Tuesday, October 22. 4:00 p.m. It was a very busy day with the Chris Van Hollen campaign, and on the other projects I was working on. There was so much left undone that I made a long To-do-on-Wednesday list. No problem, I decided; Wednesday’s schedule is wide open. Regardless of what comes at me, there will be time to tend to it.
Wednesday, October 23. 4:00 p.m. I am in the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, having my hair and make up done to go on the Donahue show.
So how in the world did this come about? Tuesday afternoon my friend Nan called me to say her friend Maureen was working on Donahue and was looking for someone in the Washington area who could talk about the impacts of the sniper on the community and family life during the current crisis of violence. The show was looking for someone who had been affected in some way (who hadn’t?) and someone who was comfortable speaking publicly.
On the morning of October 3rd, the day when the shooting spree heightened to five murders in about an hour’s time, I had walked across Connecticut Avenue to the Van Hollen for Congress finance office, where I had been volunteering. Ten minutes later, a woman was shot while vacuuming a minivan at the Kensington Shell station, just one stoplight away. We soon heard choppers overhead and a call came in from a friend of a campaign worker. A sniper was sharp shooting his way through Montgomery County, arbitrarily killing people who tended to their errands.
As events unfolded over the next three weeks, the killer enlarged his circle, hitting several more victims, including a 13-year-old boy. School children were locked inside schools while cars ran on fumes as drivers avoided the gas stations they feared were potential crime scenes.
Just before I got Nan’s call, I sobbed as the 10th victim, a county Ride On bus driver, was shot before beginning his morning route. The killer had threatened, “your children are not safe anywhere at any time.” So on Wednesday, despite the to-do list, despite the stage fright, despite not having a clue what I would say on television, I went to New York.
As MSNBC’s car took me into midtown Manhattan, I admired the noon sun blanketing one of my favorite cities and wished I had more time there. I laughed as I realized that, here I was in the land of the perfect sandwich, and I had in my purse an emergency bologna and cheese sandwich, which I had made before leaving the house. Monica, you are such a nerd.
Maureen met me and took me to the studio where Donahue’s special town hall show was to be taped. To my surprise, she took me to a dressing room and invited me to enjoy coffee and a tray of cookies while I waited to go into make-up. It was then I realized there had been a mistake. I was to have been planted randomly in the audience with a chance of being called on to talk about the sniper, as opposed to being an official guest meriting dressing room and make-up treatment. Despite my efforts to clear up the confusion, I found myself in the chair of a make-up artist who did her best with what she had to work with. Who knows what celebrity derrieres had graced this same chair, I wondered. I moved over into the hair chair, where I felt guilty for seeing a hairdresser other than Dudley. My gosh, this was fun. Leaving the salon I stood taller, as I am sure everyone does.
Shortly after being escorted into an empty waiting room, my mood sobered. Gregory Wims, president of the Victims’ Rights Foundation, entered the room and introduced me to Nelson Rivera, the husband of Lori Ann Lewis Rivera, the woman killed at the Kensington Shell station. A diminutive Hispanic man with a gentle face, Nelson looked exhausted and pained, though he was intensely alert to his three-year-old daughter who had accompanied him to New York for the Donahue show. Nelson’s sister was along to offer an extra set of hands, literally as well as figuratively, as she carried a car seat, a large carry-all, and the child’s backpack and set them down in the corner.
Gregory told an NBC staff member the family hadn’t had lunch and that the little girl was hungry. The staff person said she would try and send up some sandwiches but that it might be a while. I pulled out my bologna and cheese sandwich and offered it to the little girl. She looked at me suspiciously like I was a stranger, which I was, and she politely set the sandwich down on a coffee table. Later, a tray of food arrived and little Jocelin delicately ate two strawberries.
Just then a large older man entered the room. He was balding with a long ponytail down his back and a bear claw necklace over a tight t-shirt. He was Marion Lewis, Lori Ann’s father. My heart swelled and I choked back tears—then and for the better part of the day—as I imagined this family’s grief.
On a television in the corner of the room, commentators speculated about the kind of person who would engage in such violence. I found it surreal that they were talking about the person who had murdered the wife, the daughter, the sister-in-law, and the mother of these people I sat with.
A producer came in to prepare us for speaking on television. It was painful to watch this high strung tele-techie bark orders at the grieving family and ask them to rehearse their stories, and worse, to see the producer critique their delivery. Being the busybody that I am, I jumped in and tried to help, encouraging Nelson and Marion as they tried out different lines.
When it was my turn, I rehearsed my prepared remarks and resumed arguing that my role was misunderstood. No one seemed to listen, like in a bad dream when you try to get through to someone, only to be pacified or ignored. As I tried to make the case that I was supposed to be a member of the audience, a technician was stuffing a box down the back of my pants, running a wire under my blouse, and clipping a microphone to my scarf.
It became obvious that we were going to have a lot of time to wait, as various “experts” were brought in and put through the preparation process. Former FBI and Secret Service agents, psychological profilers, and media analysts, who were also to be on the show, came and went.
I decided to get Jocelin’s attention. I pulled out a notepad and pen and, before I knew it, she and I were sitting on the floor drawing pictures and playing games. She asked me to draw her, her house, Barbie, and a pumpkin. She loved each one of my pictures and asked to keep them. Bless her heart, she couldn’t tell what a terrible artist I am. She drew some pictures for me as well and I know I will keep those forever. Most of the pictures were abstract groupings of lines and dots, except one, which was an oblong figure with five eyes. “It’s a monster,” she told me.
She reached into her backpack and introduced me to an orange teddy bear, which Gregory Wims had bought her at the airport. The bear was too new to have been given a name, but Jocelin seemed to have bonded with it already. She asked me to strap the bear into her carseat.
Jocelin seemed desperate for affection, although clearly her father and grandfather were endless sources of love and affection for her. Her aunt was a needed female in her life and the two appeared to be very close.
Gradually Jocelin seemed to become drawn to me. She looked deep into my eyes and stroked my hair. She played with my fingers one by one and rested her hand on my arm. She got right up in my face when she spoke to me, though her words were few and whispered. She climbed into my lap and put her head on my shoulder.
At one point, about six inches away from my face, she looked straight into my eyes and informed me that “my Mommy died.” Then she sighed deeply and said, “I need to get a new Mommy,” as if it had been one more burden added to her to-do list. Who knows what she really understands about what happened to her mother. She knows her mother is in Heaven, and she attended the funeral. She also knows that her mother is missing from her life.
When she held on to me it was as if to fill an instinctive void, to gain comfort through a physical closeness with an adult female. What she didn’t know was that she was filling a void for me as well. Having lost three babies to miscarriage, a part of me gained comfort through physical closeness with a little girl.
At Jocelin’s suggestion, we counted the flowers on her dress and counted the flowers on my scarf. Just then, Phil Donahue himself came in and rehearsed us once again. Chris Whitcomb, whose expertise and handsome face had dominated MSNBC for the last three weeks, came in and helped himself to a Dr Pepper. I also wanted a Dr Pepper because I knew it would instantly relieve the pounding headache and nausea that had been building all afternoon but I didn’t want to let Jocelin out of my lap. Plus, I was too intimidated by Whitcomb’s physical and celebrity stature to ask him to get me one. Monica, you are such a nerd.
After a round of voice checks, it finally came time to move into the studio, where the members of the audience had long been seated. Still I wondered what my role would be. I finally quit questioning and decided to go with the flow. Chris Whitcomb and a panel of experts were seated on a stage of the borrowed John Walsh set, while Marion Lewis and Nelson Rivera were seated in the center of the front row. Jocelin sat in her father’s lap and held the orange teddy bear. Gregory Wims and I were seated directly behind them.
The experts speculated, pontificated, cross-criticized, and grandstanded for about 15 minutes and members of the audience asked questions such as why the sniper is presumed to be a man.
The next segment of the show focused primarily on the victims. Nelson was asked to talk about his wife and how they met. He spoke no English and Lori Ann spoke no Spanish, but they fell in love instantly. They were about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary when Lori Ann was killed. Both devout members of the Mormon church, they shared their faith and their love of their adorable daughter while learning each other’s native languages. When Donahue asked if the tragedy had tested his belief in God, Nelson maintained that it has only strengthened his faith.
Marion Lewis remembered how Lori Ann had always aspired to be a nanny, having attended nanny school and moved from her Idaho home to Maryland for a full-time position. Her parents were very proud of her.
Gregory Wims had an opportunity to talk about the Victims’ Rights Foundation and the financial, emotional, and spiritual support it provides to the families of violent crime victims. The foundation’s 800 number was displayed on the screen.
Phil Donahue then asked me to stand and talk about the effect of the shootings on the community. When I had planned to mention the Kensington Shell incident briefly to put it into geographic perspective, I didn’t know the family of that particular victim would be present. I prayed for the right words and they came, though I honestly do not remember what I said. Donahue asked about the cancellation of sporting activities and other community events but that story now seemed so trivial compared to the story of the people in the row in front of me. I didn’t stumble, I didn’t pass out, and I didn’t throw up, so when I sat down I was satisfied that what would be shown on TV wouldn’t be awful.
Although I was relieved to be finished, the relief gave way to tears which I desperately fought. I was choking back the watermelon-sized lump in my throat when Jocelin hopped out of her father’s lap, came around to my seat, handed me her teddy bear, and went and sat back down. I held on to that bear for dear life, and willed it not to pop into an explosion of orange fur, until a break was announced.
The taping was officially over, but we were asked to remain in our seats. A police press conference was scheduled imminently and Donahue said he’d like to ask some of us to respond afterward. While we waited, Jocelin came over and climbed into my lap, fully reclined and completely relaxed. She was exhausted.
Eventually it was announced that the press conference was postponed. There were rumblings about what the latest development was. I set Jocelin down while I stood to leave the studio. She looked at me and reached her arms straight up the way children do when they want to be picked up. I carried her back into the waiting room. Maureen came in and told me my car was waiting to take me back to the airport and that I needed to hurry. I shook Marion’s hand, gave Nelson a hug and gave his sister a kiss on the cheek. I told them they would be in my prayers. I gave Jocelin a big squeeze and tried not to cry. As I left the room I looked back. Jocelin was getting into the bologna sandwich.
The show never aired. Dozens of my friends had their VCRs cued to tape the show, which was preempted by the breaking news of the snipers’ capture. All’s well that ends well, Shakespeare said, but the lives of the Riveras, the Lewises, and all of the other families are forever changed. God bless them all.
Return to Essays