In the aftermath of murder, small lessons emerge

December 14, 2012

Author’s note: This is the third and probably final of three posts that I’ve written this week about my reaction to homicide. The earlier entries appeared on Wednesday and Thursday. Also, this item provides a little context for this story. Thank you for your interest in my blog!

***

I rarely take well to sudden or significant changes. Adjusting to someone’s new haircut; preparing to move to another city, or even another house; embarking on a new job, or departing an old one — all these transitions stress me in different ways.

The murder of Mohammed Arfan Sundal, the smiling man whose Indian restaurant was near my house, was the most sudden and significant change possible. As I tried to come to grips with the news the morning after his killing, I could feel my hands trembling. I spent much of Friday doing what I normally do — tweeting, reading, shopping for groceries — but nothing really felt normal.

I’ve written earlier about my work as a daily newspaper reporter and how it connected me, for the first time in my life, to various shocking and tragic murders. But the difference between the slayings I covered and the one at the Kabab and Curry House was that I’d never known any of those victims when they’d been alive.

I didn’t spend much time wondering about why or how Mohammed had been killed, or by whom. Reporters frequently seem to solve murders in movies or TV shows, but I never had. The truth, hopefully, would come out after the police made an arrest. 

Also, I’d learned two lessons from my coverage of homicide. One is that the reason why someone has been killed rarely turns out to be either justifiable or satisfactory. The other is that hearing the details of a slaying often provides little comfort to the victim’s survivors.

While I hadn’t known Mohammed Sundal’s name until his murder was reported the next day, I had known him as the friendly, welcoming man behind the cash register and in the kitchen.

I’d probably spent no more than an hour — heck, probably no more than 30 minutes — inside Kabab and Curry House over all my occasional visits there in the past year. Much of the time I’d been in the restaurant, I’d been hungry and tired and cranky. And all my visits had been for takeout food.

Still, Mohammed was frequently able to draw this introvert a little way out of his shell; the sheer warmth of his personality often made me smile. But now I knew that I’d never again see Mohammed’s own smile or hear his laugh.

***

I took the floral arrangement I’d bought at the organic grocery store and drove home. I left the flowers in my car while I went inside and stowed the fruits and other food that I’d bought.

Although the house seemed comfortable enough, I was hot. I yanked off my sweater and rolled up my sleeves. I continued to sweat, and I still had a very slight tremor.

Murder had been new to me when I became a newspaper reporter several years ago. But in truth, death was still new to me too.

A few people I’ve known have died, of course — but only a few. My father’s father and brother both died when I was very young; neither made much of an impression on me. My other grandfather died shortly before my 13th birthday. He’d been very sick, and we hadn’t been all that close; I remember my Grandpa Charlie, but I have only a very fleeting recollection of his burial.

One of my high school classmates had a serious illness — cerebral palsy, I think. He died at a young age, but I hadn’t seen him in years when that happened.

Before Mohammed’s murder, the two deaths that had affected me the most were of my grandmothers. Both of their demises were telegraphed far in advance and heralded by severe dementia. In each case, their expirations seemed almost merciful; I had no wish to see either woman continue any longer. At the end, their familiar, declining bodies housed brains which could no longer recognize me, let alone converse coherently.

Here, too, Mohammed was different. I hadn’t known him well, unlike my grandmothers; his death was both sudden and senseless. His age was listed as 51. He’d seemed to be in robust health. I’d never have guessed how little life he had left.

***

When I went into the grocery store Friday afternoon, I was brimming with questions I could not answer on my own. Where were the condolence cards? What kinds of flowers would make a fitting token of condolence? What cultural or religious traditions would be appropriate for a Muslim man who had run an Indian restaurant? (Neither I nor the store florist had any idea.)

I sat down with a blank card having just as little clue what message I should write. I’ve been known to procrastinate on all sorts of projects, including writing assignments. Yet I knew the task would get no easier, and the floral arrangement no fresher or prettier, with delay.

The best approach, I decided, was write as simple a message as I could. Addressing the card to Mohammed’s family, friends and co-workers, I wrote that I hadn’t known their loved one’s name, only that he was a friendly man beloved by his customers. I acknowledged that I could only imagine how hurtful their loss must be, I offered condolences, and I wrote down my phone number in case there I was something I could do.

I sealed the card in its gold envelope. I went out to the car and tucked the envelope into the small box that contained the vase with the flowers. I put on a backpack, picked up the flowers, locked up the car and started the short walk over to Kabab and Curry House.

***

Most everyone today, unless they live in the smallest of towns or live the most cloistered of lives, develop relationships with people whom they’ll never know well. When I worked for a small-town newspaper, I got to know the officials in several small government offices. The roster of folks I met and chatted with once or twice a month changed when I was assigned to new beats, and it changed again when I took a new job in a bigger city.

For a few months, I went to brunch most Sundays at the same restaurant. I no longer do. At my last house, I went to a dry cleaner to the west. Then I moved a mile a short distance and switched to a dry-cleaning shop that was much more convenient.

I can’t recall the name of anyone who worked at the brunch spot except the owner, whom I wouldn’t recognize on sight. I don’t know the name of the guy who owned the dry cleaning shop I used to use, and I don’t know the name of anyone at the dry cleaners I go to now. I barely recognize anyone at the new shop, and I’m sure I wouldn’t recognize anyone from either place if I saw them tomorrow.

Heck, I talk every week or two with one of my neighbors. Even though we’ve lived next door to each other for more than year, I’ve forgotten whether his name is Jorge or Jose. (At some point, I tell myself, I’ll work up the nerve to ask it again.)

In a way, it’s odd that Mohammed’s slaying affected me, even though it was a novel and shocking an experience. After all, if he’d lived, chances are that I might never have learned his name.

***

In my life, my innate introversion and detachment has been both blessing and curse. To the negative, I often find myself on the outside looking in, feeling excluded. To the positive, I many times can keep an even emotional keel when other people get caught up in some bad news, such as a playoff loss or a celebrity’s death.

But while strong emotion — friendship, love, passion — can burn like a torch, there’s no single distance from its fire that a man can comfortably maintain over the course of his life. Yes, if he stands too close, emotion will eventually consume him. But if he stands at too great a distance, he’ll eventually shiver from lack of heat.

I was just close enough to Mohammed to be warmed occasionally by his personality; just close enough to be sad when I learned it had been permanently snuffed.

I’d like to tell you that I’ve emerged from this experience with some especially novel or useful lesson. But everything I can tell is almost certainly something you’ve heard before.

Writing a note and putting flowers in front of the restaurant provided me with a little comfort. I certainly hope that it might help ease the pain of Mohammed’s family, if ever so slightly. So did writing and talking about Mohammed and his slaying over Twitter, on my blog and over the phone with my mother. And so did volunteering to contribute to a fund that neighbors intend to start to help out Mohammed’s family.

As I type these words, less than a day and a half has passed since I learned of the murder. That small tremor has passed, and everything is more or less back to normal for me. So there’s that cliché, too: Time may not heal all wounds, but time and sleep did work some of their restorative wonder on me.

Those forces may, over time, smooth out some of the jagged edges that are tearing at the people who were truly close to Mohammed. But they’ll probably never be able to move completely past the moment when they learned about his murder.

I guess if there’s anything even approaching one big lesson that I take from this, it’s the following. I hope that when another tragedy strikes someone in my life, I’ll be able to remember and apply all that standard-issue wisdom that Mohammed’s death reinforced.

If I can — if I go through the rituals of grieving honestly and sincerely, if I allow time and rest to apply their slow-working salves — it will show that I’ve grown as a person. And it will also show that, almost surely without meaning to, Mohammed provided me with a lot more with a smile and a meal when I went to Kabab and Curry House.

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2 Responses to “In the aftermath of murder, small lessons emerge”


  1. Wow….it has been a while hasn’t it? Since the day my father passed away? Man, it seems like it was a few days ago. I am going to make this short and simple….I love your blog, seriously. Not becasue it talks about my father ( which I appreciate a lot, and accept your condolence A LOT) but because the way you write is amazing…and wants me to keep reading about what your wrote. I am sorry for your past deaths…I had the same reaction as you did. That night when my mom called…my body just started to shake and it wouldn’t stop…like my hand right now…*sighs* Nevertheless, I would like to thank you a lot!!!!! I just don’t know how to repay your condolences and the card you have given to us. You should keep writing, because you are the first person who’s blog I have read and the first to fall in love with your blog. Thank you sooooo much again.


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