"I'm not going to let this destroy me, I'm going to live with purpose." -Zoey Mendoza Zimmerman
"The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means."- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Having lunch at a Panera in New Jersey, Zoey Mendoza Zimmerman* could be your fun neighbor; the one who organizes all the cool parties, and knows the best gossip. She's beautiful, bright, with a wry sense of humor. She tells jokes well, and loves to laugh. Talking about her life after the murders, she says, shaking her head, "I'm f**king living a Lifetime Original Movie. How did this happen? I don't come from a Jerry Springer family, I'm from a little hippie community!"
She makes you laugh, yet as you laugh you think about the reason you've come together over sandwiches and cookies -- to talk about the murders of her daughter and son, Jada, 5 and Jordan, 3, in October 2010, at the hands of their father, Kurtis Birth, who immediately afterwards turned the .22 caliber rifle, his grandfather's on himself. And suddenly, laughing seems wrong; it seems indecent, if not grotesque.
But Zoey laughs at herself. Laughing, she is fully alive, fully present in the moment, able to talk, calmly and intelligently and, above all, with exquisite honesty about the moment when Everything Changed. When I suggest, that in her place, I'd probably either be dead, or dead drunk, she nods and agrees, "...and I like my wine." However, she also likes being alive, or, in her words, "to live with a purpose."
Let's rewind the tape and discuss the murders. I say "discuss," instead of "explain," because how exactly does one explain the murder of children? In October 2010, Zoey's marriage to Kurtis Birth was spluttering to a stop -- they were planning to separate. In the meantime, they shared the family home, and continued to raise their children together. Kurtis was depressed; due to his own choices, his marriage of 12 years had collapsed. Kurtis was also in therapy and, supposedly on anti-depressants, but he wasn't taking his meds. Instead he deceived his doctors, and probably himself, as to the darkness in his heart and one fine day, October 18, 2010, he picked Jada and Jordan up from school, took them to his childhood home and within a matter of moments, killed both children and himself.
Within the void of police and procedure, of grief and chaos, Zoey was left to make sense of things. After all, during their relationship, she had always been the stronger one. Like the police, she searched for a motive, for some kind of "why." But, as all adults know, notwithstanding how the media loves to drone on about "closure," there frequently is no "why.
Zoey is also adamant that, despite his monstrous final actions, Kurtis was a good father: the children loved him. Look at their photos; Jada and Jordan seemingly glow with joy. Happy children, they probably never saw their father coming with a loaded gun.
Zoey told me that shortly after the murders, she was lying in bed, weeping, speaking aloud to her mother, wondering, "Why me? I'm not a bad person, I'm a social worker! I try to help people. I raised my children to be empathetic and loving. How did this happen to me? And my mom just said, why not you? Women have been living through tragedy since the beginning of time, inexplicable tragedy. What makes you any different than any woman who experiences trauma and tragedy? Why not you?"
That's when Zoey made the momentous decision to not numb herself, to not bliss out on pain, or lose herself in despair and remorse, but to fight through to some answer that made sense to her, to be present. To be present day by tedious by agonizing by boring by heartbreaking by astonishing day. A fairly audacious decision. Fairly. Recently interviewed on the Dr. Oz show, the host, upon hearing that Zoey didn't use any medication after the murder of her children, was visibly surprised. He responds, "...you made a decision not to medicate yourself, not to take away the pain that anyone would feel in this situation...why?" Why indeed. Who would have judged her if she had chosen to live out of bottle of pills? I think Zoey would have judged herself harshly.
"I grew up in a family where truth was told, we didn't live in lies. There are consequences to that because you get your feelings hurt sometimes....Honesty, there just wasn't a lot of pretending in my family. I've always had to face the hard issues," said Zoey.
So, how'd she do it? That's the $64,000 question, isn't it? To say she made the decision to confront what had happened to her, for example, to drive herself to a New Jersey courtroom and place her hand on the bible and swear that Kurtis Birth was her dead husband, so that his car could be released to his relatives. To be the only one who could muster the courage to tell Kurtis' mother what he had done to her grandchildren and himself. To choose to remember the children as they were, not view them in the coroner's "icebox." To fall in love and marry again. In our society obsessed with joy, shimmering with pain and loneliness, numb to ourselves and others, distracting ourselves a hundred thousand ways from the morning we wake up till we finally pass out... how did this woman make a choice to not be swallowed alive and to really live?
"I chose not to use anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication after I lost my children, although I have considered it at different times when I was going through particularly painful periods of time. I know many people who have benefited from anti-depressants, but I never took the leap. Part of my choice early on was to walk through the fire of suffering. To really feel it deeply. I felt like, for me, it was how I could truly honor my children, our love, my loss of them. I wanted to nourish our continued relationship, learn how to relate to them spiritually. I wanted my heart and soul to be as wide open to Jada and Jordan as possible which means that I have really had work through my anger. When I am mired in anger, I can't feel them as deeply. Jada and Jordan will always give me the strength to put one foot in front of the other. When I don't have the strength to keep breathing, they give it to me," Zoey said.
I want to be clear: this piece is only about Zoey Mendoza Zimmerman and her choices to do what was necessary for her to stay alive after she lost everything. What worked for her might not work for someone else. What worked for her does not, in any way, diminish other paths other survivors have taken. Grief has its own intricate nature.
In the countless emails, Zoey and I exchanged, when it came to first discussing the murders, and then this piece and her on-going journey, at one point she thanked me for my efforts, saying, "It's a messy, shitty topic, but at the bottom of it is so much light and love." Zoey was left to live every mother's, every parent's worst nightmare, and yet here she is, living through it.
Here are some websites that Zoey found helpful, as she started the process of attempting to heal: