How does a parent endure a child's murder? Does the pain ever abate? Does the conviction of the murderer help? Does time -- in this case a year since the end of the trial and almost 14 years since the murder -- ease the pain?
All these questions I wanted to ask Lesley Parrott, mother of 11-year-old murder victim Alison Parrott. But could I summon the strength? The gall?
I needn't have worried.
There is an otherworldliness about Ms. Parrott, which is not to say she is remote. Quite the opposite. She is warm and approachable, motherly in the casual way she plunks herself down on a plush striped sofa that faces a large window overlooking Lake Ontario in her downtown Toronto office at MacLaren McCann advertising agency. The steady gaze of her eyes suggests a rare equanimity. It's the look of someone who knows something or has seen something most people never will.
"Grief is the loneliest experience imaginable," she confides at one point. She went through a stage in which she asked herself, "Do I even want to survive it?" That process of grieving, of struggling to figure out why she should try to survive it, is what you see in her eyes, and it draws you to her, not out of pity but out of admiration.
"I can never have again a deep, abiding sense of peace and joy," she says plainly, her blue eyes calm and knowing. "That went and will never come back. The minute I come close, when I'm working in the garden or something, I'm always brought up short, because the sense of loss, of missing Alison, is always there." She thought she might feel better a year after the end of the trial, she says, but "there is no closure and I was never really looking for it." It is not only the 11-year-old Alison she misses, but also the young woman she would have become. "In this business, I am surrounded by young women who are the age Alison would be now," she says.
It is from that place on the other side of unmitigated joy and peace that she can calmly say "one of the gifts is that my mortality is no longer an issue." She used to be afraid of flying. She no longer is.
After Alison's death, she and her husband of 32 years, Peter, a civil engineer, tried to have another child. But they never conceived.
Ms. Parrott, 53, who is senior vice-president of broadcast production at the agency and newly appointed head of training for creative staff, will always represent the vulnerability all parents feel. Things happen to our children no matter how much we love and try to protect them. She and her husband had "a sense of having it all" back in the eighties, before tragedy struck in the summer of 1986. She was 40, three years into a big job as head of production at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. They had two children, Alison, and a younger child, Calum; a farm outside Toronto; a house in midtown Toronto. "We were ordinary in the nicest possible way," she says.
In July, 1986, Alison was lured from the Parrott's home by a man who identified himself as a photographer for a small newspaper. He asked her to come to Varsity Stadium for a shoot and interview to promote a track meet in New Jersey. She was alone that summer morning with the family's cleaning woman, who spoke little English. She phoned her mother at work. Assuming the photography session involved the whole track team, Ms. Parrott gave her consent. Alison was raped and murdered. Her body was found two days later in Kings Mill Park.
Alison's murder has become public legend. She marked the city's loss of innocence and, to a generation of boomer parents, in the diaper stage of creating the boomlet, her murder was a shock.
What is most remarkable about Ms. Parrott's ability to overcome her grief is the lack of bitterness she feels. "I never thought the world was a horrible place even at the depth of [my pain]" she says in her Scottish burr, without a moment's hesitation. "It may have been a horrible place for me but, at heart, I've always been an optimist and a people person and I didn't, throughout, lose my faith in humanity. In fact, I came to need it and depend upon it a lot more."
She calls Alison's murder "a flash of lightning, a manifestation of evil." Again, as she says that, she turns to me with her calm, steady gaze.
I have interviewed many people over the years, but no one who has accomplished what Lesley Parrott has -- the staring down of evil -- with so little fanfare. "She never uses it. She never lords it over other people," observes Rick Davis, executive vice-president of Turbulence Communications, a sister company of MacLaren McCann. "There is such emotional surety and strength in Lesley," adds Doug Lowe, senior vice-president of human resources and broadcast at Young & Rubicam. "She has never felt sorry for herself."
The "humanity" she speaks of came from many people -- her husband, son (he was 8 when his sister died), many friends, and colleagues in the advertising industry. This is also a story about a caring corporate culture. "Lesley has always been someone people could turn to. The industry coming forward to help her is a reflection of her personal and professional contributions," says Susan Rich, a freelance writer and former group creative head at J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency where Ms. Parrott worked at the time of the tragedy.
Immediately after the murder, JWT arranged for her parents to fly over from Scotland. Later, they sent Lesley and Peter to Australia where his elderly parents lived. The pair was also sent to Japan to visit Lesley's sister, Marian. A national streetproofing organization program, Stay Alert Stay Safe, that distributes materials to the community, was founded by Ms. Parrott and other members of the industry. Bereaved Families of Ontario, of which Ms. Parrott is a board member, has also received industry support. Last year, she was honoured with the YWCA Greater Toronto Women award for communications and community service.
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Ms. Parrott says her Christian background helped her focus on what is good in life. On the wall next to her desk is a card Alison made for her in the March before she died. "Mom, you are the greatest," it reads. Next to it is a sheet with Ms. Parrott's favourite hymn that begins, "My God, I thank Thee, who hast made/ The Earth so bright,/ So full of splendour and of joy/ Beauty and light;/ So many glorious things are here/ Noble and right." She put it there just before the trial.
For a decade, Ms. Parrott kept the pressure on Toronto police to find Alison's murderer. Last year, Francis Carl Roy was sentenced to life in prison for raping and strangling the child. DNA evidence sealed the conviction. A few months after the trial ended, Ms. Parrott took a 15-week leave of absence from work. "I simply collapsed," she says. "All the adrenalin that had kept me going just left my body." Still, she says she was "always very focused on grieving, not on revenging." MacLaren McCann executives sent a basket to her home filled with gifts, including sunglasses and "enough money for a luxury vacation."
I ask her what pulled her from the depth of grief. (Earlier, she had told me that both her parents, David and Dora Orr, died prematurely because of "incredible grief" over their granddaughter's murder.) "There were small nudges," she explains, then gives a few examples. On one of her worst days in the months following the murder, her son came to her bedside to comfort her. She was weeping and she told him she was sorry he had to see her that way. He handed her a cold facecloth. "That's okay," he told her. "You're a Mom."
Another "transforming moment" was on the first anniversary of Alison's death. She was walking with Calum beside Georgian Bay, north of Toronto. "Her pain is over," he said as they were talking about the murder. "She left it all behind for us."
Her work helped her, too. After the murder, she was back in her office within two weeks. "At least professionally I was whole," she explains. But it wasn't until she could experience spring without feeling angry -- "The freshness and beauty of it was very painful" -- that she knew she was healed. Her love of gardening began five years ago.
One feels, however, in every sentence Ms. Parrott speaks an undertow of sadness, tugging relentlessly at her determined stance. "Are you phoning because it is the one-year anniversary of the end of the trial?" she asked when I called. (That anniversary, out of weird coincidence, is today.) It was not what prompted me to call. I was simply curious, as one parent to another, to know how she has coped. Her observance of dates relating to Alison's death and life partly answers that question.
"One thing I do know," she told me as the interview came to an end. "I will die sooner because of this grief." She said it as calmly as you or I might ask for a cup of tea.