The year was 1984. “When Doves Cry” by Prince was the #1 song in the U.S. and Ronald Reagan was President. My sister Joyce and I had both just graduated from college only a couple of months earlier – Joyce from a two-year school in Leicester, Massachusetts – then known as Becker Junior College – and I from Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
The game plan was straightforward: Joyce, with her veterinary assistant’s degree finished, was moving on to Southern in the Fall to finish a bachelor’s degree and get on to the ‘dream’ stuff – veterinary school, potentially at Tufts University once she completed SCSU. She was taking it all systematically, one diploma at a time. I had my journalism degree and was done, for the time being, with formal education.
Joyce’s goal was to become a veterinarian. That was no surprise to anyone who knew her, since Joyce had loved animals from the start.
I, on the other hand, was relatively clueless. All I knew was that I wanted to write. Whatever job that might mean, I was just going to have to figure it out as I went.
Who doesn’t remember what it feels like to be 19 and 21, in the beginning stages of seeing your future path start to take shape? Even if it wasn’t clear what you were going to be, you knew that adulthood offered all sorts of possibilities – travel, new relationships, independence, fun. A different kind of freedom.
That’s where Joyce and I were at, in the summer of 1984. Feeling like we had climbed a pretty big mountain in graduating from our respective colleges, and looking ahead to what amazing things were coming up next.
We had this big dream to drive cross country — a sisters adventure that we had little idea on how we would achieve it, but gigantic excitement that it was a trip we would take on our terms, in our own way. That was the reward for our hard work as college students, to see the beautiful United States from one end to the other before we settled in to our careers, settled down with our life loves, had our families, and raised them next door to each other.
It was so simple. Whatever would fill in the gaps of those life markers, we didn’t care. We had laid the foundation for Life, and our plans were entwined and mapped out as much as they needed to be at that moment in time.
Looking back now, we were so innocent. Growing up in smalltown Seymour, Connecticut, why wouldn’t we be?
We lived in a community where you made friends through the local sports programs of Little League baseball, Pop Warner football; your church, where you volunteered at the annual parish picnic, your cousins sang in the choir and your brothers were altar boys… the connections formed in those early days of our childhood were permanent ones. The older I get, the more I see it: those are relationships that never fade. Those are friends from whom you draw your strength, rekindle your hope and remind you of the richness you enjoyed — not marked by dollars in the bank but by the sweet relishing of the simple things.
As kids, we spent our summers playing wiffle ball, swimming in the brook or in our backyard pool, and playing with our best friends – the neighborhood kids. Joyce and I were outnumbered by five brothers, so we stuck together. That closeness grew over the years from childhood, to the amazing bond we enjoyed as teenagers right up until the day she was taken from us.
Our cross-country trip is still just a dream. Well, a broken dream, I guess. I’ll never take that trip with Joyce. A killer made sure of that.
Starting tomorrow, I’ll share my story – the first published story I ever wrote about what happened to my sister Joyce. It ran on Page 1 of the defunct New Haven Journal-Courier newspaper, the place where I started my professional writing career and in some ways, the job that saved me. That’s a story for another time.
I’ll share it, in serial form, as that is the way I wrote it all those years ago, even though it appeared in the paper all at once. The story came out of notes I began to take on my evening shift at the newspaper, in between work, getting out the raw emotions I was wrestling with every minute of every day. Then, one day, something compelled me to share a bit of it with one of my colleagues — and the response was encouraging. No, it was more than that. He told me it was a story that should be told.
Somehow, I found the words. When I think about it, maybe the words found me. When my story was mocked up for publishing, I was stunned to see that not only did it appear on the front page, but it filled a full page inside the paper as well.
For a rookie journalist whose job at the time amounted to nightly police checks and writing the weather box at the bottom of the front page, it was prime real estate, and I don’t think I even got that, at the time. All I cared about was making sure Joyce was not forgotten. How do you make that happen? For me, writing was the only way I knew.
So, beginning here on Walking Distance tomorrow, Part 1 of “Murder strikes home.” See you then.