I. The Archives
The Champaign County Historical Archives houses seven records connected to Kenda C. Lawless. In order of their listing: two obituaries published in the News-Gazette; a coroner’s report; a chancery court case file; and three editions of the Rosemary, the yearbook of Urbana High School in Urbana, Illinois, from 1986, 1987, and 1988. You could discover this through the Champaign County Historical Archives website itself or through an online search engine, which would then lead you to the archives. The site, however, does not provide electronic versions of these documents or the volumes in which Kenda’s name or photograph appears. It only indicates that these records exist.
If you wanted to know more about Kenda, you would have to make your way to the second floor of the Urbana Free Library, sign your name in a logbook stating the purpose for your visit, and then talk to a woman, probably not a young woman, behind the desk, telling her what you’re looking for. You could tell her, when she asks (and she will always ask) why you are looking for information on this particular person. You could say that a man who is older than you—too old to be a peer, too young to be a father, a teacher—has told you to go to a cemetery and find a name, any name.
After the not-young woman has disappeared into rows of back shelving and brought out a short stack of yearbooks, a thick manila file folder, and a photocopy of a form with dozens of filled-in lines and boxes, after she has loaded the microfilm reader with a small roll of grey film, you would come to know that Kenda was killed on January 5, 1990, when she was hit by a car, that the “Immediate Cause (Final disease or condition resulting in death)” was a “Massive Closed Head Injury,” and that the condition that gave “rise to immediate cause” of death was “Massive Internal Bleeding due to a lacerated Left Ovary.” You would come to know how close she was to her home when the accident occurred (two blocks), the names of organizations to which she belonged (the National Organization of Women and Operation Snowball), and that she had an interest in broadcasting.
This, after finding her name on a gravestone in a cemetery across town. A stone with the young woman’s name on it, her birth and death dates, etchings of a microphone and a pair of headphones, and these words: “88 Rockster / The Michigan Munster / IALAC.” Respectively: a local radio station, 88.7 FM / a nickname in all likelihood, you think / an acronym you do not recognize. Her gravestone is in a cemetery full of gravestones with no more information provided than the individual’s name, birth and death dates, often a short biblical passage, and whether he or she was a father, mother, husband, or wife.
This—the archives, the official story, as it were—after finding the gravestone in the cemetery and then a brief biography on a genealogy website of those descended from one John Lawless II and one Margaret Skirvin Lawless.
You don’t want to admit it, but there’s something in the archives that, to you, takes precedence over the family’s genealogy website, the story that they want to tell the world about themselves. The records the not-young women bring out are reassuringly official. You can find Kenda’s name and face in issue after issue of her high school yearbook, which corroborates information in her obituary, like her proficiency in Spanish and participation in Scholastic Bowl. (You’re not trying to prove or solve anything, though it feels like it. This being part assignment, part curiosity, part loving being there in the archives with those not-young women, the keepers of some collective past.) The various boxes of the coroner’s report have been filled out with a typewriter: the precise time of the accident (9:29 pm) and time of death (2:02 am), her parents’ names, and her age and social security number. Viewing the obituaries in the News-Gazette means sitting in a dark corner in a row of other microfilm readers, the light of the machine grey and gentle, its mechanical scroll smooth and swift. It means sifting through whole months of the daily newspaper, a world of big and little news in which to place this stranger.
All this is what is available to you, a member of the public. You don’t have to have a library card to this library; you don’t even have to live in this town. You work quietly, the not-young women asking every now and then if you’re finding what you’d hoped to find. Yes, you say, not knowing if that’s true, not knowing what you were anticipating. (You don’t say, don’t quite even think how you expect [hope?] to see yourself reflected in this stranger, merely because you’ve chosen to interrogate her life, or the life she’s left behind.) You think of people you have lost. Grandparents, high-school acquaintances. Your father, whose name you will not find in this archives, whose obituary—his official story—is as brief as an apartment listing.
Around you, middle-aged men and women work at computers and microfilm readers, investigating family histories. They pull out huge reams of periodicals printed on cotton paper from before the turn of the century. At a long table in the center of the room, you curve your body over Kenda’s yearbook photos—dirty blond, shoulder-length hair feathered around her face, large glasses, a goofy smile in all of them. You don’t want to think dorky looking at the photographs, so instead you assign happy to her face. Across from you, a not-young man asks his friend to take a picture of him holding a yellow square of paper to commemorate, to prove, his having held it.
II. On the Radio
After the county archives, I place a phone call to Parkland, the community college Kenda attended and whose radio station she DJ’d for. A receptionist there tells me to talk to so-and-so. So-and-so tells me to email so-and-so. And so on. Along the way, one or two so-and-sos mention Kenda’s learning disability. An old teacher says he’d had other students with disabilities before, but none so hardworking as Kenda. Another says he thought this disability—this vague, only mentioned, never described disability—contributed somehow to her accident. “Something to do with a hearing aid?” he says.
An email, a couple of nervous voicemail messages, and then I’m given the name Dan Hughes. One of Kenda’s broadcasting teachers at the community college, who supervised her work at the radio station. I’m told he delivered a eulogy at her funeral.
Dan, in addition to having worked as a teacher, is a treasure hunter. On his website, he relates how he bought a metal detector in 1974, found a penny and a gold ring in his first outing, and became “hooked.” Nearly forty years later, his self-published book on metal detecting, The Metal Detecting Manual, is in its second edition. He also collects and sells autographs. Hundreds and hundreds of names: Kevin Bacon, Petula Clark, Michael Crichton, Tony Curtis, Laura Dern, Mike Ditka, Jack LaLanne, Loretta Lynn, three of the Baldwin brothers. There are tennis stars, world leaders, and American governors. There are dozens of people I’ve never heard of before in my life. Their indecipherable names are scrawled across matte black-and-white photographs and tiny scraps of paper that Dan has collected over the years. He has also published a book called Tips, Tricks, and Secrets for Radio Disc Jockeys and has a love of old-time radio. He’s met Fred Foy, the narrator of Lone Ranger, and Parley Bayer, the actor who played the character of Chester on Gunsmoke.
In an email, I ask him about these hobbies. What is it about metal detecting and autographs and old radio that excites him so much? His response sounds like the voiceover of a film. He talks about always having wanted to discover buried treasure as a child and of once burying his own in his backyard: a one-gallon pickle jar filled with comic books, baseball cards, a notebook, and wheat-back pennies. He tells me how he listened to those old radio programs in his youth, how those stars’ signatures are among some of his favorite autographs, and how he likes being able to hold those pieces of paper in his hands. Because those famous individuals had once held them, too.
When I ask him about Kenda, he describes her as a “great kid,” as someone who would have been an average student had it not been for her dedication and strong work ethic. She was tenacious, he says. She had a “never-give-up” attitude, holding one of the only paid student positions at the radio station.
Then, without me asking, without me knowing to ask, Dan sends me two audio files: one, a tribute program to Kenda that aired on 88.7 WPCD after her death; the other, a recording of her funeral. The relative ease with which I come to these records baffles me, leaves me feeling, before even listening to the files, like someone has said that ghosts really do exist, and then promptly proven it to me.
Dan opens the tribute that ran on WPCD. He introduces each speaker, who then gives his or her memories and impressions of Kenda. Scattered throughout these sound bites are played some of Kenda’s favorite songs: Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” the Indigo Girls’ “Closer I Am to Fine,” and a number of Beatles tunes.
I listen to her radio coworkers and Parkland schoolmates describe her in brief segments. A few sentences, a minute or two at most. One voice after another. Their voices sound lower, their speech patterns slower than radio voices (than any voices, really) one hears now. It is a sleepy, conversational tone I associate with young B-movie actors from the ’70s, actors like Tatum O’Neal and Jackie Earle Haley. They say she was hardworking, she was always in a good mood, she was fun to be around. Generous and inquisitive. Helpful and responsible. The descriptions overlap and accrue, swirl around this girl now gone. Her smile, her energy, her earnest caring. I do not doubt these things about her. Her school and radio acquaintances all seem to tell the same story, albeit in slightly different versions. But through the accumulation of these details, the mere reiteration of how nice and passionate and hardworking Kenda was, I feel like they have decided on a stripped-down, simplified version of her that makes the most sense to them. They have all agreed: the one who helped me with my first on-air radio shift; the one who would be there when she said she would; the one who worked harder than anyone else. “I’m going to miss her a whole lot,” they all say. “She was a great person.”
Then news director Jerry Brock comes on, with a grown man’s gravelly yet jocular voice.
“When they told me that Kenda was gone, I thought, ‘Well, now I don’t have anyone to get dumb stories from.’ She used to have some of the dumbest stories, took her forever to tell a joke…But they were always funny. At least she enjoyed telling them.”
I feel at once surprised and relieved. Finally, someone I can relate to. Or two someones: Kenda for having a fault I recognize in myself (I am terrible at telling stories and jokes aloud), and this Jerry Brock for tilting the lens to reveal a different view of Kenda. For speaking without packaging or changing or significantly disguising his thoughts to fit with a prevailing story.
To wit, one of Kenda’s classmates admits that she and Kenda used to argue “quite a bit,” but then goes on to say that she thinks that the two of them “might have taught each other something.” This kind of language makes me want to hear the young woman talk when she’s not speaking to a radio audience.
It’s likely that the eulogists at Kenda’s funeral didn’t know they were being recorded. Though I find that funerals can be as performative as radio, with accepted types of music and readings and speeches. A silent agreement seems to exist among the speakers about what they will and will not highlight about their subject.
Kenda’s service begins with faint piano music, prayers, the hymn “For All the Saints,” and a reading of Psalm 23. Before talking about Kenda, the pastor admits that it is unusual for him to make as many personal comments during a service as he’s going to, but that he and Kenda’s parents wanted to make clear the “manner of person” she was.
The pastor begins with her birth. That she was hydrocephalic—had an excess buildup of fluid in her brain—and that this caused some damage while she was still in the womb. When Kenda was an infant, doctors told her parents that she would have significant mental retardation and that they should start looking for proper institutions for her. Kenda’s mother Mary, however, worked closely with her during those formative years, and by the time she was two, Kenda could identify all the letters of the alphabet and read at a third-grade level in the first grade.
“However, all was not well,” the pastor says. “In the world of words, she was unusually bright; in the world of space, she was lost.” Because her eyes did not properly coordinate, she had almost no depth perception. Kenda would frequently take wrong turns walking to school. The police would call her parents in the morning, saying they’d found her lost and wandering. Her parents were terrified. Still, Kenda, independent and stubborn, would insist on walking alone, not wanting her mother to drive her, not wanting anyone to look at or treat her differently. So they compromised with her: Kenda would walk to school, seemingly alone and independent to the casual onlooker, while her mother would follow in the car and honk the horn if she started to veer off course.
“Neither Bill nor Mary want us to be misled,” the pastor continues. “Being a parent to Kenda was at times a pure joy, at other times a pure frustration. Kenda could be headstrong, perhaps the understatement of this day. Her fierce determination to be independent was both her salvation and her Achilles’ heel. The vignette of walking to school became the story of their lives. Always trying to offer her the maximum amount of freedom, yet always following a safe distance behind, ready to blow the horn when a wrong turn was threatening.”
Listening to the tape, I am as moved by the pastor’s mastery of delivery, his poetry, as the content of his speech. His voice is medium-deep and rolls out from him with the cadence of a man comfortable with orating, his voice lilting up exactly where it should and dropping deep to indicate humor or irony or the closing of a story.
The vignette of walking to school became the story of their lives. I find a real satisfaction in that line. A satisfaction that comes from someone making any sad, difficult thing beautiful.
The pastor ends his eulogy with a telling of the night of Kenda’s death, saying that no one knew exactly what happened that evening, but that she was getting off the bus from a part-time job and then stepped into traffic to cross the street to her home before getting hit by a car.
“That remarkable brain was destroyed on impact,” he says, “but the brave and caring heart beat on for four additional hours.”
Others come forth. A friend and roommate, a young friend of the family, her teacher Dan Hughes, and a former Sunday school teacher. As I listen to the latter read poems and inspiring aphorisms that she found in Kenda’s journal, I find myself thinking a strange thing: This is a good funeral. The scope of the pastor’s eulogy, the way it seems to encapsulate her entire life. The way he does not hide from hard truths, that it was not always an easy life for Kenda or those around her. And now the Sunday school teacher’s full, emotive voice rising up in celebration, then breaking down with emotion.
Something in my inflated ego used to have (and still may have) me thinking that I would die young. Either by my own hand or some tragic accident that would rip me from this world too soon and leave everyone shocked, mournful, regretful. Regretful they hadn’t treated me better, praised me, given me recognition, told me that they secretly loved me. I took (take?) some mild melodramatic pleasure in this fantasy, the working through of those imagined scenes.
But I hate the way the scenario leaves me voiceless. I was (am) afraid of the misinterpretation of me. That I will be reduced to some public version of myself. The things I do, what can be seen and quantified, captured. The sarcastic face I make in pictures. My love for dancing, drinking (one or two too many), secretly (and not so secretly) controlling the music at parties. My extremes of mood: dejected and distant when sad, giggling and manic when happy. A performer, certainly, a ham. Confident? Intelligent? Funny? What will they miss? What easy-to-interpret relics will I leave behind? How will they simplify me to make me easier to love? I can be distant and secretive. Sarcastic and unkind. Closed off, stingy, insecure. I pray that, as Kenda’s eulogists have done, my friends and family will get right not only the good of me, but also the uncomfortable and painful, the unpleasant and the ugly. I hope that the performance of my life will be full and nuanced, hitting those highs and lows, no matter how impossible any individual’s full rendering may be. I think of the public and private versions of ourselves. The faces we show the world, the thoughts we keep hidden. What can be known and that which can never be captured.
When the eulogists have finished, “Amazing Grace” is played, the piano tinny and muted with distance. I am, like Kenda, at once there in that church and outside it. I go back to the beginning of the tape and listen to the whole thing again.
III. The Father
Bill Lawless and I have agreed to meet at Hessel Park, about a mile away from my apartment. For reasons I cannot explain, I’m expecting someone old, someone decidedly tender and quiet. Fragile. It is perhaps for this reason that I did not initially pursue a meeting with him, despite the relatively small size of this town, despite the ease with which all other information has been found and connections made. Although I consider myself dedicated to writing, to trust in narrative, I don’t believe that “getting the story” is the most important thing; I don’t value it higher than the feelings of an old man. But this conversation, like Dan’s name, like the radio and funeral tapes, has come to me without my asking.
It’s cool and windy and because I have arrived early, I sit in the sun outside of the park’s pavilion. On the other side of the shady pavilion is a parking lot and at the agreed upon time, a beige sedan pulls into one of its empty spaces. The man who gets out of the car is tall and slender, his hair a mix of deep grey and white, a stylish cut. He is a man you might see hiking in the state park or eating with his wife at a local family restaurant.
We shake hands, and at Bill’s request, we sit at a picnic table beneath the pavilion. He has a condition called rosacea, he tells me, and should stay out of the sun.
“But I have sunscreen if you’d like to go somewhere else,” he says.
I tell him here is fine, and we sit across from each other. He wears a dark turtleneck and sets down a soft black bag and white windbreaker beside him on the table, telling me that if I get chilly, I’m welcome to his jacket. I want it—it’s indeed chilly in the shade of the pavilion—but am afraid of looking too small in it.
“So tell me about yourself and this project of yours,” he says smiling.
I am glad he’s opened the conversation, a seemingly simple act, though his eyes quake beneath his rimless glasses and there is a shaky cheeriness in his voice and smile. I want to put him at ease, but in my desire to convey a genuine interest in his daughter and her life, I hear my voice grow high and performative. I package myself and the story into something neat and easy to hold.
I’m a student, I say. My teacher has told me to go to a cemetery and find a stone, any stone, that speaks to me. I chose Kenda’s because hers gave more information, more anything, than any other stone I saw in the one cemetery I visited. Because of the microphone and headphone etchings, I say. Because it told me more while making me want to know more. Because she died young.
I don’t say how, in my arrogance, I feel that our conversation is no longer necessary, so well do I think I know her now.
Instead I ask, “What don’t people know about Kenda?”
Bill clears his throat, removes his glasses, and rubs them with the bottom of his shirt. He tells me that if he starts to cry, that he doesn’t want me to feel bad. Crying is part of the healing process, and it is a good thing. Already his eyes look damp. He replaces his glasses and, with his voice slow and precise, strong yet close, he begins, and it is like I’ve pushed play on another one of those recordings.
He starts just as the pastor at the funeral did. He speaks of Kenda’s early health problems but goes into greater detail. He tells me that because of her hydrocephaly she had to have a shunt placed in the back of her head when she was born, to relieve the excess of fluid in her brain. There was no guarantee the shunt would work; if it clogged, he says, Kenda could go into a coma. Indeed her parents spent her entire life worrying about the shunt, having to frequently visit doctors in order to have it adjusted. She also had a mild case of cerebral palsy, which caused her to have an awkward gait. At school, kids made fun of and excluded her.
“Ostracized,” Bill says.
But she put on a good face for the public world. She worked hard and participated in school clubs like Operation Snowball, which taught kids about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, and she was good at Spanish, active in her church.
But at home, in her “safe place,” Kenda let go her frustrations. She could be aggressive and manipulative, Bill says. Because her health problems manifested so early, Bill and his wife never quite knew what to expect from her life. They had a hard time deciding when to be sympathetic or firm. They could not always tell if she was refusing to do something—a chore, any tiresome or difficult task—because she was unable to or because she did not want to. She could be as malingering and sly as any child.
When Kenda was about seven, Bill and Mary divorced. Mary got custody, and Bill would see the kids every other weekend and in the summers. But one evening, when Kenda was in high school, Mary called Bill up to say that she’d “had it” with her. Thirty minutes later, Kenda was on her father’s doorstep with a bag full of clothes.
There were times, he says, when Kenda wanted to be in total control, times when her actions seemed as aggressive as someone yelling in your face, as pushing you over and over. One evening, having suffered a long day of Kenda’s hostile behavior, he came up to her, grabbed her by the lapels of her pink bathrobe, and lifted her off the ground, the two of them face to face. Angry terror in both their eyes, scared of what he might do, he told her, “I’m going to love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” After that, he said, their life together got a little easier.
Bill tells me that Kenda taught him more about life after her death, when he had the time and distance to reflect, when his job as her parent had come to an end. He says that Kenda knew the simplicity that life could be, and that few understood all that she knew.
He takes two framed photographs out of his bag: one of Kenda and her younger sister, Trista, when they are small; another, a headshot of Kenda that I recognize from one of the high-school yearbooks in the archives. And then we are talking about photographs or funerals or the things that people leave behind, and I can feel our conversation coming to a close, when I tell him that I lost my father eight years ago when I was 22. That his death was no surprise, but that such an event pushes you into an earlier adulthood. I say that he was young. I say that there is a sharp kind of grieving that takes place when that grieving feels like it has come too early.
Bill says that he didn’t know what to expect from me, how he initially felt wary, but that he can see that I am a good person, that there is a sensitivity and life about me. I smile, but I feel a sad embarrassment coming over me. I am so grateful for his approval, his open acknowledgment. I at once yearn for him as a child does a parent and observe this yearning, not knowing if this feeling is true or if it’s just me playing out an emotional scenario I felt all along but could not name: a father who’d lost a daughter and a daughter who’d lost a father. The way we might match up. It’s all so long ago, and his loss further than mine, that I don’t know how far I can or should follow such an inclination, because while I am embarrassed, a darker feeling of shame creeps in. I tried so hard to seem genuine and earnest, intelligent and kind, because I was fearful that my interest in his daughter wouldn’t translate. A performance so familiar—I am a good person—it somehow doesn’t occur to me that any of the good things he says might actually be true. They seem beside the point. That he thinks they’re true somehow makes the difference. He’s an individual, like a friend, a colleague, a sister, who can make my identity for me. Someone who can remember.
I look down and away. I want him to both stop and continue. I want to hear his words without him looking at me, without me having to look at him and see that earnestness laid bare. He’s so trusting and forthright, but I see the way he’s talking to both me and her. I’m eleven years younger than Kenda would have been were she alive. Nine years younger than his other daughter.
But Bill is nothing like my father, I think now, even though I knew it as soon as he stepped out of his car and shook my hand. My father was short and wiry. A curmudgeon. A jokester. He repeated stories about seeing The Who perform in a barn in Frankfurt, Illinois, and brushing shoulders with Janis Joplin backstage at a show. Over and over, those stories. He loved camping and photography and drinking coffee. He could be rude, certainly removed, wanting to leave dinner parties as soon as the meal was finished. Could not make small talk to save his life. And he made mistakes with my sisters and me. Weekends with him after the divorce, we didn’t brush our teeth and ate too much candy and donuts and popcorn. We lay on the floor beneath a haze of his cigar smoke and watched movies no eight-year-old (or ten-year-old or five-year-old) should ever watch: Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, Goodfellas.
He left behind an entire lifetime of accumulation. Photography books and photographs and sweaters and golf clubs and day planners. Computers and cameras, pots and pans. But there are entire years of gap that I cannot fill in. At his funeral, a woman I did not know approached my sisters and me, told us she’d gone out on some dates with my father and that they had enjoyed each other’s company. She was a stranger, but I could not help but ask myself, “What does she know?” She, surely like dozens of others, owns some piece of my father that I’ll never be able to access and that will become lost to time, our separate memories that will never connect or collect.
Bill tells me that a father–daughter relationship is special. That if he’d had a son, he would have said that that relationship was special, too, but in a different way.
Then, just like a father, but not my father, he starts to tell me about life and what it means. He says beautifully simple things, like life is about relationships—with one another, with God—and the rest doesn’t add up to much. He says that every day is a gift. Just like a daughter, I listen while resisting, while denying that knowledge or at least his insistence in trying to pass it to me. All the while, I am smiling and nodding, and when our conversation really ends this time, we stand and he offers to buy me lunch, but I politely refuse. He returns to his car and I walk out of the park and then down the street. I turn behind me to watch his car recede from view, regretting having forgotten to bring my tape recorder.
IV. The Archives
A silver baby cup, first and middle initials engraved on its side. A 1956 Scout Field Book won at a party. A wooden butter churn in your mother’s living room. A Mason jar filled with old buttons, mother-of-pearl, yellow-rimmed black squares. Her grandmother’s dining-room table and china cabinet. A 1960 Woman’s Day Collector’s Cookbook. A man’s jewelry box of tie clips, a watch, and a pocketknife. Your great-grandma’s flowered Oxford shirt, white with green flowers. Grandma’s glass decanter and matching tumblers. Great-grandma’s white-enameled kitchen table, red flowers and black lines in its corners, filling its border. Your father’s 30mm Leica camera. His book of Diane Arbus. Your mom’s work-blue cowboy shirt, red embroidered flowers at the neck. A sacrament chest your father bought from a Catholic church’s yard sale. Your mother’s blue-covered, hardback Vonnegut collection. Your younger sister’s red, black, and white print skirt. A 1973 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. A portrait of a woman you never knew, painted by an unknown artist. A 1981 Farmer’s Almanac. Your mother’s beat-up blonde-wood kitchen table with side flaps. Cylindrical wooden containers with fitted lids your father carved on a lathe. A glossy picture cut from a magazine five, six years ago: a painting of two women—the same woman twice, you have learned—standing on a city fire escape. A Gretel marionette rescued from your mother’s garbage. Cigar boxes filled with letters. A photograph taken by your father of a firework frozen in its descent. A stack of journals covered in black paper, the penmanship within at times small and pristine, at others slanted and indecipherable.
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.