A quiet cul-de-sac in Orange was shattered by a horrific act in July 2014. Timothy Granata, plagued by schizophrenia and wielding knives and sledgehammers, killed his mother, Claudia, in the living room of their family home. Other family members were not home at the time, and Timothy’s older brother, Vince, was in the Dominican Republic, teaching children to read. Timothy, who was 23 at the time, was later sentenced to 60 years in a psychiatric facility in Middletown after being found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Seven years after his mother's killing, Vince has come out with a memoir, Everything Is Fine, in which he stitches together a portrait of his mother, delves into his brother's mental illness, and explores what it takes to keep a family together and on a path toward healing after trauma. The following is an excerpt from the book.
I remember the first time I wrote my brother's name. I was four and a half, standing on our driveway next to where the gutter spilled rainwater off our garage. In chalk, I wrote his whole name, TIMOTHY.
I wrote all of their names, my new siblings, CHRISTOPHER, TIMOTHY, ELIZABETH, triplets, etched in birth order. I was eager to show off, my whole fist around the chalk, scraping my knuckles when I thickened each letter. When I was done with their names, I held a chalk pebble, a handful of red dust. I needed a new piece to finish my message.
WELCOME HOME MOMMY.
They were coming home for the first time, my new siblings, our family now doubled in size. I waited, perched on our suburban driveway in Orange, Connecticut, until I spotted my father's Oldsmobile. He stopped in front of my mural, a bassinette fastened next to him on the passenger side. Through the windshield, I saw my mother, still in her blue-and-white nightgown, between two bassinettes braced in the back seat.
I remember the nested bassinettes, my bundled siblings in their hospital caps, caps too big for their infant faces, covering their ears, grazing their eyelids. I remember how they each blinked, in the sun for the first time.
I don't remember running down the driveway, sticking my head into my father's open window, declaring, This is the best day of my life.
I know I must have said it. My parents always included that part of the story, used my words like a punch line, the cornerstone to our foundation myth.
I believe that I said it. I was happy, happy enough to mash my chalk into the driveway, happy for siblings after more than four years of pushing Tonka trucks alone on the family room floor.
Tim's bassinette was the one in the front seat. I've seen him there in our pictures. In those pictures, Tim's black hair sticks out beneath his blue cap, his skin more olive than that of his siblings. In one of those pictures, our mother holds him, standing next to me on the driveway. Tim is a bundle the length of her forearm.
I was twenty-seven when Tim killed our mother. He attacked her while she was sifting through used-jewelry listings on eBay. Tim's demons, electric in his ill mind, convinced him that the woman who had made him peanut butter sandwiches when he was a grass stained child was the source of his constant pain. These delusions, schizophrenia's unchecked crescendo, raged in his head, a rising tide flooding him in madness. After he killed her, he dialed 911, sitting on our front steps, clutching a white Bible.
I was a thousand miles away. I sat, knees wedged under a classroom table, across from a girl named Yamilet. We were reading a Spanish translation of Oh, the Places You'll Go! I helped her blend syllables into words— por-que, ver-dad, os-cur-as — while she marveled at Dr. Seuss's neon world. She wore a bracelet around one of her slender wrists, LIBERTAD sewn into the black strands, the name of her Dominican village, a collection of stucco houses pressed up against Autopista Duarte, sixty miles from the Haitian border.
My mother was dead for two hours before I knew. She was dead while I labored in Spanish, tried to answer Yamilet's questions ¿Que significa "inexplorado"? While we read, Yamilet and I drank water from little sealed bags — fundas — to combat the heat. To open the fundas, we used our teeth, gnawing at the corners of the plastic.
My phone was off. It had been off for most of the past three weeks. Jon, my childhood friend who ran this summer program, approached our table as Yamilet and I finished the story.
“It’s your dad,” he said.
“Momentito,” I said to Yamilet. She was still looking at the book, running her hands over its last illustration, a child moving a Technicolor mountain.
Jon handed me his phone, but when I brought it to my ear I couldn't hear my father over the children sounding out words in the classroom.
"Dad?" I reached the sliding door. "Dad?"
Outside, sun-seared, I walked toward a shaded alley. Some of the younger children clustered near the classroom, kicking up dust while they chased each other. They called out, "Bince, Bince," the B sound easier for the kids to pronounce. When I ducked into the alley, I heard my father's voice.
My back felt slick against the metal wall outside the classroom. "Vince?"
In the alley, I asked him, raising my voice, ''Are you okay?”
He only needed four syllables. "No. Tim killed Mom."
The neighboring house dissolved. My father's voice disappeared. Our connection evaporated between the mountains bounding the Cibao Valley. I still listened, my lips rounding in an O, but the no no no stayed in my throat, a strangled airless silence. I fell. The gravel in the alley stuck to the backs of my legs.
Juancito found me, the phone still at my ear. He was in his teens and helped us organize games with the kids. That morning he had helped gather spoons for egg-and-spoon relays.
I formed a sentence. With Spanish, I needed a moment to hear the words in my head. Before it was ever a fully formed English thought, my mother's death was a Spanish phrase, assembled one word at a time. Mother, madre, died, murió.
''Mi madre murió."
I knew how much murió didn't say.
On the ground, my body caught up, responded, first just shivering, chin against my drenched collar. Then in waves, wet skin vibrating — cold somehow — then a bigger shaking, a throbbing — now hot, too hot — then retching, platanos and beans a brown paste on my leg.
Jon found me. He and Juancito each grabbed one of my arms, pulled me toward the classroom. Juancito ordered the kids outside. They bobbed past me, filed out into the sun.
Juancito handed me a funda. I bit and tore and forgot to breathe. I tried to squeeze water onto my sticky leg. I held the empty funda, a plastic carcass dripping in my hand, while Juancito opened another, squirted at the dirt and vomit caked to my shin.
Jon's phone rang, my father calling back with Chris and Lizzie.
We said mostly I love you, speaking in a high wheeze.
After ninety minutes on dry, cracked roads, I reached the Santiago airport. In the bathroom with an internet signal, standing over a urinal, I opened Facebook. I saw it without scrolling — Suggested Video, Timothy Granata Killed Mother Claudia Granata in Orange. One of my cousins was arguing with online commenters beneath the article. Someone had posted, Ban white boys with guns and mommy issues. My cousin responded with a paragraph. I stopped reading at the word knives.
This was my first detail.
The plane took off an hour late, flew through a storm. The in-flight entertainment stalled, gray lines freezing in jagged tears across my screen. I watched the lightning instead, the flashes only seconds apart.
My father, Chris, and Lizzie were standing outside of the hotel when I arrived. It would take two days for us to be able to reenter our house, a crime scene. I cried when I saw my sister. She stood between Chris and our father, her head resting on Chris's shoulder, hands gripping his left arm.
The next afternoon, after the police finished their work at our house, five men arrived in two Ford Sprinter vans. AFTERMATH, their company's name, was emblazoned on the van's sliding doors. In hazmat suits, they worked for twelve hours, cleaning through the night, sanitizing wood panels on our family room floor, bleaching the walls next to where we used to stack our photo albums.
In the morning, after they finished, we drove to our house from the hotel. We stopped before the driveway, the gentle slope where I had written my brother's name twenty-three years before. A strand of police tape blocked our path. The yellow tape, strung between our mailbox and a telephone pole, grazed the pavement, sagging like a long finish line.
I started writing about my brother, about my mother, about my family, because I was exhausted from trying to hide. I had been terrified of my pain, a pain I hid in a silo, a secret I feared might detonate.
When I started writing — in fragments, in halting sentences — I began to recognize a piece of what had terrified me. All of my memories felt tainted. My mother's death shrouded the past, even the most innocent moments — Tim, a blanketed infant on our mother’s lap, reaching for her glasses, each lens the size of one of his hands. Even that memory, a single image, would catalyze a reactive chain, lead me to their final moments together, to our mother's body on the family room floor.
Now, when I think about the months, the year, after Tim killed our mother, I recognize how I tried to hide, how I avoided my memories so that I could drive to work, cook dinner, mimic smiles with friends. I didn't try to write about the illness that roiled in my brother's head. I didn't try to write about why all my mother's attempts to save him had failed. I stopped myself from looking at my family's story.
But avoidance fractured me further, stripped me away from myself, from all of my memories, until it felt like there was little left of me. Eventually, I had no choice but to look at loss and pain, at all the pieces of my family's story that I didn't think I could ever understand.
It was this process, recognizing the pieces, struggling to put them in order, that almost destroyed me.
It's also what allowed me to live again.
When Tim was born, he barely cried. He was quieter than Chris, who had screamed until Tim joined him, like arriving ahead of his siblings was terrifying.
"We knew Chris's vocal cords worked," my mother used to tell me. She told this story often, the one about the day they were born. "I couldn't hold Chris right away," she would say. "I couldn't hold him because I had more work to do." She laughed when she said this, work, the labor of bearing Tim and Lizzie.
She told me how my father held Chris and Tim, how the three of them watched Lizzie's birth.
"So calm," my mother remembered. "Lizzie was silent, didn't make a sound."
"You know, your father and I met at that hospital," she always reminded me.
A bee sting brought my parents together.
In 1983, a police officer directing traffic in Hamden, Connecticut, was stung by a bee. He collapsed in anaphylactic shock and was rushed to the Yale New Haven ER. My father, a doctor at the hospital, saved his life, coaxing his heartbeat to return with a defibrillator. For several days, the officer remained in the hospital, as my mother, an attending physician, monitored his recovery.
Several weeks later, to complete his discharge paperwork, they each went to the medical school library to consult literature on bee sting-induced shock. In search of the same journal, they arrived at the library at the same time.
I never once heard them agree on who spoke first.
At birth, Chris and Tim experienced slight respiratory distress, a condition common in multiples. Tim also had uncomplicated jaundice, his infant liver struggling to filter harmless yellow pigment from his bloodstream.
Because of these minor complications, I met my brothers through a glass pane. I stood outside of the intensive care nursery while my father held each of them in a window, one of his hands as large as each of their torsos.
After three days, Chris and Tim joined Lizzie and our mother. When I visited them, together for the first time, our mother had tilted her bed upright so they could lie against her stomach, three squirming bodies she could tuck into her lap.
During the month before their birth, my mother had stayed in bed, the weight of three too much to support on two feet. Earlier in the pregnancy, my father had installed a chairlift along the left side of our staircase. At four, I looked with awe at this machinery, the chair ascending its metal track as enthralling as a carnival ride.
Even though I was used to seeing my mother in bed, wrapped in a floral comforter, eating Rocky Road ice cream, there was something different when I saw her in the hospital room. She wasn't wearing glasses and I could see all of the flushed skin on her cheeks and around her eyes. I had only seen her without glasses in pictures, in the framed photo from my parents' wedding on a living room windowsill. She didn't look like my mother in that picture — hair too long, lips too red, eyes too dark. I remember her looking that way while she rested with my infant siblings, younger maybe, even though she was wearing a hospital gown.
Born alone, four and a half years earlier, I spent my first years with only my parents for company. I didn't know until later that my parents had wanted a shorter gap between their children, that they had tried, before Chris, Tim, and Lizzie, to ensure that I wasn't an only child.
I learned about their struggle to have more children on a long summer afternoon — I was ten, maybe eleven. My mother knocked on my bedroom door, interrupting me while I devoured a Redwall fantasy novel. For much of that summer I buried myself in the Redwall series, preferring the medieval combat of woodland creatures to games of sharks and minnows in the local pool.
My mother was also a voracious reader. I can't remember a single childhood beach trip when some novel didn't shade her face. Her stacks of books, teetering beneath the packed bookcase in my parents' bedroom, would become my library. As a child, I read till my eyes ached. I read so that someday I would need thick glasses like my mother, glasses I would cradle like a trophy.
That afternoon, she sat on my bed, on top of my comforter featuring the caps of all thirty Major League Baseball teams. When she spoke to me, her eyes narrowed behind her glasses like she was aiming her pupils directly at mine.
I was still a year or two away from my father's puberty speech, delivered to me in the guest room with a physician's anatomical precision. The only part of his lecture that I remember is his concluding joke, Now remember, Vince, there's a vas deferens between the male and female genitalia.
That afternoon, sitting with my mother, I asked her if our family would stay this size. I told her about my fantasy books, how many of the heroes came from sprawling families, had dozens of siblings. I asked her if she and my father had always planned to have four kids. She told me that two years before Chris, Tim, and Lizzie's birth, she had miscarried twins.
"Why don't I remember that?" I said.
"You were barely two years old."
I cried. Crying, then, wasn't rare for me. In those prepubescent years, shameful tears accompanied moments when I felt that I had failed, when I struck out during a Little League baseball game or lost a new jacket on the recess field. I'm not sure why I was such a tightly wound ten-year-old, why I sometimes felt an uncontrollable welling that I had to bury in my baseball cap.
The crying stopped on the eve of my teens, as though I had learned to steel myself against what had been minor misfortunes. But I remember my tears, how crying made me feel like a wimp, how I felt weak crying in my father's car after missing free throws during an elementary school basketball game.
But those tears, the ones I cried after my mother told me about the miscarried twins, were different. Those tears felt like loss, experienced for the first time, a helpless feeling, an awareness of absence. "But Vince," my mother said, "it was a blessing. We have three now instead of two."
She called them a miracle. She explained to me, while I looked toward the creased book in my lap, that though I had been conceived "the natural way," my parents had encountered difficulty having more children.
She told me that Chris, Tim, and Lizzie were born because of something called in vitro fertilization. She never shied away from exact language, always used the technical terms — egg, sperm, embryo. Sperm plus egg equals embryo, I learned that afternoon, though the words had no literal meaning.
During in vitro fertilization, my mother explained, sperm met egg in a laboratory dish, a test tube. My young mind spawned science fiction scenes, babies sprouting from tubes in dimly lit laboratories.
"But how did they come from you?" I asked.
She smiled. "They implanted the embryos into my uterus to grow."
I heard plant and grow like my siblings were the basil plants my father watered behind our house.
"Did you choose to have three?" I had stopped sniffling. Too much had changed about my world.
"They implanted three," she said, "and we were lucky that they all stayed healthy."
"If they had been twins, which two would they have been?" I thought of it this way, as if any embryo implanted in my mother had to come out as Chris, Tim, or Lizzie.
She laughed and took the Kleenex from my lap, crumpled and damp with my tears.
I didn't know, at ten, that IVF is difficult, uncertain, rife with heartache. The miscarriage of the twins, also conceived through IVF, must have devastated my parents, left them uncertain about whether they could have more children.
While she was pregnant with Chris, Tim, and Lizzie, my mother must have been terrified. She must have been afraid while I watched her ride that chairlift, afraid that this pregnancy might also fail.
But they were born. They survived.
I think about the miscarried twins now, when I'm alone, when all I have for company is what if what if what if. What would have happened if there had been only two blanketed infants against my mother's stomach? Would illness lie dormant in one? Would one be born with a long coiled fuse, a fuse that would wait twenty years to ignite?
I hate these thoughts, their winding paths, the way this alternate reality eliminates three people I love.
But Tim's birth also means her death. It means her pain, my pain, his pain.
And when Tim was born, when he was handed to my father, a slick six pounds of flesh, my mother smiled at the tiny feet of her third son, at the life she had fought so hard to give him.
Chris, Tim, and Lizzie were intrepid crawlers, their curiosity quickly outgrowing the playpen my mother lined with blankets in the family room. They needed a bigger world, so my mother declared that the living room — a space for assembling visiting grandparents — would be transformed. My father sheathed the furniture in plastic, storing the chairs and varnished end tables in the basement.
The piano was too unwieldy to move, but its sharp corners were treacherous, wooden edges the perfect height to gash toddler foreheads. A few years earlier, I had collided with a changing table while running at a canter like a disoriented drunk.
To prevent future stitches, my father wrapped the piano in pink foam board. The foam was the same pink color as the insulation cushioning the metal ducts in our attic, the secret space my father showed me through a loft ladder he conjured on the ceiling of my mother's closet.
Sealing the piano was a sacrifice for my father. To my young ear, he was a virtuoso, a musical magician. When he played, I stood behind him, my chin just above his shoulder. I remember thinking that the keys looked like a long, smiling mouth, so much cleaner than their worn wooden frame. Before he'd start playing, I would look down toward his feet, hovering over pedals that looked to me like tarnished blown-up pennies.
My favorite song, the one I always asked him to play, was "Malagueña.” I couldn't pronounce the ñor much of the title, so whenever I requested the song, I always said Mal-uh-gain-yuh.
The piece starts with a deliberate rhythm, almost like a march. To mimic its pace, I would shuffle my feet like I was a soldier my father was calling to muster. The music grew beneath his hands, his fingers touching the piano and bouncing away like the keys were hot from sitting in the sun. Soon, his hands were far apart — the right dancing over the high notes, the left powering the song's driving momentum. Later, when I heard other versions of this song, I realized that my father built speed faster than the music called for, accelerating from allegro to presto as I bounced behind him. It was as if my watching, my responding to each note, fueled his fingers while they flew across the keys.
My mother played the piano too. Later, when we were much older, she took lessons from a woman she found on Craigslist. For almost an entire year, her last year, she worked to perfect a Chopin nocturne, Nocturne in E-flat Major op. 9, no. 2.
My mother was no virtuoso. She didn't have my father's dexterity or flair for performance, and she moved through the Chopin nocturne more slowly than the music directed. But her novice pace gave the notes more time to breathe, to soothe, the melody becoming a lullaby. She practiced that piece over and over until her mistakes vanished, notes floating in phrases.
It wasn't until after her death that I realized how often she had filled the house with Chopin. In the silence I remembered the piece, my memory a phantom sense heightened through absence.
In her last month, when Tim had grown impossibly ill, my mother would play the piano for him while he slept. She would play that Chopin piece directly below his room, trying to lift the nocturnal rhythm of his madness.
Sometimes I listen to that nocturne now. The most beautiful version I've found is on YouTube, played by Lithuanian pianist Vadim Chaimovich. The video features a single still image, Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night.
When I listen to the song, I let Van Gogh's swirling sky fill my screen. I imagine Van Gogh, mental illness haunting his life, and see psychosis as the whirlpools churning the sky around his stars.
I imagine Tim's psychosis, his nocturnal madness, and remember all the hours my mother spent at the piano trying to soothe the raging nightscape that howled in his head.