was why it was particularly hard to make sense of his shooting, explains Kayaan. “I think I put myself in more danger every day than Jaiden did in his whole life.”
When I asked Ethan, his nine-year-old friend at the Y with whom he played Transformers, how he heard about Jaiden’s death, he said his mom told him in the car on the way home. He knew a child had died that day but he didn’t know it was Jaiden. “That’s why he wasn’t at the Y,” he told his mom and then he threw his head back on the seat and cried. “But one thing I do know,” he says. “Is that he will come back alive. My mom told me if you die you come back alive.”
When I asked Sidney, his valentine, how she found out what happened, she started to cry. “You think about him a lot still,” I said. I put my notepad down and suggested we stop for a moment.
She nodded and sniffed the tears away. “I write songs about him,” she said reaching in her bag for her cell phone, on which she’d written one. “It’s called ‘Stars.’ It’s about how I see him at night. It’s kind of like a poem but it doesn’t rhyme.”
I saw you in a shadow by the woods
I saw your face in all my dreams when I go to the meadow
I see you by the flowers and when I go to bed
I can’t think at all, but then I thought you were there holding my hand
And now I see you in the ssssttttaaaarrrs
They made me think of you when you shine bright
When you bow down on my window
I see you everywhere ya in the stars
I saw you by my house throwing pebbles
Then I went down to the meadow and then I saw you
And then I saw you in the sssstttaaaarrrs ya the sssstaaarrrs
Don’t know if I’m crazy, don’t know anything
Think I’m losing my mind
But then I see you in the stars ya the ssssttttaaarrrssss
Oh sssstaaaarrrsss yaaaaaa ya
NICOLE’S HOMECOMING, FOLLOWING HER postfuneral trip, was no easy process. She moved to another part of Grove City so she wouldn’t have to live in the same house where it all happened or even pass that side of town. Now she had to pick up the pieces and carry on. The trouble was that when she got back from Texas in the new year, there were far fewer pieces of her previous life waiting for her than she’d expected. The friends—“Well, I thought they were friends”—who’d offered to take her things from the old house to the new one got tired of moving them, she says. Three-quarters of her belongings were left in the house and then thrown out by the landlord. Much of what was discarded had great emotional value. There were heirlooms, including a handmade stool her great-grandfather had made for her grandmother. And then there were the boys’ “boxes.” Whatever the boys had created, gathered, or produced in a given year she would put in a box and write their school year on it: “Jarid 7th grade,” “Jordin 6th grade,” “Jaiden kindergarten.” She stored them under the hutch in the basement. They had all been thrown out. “I felt like the last ten years of my life were erased. I had to start all over again.”
For Nicole, “all over again” meant starting from scratch. She had never been rich. She grew up in a solid blue-collar family. Her father, who’d moved to Arizona and died in 1999, had been a truck driver. Her mom, who looked after the house and the kids and volunteered at school, has been severely disabled since suffering a stroke in 1993 and is cared for by her brother. Growing up, Nicole never had everything she wanted, but she had pretty much everything she needed—everything except self-esteem. Her dad was a verbally abusive alcoholic who used to reinforce the taunting she received in school about her weight and boyish ways. “She went from one extreme to another looking for acceptance,” says Amy. “And she found it in the wrong places with these guys who were real jerks to her. They would say horrible things, take her money, basically take what they wanted, and leave without ever committing to her. That’s how she came by Danny.”
By Nicole’s early twenties, she was in a tight spot, with two infants and nowhere to stay. “Sixteen years ago, when Jarid was seventeen months and Jordin was four weeks old, I was homeless,” she says. “We were legit homeless in a homeless shelter. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs. It wasn’t like I wasn’t intelligent or didn’t have the education like a lot of the other people in the homeless shelters. It was because I simply didn’t have anywhere to go. I had two kids. I had no family. Nobody could take us in. No money. I didn’t have a job. I couldn’t get a job because I was pregnant. It was a circumstantial homeless situation versus being an uneducated crackhead situation. We had nothing. And I busted my ass to get out of there and move up. Jordin’s first Thanksgiving and first Christmas were in a homeless shelter back in 1997, and I swore to myself it would never be like that again. They were so little they had no clue. But it still bothers me. And I built what I had. And everything was for them. And I got to the point where I was starting to be a mom.”
She became a paralegal at a small law firm and gradually pulled her life together. Coming back from nothing gave everything she did have greater value. “Once you’ve been homeless you hold on to too much because when you have nothing you try to keep every single thing you can.”
When she came back to Grove City to find most of her things gone, she felt as though she was back at square one. “It was like moving back into the shelter. It seems like everyday something is gone.” Her grief counselor said that given her personal history and the circumstances of her return, she was probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“WHETHER A SON OR daughter died in a muddy rice paddy in Southeast Asia or in an antiseptic hospital ward, in a sudden accident or after prolonged illness, the result is the same,” writes Harriet Schiff, in The Bereaved Parent.“You, the child’s mother or father, seem to have violated a natural law. You have outlived your child.”12
Schiff, who lost her ten-year-old son, Robby, to heart disease, offers a mix of anecdote, homely advice, and wisdom from the experiences of bereaved parents she interviewed. Her basic message is that nobody but those who have lost children can really understand what such a loss feels like, which makes the grief isolating. Still, Schiff insists, life will, in time, regain meaning. Nicole’s world is now divided into “before” and “after,” with Friday, November 22 as point zero. “It was like before then I was in a theater watching this movie, and since then it’s been like walking into a parking lot and trying to adjust to the bright lights from being so engrossed in this movie for so long. It’s like the places I used to go to look different to me because it’s this postmovie kind of thing.”
It’s not as though the movie she was watching was necessarily uplifting. As a single mother of three she remembers being exhausted, overwhelmed, and, at times, very down. “I wish I had done more with the boys. I wish I wasn’t so stressed and depressed all the time,” she says. “There were a lot of nights when I would come home from work and just order pizza because I didn’t feel like cooking anything. And I would stare at the TV, and Jaiden would either be at Quentin’s or he’d be upstairs or whatever. And I feel like I wish I’d gone outside and played with them. And I regret not doing those things with all my kids.”
But it was nonetheless a movie with a complete cast of characters, and it felt whole. “For the most part now it’s still just me trying to figure things out. Like I’ve always done. It’s nothing new. Except now instead of being a single mom of three I’m a single mom of two.”
The first time I met Nicole was in her office four months after Jaiden’s death. It was her birthday, but she hadn’t let on to her coworkers and had no plans to do anything special that night. She was wearing a hoodie bearing Jaiden’s name and face and the word Legendary. Her friend had set up a website so they could sell them to raise funds. She has one in every color and at the time was wearing one every day. She also wore a necklace spelling Jaiden’s name in curly script. She has another made from his thumbprint, which was taken at the funeral home. An image of Jaiden accompanied her pretty much everywhere she went. And yet at home she found it difficult to see him. “I can’t look at any of his pictures right now. I have school pictures in the living room over the mantel. I know where the picture is. I catch myself diverting my attention so that I don’t have to look in that area because it hurts too much to see him.” She’s in therapy, but struggling with the advice. “The only thing they keep saying is that grief is different for everybody. And they keep saying that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. They keep saying, ‘It’ll get better, it’ll get better.’ But I’m kind of at the point where I don’t see it.”
Five months later, when I saw her again she still couldn’t see it. We had dinner at the Longhorn Steakhouse and then went back to her house to meet friends who knew Jaiden. If anything, she was in a darker place. Most evenings she stayed up as late as possible to avoid going to sleep so that she could avoid the nightmares. Her mind whirs—an apparently endless loop of what-ifs and horror sequences that she can’t bear but also can’t prevent. “I keep replaying seeing him falling to the ground. I keep replaying, ‘I should have done this, I should have done that. I should have been there. I should have opened the door.’ I don’t want to sleep because I don’t want to think about it.”
So she stays up and tries to engross herself in a game or the TV or a book. Anything to keep her mind off her melancholic, self-flagellating regret. “When I go to sleep it’s because I absolutely can’t even keep my eyes open anymore. And I’m so hoping the dreams won’t even follow.” Three to five nights a week the nightmares come anyhow. Being awake is not much fun either. “If I don’t think about him, then I’m okay. But the second I start thinking about him and my brain starts going, then I just go crazy. It feels like I’m watching everybody else live their life in a TV show. And it’s like I’m going through the motions—talking to people and interacting with people—but I’m not really there.”
Schiff writes, “Far worse than lying awake all night, were the mornings. There seemed to be daily a brief period shortly after I opened my eyes when I completely forgot Robby was dead. Then, like a tidal wave, remembrance would come and engulf me and make me feel as if I were drowning. I had to fight my way out of bed every day—and I mean every day. This went on for several months and was probably my toughest battle.”13
So it has been for Nicole. Moreover, for every night she stays up trying to stave off nightmares, there follows a morning where she’s too tired to get herself together at a reasonable hour. Sometimes she simply can’t get out of bed. “I wish I could just get up and leave my problems at home, but I can’t.”
She has worked at the same small legal firm for some time and is on good terms with her boss. She says he has been very understanding since Jaiden died. But when she struggles, so does he. And she’s been struggling a lot. “I’ve had a lot of breakdowns and meltdowns.” Some days she doesn’t get in until noon. On others she doesn’t go in at all. “Sometimes I’ll just text him and say, ‘I’m not getting out of bed today. I just can’t do it.’”
“To bury a child,” writes Schiff, “is to see a part of yourself, your eye color, your dimple, your sense of humor, being placed in the ground. . . . In reality, when children die, not only are we mourning them, we are also mourning that bit of our own immortality that they carried.”14
In the reception area of St. Joseph’s Cemetery, where Jaiden is buried, a range of small pamphlets is assembled to assist the bereaved: “Losing Your Mom,” “Losing Your Dad,” “Losing Your Husband,” “Losing Your Wife,” “When Mom or Dad Dies,” “Talking with Your Kids About Funerals,” “Death of a Parent” “When Death Comes Unexpectedly,” and “Grieving the Death of a Grown Son or Daughter”—to name but a few. There is pretty much every permutation of grief possible but one—a pamphlet titled “Losing Your Young Child.” Because that’s not supposed to happen. It goes against the natural order of things that a parent would ever have to bury her child. When that child is as young as Jaiden, the tragedy is so unthinkable not even a cemetery has a leaflet for it.
“You know what I find interesting?” Brenda asks her undertaker boyfriend, Nate, in the TV series Six Feet Under. “If you lose a spouse, you’re called a widow or a widower. If you’re a child and you lose your parents, then you’re an orphan. But what’s the word to describe a parent who loses a child? I guess that’s just too fucking awful to even have a name.”15