June 26, 1986 was a tumultuously and unusually stormy day in San Antonio, TX. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child and had struggled through a bout of food poisoning the day before; I went to bed early and slept soundly (for a woman 8 months pregnant) that night. I was brutally awakened by a bright white flash and a huge crash of thunder. I looked at the clock; it was 6:45 a.m.
About five miles away family friends “Bob and Jeannie” lived with their two boys; the oldest, Peter, was a brilliant prodigy. He was already taking college courses at the age of 14 and was a polite all-around good kid. His younger brother was 12 and was as unique as his older sibling , but for different reasons — Cody had been born with cerebral palsy due to complications during childbirth. A few years later, he was also diagnosed with autism.
Jeannie was organized and as neat as a pin — her hair was never out of place and she was always well dressed and “together.” Extremely organized, she had an unusually full plate caring for Bob, an electrical engineer and their two boys, who had widely divergent needs. Cody was getting older and increasingly difficult for Charlotte, a petite 5’1″, to handle, especially in public. He was also starting to defy her on a regular basis, becoming more aggressive. But by all accounts, she was dealing with it fairly well.
Or so it seemed. In retrospect, there were huge warning signs that many of us missed; had I known Jeannie today, I would have noticed them immediately. But at the age of 24, I just didn’t connect the dots.
Signs of Trouble
The previous two years, high strung Jeannie had become more and more agitated, edgy and strangely obsessive compulsive. Throughout her home were lists, dozens of them. And they were EVERYWHERE — she’d even written a list on a roll of toilet paper in her bathroom There were to-do lists, grocery store lists, Christmas lists, lists of people she was going to invite to their next get together, there was even a lists of LISTS.
Sure, it was odd; but Jeannie was quirky. She would often blur the lines of tasteful with downright tacky; there was the time she showed up at an office party wearing too short cut-offs and a halter top. She was who she was.
She was extreme in everything she did, so the lists? Well, that was just Jeannie — she even laughed about her obsession at the last party she and Bob threw; none of us picked up on the fact that her deliberate list making was a sign that she was feeling desperately powerless. The lists were her attempts to regain some semblance of control over her own destiny.
There were other troubling signs; increasingly, she expressed anger rather than her usual exasperation over Cody’s “acting out,” as she called it. “I’m so embarrassed by him; his behavior is inappropriate and I’m sick to death of it.” Quite frankly, she was dealing with a toddler who weighed more and was taller than she was, and it was becoming too much.
After 27 years of child rearing, I now knowing how stressful parenting can be under even the most ideal of circumstances, so the chain of events that summer really aren’t so surprising. In fact, it would have been more surprising had things played out differently.
That same stormy morning I woke up to loud claps of thunder, Jeannie’s mother tried calling her; when she didn’t answer, she called Bob’s office. “He didn’t come in today, and we haven’t heard from him, ” his assistant told her. Later, the assistant told police investigators that although being a no-show was unusual for Bob, she was more surprised at how panicked his mother-in-law seemed when she learned he hadn’t made it into the office.
At that point, Jeannie’s mother called authorities and met them at Bob and Jeannie’s home; she was convinced that all was not well.
And she was right. The officers broke in and made their way into the master bedroom and found a horrific and macabre site: Bob and Jeannie were on the bed, arm-n-arm, and they were both dead. After examining the scene and questioning family members, the investigators pieced together what had happened.
The night before, Jeannie called a cousin of hers and asked him to come pick up the boys. The next morning, she grabbed the loaded gun they kept locked in a closet and shot Bob as he slept. She then crawled in bed beside him, linked her arm through his lifeless one, put the gun to her temple and pulled the trigger. Time of death? Approximately 6:45 am. The officers said that the thunder kept the neighbors from hearing the gunshot, even though their windows were open.
We learned later that Jeannie had begged Bob to put Cody in some sort of facility, at least temporarily and but, for whatever reason, he wouldn’t allow it. That refusal likely cost him his life. He was unable to see that she was burned out and needed help — none of us saw it, though how we didn’t is mystifying to me, in hindsight. And throughout the years, I’ve wondered how things would have been different if we would have just recognized she needed help.
All of us stopped blaming ourselves a long time ago for events that we didn’t see coming; there are some circumstances that defy explanation on may different levels. A song came out that same summer, the last line of which was apropos of what had occurred: “No one, no one, no one ever. . .is to blame.”