What It's Like Not Knowing Who Killed Your Loved One

Illustrated by Tyler Spangler
It was 5 a.m. on February 5, 2008, when I was jolted awake. I was 17 at the time, and my hair was wrapped around cheap CVS curlers as I sat up in my bed. I looked around my room and then examined the hallway. After I mentally decided everything was fine, I turned back around and tried to fall back asleep — but I was wide awake.

Not even an hour later, I heard a car roll into my driveway, dragging gravel up to our home in the woods. As my mother lay sound asleep in what would be her last peaceful night for some time, I flipped on the lights in my bedroom, then the hallway. Finally, I illuminated my front porch and saw two policemen whispering to one another.

My adrenaline fired up as I opened the door. I took one look at their perfectly matched uniforms, and it felt like their shiny badges pierced right through my heart. I felt instant pain.

"Is this the Baardsen home?"

I nodded, not wanting to believe what I already knew.

"Is your mother home?"

I moved my head to acknowledge that she was home.

"Is your father Dwight?"

I nodded.

"Do you have any other brothers or sisters home right now?"

Could they not tell by the the framed pictures on the wall that I was an only child? They looked at each other and then back at me — and then at my mom, who was walking down the stairs.

They informed us my father had been killed and they didn't have any other information. My heart's steady beat became chaotic. No tears, just an anger and a morbidly eager curiosity that brewed inside of me and heated up my veins. For some reason, when I saw the officers standing on my front porch, I knew my dad was gone. I thought maybe he had a heart attack in the middle of the night and had called an ambulance, but killed? Did someone break into my home? What the hell happened?

When I saw the officers standing on my front porch, I knew my dad was gone.

Later, my mother and I found a note my dad left for us on my kitchen counter, written in his perfect penmanship. He decided to sleep downstairs that night because he was sick and didn't want my mom to catch a fever. We didn't even know he left our home. He had flu-like symptoms for days, but in the note, he explained he was feeling better. He wrote that he would run a quick errand at the 24-hour store near us to get milk and the newspapers, and come home in time to drive me to high school in the morning. It was signed "Love Forever & Always, Dwight." Yeah, that sucked to read.

My father's body was found on the side of the highway; his skull had cracked on the guardrail. Some think he started to feel sick, since he wasn't totally over his illness, and got out of the car to relieve himself when he was hit by a vehicle that swerved into the shoulder. Others think he could have been checking something mechanical under the front hood. I have my own thoughts. It was an abnormally foggy day. One witness said they saw my father standing at the hood of the car in the shoulder.

We'll never know what actually happened. It was considered a hit and run, and the case closed after a short amount of time. Life went on — but not really. Not for me, not for my mom, and not for my dad. But life did go on for the person who brutally killed my father and left him there to die alone.

Aside from having my father's belongings handed to me at the police station in a brown paper bag marked "VICTIM" in bold red letters, one of the most painful elements to deal with was knowing I would never find out who had killed my dad — who had his pure, genuine, genius, kind blood on their hands.

I don't think the person who did this to my dad walks around with that information stamped across his or her forehead. I think he or she looks just like you and me. I may have brushed shoulders with the person, or worse, it could be someone I know. Likely though, we've never crossed paths and never will.

Life did go on for the person who brutally killed my father and left him there to die alone.

Now, eight years later, it's still raw for me. It makes me angry more than anything else. When that unforgiving frustration seeps into me, it consumes me. It used to control me. In this time, the pain of missing my father has only deepened, but my appreciation for the 17 years I had with him continues to grow as I become able to recall more and more memories of him. Tragedy had buried certain tattoos on my brain, but time is revealing them — and it's beautiful. I've also learned to love my friends and family members who have waltzed around me, not knowing if I've needed a hug, a punching bag, an ear, or space.

The topic is so damn depressing that I've tried for years to let everything related to it live in a dark, untouchable space within me; I’m almost ashamed that this had to be part of my narrative. But the truth is, when all of the lights are turned on, my father's death reveals itself as a fierce part of my framework. It is just as much a part of how I learned to grow up as the moments when I rested my head on his chest or fell asleep listening to his voice.

That doesn’t change the fact that it’s total living hell not knowing who killed your loved one. You go to places within yourself that you hope to God — is there one? — that nobody else ever has to go. I do have faith in something. I don't have forgiveness; I don't want it. I have a tall, handsome, Staten Island-bred, train-loving, funny, caring, brilliant human to call my father, and he will always fill that role in my life and death.

Around this time last year, I went into the family room and cried on the sofa while my mother was upstairs. I didn't want her to hear me; I was missing my dad a lot. She started walking down the stairs, so I frantically wiped the tears from my eyes and pulled a blanket over my head. She nearly ran into the room.

"Dana! Dana! You're never going to believe what I just found. I think it's a message for you."

I looked up and my mom handed me a piece of yellow legal pad paper that I had written on as a child, when I was still learning how to spell. I had decided I wanted to learn how to write, "I miss you from heaven" — totally normal, I know. In that moment, on the sofa in my childhood home, my eyes fell upon something that made me feel like my dad was talking right to me. Resting next to my sloppy attempt, my father’s perfect penmanship spelled out:

Photo: Dana Baardsen

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