"empathy" by kygp is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

. Why do I feel the urge
to stroke the crime
as though it were my child,
to cup my hands
around the horror
and prevent it from going out?

   These words are a fragment of a poem I wrote a nearly a quarter of a century ago, after reading about the arrest of Marilyn Lemak, who had murdered her three children — ages 7, 6 and 3 — by overdosing them with prescription medication, then strangling them in their beds. The motive: Her husband was breaking up with her; he’d begun dating. After the killings, she also tried to commit suicide by overdosing and slashing her wrists, but the try failed. She called the police on herself. This was in 1999.

   Why do I feel the urge to stroke the crime as though it were my child?
The story generated an impossible scream of disbelief, horror and . . . uh oh, you may have trouble groping with the next word I’m about to say . . . empathy.

   By this I do not mean something soft and superficially caring; nor do I mean any feeling of connectedness with her, any sense of understanding, any urge to blurt: Come on, anyone might have done that. By “empathy” I mean an emotion bigger than anything I can possibly understand — an emotion both including and transcending anger and judgment, and also connecting Marilyn Lemak to the rest of humanity. How much news can I read about the wars being waged, the civilians bombed, the children lost in piles of rubble, before I go bonkers? The official actions of far too many governments include the murder of children, but, you know, abstractly. Their corpses are simply collateral damage.

Why do I feel the urge
to stroke the crime
as though it were my child,
to cup my hands
around the horror
and prevent it from going out?
Surely this small light
illuminates something:
not the perfunctory
why and how of what you did —
we know these answers
and know nothing —
but the submerged, slowly circling
and nameless what.
What permitted it?
What licensed your hand
to find the three spring buds
aspirating in their beds,
what undid your motherhood
and loosed the death angel
on your children
to pinch their noses shut
and stop the future,
  She’s still in prison, all these years later, perhaps asking herself that very question every day. So are others. What undid our humanity and unleashed so much hell on the human race? Why did — why do — we kill our children? She was on a daily dose of Zoloft at the time of the murders. Is there a collective equivalent, a shadow that stalks us? How do we escape the void that swallowed Marilyn Lemak?

Find a way to bring her
back to us, I say.
Let her walk wounded
among the living
and point at the shadow,
she who fed it
with her blood.
Let her scream out its presence
until all of us see
how close it is
and how it thrives
in the dark, hot void
of our averted eyes.

And thus I ask, so many years later, do we have wisdom equal to our flaws? Are we too terrified of forgiveness, too terrified of love, to extend it to our enemies? Or are we satisfied committing murder — and suicide — with a self-righteous smirk?

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.