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An Act Of Forgiveness

Seventeen Years Ago, Gregory Orfalea Buried His Father and Sister. It Took Him That Many Years to Confront and Accept the Humanity of the Person Who Took Their Lives.

January 26, 2003|Gregory Orfalea | Gregory Orfalea last wrote for the magazine about Luigi Venti, his longtime barber.

Seventeen years ago, my family met its Sept. 11, but with no one to hunt down or indict. In the days following our catastrophe, local newspapers printed a few accounts (''Family Argument Turns to Tragedy''), but we were soon left alone to begin our years of sadness.

We buried my father and my sister at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City in August, 1985. Aref and Leslie. So much of their lives were intertwined: their dancing, the garments that he manufactured and she wore, their long, parallel falls from grace--and their deaths.

For most of the last 17 years, forgiveness for the person who sealed their fate was the last thing on my mind, despite advice to the contrary. ''People who are unable to forgive create cutoffs and these can be lethal,'' a family therapist once told me. ''It affects your children and your grandchildren.'' But I could not hear him.

The years did not soften my resolve. But the agony of a nation did. Whether the Al Qaeda terrorists are hunted down, whether the last bandit is snuffed out, the survivors of those who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the fields of Pennsylvania may arrive where I arrived last year.

Last March, for the first time since the deaths of my father and sister, I found myself cresting a hill at Holy Cross Cemetery, amid the drum of the cars below on the San Diego Freeway and the sound of my feet avoiding the graves of strangers. I weighed the enormity of my family's loss and finally allowed myself to wonder about what can be forgiven--and what cannot.

August 2, 1985. It was a Friday. I had just arrived home from work, looking forward to playing with our newborn boy, who was lolling with his mother on our bed in a small brick row house in Washington, D.C. The phone rang. My first reaction to what my brother said (''Greg, I'll need you now for the rest of my life'') was to laugh. That sort of sentimentality did not seem like him.

I even laughed when he spat out that our sister Leslie had shot and killed our father at the family print shop, and then killed herself. A co-worker and a customer managed to crawl out through the front door.

I assumed it was one of his attempts to catch me off guard, so I waited for the punch line. There was none, only the silence and heavy breathing of someone who is pricing each breath for the first time in his life.

Just days before, I had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my sister before a baptismal font. My wife and I had asked Leslie to be our son's godmother, and she had flown with my mother from Los Angeles to attend. We thought it would bolster my sister's spirits. We also thought we could detect evidence that she was emerging from her long bout with mental illness. It was only after Leslie was dead that I discovered that her hospital records mentioned schizophrenia. No one ever used that word while she was alive; she was ''troubled,'' ''down,'' ''low,'' ''depressed.''

Soon after the call, I was on a late flight to Los Angeles. My mother Rose was in England, visiting her youngest brother and his family, so I was greeted by five shocked aunts. After they left, some friends and I stayed up for a while; as if hardness were a blessing, we finally fell asleep on the floor.

The next morning, my oldest friend, John Millsfield, whose father-in-law had just died, called and said there was much to do; he would walk me through it. Our first stop was the funeral home, where we were greeted by a sallow young man in a rumpled shirt and brown pants. He led us into the casket room, and after a stilted introduction to the various models, I selected two caskets--one of oak for my sister and one of mahogany for my father. The latter was more expensive, and I resisted the subtle pressure of the mortician's assistant to put them in the same wood, to show equality in death. I wanted my sister to be buried in something cheaper than oak. Maybe pine would do, or, for all I cared, cement.

We then drove to Holy Cross Cemetery, where I surveyed the family plot. A St. Joseph statue stood close by, and I thought that fair, as my father's middle name was Joseph, the patron saint of--among many other things--a happy death.

Was my father happy?

In spite of the gruesome way he had been felled, my father had been smiling. At least this is what the first detective on the scene had said.

Det. Joe Diglio was my next stop. Before opening a folder, he looked at me and said quietly: ''I am very sorry.'' He was shaken. I did not expect this, and somehow it helped brace me.

The detective pulled out a pad of paper and began drawing a crude schematic of the store. He placed my father at a copy machine in an open space behind the counter. He wasn't absolutely certain where my sister was standing as she began shooting, but the trajectories and damage appeared to place her firing from the back of the store outward, probably in the back corridor with its stacks of supplies.

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