At my stage of life, I’ve been to many funerals, stopping by to “pay my respects.” I’m not entirely clear on what that phrase actually means, but I’ve come to accept it as a debt I owe to death, simply because I’m lucky enough to still be breathing. So I cross my fingers (and my heart) that my condolence card and drop-in visit to the funeral parlor give the Grim Reaper sufficient respect to keep my account in the black and dissuade him from according me any unwanted special attention.
Recently, however, I attended a funeral that wasn’t for an older person or someone who’d suffered a long illness. Either of those circumstances would have assuaged my conscience and quieted the guilt I often feel when I’m walking away from one of these proceedings. I usually stop by McDonald’s for a milkshake afterward and tip my paper cup in honor of the deceased — reminding myself, with each pull on my straw, not to live a drive-thru-line kind of life.
This particular funeral, though, was for the daughter of a former student of mine — a peppy, mischievous 2-year-old named Abagail Newman, who’d been shot in the neck with a 20-gauge shotgun. I never knew the child, but shotguns, of course, don’t fire themselves, and this is where things get confusing.
According to the transcript of the 911 call made by Abagail’s longtime baby sitter, Heather Stepp, “One of the guns lying on the table was loaded. … A little girl is shot.” The operator never asked for clarification of this statement, which seems to raise a host of questions. How did the gun go off? Was someone aiming it at the time? Why was the gun on the table with a 2-year-old in the house? Wait, ONE of the guns?
Some of those questions appeared to be answered when an arrest warrant was issued hours after the child had been declared dead en route to Mission Hospital. The warrant was for Heather’s husband, James Stepp; depending on the angle of the mug shot, the 31-year-old could be seen as either callous or a desperate, devastated man. Henderson County District Attorney Greg Newman (no relation to the deceased) seemed to lean toward the latter interpretation when he said, “These folks didn’t intend for this to happen,” presumably referring to both James and his wife. Two warrants were written that afternoon, but only the one for James was served, because Heather was hospitalized shortly after the incident.
“There are people we haven’t been able to speak to yet,” Maj. Frank Stout of the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office explained, adding, “People are not in the condition to even speak because of their grief.”
Five days after her husband’s arrest, 28-year-old Heather felt well enough to step on the taped line and face forward for her own mug shot. Like her husband, she was charged with one felony count of involuntary manslaughter. “A person’s negligent actions or omissions resulted in the death of another human being,” the DA explained.
This statement also tidied up some questions surrounding James’ arrest, since he wasn’t even there when the shot was fired. Now, however, they were both in jail, and as I stared into Heather’s swollen eyes in her mug shot, I felt a sense of justice, of righteous indignation, for that sweet little round-cheeked baby girl.
In what world do a loaded gun and a toddler every belong together? What idiocy! I thought, contemplating what seemed like a negligence so extreme that a bouncy, sassy little girl didn’t live to enjoy her third Christmas, crawling under the tree in search of Santa’s bounty.
But none of those details seemed to matter very much to the little girl’s parents, Angel and Jeromy Newman, on the day of her memorial service at the Shuler Funeral Home in Hendersonville.
Anywhere but here
The line started just inside the door, where workers had placed movable fences like the ones they use at Disney World or at the bank on Fridays, to keep things orderly. Some 200 or so well-wishers were maneuvered through an unused viewing room where smartly dressed employees carried trays of cookies and water.
There was nothing to do in that wallpapered room except look at the photo montages the family had put up at every few turns of the line, or else watch the refreshment trays move through the crowd. Only one man was brave enough to take a cookie, and his crunching drew reproachful glares. He must have felt the silent sting, but trapped in that long line, all he could do was let his arm drop limply to his side, the cookie with the giant missing bite proclaiming his guilt with each shuffled step.
We were slowly, slowly herded out of the viewing room, down a wide hallway and then into the long, narrow chapel where we caught our first horrified glimpse of the family, stiff and awkward as they publicly aired their private pain. They stood at the other end receiving their guests, much as they may have done at their wedding. The grandmothers and cousins lined up on either side, and if not for the light gray casket behind them, one could have imagined it a happy celebration. But that casket was impossible to overlook.
The crowd moved forward about 2 inches every five minutes. I know because I kept on checking my phone, as if the people in line had inconvenienced me by showing up and slowing things down. But we were all uncomfortable, shifting our weight, averting our eyes from that open casket, maybe wishing we were at the pub down the street instead, with a dry martini and an extra olive.
Before and after
Meanwhile, in the mother’s world, time had clearly stopped.
Every now and then (about every fourth person), Angel would turn toward the casket and throw her torso into it, covering the child whose color eerily resembled the box she was lying in. The mother would fuss with her daughter’s hair, which was pulled back into a shiny barrette, and weep and weep and weep.
Those of us in line who felt scratchy at these loud, uncomfortable outbursts of emotion would shift our focus to our phones or to a little tear of foil from a gum wrapper someone had dropped on the red carpet. We looked up at the big movie screen that hung above the child, watching photos of her life, a fixed timeline that now could loop back but never forward.
As we advanced toward the child and her inconsolable mother, I grew more and more enraged at the criminal negligence that had resulted in this outrageous ceremony of loss and vacancy. Meanwhile, continuing our own somewhat slower march toward death, we inched up in clumped groups — mostly strangers yet united in that “human family” kind of pride that wells up when one of our innocents is taken.
Whispers up and down the line shed further light on the tragedy. Heather and James were old family friends who’d watched “bubbly Abagail” (as some of the photo montages called her) since she was an infant. This softened my judgment a bit and helped explain Heather’s five-day hospital stay following the homicide. I also heard that the Stepps had three children of their own in the house that day, ranging in age from 7 years to 4 months. Could one of them have unwittingly pulled the trigger, thinking it was all just make-believe? But regardless of whose actions caused those lethal pellets to race from the gun’s cold barrel into the toddler’s warm neck, there was now and would forevermore be a before and an after.
The blame game
I scanned the Newman family, standing shoulder to shoulder in a protective line in front of the child who was now beyond the reach of the grief that gripped them. Angel and Heather were girlfriends raising their kids together. Maybe Heather was just an exhausted mother of three who baby-sat her friend’s child to help keep her own pantry filled. Maybe James would end up going to prison for a crime he didn’t even witness. How little we know, beyond the boundaries of our own nerve-ends.
So the closer I moved to the child, the more my black-and-white definition of a criminal turned the color of her casket, and the less anything felt either righteous or just.
Finally it was my turn to console the mother. I didn’t want to look at Abagail, so I turned my back to the casket and faced Angel and her family, mumbling something meaningless about the pain passing one day and was there anything I could do. Angel nodded absently, her eyes as swollen as Heather’s had been in her mug shot.
As I left the chapel and headed toward the pub, I thought about what makes a criminal. A cursory inventory of my own past behavior brought up some mistakes that could easily have ended with someone in a casket and my two feet standing on a taped line looking swollen-eyed into a camera.
There was that drunken night in high school when I drove the wrong way up a one-way street. It seemed so funny at the time, my girlfriends and I spilling out of the car, laughing as if we’d just heard the funniest joke. And once, in a confused sleep, I offered my child an open bottle of Ambien when she complained of a stomachache. A few other shadowy indictments also came to mind. If, for example, I were to cause a fatal accident when hitting “send” while driving, I imagine it would feel much like pressing the trigger on a gun…
By the time my martini arrived, I was feeling every bit as broken as I imagine the Stepps might feel today. I glanced at the waitress, her hair held back by a shiny barrette. I tried to smile at her, but she walked away oblivious, not realizing that she’d forgotten my olive.
Abigail Hickman’s book This, That and the Third will be released this spring.