Remembering Neal on his birthday

Jan WIlliams recalls her son Neal in an email I received this morning.

Neal, 27, and Jan’s grandsons Ian and Devon were slain last August at their apartment in Rowland Heights. Neal’s wife Manling has been charged in the killings and has yet to face a preliminary hearing in the case. Neal was apparently stabbed to death. The children were suffocated.

Here’s Jan’s letter:

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May 19, 2008 – Neal’s 28th birthday.  More than any other holiday or anniversary that I have faced in the last nine months, this is the one that is the most difficult.  This is the day my only son was born.  He should be here to eat his grandmother’s key lime pie, the one she only makes for him.  It isn’t fair.  It isn’t right.  He had so many things to look forward to and he didn’t deserve to die.  How hard it is as a parent to think of your child bleeding out his life in fear and pain.  There are times when I think that my heart is too wounded to beat even one beat more.

I have spoken and written about the little boys, but until now I have been unable to write about Neal.  That isn’t because I loved my grandchildren more than I loved my son.  I think it is because the hurt is too close.  And because so many parts of our personalities were similar, holding a magnifying glass up to examine Neal means that I must examine myself as well.  To help you see Neal  I must expose a bit of me.  That isn’t easy or comfortable, so let me take a couple of deep breaths.

Neal and I are both peacemakers.  We hate to see anyone angry, in pain or humiliated.  We want to fix it.  I’ve seen Neal get up and leave the room when he could tell that a character in a television show was about to be embarrassed.   His eyes teared up when the barracuda ate the clown fish’s eggs in Finding Nemo, and he was bothered when the T-Rex ate the dog in Jurassic Park II.  He could always see the other side in almost every argument.  It didn’t necessarily make him change his mind, because he could be very stubborn about his own conclusions, but he could understand and empathize.  I am the same way myself.  Perhaps that is why we could discuss so many issues – even volatile ones.  We both knew that it was safe to air our opinions, but that we shouldn’t expect any sudden about face, no matter how eloquent our arguments.

We are voracious readers who can lose all sense of time with a book in our hands.  It is known to be  dangerous to let us loose in a book store, especially if it also sells coffee.  We are interested in many of the same things – history and archaeology, space travel and ecology, philosophy and volcanoes.  We are fans of Monty Python and Shakespeare, Star Wars and Gilbert and Sullivan.  We like to cook but detest washing dishes.  We procrastinate.  We like to walk in the rain.  We sing in the car.  Devon once asked me in confusion how I knew all of his daddy’s songs.  I can’t begin to tell you how it felt to see my son sing my songs and play my games and tell my stories with his own children.  It was almost like being handed a glimpse of immortality, real and down to earth.

Neal and I are good with animals and children.  We can make friends with mean old alley cats and can put babies to sleep.  When Neal was in middle school, he was a volunteer aide at a daycare center.  I would come to pick him up and see him walking calmly across a play yard with four-year-olds stuck like glue to every limb.  The last time I went to the park with Neal and the boys, he started in pushing the merry-go-round, and kept right on pushing, even when his own children had lost interest and gone on with me to other amusements.  As long as there was a single child to say “Again!” he was there to push, even red faced and out of breath.  He was a great father who treated every child he met as though it was one of his own boys.

Neal liked to tease, with a roguish twinkle in his eyes, and he had a wonderful, infectious laugh. He was a trustworthy and loyal friend, the kind who would show up with a truck on moving day. He was an amazing strategist, who thought many moves ahead, and when he played games he usually won.  He also had the infinite patience to teach hyperactive little boys how to play chess or baseball or video games or (Devon’s favorite) the German card game Bohnanza.  He answered endless questions, and laughed with good humor at whatever jokes were popular in the first grade, even the ones he had heard many times before.

Neal didn’t have a lot of ambition for material things.  He was raised by a single parent from the time he was two, and we never had a lot of money.  It didn’t matter.  We were rich in many other things, and I know he felt the same about his own adult life.  We often talked about it.  Devon and Ian were his treasure, and he had no need of fancy cars or a big house.  I am proud of that.  Neal was a man of heart and integrity, and that means more to me than if he had become the world’s youngest multimillionaire.  He would often quote the character  Merlin from the movie Excaliber , saying, “When a man lies he murders part of the world.”  He believed that and made it his personal code of honor.  How many people even have a code of honor in this busy and competitive world? .  He wasn’t a perfect man.  He was a good man.  That was Neal – a genuinely good man.

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  • the Other Mala

    I remember the first time that Jan and I took my godson Neal to the yearly Madrigal Feaste at Whittier College. Neal was about 7 years old at the time. Neal’s sister, Mala, was seated next to Jan, and Neal was seated next to me on the other side of the table. As singers sang Christmas songs and jesters played jokes, we ate together with the rest of the large group of people. Then Neal turned to me and quietly whispered “Where is God?”. He honestly wanted an answer as he had been pondering the story of Jesus for some time, and just could not wait any longer for an answer.

    We had many yearly celebrations together, many of them at unconventional times. We celebrated Christmas in February because we had more time available then. We would gather at one house or another, and order some exotic foods from an ethnic food restaurant, and eat it together, laughing and telling stories. Neal always tried all of the foods — he had that gusto for wanting to know about *everything*.

    When my son was 9 and very into castles and castle defenses, he and Neal exchanged a series of letters wherein they “attacked” each other’s castle and tried to breech the defenses. It had some Monty Python-ish overtones (ha! I throw a dead cow over your wall, so take THAT!), but was also a serious intellectual exercise that a very kind 21 year old man indulged my young son in.

    My husband and I were describing Neal to a visiting friend the other day. We had been talking about MIT’s classes being online for free (for no credit), see . My husband told our friend that Neal would have been online and going through as many of those courses as he could find time for, had he lived to be able to.

    Neal was a genuinely good man, an honorable man, with a thirst for knowledge and a great love for and loyalty to his family and his friends.

    We will never ever forget him.

  • a reader

    Jan Williams:
    What a lovely tribute to your son! You are a very gifted writer.

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Neal was a lucky man to have such a loving mother.

    As a mom, the thought of what you are going through breaks my heart!

    Bless you, and take care.