Deana Mena. Age 26. Blonde. Blue-eyed. Unremarkable. I think about her often. I wonder what her family was like and if she had a sense of humor. I wonder who her friends were and if she went to college. Mostly, I wonder what ran through her mind as she shot my father. I think it takes a special kind of pain to drive someone to switch weapons, mid murder. It takes a certain kind of madness to premeditate. Why the Kabuki makeup? Did she have a real knowledge of Japanese culture or did she see it in a movie? I wonder what ran through her mind when she sat outside my school and my mother’s doctor’s appointments. Did she think my mom was pretty? I used to think stalking was kind of romantic. I blame The Police. At the time, I thought her obsession with Usher’s ‘You make me’ would ruin it for me. So many phone calls, so many voicemails. But alas, that shit is catchy. I wonder what was going through her mind, the morning she made that last phone call?
On October 8, 1997, Deana Mena lured my father to her Oak Cliff, Texas apartment. She’d left numerous voicemails on his work phone. Never words only Usher on repeat. She’d called his bosses repeatedly and told them that he was a drug addict and she’d suggested that they let him. He’d had enough. Forever the optimist, he thought he could reason with her. She put six bullets in his head, face, torso and hand. I try not to think too hard about that hand wound. Try not to picture my father attempting to block his own death or plead for his life. She then dressed herself in Kabuki makeup, left a suicide note and shot herself.
Before that, it had been a day like any other. I got up, got dressed and impatiently waited for my ride to school. I was late. Punctuality mattered to me. I was 17 going on 40. I didn’t want to fall behind. Black girls start from behind. My dad was much more relaxed about those things. He had a routine. Coffee. Cigarette. Newspaper. Morning shit. They had to be simultaneous and they each gave him equal pleasure. After whining, coaxing and screaming (apparently, I’m cute when I’m mad), I finally got him to get going. I waited for him by the door and I swear he moved like he was treading molasses. He sang the theme song to the Tom Joyner morning show and cleared his throat the entire ride to school. He danced and jerked his shoulders to the music. He smiled broadly and slapped the steering wheel on beat. He knew it annoyed me. He loved to drive me mad. I’m told that when I was a baby he used to lightly smack me on the butt because he thought it was cute when I cried. He told me he loved me when he dropped me off. I did not return his sentiment. I slammed the door and stomped off in a huff. I was fuming. In a moment that I replay over in my mind all these years later, I told a friend that if he died that day I’d piss on his grave. I replay that moment, not because I meant it, not because I credit myself with intuition, but because it was perhaps the meanest thing I’d ever said aloud. It shocked me and it was exhilarating.
My dad never came home that night. More accurately, my dad never came home again. That moment when I slammed the door and stared at him with contempt would be the last moment I ever saw him alive. When I got home from rehearsal that night, my mother was pissed. He’d taken her car that day and he wasn’t home. As the hours ticked by, pissed morphed to worried. She called hospitals and police stations. We couldn’t yet file a missing persons report, so my mom reported her car stolen. My stomach hardened and I didn’t really sleep that night. Somehow, I knew I’d never see him again. I knew that my life would never be the same. In that moment, I held my breath and I don’t know that I’ve breathed deeply since.
I have no recollection of how I got to school that next day. I do recall that I had a choir concert that night and rehearsal for “God’s Country”, a docudrama my school was producing about white supremacists in which, by ironic twist, I played the defense attorney. Texas is God’s country, I suppose. I was called out of choir practice to see the principal. I couldn’t tell you how it happened. I don’t know if someone came to get me or if I was called over the intercom. I remember standing on the risers blending sound and suddenly I was in my choir director’s office. It was as if I’d apparated. I had been waiting for this all day. It was as if I’d been walking around cloaked in shadow waiting for the discovery.
She must have sensed that something was wrong because she asked if I was ok. I asked her if she’d pray with me and she took my hands in hers. I closed my eyes and time stood still. Those moments in her office were my last moments of wholeness. I wonder if she knew she was witnessing a tiny death? I wasn’t given any information, just told that someone was there to pick me up. I knew that it wouldn’t be my dad, though I did hope beyond reason. My brother’s maroon Ford Escort was parked out front. He was very calm, very collected. “She killed him, Dreezy. She shot him, then she shot herself.”
“Mom?” I asked. We laughed. It’s funny how humor locks hand with tragedy. But I was only half-joking. I didn’t know if Deana had gone over the edge or if my mom had. I knew my mother had a gun, it was Texas, we all did. In fact, she and I had gone to confront Deana a few weeks earlier and I watched as she put it in her bag. The entire time we were at Deana’s house I stared at the bag like it was on a timer. She’d goaded my mother by discussing my father’s bedroom antics. She’d slung microagressions and ageist insults. I knew that timer could go off at any minute.
We took the long way home and we rode mostly in silence. My brother and I have not always gotten along, but we’ve always understood each other. I wondered what he was thinking. He knew Deana, they worked together and she’d babysat my nephew. We arrived to a house that felt completely empty. I don’t remember who was there, I didn’t look at anyone. I didn’t hug my mother. I didn’t exhale. I walked straight back to my room to sing to my brand new baby niece. I remember telling her that I was sorry she’d never get to meet him. I was sorry that she’d never fall asleep on his chest. I was sorry she’d never get to wrap her little fingers around his pointer. I poured all my sorrow into my song ‘La Marseillaise’ because I just couldn’t cry. Why the French national anthem? Because I’d just done a play about the French Revolution and it was on loop in my head for the greater part of a year.
When I could no longer hide in my room, I went and looked at my mother. I hadn’t really looked at her in a very long time. She was making phone call after phone call, saying, “Don’s dead. He was shot” No one expects those calls. No one can process that news. She’d sometimes have to repeat the sentence two or three times to the same person. It was too much. I asked to be driven back to school. I had a performance and a rehearsal and I couldn’t fall behind, especially now. My brother followed my lead and decided to go back to work. When I think back on this moment, I am ashamed that I abandoned my mother but I also consider this the first act of self-care I ever committed to. A black girl in the South learns to make concessions. She learns that there is a pecking order and she is always served least and last. I’d learned to bend myself around those around me, to cater to every whim. My mother used to say, “You’re a child, you don’t have any wants.” In that moment, I wanted freedom and self-preservation, and for the first time, I took it.
I went back to school and went about my day. If I went through the motions maybe my life wouldn’t change. The weeks that followed were surreal. I took my SAT’s. I helped make funeral and travel arrangements. I helped communicate that they had put my dad’s face back together wrong and made him up in an unrealistic way. I helped and helped, and in that helpfulness, I lost my capacity to request any help of my own. I learned behavior that still plagues me. I learned to give of myself until I bottomed out. I was a basin filled with the waters of the world’s needs. I began sleeping with my mother. She hadn’t slept alone my entire life. I could feel her need. We clung to each other like ivy. But we were incapable of climbing.
Following my father’s death, an article ran in the Dallas Morning News, headlined “Murder-suicide leaves two dead Police say woman shoots lover, self” The article described my father as a physically abusive monster, who took advantage of a sweet young girl. The man who wrote the piece, Stephen Power, detailed stories from neighbors who Deana had shown her bruises to. Phone calls to friends about my dad’s abusive behavior. I know what you’re thinking. Maybe it’s true. Maybe I have an idealized version of him. But, you’re wrong.
My father was many unsavory things over the years. He was negligent and selfish. He was at times a liar, a thief, and a crackhead. He smoked away my somewhat substantial inheritance within a year of my grandfather’s death. He once visited my grandmother in her retirement home and pried the rings from her fingers. He sold my first bicycle for crack, a few weeks after I learned to ride it. He once left me in a car while he went in and scored crack then insulted my intelligence when I went Judge Judy on that ass. I may have been seven, but I was no fool. He was also kind and charming. He was incredibly funny and loved to make people laugh. He would give you the shirt off his back and he looked at my mother like she was the moon. He also listened. He was the only person in my family that never tired of letting me prattle on. He looked at me when I spoke. He knew me. He liked me. He would wake me in the middle of the night to make gas station runs for Coke and Snickers bars. He took me to my first dance and on my first date and told me to never settle for anyone who didn’t treat me as well as he did. I had a very realistic view of who my father was.
This article pissed me off. It was a one-sided glorification of a murderer. The dead don’t speak, but this man’s bias spoke volumes. The poor little white girl must have been bamboozled, tricked and beaten. What else would drive her to commit murder, if not to protect herself? Because poor little white girls never do vile things for no reason. Because poor little white girls are precious and they have value. My father’s legacy didn’t matter, because to Power, my father didn’t matter. He looked at the victims, he poked around a bit and he came to the conclusion that white men often come to when they see their women with a black man: She had clearly been corrupted and soiled. Even though her suicide note left instructions for her brothers to kick my dad’s ass if he survived. Even though she switched guns in the middle of murdering my father. Even though the ‘abuse’ happened after my father had moved out and was living with us. Even though she had stalked, harassed and threatened us, she deserved humanity.
What he didn’t do was dig. What he didn’t do was smell a rat and seek the scent. What he didn’t do was his fucking job. So, after a week of being “comforted” by students and faculty who felt guilty for not identifying the nonexistent “signs of abuse,” I called the Dallas Morning News. I demanded to speak to Mr. Power and I demanded a retraction. I requested a meeting to discuss the facts. After slinging the words “racist” and “skewed,” I got my meeting. I was able to easily dispute the testimonies based on the fact that every time she accused him of beating her, he was either at home with us or at work. I was 17 years old. I didn’t even need to leave my house to get the truth; I just needed to give a shit about what was being reported, about the people being reported about. . My mother and I waited with bated breath for the retraction to be published. But we never got a retraction.
Nearly a year later, op-ed columnist, Steve Blow, showed up at our door one sunny afternoon. He said he wanted to get our side of the story. Finally. He interviewed my mother and me and he was respectful and kind. We had a nice rapport. He recommended that I go into journalism. This was the first of many times some white person would compare me to Oprah because I could articulate my thoughts. About a week later Steve’s article was published. ‘Drug –Related Tragedies Not Just Kid Stuff’. It was a bullshit fluff piece, cautioning against the dangers of getting involved with drugs. A fire raged in the pit of my stomach. I pictured myself driving down to the paper and burning it down to the ground. Instead I tucked that anger in a box, threw away my college applications and applied for community college so I could remain close to family.
This was the first of many times that I slathered my outrage in butter to make to it more palatable. To get shit done. This was how I was made. The gauntlet was dropped and I quickly picked it up. I would tell the truth. I would defend. I would protect. I would tuck myself up and put myself away. I would survive.
I had learned that you could live a good life, be charismatic, charming, and beloved and you could still be shot down like a rabid dog. You could still rot and your blood could soak through layers of fibers and tile and linoleum. You could be gentle and kind and “not see color” and they could still make you a monster, a brute. You could be a murderer and they’d play you a redemption song. Nothing is black and white and everyone is capable of anything.
After my father’s death, my mother became addicted pain meds. She checked out. Abandon ship. My brother battled addiction to anger and narcotics. I postponed college to stay with my mother and be closer to my niece and nephew. I made sure she didn’t burn the house down and I cleaned the sheets when she fell asleep in piles of food. I wanted to hang on to the family that I had, and I feared that without me everything would crumble. I tended to her. I tended to them. I reached for everything outside of myself so that I wouldn’t have to face myself. I wouldn’t have to face my grief.
This year will mark the 20th anniversary of my father’s death. I’ve never been sentimental about dates, but it’s odd knowing he’s been gone longer than I ever knew him. I’ve spent so much time trying to move forward, trying never to fall behind, that I forgot to stop and mourn the loss of not only my father, but my entire family unit. I thought I’d made peace with my father’s murder but I’d really substituted peace with subjugation. I’d made my life an ode to self-sacrifice, and I’d made a career of self-sabotage and imposter syndrome.
I’d thought that demanding a retraction would make a difference. I’d thought that it would be atonement. Instead, it was an after school special with a word count. Despite my fervor, despite my action, in the end it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that I was right. It didn’t matter that I was articulate and it didn’t matter that I’d stood up for the underdog. My father was still dead, my family was still punctured and I would never be fully whole.
It took 20 years to realize that atonement was not the mission. Telling the story was. Stephen Powers, Steve Blow and the Dallas Morning News do not own my father’s story. I do. My father’s murder taught me to ask questions. It taught me to demand the truth and to always own my story. No one gets to decide that I’m a victim. No one gets to determine my fate. My story may not be perfect, it may not be the story I would have written for myself, but it will always be mine.