Wherein I reveal the ending to a film you were problably never going to watch anyway

We recently watched a documentary called Dear Zachary. The description appealed to me because it was about a murder and a custody battle, so like, this longer version of a Dateline or 48 Hours, but more artfully done. The film was about a man named Andrew who was killed after being shot five times by his ex-girlfriend. Whether she did it or not isn't in dispute. Andrew told his friend he was going to meet her one last time and then turned up dead. She lived 16 hours away but had driven in and cell phone records pinged in every location, showing her movement into his town of Latrobe, PA (where he was a well-liked resident doctor) and then away after the murder, and also acknowledging that she had bought a 22 caliber gun and taking shooting lesson a few days prior. And a history of violence and erratic behavior.

And so the documentary (made by one of Andrew's closest childhood friends) isn't about figuring out her guilt or innocence; it's about getting to know the victim. The friend has been a filmmaker since he was a kid, and so has lots and lots of footage of Andrew through the years, as he was an actor in many of his movies. There's also footage of Andrew giving a toast at a friend's wedding, and then dozens of interviews with the people who knew and loved him. And the parents. The parents are devastated.

The murderer, Shirley, is from Newfoundland, and somehow is allowed to get out on $75,000 bail (not a penny of which is actually eve collected), and goes back to the island. Then, the parents discover that she is four months pregnant with their dead son's baby. So, in order to get to see him, they move to Newfoundland and have to endure these weird crazy visitations with the woman who murdered their child. This goes on and on and they are loving grandparents and the baby, this chubby blue eyed carbon copy of their son, stays with him while Shirley is temporarily in jail awaiting something, and so then there's all of this film of him tottering around and scenes of him with the grandmother and Shirley, sharing time with him. In one scene, you watch this game they're playing where the adults are sitting on the floor and calling to the baby, and the baby always goes to his grandma, not his mom, as if he knows something is missing in her.

The movie is called Dear Zachary because the filmmaker's quest is to show this baby what his dad was really like, so that when he grows up, he can hear from all of these people about his dad who he will never know in real life. And then... And then I will tell you what happens next and if you want to see the film, you shouldn't continue.

And then, the mother disappears with the baby, after being again let out by a judge who finds her not to be a threat to the general public, using some twisted logic like, Well, she already killed the one person she wanted to kill, no reasons to think she will kill anyone else. She's still not gone on trial for the murder, due to different legal maneuvers, so the hope is that eventually, eventually, she must be convicted. But she vanishes, and takes Zachary with her. And then a little while later, the baby washes up on shore, eyes to sky, because she has strapped him to her chest and jumped into the Atlantic Ocean, murdering her son and killing herself. Here's when Dan got up from the couch and left the room. Here's when I clutched the sleepy dog to my chest. The parents, having lost their son to this woman, then lose their second best love, their 18 month old grandson.

What is the meaning of this? The parents survive, somehow. The dad becomes an outspoken activist for harsher legislation and writes a best-selling book about the experience. Laws change, people are fired, but their two family members are still dead, and the filmmaker has to find a new ending, so the movie becomes a letter to the parents, Dear Kate and John...

I think I might talk about this in class tomorrow, because I'm trying to convince my class that they need to be willing to change their minds about issues. They need to understand why someone might want the death penalty, or fight for incarceration before trial. Until something of this magnitudes happens to you, how can you ever expect to understand the wave of rage and grief that threaten to swallow up this mom and dad? Empathy and open mindedness, that's what I want them to strive for in this class. And what I need to do in my own writing.

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