Tuesday, January 13th, began as any other normal day, and seemed to continue as such. My son, Jose, returned home from school at 3:15pm, having taken his 7th period final semester exam. I began teaching at 2:00pm, and was thoroughly enjoying the afternoon’s lessons. My 5:00pm lesson arrived and we entered my study.
The telephone rang and I saw the name of my friends, Hetzer, appear on the screen. I assumed it was Bill calling to remind me about breakfast as we had discussed, or Kay to set up our annual get-together dinner in January. I would call them back when I finished teaching in an hour.
But then, I heard Bill’s voice… “Darin… Bill & Kay… we need to talk to you… please, please give us a call.”
Bill’s voice sounded peculiar… strained, urgent. I picked up the telephone, but Bill had already hung up.
I looked at my student and she said, “You better call them now.” Normally, I would not make a personal call during lessons, but this message just seemed to yield something of a very different nature, beyond odd. I told my student, “Something has happened to their one son.”
Bill & Kay Hetzer
I met Bill & Kay Hetzer, and their two teenage sons, Brian and Andy, in 1996 when I first became director of music at Normandy United Methodist Church. They were a family like so many other wonderful families at this church, but there was something about the Hetzer family that was not like the other families. After thirteen years, I still cannot place my finger on it.
Kay sang in the choir, and played in the bell choir, while Bill and the boys ran the television cameras during service. I quickly connected with this energetic, and spirited family, teasing their younger son, Andy, mercilessly. Andy shared the same sense of humor, and could be a goofball like my brother, Destin, and my Uncle Ron. Brian was more quiet, and reserved, but always genuinely friendly.
Kay was the ultimate Kool-Aid mom, and the type of person whose radiant personality entered the room long before she did. Her descending giggles were infectious, and when singing, her smile was sincere, and quite captivating. While many people wore their hearts on their sleeve, Kay wore her joy in her face. It is one thing to be happy… but happiness is fleeting. Joy is what really matters. And joy is what Kay possessed. Her joy was solid.
Andy & Brian in Germany as young boys.
And Bill… Bill, a former captain in the Army, always had a twinkle in his eye, something funny ready to share, and prepared for a chance to laugh at my jokes or comments. He was everything you would want in an older brother, or uncle. My Uncle Ron killed himself in 1987, and when I met Bill & Kay, I still had not healed from that dreadful tragedy. It was 1999 before I finally returned to Virginia, and the Outer Banks – favorite vacation sites closely associated with my uncle who lived in Virginia Beach while serving in the United States’ Navy. My uncle was twelve years older than me, a little younger than Bill, and I believe this is why we connected so easily.
Bill and Kay were an adorable, attractive couple, and along with the boys, created the refreshing, delightful image of a well-loved Norman Rockwell painting about “family.”
Mother’s Day, 1998, I sat at Normandy’s piano, prepared to play for the children’s musical. The minister’s opening announcements stated one of our families had suffered a major tragedy. He explained that a young teen had been in an automobile accident the night before. “Andy”…. there was a slight pause. I thought he was going to say the last name of another teenager named Andy… “Hetzer.” (Actually, the minister said, “Hetzler” which is still a running joke to this day!). I barely remember hearing the minister say, “he is still on life support but his family are at the hospital working on donating his organs.”
While seated at my computer the night before, I heard sirens blaring. My worriscope surfaced, hoping it was not one of my many students attending Centerville High School’s prom. I even considered calling several parents but did not wish to alarm them. At one point, I almost drove to where the nearby sirens were clawing through the gentle air of that lovely spring night.
Those few days leading up to Wednesday’s funeral were a blur, and still are. Bill & Kay asked me to take care of the music. I remember sitting in their family room, feeling the weighted sadness of this boy’s loss. It just seemed surreal. I expected Andy to come bounding into the room at any moment, waking us from a bad dream.
Tuesday afternoon, Andy’s casket arrived at Normandy, and was prepared for the visitation. The minister, the church’s secretary, Nancy Winslow, Carolyn Bendrick, and I gathered around the casket, joined hands, and listened to the minister’s prayer. I stood there looking at Andy, unbelieving. He looked as though he was ready to tell another joke, or join me in an escapade at Edler-Beerman pretending to be sales associates (and we were good!).
That night, after hundreds upon hundreds had passed by the casket, the staff and volunteers of the church threw themselves into the vast preparations for the following morning. I don’t believe there has ever been an evening that so touched, and so impressed me. Tom Sellars, the genius lighting and sound director, and a dear friend, joined me in the pew near the casket. We both agreed we could not let Andy be alone the rest of the night. The pews were reasonably comfortable for sitting, but were intolerable as make-shift beds.
The funeral, as expected, overflowed the sanctuary’s capacity by several hundred, and spilled into the narthex, hallways, and circle drive of the beautiful manor house connected to the church. The opening hymn was “Come, Christians, Join To Sing”, shares the same melody of the beloved, and practically sacred, “Carmen Ohio” of The Ohio State University. The service was very moving, but tremendously agonizing.
CARMEN OHIO (music & lyrics) http://www.scarletandgray.info/osu/songs/carmen_ohio.html
The next Monday, Bill called to see if I would join him for breakfast. And thus began the historic breakfasts and lunches that we were to share for the next twelve years. Many of the meals were barely eaten as we sat talking about Andy, life, religion, family, and crying often. There just seemed to be no magic button to the grief. By the end of May, we began finding other topics, and discovered that laughter was so healing. And since we yearned to heal more, while not keep laughing? It was the perfect solution.
Normandy was yearning for something new, and it was decided that the church would embark on a new ministry project, musical theatre. This was quite easy for me, but I knew I needed someone to oversee everything – a producer. Tom Sellars and I were eating lunch one afternoon, and he said, “You know, we need to find something for Bill to do with the musical – something to get him refocused.”
We set up a lunch meeting at the nearby Bob Evans. We approached Bill about being the producer for Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Bill’s eyes grew large as he began to protest. “I don’t know anything about producing. Yeh, I was an Army captain and told a bunch of klunkheads what to do…” I assured him there was not much difference – theatre had its share of klunkheads, too. His argumentative pleas fell on mine and Tom’s deaf ears.
Finally, tiring of Bill’s arguments, I leaned forward, and said the magic words, “Bill, I really need you.”
Of course, having Bill and I both engaged in this production required even more lunches! Sitting in a Chinese restaurant, listening to One Hundred and One Strings performing the best of ABBA… ah… it is no wonder why eating establishments flip their “Closed” signs around when they see us in the parking lot!
The musical was a resounding success, and Bill and Kay threw themselves wholeheartedly into the production. And on the last day, I threw my self into the production – as Pharaoh. Just because the production was over did not mean our breakfast and lunch sessions were over. They were about to launch an entirely new journey.
The following spring, Bill and I were eating lunch at Yankee Trace. I had been toying with the idea of adoption, but had only mentioned it to my mother. I thought I would share the idea with Bill to see his reaction. So I told him my idea. Bill leaned forward.
“You know, Kay and I have been tossing around the idea. We are just not finished being parents.”
And thus began the adoption journeys for both our families.
Separately, we both approached Montgomery County Children’s Services. I was told that I was not the type of adoption material they preferred. The lady smiled, and turned her back on me. Bill was told, by the same lady, “You are only trying to replace your dead son.” And with that, she hung up on Bill.
Several weeks later Bill dropped by my townhouse to show me information on a private adoption agency in North Dayton – ACTION Adoption. That afternoon I first heard the name, Pat Hill. Bill explained, “She is a really, really neat lady, and she has adopted twenty kids.” The next morning at Miami Valley School, Kay and I, in our routine chat spot, discussed ACTION. Finally, I saw a glimmer of the Kay’s former self return. Though she had maintained her bright spirit following the tragedy, there was a piece missing. Brian was now an adult, and living on his own, so the house on Meadowview Drive seemed terribly empty. Kay really missed being a mom.
One Saturday night in February, 2000, I sat at the Normandy piano, preparing for the start of a musical tribute I had written to the previous century’s music, Spectacular 2000. A little blond headed boy walked up to me with a bag of Valentine cookies, and thrust them at me.
“Here. These are for you.”
I thanked the boy, and asked who he was.
“Do I know you?”
“No. I am here with him.” Joey turned, and pointed to Bill, seated with his sister, Linda, and her husband, Ray.
JOEY! In the wake of the production I had forgotten Joey was coming to spend a long weekend with his prospective new parents. And he was here! After the show, I spent time with the Hetzers, and Joey seemed to fit right in.
And before we knew it, the following spring of 2001, Chris had arrived.
Chris & Joey, 2001, during our trip to the Air Force Museum.
With Brian off on his young adult adventures, the Hetzer family seemed complete again. Bill was once again hauling boys off to soccer and football practices, and Kay was doing all the thrilling, enjoyable “mom stuff” that she had done with Andy and Brian when they were young. But this time, I don’t think she dressed the boys in lederhosen and Alpine hats!
Finalization Day! Bill & Kay with their sons, Chris, Brian and Joey.
Bill & Kay asked me to watch the boys one night while they attended a wedding. I love being Uncle Darin, and gladly charged into this occasion with a full schedule – dinner, Borders Books & Music, Maggie Moo’s for ice cream, and a movie at home.
During our trip to Border’s, I found a Wright Brothers’ book in the children’s section, and sat on the floor with Joey and Chris on either side. As I read, Joey laid his head on my shoulder.
I knew, then, it was my turn to fully begin my adoption journey.
May 1, 2002, I walked through ACTION’s door. A nice lady named Mary Tarlano handed me the initial packet and explained a few things. I drove over to the Wendy’s on Main Street, near Needmore Road, grabbed some lunch, and let Flyer play in an open field while I sat filling out the forms… and forms… and forms…
I returned with the completed packet, and handed everything over to another lady, Sheila Jenkins. She looked through my information, and stopped on one page. “Just one minute, please.” Sheila left the front desk and walked over to an office door. Her whisper, more like a childlike squeal, informed someone, “The Hetzers’ friend is here.”
Immediately I was escorted into an office to meet Patricia Hill.
July 25, 2002, I met my first son. The following spring a second boy arrived. In 2004, my son, Jose, arrived. In between, and after, were also some boys whose adoptions had been disrupted, and they joined our home, some for several months, for long term respite. I also found my self teaching some preservice training classes, and representing the agency at an Orlando conference for adoptive parent support groups. Currently, I continue to teach classes, join the ACTION team for adoption fairs, and serve as the agency’s president of the board of directors.
Joey and Chris began taking piano lessons with me the fall of 2002. Chris quickly developed a natural talent for the piano, quickly followed by a passion. Chris would complete his assigned lesson, and then work ahead. It was not long until he was experimenting with familiar melodies, and figuring out the complimenting chords.
Chris & Joey at a piano lesson, 2003.
One particular melody was “Going Home,” based on “Largo” from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I explained the history of the song to Chris, and showed him some photos on the internet. He was taken with the image of the Marine playing his accordion as President Franklin Roosevelt’s casket was loaded onto the train at Warm Springs, Georgia, bound for Washington, DC.
A year later, we were working on Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Chris absorbed all music – the classics, pop music, Disney tunes – he seemed to love it all.
Bill, Brian & Kay at Brian’s wedding.
The years grew busier as our sons grew older. The few minutes after lessons with Bill and Kay just never seemed to be enough time for catching up. We tried to make as many of Joey and Chris’ sporting events as possible, but we too were blessed with numerous music concerts, show choir rehearsals and performances, and musicals. Still, the Hetzer and the Haas familes managed trips to the Hetzer property along the Ohio River, pumpkin hunting at Brumbaugh’s Farm near Arcanum, dinners out, dinners in, shows, movies, sporting events, music events, and other family activities.
As I experienced serious issues with an older son, Bill and Kay, along with my family, and many friends, were always by my side. So many great parenting techniques I had borrowed from Bill and Kay through the years seemed to be powerless for the behavioral issues with which I was confronted. Bill and Kay never altered their undying faith in my parenting, nor their support of what I was trying to do for my son. Those of us closely involved all agreed my son was battling overwhelming emotional and mental scars buried deep within before he ever came to our home. Those hideous scars that the best psychological treatments, the best doctors, the best schools, the best support, and the best love a family can offer are simply not enough, sometimes.
While our hearts rebounding thrill
With joy which death alone can still
Summer’s heat or winter’s cold
The seasons pass the years will roll
Time and change will surely (truly) show
How firm thy friendship …
Last Spring, Chris began emailing me, and chatting with me online in Face Book and MySpace. He was always thrilled to share with me new piano music he had discovered, or improved grades, or anything he felt compelled to share.
Chris & Joe at the beach, 2008.
Monday night, January 12, 2009, I was finishing up a lesson with a Centerville High School student when Chris messaged me. I told him I would be right back. I asked this student if she knew Chris Hetzer. The name sounded familiar, but she did not know him.
I returned to my computer, and chatted Chris. He was elated about returning to school full time. Chris had only been attending in the mornings, as there had been some issues through which he was working. Over the past year, Chris had been exhibiting similar behaviors as my one older son – very similar pre-adoption issues. That Monday night, Chris and I talked about school. I also reminded Chris to check with his Dad about breakfast. He asked when we were coming over for our annual January night at the Hetzer House, and Chris said he would remind his mom. After another five minutes or so of chatting, Chris said he had to get off the computer since it was a school night. “Have a good night. I miss you guys. Love, Chris.”
I fumbled hitting the redial button. My student stood by the piano, watching intently.
The phone was answered.
Before I could utter any words, Bill tried to talk.
Finally, through a choked throat, Bill managed to say, “Chris killed himself this afternoon…”
Somehow, I managed to find the piano bench.
I proceded with the lesson, and somehow managed to teach a following lesson. Before the last lesson, I pulled Jose into my bedroom and sat him down. Telling my son that a dear family friend had commited suicide seemed to be a measure of torture the eve of my son’s seventeenth birthday. As he returned to the basement I could hear his sobs. I wanted to release my own sobs, but I had a lesson to teach.
That night, I sat in the Hetzer family room – practically in the same spot I sat in May 1998 after learning the news of Andy’s death. Surreal is the only word that can describe it. I kept expecting Chris to saunter into the room, calling my name, and rushing up to give me a hug. As I sat there absorbing the horror of that Tuesday night, my eyes rested on the piano in the adjoining living room… Chris’ music was still in place, scattered everywhere. It was obvious he had been working on his music. Bill said that after Chris’ recent shoulder surgery, he still managed to find a way to play, despite the very limiting brace.
Suddenly, I felt a peace float over me, and settle. Chris had his love for music. That had been my gift to him. It had been something we shared as student and teacher, as pseudo-uncle and nephew. Even when not discussing concepts and skills, music was a passion we both shared. Somehow I knew, that very evening, that Chris’ spirit, now on a new journey, was still filled with music. Although he decided to depart this life on his own terms, I will never allow myself to believe the music ever departed him.
Bill and Kay were fantastic parents for Chris, and I know, despite the grim hauntings of pre-adoptive wounds from which he could never completely escape, Chris loved his parents, his brothers, his family, and knew he was loved by us all. As adoptive parents, we can try as we might to fix those dreadful hurts of the past, but some wounds are simply too deep for us to heal, or attempt to soothe with loving salve. There are no magic buttons.
The following Saturday morning, I once again, sat at the Normandy piano. The medley I arranged for Chris was my gift to the young soul who will forever remain in my mind, and heart, “The Piano Man.” “Going Home” was played, but I decided the last several non-harmonized tones would not be resolved with the final note… the unfinished song represented an unfinished life.
This coming Tuesday, January 27th, Chris would have celebrated his 18th birthday. At some point in the day, a candle will be lit, and I will seat my self at the piano, and play the medley from the service. As the hurt, the anger, and all the levels of grief merge, they will be set aside for the music.
“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man;
Sing us a song tonight.
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ alright.”
Christopher Allen Hetzer
January 27, 1991 – January 13, 2009