by Angeliska on January 8, 2012
Photo of the memorial altar at Esme’s gate by Laura Skelding / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
A week ago, in the wee hours of the new year’s dim beginnings, a girl was murdered.
She was a friend of many of my friends, and it’s likely that we had even been introduced,
at a show or a house-party. I definitely remember seeing her around town: her petite frame,
her amazing face – both radiating a crackling energy, a vibrance. Tomorrow is her funeral.
Her name was Esme Barrera. The man who killed her is still out there. He has attacked other
women, and will continue to unless caught. Until then, my city and community is riled up like
a nest of bees: mobilizing, sharing information, entreating each other to stay safe from the
man who did this, and hopefully – to help find him and make sure that he is prevented from
hurting any more women. Memories of Esme, stories of good times with her, and reflections
of grief at her loss are making the rounds, and this line from a poem by Jim Harrison that I
read recently keeps coming back to me – “Death steals everything except our stories.”
Photo of the memorial altar set up at Helen Hill’s doorstep by Infrogmation
I’ve lost a lot of loved ones over the years, so unfortunately I am am more experienced than
I would like to be in the ways of grieving – the long, dark process that wrings your soul out
like an old rag shredded in the teeth of a big, black dog. Until a few years ago, though, no
one I’d known had died because another person took it upon themselves to end a life.
Murder is different. It requires a whole different set of tools for coping, for processing,
for coming to peace. It’s the hardest to reconcile, because the thought of another human
taking that kind of action – willingly pulling the trigger, or wielding the knife or their hands
and just snuffing out someone you loved – it’s just so inconceivable, so fucking wrong.
What’s even worse, is that the people I’ve known who were murdered were the brightest stars,
the most shining examples of what a good friend, a good human it was possible to be.
I know that in retrospect, after someone has died, it’s usually only their very best characteristics
that get remembered or brought up at the memorial. Those who have died are rarely referred to
as “just okay”, nor are their flaws generally brought up or remarked upon. It’s so easy to saint
someone who’s not around to remind us of how messed up or annoying they might have been
sometimes. That being said, I have to say that the friends of mine who were murdered – well,
they truly were like saints in my eyes, and to many others as well. I’m not exaggerating or
speaking with the slightest hyperbole when I try and explain their goodness: they really were
that good. Through and through: just extremely kind, generous, warm, ALIVE people. Until
someone came along and randomly chose them to kill. That’s the part I don’t get, I guess.
Why them? Why these beacons of light, these people who were so well-loved, so active in
their communities? Why people who were always doing things, making things, and helping others?
It should be known that I’m not always universally altruistic in my view of humans as intrinsically
good or even worthwhile, so when things like this happen, I can’t help but wonder – if this was
just some random act of senseless violence, why couldn’t it have happened to some shitty person,
some mediocre jerk with a bad attitude. We all know they’re out there. I’m not saying that anyone
deserves to die, or be murdered, but why take away from this world the ones who add the most to it?
I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Esme, but I can tell from the outpouring of love
from her friends and from their stories about her that she really was the real deal:
a tiny dynamo of good energy and light. Austin is a darker place without her here.
Five years ago, when my friend Helen was shot in her house by would-be robbers, I wrote this:
“Recently, I’ve been overcome with
thoughts of how dense we’ve become-
our overpopulation choking what
beauty is left in this world,
thinking how the herd needs thinning,
and thinking that the apocalypse
needs to hurry it on up
and get here already.
Then this- and what do you say?
I didn’t mean it like that!
Don’t take the good ones!
Not her! Not the sweethearts,
the innocents, the helpers,
Don’t extinguish the bright lights
who worked tirelessly to make
change, to make it better..”
“Helen was such a kind and open person-
bursting with enthusiasm for life and her myriad projects,
always smiling, always excited about being in the world.
I know everyone’s eulogy begins like that,
and we all think, “Oh, sure..”
but honestly, I can’t think of a more loving soul.
I am not understanding life’s lessons today.
It makes no sense to me why or how this could have happened.
I have no words of wisdom, no peaceful sentiments
to impart regarding the destruction of goodness.
If someone could explain it to me, I’d be all ears.”
Memorial outside Helen Hill’s home on Rampart Street, Marigny, January, 2007 – also by Infrogmation
I think back to my grief and confusion then – Helen wasn’t by far the closest friend
I’d lost, and yet – her death just destroyed me. I couldn’t come to terms with it, for
the longest time, until after awhile I had to force myself to think about it like this:
when the most wonderful people we know are taken away from us, a void is made
by their absence in the fabric of our communities. It’s up to us to emulate them, to
step it up, and try and fill that space where they did their good work, to shine our light
twice as strong, to be better, to be kinder, to be more involved in each other’s lives.
In some ways, I think that’s why the idea of saints and martyrs exists: to inspire us to be
more like them, to make good in the world, because they were taken away from it, from us.
And so we must. It feels so fucked to begin a new year with a murder, with the loss of someone
so special. I remember feeling like that when Helen was shot on January 5th. To think of that
darkest and saddest Twelfth Night New Orleans had known in a long time, feeling the sharp
loss of one of its best children when the year was so young, so new. Jon Flee was killed in winter,
too – on Christmas Eve. I think of his family, of Esme’s, never being able to celebrate those holidays
again without the pain of remembrance that your beloved child, sister, brother died on that day.
Now, our New Year’s resolutions take on a sharper poignance: to do right by the memory of our
friends, to be more like them, so that the bad guys don’t win. We cannot let them win.
So: stay positive, stay safe. Be brave, dream big. Help kids, help your friends, support
your community, feed the hungry, and if you want to be like my friend Helen, write and
send a postcard to someone every day. Isn’t that a good idea? Let’s try and do it together.
From Helen’s Jazz Funeral, photo by Derek Bridges