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A 20-Year Journey to Gratitude, Love and Resilience -- How My Mother's Murder Made Me a Better Man

Through no fault of our own, my siblings and I became instant victims of domestic violence. In a flash, we'd been robbed of our childhood and were living out a sordid soap opera. A single shot leaving a hole in our family, that could never be filled, nor replaced.
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Today is a day that fills me with dread. Each year my body alerts me with aching melancholy, before my brain can acknowledge that it is, in fact, March. Twenty years ago, today (March 20th) I awoke with a knock at my college dorm room door, informing me that my life had been forever changed. The person at the door notified me that my mother had been shot in the foot by my father, but she was going to be okay. At that moment, I was overcome with an eerie confidence that what I was hearing, wasn't quite right. Somehow, I had connected with a source of truth. "She's been shot in the stomach, and she is going to die," screamed a voice in my head. Regretfully, that voice was right.

Through no fault of our own, my siblings and I became instant victims of domestic violence. In a flash, we'd been robbed of our childhood and were living out a sordid soap opera. A single shot leaving a hole in our family, that could never be filled, nor replaced. One of my friends drove me from James Madison University to the hospital in Blacksburg, VA. I felt like I was living a bad dream. After two hours, I arrived at the hospital. Walking into the hospital room, it was as if I'd stepped into a life-sized installation of still photographs. The photographs depicted swarms of people crying, in another still photo, my sister was the subject, her arm heavily bandaged from trying to stop the gun from going off. All of the sudden, life came back into motion, as I was whisked away by a hospital administrator. My mother had been pronounced dead 20 minutes before I arrived.

My sister didn't let them take the body away until I could say goodbye. She laid there motionless. I kissed her forehead and felt stillness, it felt as though her soul had left and the vessel was all that remained. This didn't feel like the warm and loving woman who'd raised me.

I kept waiting for her to sit up and crack a joke (as she usually did during stressful moments.) The silence was deafening. For such a small women in stature (4 feet, 11.75 inches) she lived a big and bold life. She was vivacious and her life was filled to the brim and overflowing with love. She positively impacted everyone that had an opportunity to meet her.

My mother was filled with love, life, joy, hope and humor. My father made the selfish decision to take that love and extinguish that forever with one pull of the trigger of his shotgun. We were orphans.

After I left the hospital, the timing and sequence of things became very confusing. I was the oldest of the four siblings and I remember feeling so helpless and so inadequate. I remember everyone kept coming to me for answers with an endless supply of questions:

  • What type of ceremony?
  • What do you wish to do with the body? (traditional burial or cremation)
  • Open casket or closed casket?
  • Where do you want to live?

I had no real answers, I felt life had not prepared me for this moment, I barely had the ability to move and breathe... but I pushed on.

For the next 20 years, the questions never slowed and I have become a magnet for solving problems in all areas of my life. It is almost as if the problems, challenges and questions sought me out because they knew I could handle it. I had survived the unthinkable, no challenge or quandary would stop me. My family and I became survivors.

I remember the church packed beyond capacity and not a dry eye in the room. I remember speaking, however, nothing I could say seemed adequate to capture the life she lived or the impact she made on her children.

The next several months were a blur. We were homeless as my family was very poor and unbeknownst to us our father had mortgaged our house. We bounced from family to family until a more permanent and stable situation was found.

Gratitude is something I try to practice daily. As I reflect on the last twenty years, and the time that passed following Mother's death, I think it's important to acknowledge all the blessings that allowed us to carry on. We truly could not have overcome these circumstances without the kind Angels, in both human and spiritual forms, that helped my family survive, and encouraged us to move ahead. I believe in Angels and I believe they are living amongst us, I am certain that an army of them helped each of us to survive and heal.

Christiansburg (my hometown) and a nearby town, Blacksburg, rallied around our family and refused to let us give up. What happened after this horrific event was what makes America great. It was about true community, looking after your fellow human and lifting people up that have lost the ability to do it for themselves. The juxtaposition and clear view of Good and Evil is something that still stays with me through all these years. I know that with every bad, horrific thing that occurs in my life, or in the world, there is an abundancy of light and love surrounding me and the situation.

After 20 years, I still cannot express the appreciation I feel. From the bottom of my heart and soul -- thank you to the Angels and people for keeping us alive, thank you for rescuing us from the darkness, thank you for giving me an opportunity to heal and eventually find the ability to love again.

Just because I don't know how to fully express it, I want each of you to know that I, and our family are forever indebted to each of you that helped us along the way. You know who you are. There are too many to mention. My heart is full with gratitude and love because of each of you.

One of the most amazing accomplishments today is the fact that each of the four children that survived that horrendous day, are still with us, still fighting the good fight and trying to make better lives for ourselves. Many of us are still trying to find peace and find our way, but the accomplishment isn't in the outcome but rather in the resilience of continuing to try and push forward.

I think we would all say, avoiding death that day was the easy part. Every day after and not giving up was the real work. A future was never guaranteed and there have been many times where each of us felt like we could not go on, that the journey simply wasn't worth it. Thank you to each and everyone of you that picked us up when we fell down, repeatedly and never let us stop trying.

Nothing in life ever prepares you for loss of this magnitude. Especially when you try to process that your mother's murder was at the hands of your biological father. For those of us that have had a loved one ripped away from our lives prematurely, nothing can prepare you for when that moment arrives.

To each of you that have experienced this loss of your rock or foundation, I send you love and I tell you that no matter how alone you feel, please know there are many of us -- we are your brothers and sisters, and together we have strength. For we share a bond and secret, our pain is a badge of honor. Once humanity is stripped down, humbled to its most basic structure, we realize in those dire and dark moments that the pain that makes us feel un loveable, is actually that which connects us and bonds us in perpetuity. We are all connected by our most basic humanity. No one ever wants to talk about these dark moments for we fear the darkness will find us, consume us and we will lose the pathway back to light.

What I have come to realize over 20 years is that the only way for the darkness to dissipate, is to shine light upon the darkest corners of your soul and fill those holes with love and compassion. The deeper we bury the pain, the deeper the roots grow. It took me many, many years to find this peace and realize this truth.

As an honor to my late mother (Angelina Acebal) I leave you with these seven things (her favorite number) I've learned from her or because of her:

  1. Learn to love yourself, so you can create space to truly love and connect with others
  2. Be impeccable with your word and authentic with your life
  3. Shower those you love with affection everyday and don't put off until tomorrow what you could say today.
  4. Make an impact in those around you. Laugh, love and make the world and people around you better each and every day
  5. Play Big, Play Bold and don't be afraid to be vulnerable. Share your authentic self and share what you are going through -- I promise you that you are not alone!
  6. Stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. At some point in your life, no matter how rich or poor you are, you will need help, you will need comforting and you will appreciate someone being there for you. Don't wait.
  7. No matter how big or small, leave your imprint on this world and leave this world better than you found it.

Mom, I love you, I miss you.

Every day I can't believe I've been alive longer without you than I've had you in my life. I want you to know, I have a blessed life, I'm married to the woman of my dreams, I have two wonderful caring and passionate children that I love at a level I never knew possible. I am the lucky one but never does much time go by that I don't wish you were here to experience this with me. I'm ashamed to say but I'm having a hard time remembering your voice but I still feel in my soul, the impact you had on me in helping me become the man I am today.

Finally, I want you to know that I try to honor your legacy and life by the impact I try to make, the love I give my family and how I live my life. I am still very much a work in progress but I am and all of us kids are fighters (you taught us that!)

I hope you are fully at rest and find peace knowing we are still here and we haven't given up and I promise you I never will.

I share this completely, openly and honestly for three reasons :

  1. I hope it adequately honors my mother on this 20th anniversary of her passing
  2. I hope it brings healing to others who have experienced loss and I hope it lets you know you are not alone
  3. I wanted to say a very gracious and public thank you to so very many of you. You are the reason I fight on and you are the reason my siblings and I are here today.

Love,

JM

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.