BOULDER, Colo. –
Today, a sculpture of an eagle spreads its sheet-metal wings in the branches of a ponderosa pine in Janet Graaff’s Boulder County back yard. Leading to the majestic bird is a meditative path that has helped Graaff accept her new reality: life without her son.
“We had a soul connection,” Graaff said of 21-year-old David Parrish, who was fatally shot one year ago by would-be robbers in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “For me, healing is accepting fully that he is in spirit form.”
A year later, Graaff is a changed woman â weathered by the storm that hit her life when the University of Colorado student died March 26, 2008. But, Graaff said, she’s gotten used to feeling her son’s presence instead of seeing his face. Like an eagle, she said, David had broad vision and perspective.
“David is still very much alive,” she said. “As a reference and an anchor; a guiding light and an inspiration.”
As a full cycle of seasons, holidays and birthdays have passed since Parrish’s death, his family and friends have grappled with their grief in different ways. And, although the suspected gunman remains at large, both Graaff and Parrish’s father say that honoring their son’s spirit is more important than seeing justice for his killers.
Graaff has found several ways to help manage her grief: She’s returned four times to the place in Mexico where her son spent his last day; undergone massage therapy focused on the nervous system; and taken supplements when she couldn’t find the appetite to eat.
David’s father, Steve Parrish, said he’s managed his heartache with the support of his partner, Ann Harris, and a book suggested to him by a friend.
“There’s no road map for how any of us go through this,” Parrish said. “But the deep emotional sways have dampened, and I’m in dull-ache mode most of the time.”
‘Maybe he’s got a second chance’
Graaff and David went to Mexico last spring to buy a vacation home in the town of Sayulita â a picturesque fishing village north of Puerto Vallarta. They were closing on the home the day David died, and Graaff said her son that morning insisted they name the house. He wanted to use the Spanish word for “moon,” and suggested “Casa Luna e Sol,” Graaff said.
She said two would-be robbers spotted her later that day at a bank in Puerto Vallarta, and police later discovered the men watched the mother and son eat lunch and followed them to a furniture store.
“David and I are both seasoned travelers, and I was taking all the precautions,” Graaff said. “But we were up against an unusual situation. This wasn’t an ordinary pick-pocketing. It was a professional job. We were staked out.”
When Graaff left the furniture store, the men jumped her and demanded her bag. David ran to her rescue, a fight ensued and a gun fired. David was less than 20 yards from a hospital and in emergency care within minutes, Graaff said.
“But there was nothing the doctors could do,” she said.
She said she’s grateful for the hospital staff’s kindness, as well as the friends and strangers who helped her through those first few days, and have “understood that grief is not a short-term thing.”
Two suspects were arrested, but one of them â believed to be the killer â posed as another inmate and escaped from a Puerto Vallarta jail. Alfonso Ramirez Sastre remains at large, according to the U.S. General Consulate in Mexico.
Graaff said she can live with that.
“Maybe he’s got a second chance,” she said.
She said she believes the right man is in jail. Based on police reports, Graaff said, it appears that Daniel Vargas Castaneda was the one who planned the attack. In previous criminal operations, according to police, he tracked victims and procured partners to help rob them.
“He was the ringman,” she said. “He bought the gun.”
Graaff said she thinks Sastre “was an unwitting accomplice.”
“When I looked him eye to eye, he was terrified of what he had done,” Graaff said. “He was not a hardened criminal.”
Initially, Graaff said, she tried to negotiate a sit-down meeting with Sastre, should he be captured. Graaff said she wanted to tell him, face to face, that she forgives him.
“To get on with one’s life,” she said, “one needs to do it.”
‘A full cycle of events’
David’s father said he has thought very little about the man who killed his son.
“But I go very few hours without thinking about David,” Parrish said, adding that the memories have become a comfort to him.
After watching her son die, Graaff said, she was told she might go through five stages of grief. But she didn’t.
“It felt like, within hours, I was right there with acceptance,” she said, adding that she’s still had to endure an extensive personal healing process that includes holistic therapy and community support.
Days after returning to Colorado, Graaff wrapped herself in a purple shawl and walked into St. John’s Episcopal Church for her son’s packed public memorial service. Guests stayed for hours at a reception festooned with her son’s photographs and collection of shoes.
In the weeks following the memorial, Boulder’s StarHouse held a rose ceremony to remember David; Jewish friends encouraged Graaff to read the Kaddish â a prayer said as part of mourning rituals; and a Buddhist friend accompanied Graaff to her son’s crypt to read the Tibetan book of the dead.
Graaff said she can affirm the notion that bereaved parents need at least one year to mourn. It has to do, she said, “with going through a full cycle of events and anniversaries as a family, but now without a key member.”
Holidays are the “toughest,” she said. On David’s birthday, friends and family members shared stories and pictures. In the summer, about 30 friends â including David’s college roommates â walked the eagles’ path on Graaff’s property and left him written messages.
David’s father and sister, in part, have dealt with their grief by creating a nonprofit company: Soles4Souls. The organization sells flip-flops, created in David’s memory, and for every pair sold, two pairs of shoes are sent to people in Africa.
“As a bereaved parent, our biggest challenge is to keep the memory alive,” Parrish said.
That’s not been too hard in his home. Parrish said he and his partner are constantly reminded of David when they order less pizza than they would have, call for David’s dog, Tasha, or fill out March Madness brackets.
“There’s a wish to be able to ask questions and exchange ideas or just hang,” he said.
Although it’s been a “tough year,” Parrish said he recently took a major step in the healing process.
“A different sense came to me,” he said. “It was a little bit of joy and a whole bunch of peace. It was a feeling I haven’t had before.”
Parrish said he had hoped there would be joy down the road.
“But I actually touched it,” he said.
‘What an incredible opportunity it all is’
This spring, when CU seniors line up to accept their diplomas, Parrish said he’ll be in the audience to celebrate the day his son was supposed to graduate.
“That will tug on me,” he said.
The what-ifs, he said, are a big part of the sadness. David was a gifted photographer with a girlfriend and lots of dreams.
“What could he have done with some of that?” Parrish said.
One of David’s childhood friends, Max Taffet, 21, said he’s struggled with the notion that he and his peers are moving on with their lives while David is forever “fixed” at age 21. David was into photography and travel when he died, Taffet said.
“But I know that my own passions change and come and go,” he said.
Part of David’s legacy will be heroism for saving his mother. But, Graaff said, she has “mixed feelings about” her son’s final act.
“A mother wants to protect her son as much as a son wants to protect his mother,” she said, adding that she wavers between feelings of failure, “because I didn’t protect him,” and gratitude.
“He was there for me in this role as a knight in shining armor,” Graaff said. “But it’s much deeper than that.”
Graaff said David’s death has made her more spiritual.
“His story has a Christ-like quality,” she said. “That your love is so pure that you are prepared to give up your life for someone you love.”
And she now sees life through David-tinted lenses that offer a renewed perspective on what really matters. Her son, she said, has taught her something in his death that she believes he grasped in his life.
In a letter to his girlfriend, David once wrote, “Be conscious of what an incredible opportunity it all is.
“What’s important is the time you spend with people… . The human element (soulful interactions and connections) is the most valuable part of this life experience.”