A poet's grief


Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno's poetry chronicles her passage through grief after her daughter's murder.


Kathy Bonanno hurtled along a Pennsylvania highway through a hard rain. She was rushing toward the almost certain news that her beautiful, open-hearted daughter had been murdered. The first person she called from the backseat of her brother-in-law’s speeding car that day in July 2003 was the Rev. Kent Matthies, the new, young minister at her church, the Unitarian Society of Germantown in Philadelphia.

Later Bonanno turned those moments of grasping hopefulness and crushing certitude into a poem, “How to Find Out,” here capturing when the police chief met the car at her daughter’s apartment:

. . . don’t make the poor man say it;
see how human he is,
he has children of his own,
it is your job to ask:
Is she dead?

And he will nod and say yes.
And now he can never not nod.
And now he can never say no.
And now he can never not say

The poem is part of a narrative collection of forty-one poems Bonanno wrote about her journey through grief, Slamming Open the Door, winner of the 2008 Beatrice Hawley Award. Published in April 2009 by Alice James Books, the book is already in its third printing.

The night before her 21-year-old daughter was murdered, Bonanno had spoken to her by phone. Just graduated from nursing school, Leidy (pronounced Lady) had recently broken off a brief relationship with a phlebotomist she had met at the hospital where they both worked in Reading, Pennsylvania. Then she’d discovered he had been using her credit card and had stolen her Social Security number through the hospital’s employee database, which Leidy reported to his supervisor.

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

Kathleen Bonanno (© Mat Krzesiczan)

© Mat Krzesiczan

To her mother, the warning signs were clear. The ex-boyfriend, Joseph Eaddy, was very angry, both about the breakup and about the call to his boss. Leidy had also just learned that Eaddy was married. (Later the family learned Eaddy had several children and was awol from the Army. He had also told Leidy, who was born in Chile and adopted by the Bonannos, that he, too, was Hispanic, and had been rejected by his mother, both untrue.) Kathy Bonanno had pleaded with her daughter not to stay at her apartment that night. Leidy had promised she wouldn’t.

That night Eaddy came to the apartment and strangled Leidy by wrapping her telephone cord three times around her neck, a crime for which he was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

For two days Kathy and her husband, David Bonanno, frantically tried to reach Leidy by phone. After no word, the Bonannos called the police and asked them to break into the apartment, and then sped toward Reading.

Death of a child—especially a brutal, senseless death of a child—is surely one of the heaviest griefs to bear, presumptuous to imagine by anyone who hasn’t experienced it. Some readers may not want to imagine it at all. As with the daily news, what can we do but feel sorry, pained, outraged, and most of all helpless?

Yet Slamming Open the Door is no more grisly than the news, with its daily tales of murders that suck us in, curious, willingly or not. Bonanno invites us behind the numbing headlines and into her heart; into her rage at the murderer and at an insensitive trial junkie; and into her fantasy that it couldn’t be true. She shows us what it means to lose what is most dear. She plumbs what is universal about loss, so that it is impossible not to feel that yes, we do need to know, we do need to share our stories with one another, that this is about more than the horrific loss of one life.

The poems are untinged by sentimentality, so spare that a reader suspects there must be much, much more. Still, what seems most remarkable about them is how much truth she tells, how she lays bare the hard facts and emotions. She shows us the moment after the verdict, for example, when the murderer’s mother, whom she despised, came to her, Bible in hand, and said, “I am so sorry,” and the only thing she could do was embrace her “truest other sister.” She doesn’t shy away from the volatile anger of her son Luis when he learned of his sister’s murder. (The Bonannos had adopted the biological siblings when they were three and four.)

At the same time, the slightly nutty, self-deprecating, even sardonic side of Kathy Bonanno also shows up in her poems. In “What Not to Say,” she writes of standing in the receiving line at the funeral, “fat and [having] taken enough Klonopin to still an ox,” and recounts how one mourner seized the opportunity to invite her to Weight Watchers.

“I didn’t write much that would offend people, except the murderer and perhaps the defense attorney,” she says. “But that was just too delicious to leave out.”

Writing poems about her daughter’s murder was absolutely necessary, both as a poet and as a grieving mother, she tells me during a visit to Philadelphia earlier this year.

“I wanted to continue writing poems, but I couldn’t fathom that,” says Bonanno, a contributing editor of the American Poetry Review, where she met her husband, who is the coeditor. “For a long time, I could barely read a book. But for me to write any book, I had to write this book first. It was the mountain that stood in the way of the mountain.”

Within days of Leidy’s death, Bonanno wrote “Poem About Light,” which closes the book. She read the poem as her victim’s statement at Eaddy’s sentencing hearing, and her sister read it at Leidy’s memorial service. Matthies, her minister, calls it “a profound theological poem.”

For several years the few poems she wrote were all about the murder. In the summer of 2007 Bonanno, whose day job is teaching creative writing and English literature at Cheltenham High School outside Philadelphia, stayed in her pajamas till 11 each morning, writing, hoping to complete that chapter of her grief by creating a book.

“I wanted to follow the advice I give my students: to distill each poem to the fewest number of words, to not manipulate the reader, to let the story tell itself and to let the reader feel what the reader would feel.”

Kathy Bonanno’s Unitarian Univer­sal­ism has been central in weathering the tragic journey of the past six years. She freely mentions her UU beliefs, church, and minister in the poems themselves and as she promotes the book.

In “The Unitarian Society of Germantown,” she depicts the old Georgian-style stone church as “a big wooden boat” where she, her husband, and the others “wait it out together.” “I rewrote that so many times,” she says. “I’d still be rewriting it if someone hadn’t snatched it out of my hands.”

Hours after she made the backseat call to Matthies, the 300-member church swung into action, forming seven committees. Everyone wanted to help—making the funeral big and beautiful just as Kathy wanted, bringing food, walking the family’s dogs, counseling the congregation’s youth. “This is a very tight church, a very good church in terms of caring for each other,” Matthies says. “When somebody’s down, it’s all hands on deck. I felt like we were floating off the ground, with all the love that was pouring in.”

On a hot day later that July, some 500 people overflowed the sanctuary. Church members had turned the chancel into a wall of sunflowers and daisies, at its center a photo of Leidy and a walnut box holding her ashes. There was a flower communion, candles for adults, yo-yos that looked like ladybugs (Leidy’s nickname) for children, and lots of music, including Leidy’s favorites by Coldplay, Shaggy, and Savage Garden.

The openness and delicacy the church showed the family—taking cues from them about what they needed to do or hear, and never glossing over the hard truths—was a real blessing, Bonanno says. “A lot of churches would be busy applying their dogma onto our experience, even if that application hurt us, saying things like: It was her time. It was God’s will. Or she’s in a better place now,” she says. “But we’re used to ambiguity. We’re used to struggling with hard questions. The church made us feel, You can come here no matter what you’re believing this week about where Leidy’s gone. If we see you cry, we’ll let you, or maybe we’ll hug you. Or if we see you run out of the sanctuary, like I did at one child dedication, people didn’t blink an eye: We get it, and we’ll see you next week.”

The murder of a young innocent person is a punch to the gut of Unitarian Universalist theology, our very First Principle: the inherent worth and dignity of each person. A short poem called “Commu­nion” recalls the court hearing when her minister gently suggested forgiveness, someday, “because, after all, he must,” she writes. Her reaction was a visceral NO. For a long time, she admits, she wanted to kill Eaddy herself, and might have if she’d known how.

“Being a Unitarian Universalist and being a family member of a victim of violent crime are very hard things to reconcile,” she says. “There was something for me at the time that was true and right about my hatred toward this man and my desire for revenge.

“Thank God we live in society where there is redress,” she continues. “Being Unitarian Univer­salist, I don’t want to live in hatred. I do believe men in prison have the possibility of redemption here on earth. And I do feel peace and comfort in the fact that he was arrested and found guilty.”

Matthies says he believes Bonanno has found a ministry to grieving families. They are putting together a pocket prayer book for UUs who are in despair. Family and friends sang “Spirit of Life” in a stairwell during the trial, but at other times Bonanno found herself reciting the Our Father and Hail Mary. “In times of crisis you defer to what’s committed to memory. I was sad there wasn’t something UU.”

Bonanno came to Unitarian Universalism twenty-three years ago, attracted by the powerful, articulate older women she met on antiwar picket lines. Today she has turned her own activism to antiviolence and victims’ rights, speaking and holding fund-raisers for groups such as the national Parents of Murdered Children; the Berks County Women in Crisis, in Reading, “who showed up out of nowhere just when we needed them most”; and a small Philadelphia organization called Every Murder Is Real, which supports the often forgotten, often poor families of drug-related murder victims.

“My whole family, we live our days with intentionality,” she says, “trying to do good in Leidy’s name, loving in Leidy’s name.”

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Correction 11.1.09: Due to an editing error, the version of this story that appeared in the Winter 2009 issue misstated the time of day when Kathy Bonanno rushed to her daughter's apartment.