While researching the shooting death of her stepfather, Megan Michelson discovered what it means to be a good parent.
Fifteen years after my stepdad was killed, I went looking for the answers. I wanted to know exactly how he died in the hopes that it might bring me closure and a long-awaited sense of peace. But somehow, in the process, I found something I wasn’t expecting: I learned what makes a man a good father.
From when I was 4 years old until I was 13, I had two dads. The first one, my biological dad, Steve, who remains to this day my one and only father. The second one, my stepdad, Jerry, who married my mom when I was 6, just two years after my parents divorced. When I was 13, Jerry was shot and killed in a physical altercation with a man he knew. That man ended up getting released from custody after the courts decided he acted on self-defense, a decision I never fully accepted or understood.
So last summer, for a story for Outside magazine, I went on a mission to lift the black cloud that surrounded Jerry’s death, a topic my family avoided discussing. I went back to the place where he was killed, a remote kayaking lodge in northern California. I interviewed my mother extensively about her relationship with Jerry and the circumstances of his death. And perhaps most difficultly, I met JD, the man who, on February 18, 1995, shot Jerry in the forehead with a hollow point bullet.
Throughout the process, I looked through family photo albums from the years mom and Jerry were married, I read journal entries my mom wrote during that time, and I watched home videos on dusty VHS tapes that documented our newly formed family’s adventures on river trips around the West. I came to remember the happy moments of life with Jerry, when he and my mom first fell for each other from within the seats of whitewater kayaks and when he began to love my sister, brother, and me as his own children.
My dad, Steve, is smart and gentle, and the kind of father who repeats life lessons passed down from his Jewish mother (“Many hands make light work,” he’ll say when the sink is full of dirty dishes). Today, he is the best dad I could ask for, present but not smothering, inquisitive but not judgmental. But since my parents divorced when I was 4 and my sister and I went to live with mom several hours away, my dad was forced to father me from a distance. And the gap my dad left vacant, Jerry quickly filled.
Jerry taught me to throw a softball pitch, make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich, and pick out our dog from the pound. He always wanted kids of his own, but instead he got us. And he embraced the opportunity to be a father.
For mom and Jerry’s honeymoon, they bused 14 of our family members to Otter Bar Kayak Lodge, the place they met in 1986 and ultimately, the place were Jerry’s body would be found in the doorway of a private residence on the property. In a home video shot during their honeymoon in 1989, it shows me, age 6, sitting in a kayak in a pond. “Did you go boating today, Megan?” Jerry asks me from behind the camera. I had gone down the river that day in a raft, clinging to the ropes with all my might, but I went along with Jerry’s playfulness. “Yeah, I kayaked,” I said. “How did you handle that big rapid? Straight down the middle?” Jerry asked. “Yeah, straight down the middle,” I laughed.
When I was 8, Jerry put me in the front end of a two-person whitewater kayak with him at the helm. Sealed in by elastic spray skirts, we practiced rolling in case a wave train tipped us upside-down. I was petrified at the thought of being stuck breathless underwater, but Jerry promised to keep me safe. “Just hold your breath and keep your head down,” he said, bracing me for the roll. “We’ll be back up in a second.” Miraculously, the thrill of it all exhilarated me. I didn’t know it then, of course, but in that moment, Jerry changed the direction of my life, instilling in me a deep-seeded need to find adventure in the natural world.
But Jerry had a dark side, too. And in reporting on his death for Outside, I came to understand more about his depression, his alcoholism, and the physical and verbal abuse he put my mom through. I learned, for the first time, the horrific details of the incident that ended his life, one brought on by long-standing resentment and enough alcohol to provoke Jerry’s inner rage.
Jerry and my mom owned a cabin next door to Otter Bar and on that night in February 1995, Jerry walked next door to where JD was caretaking the property. He picked a fight with JD, who was known for carrying a .357, and after JD called 911, the argument escalated, turning physical. The entire thing is caught on a 911 recording: JD repeatedly asks Jerry to leave, there is shoving and kicking and breaking of doors, and then the phone goes dead. Two minutes later, JD calls 911 again and says, “Send a coroner.” He shot Jerry between his eyes because, according to JD, he was afraid for his own life.
Jerry’s temper and tendency to start fights were no surprise to our family. After he died, my mom wrote about her arguments with Jerry in a journal. When did the fights start? I cannot remember. What were any of the fights about? I cannot recall. But as time went on Jerry’s voices spoke louder to him. He began to sink into that dark hole of depression that swallows up your soul. The arguments would continue into the night. I had another bedroom set up in the house that I could escape to. In the morning I would ask him, “Why did we have such a bad fight last night?” And he would answer that he had been drinking.
Jerry may have been blemished, cursed by a depression that manifested itself deep in his bones, but he wasn’t a monster. One time, during a terrible fight between him and my mom, I tiptoed into their bedroom and asked him if he wanted to play cards. “Rummy?” I said, trembling. Just seeing me immediately calmed him down, tension dripping out of the muscles in his face. “You always had a calming effect on him,” my mom says now.
To this day, I grimace from confrontation because of the emotional scars Jerry’s temper left on my family. But looking back at the years Jerry played a role in my life, I know more than ever that he was a decent man. Not a perfect one, by any means. But one who did the best he could. One whose life ended abruptly and tragically. Just days before he died, Jerry wrote a note to my mom that ended like this: “Let us put all our troubles behind us. The new, improved Jerry wants peace, love, and kindness, especially with you.”
I was worried that in researching Jerry’s death, I would learn ugly facts about him, traits that might taint my memory of him. And truthfully, I did get a closer glimpse of his dark side, but most of all, I remembered the good times. What did this process teach me about fatherhood? It’s simple. Your child will eventually learn that you’re not perfect, that nobody is perfect. But the good things a father does for his child will make a greater impression on them and who they become than any of the bad stuff, which will eventually fade over time.
Regardless of the problems he and my mom had—and the problems Jerry himself had—I know now that Jerry was a good dad, an adventurous, spirited man who taught me to cherish the mountains and rivers. Now, at age 29, I am my happiest back-country skiing, kayaking, mountain biking. Jerry taught me, even in his death, that in order to live life to its fullest, you have to take risks. He showed me that in order to appreciate the air around us, you sometimes have to flip everything upside-down, hold your breath, and hope that the light of day returns.
—Photo courtesy of Megan Michelson