Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there.
I started these memoirs as an attempt to leave something behind for my children and my wife. Then I realized they are my legacy. For better or worse I have touched their lives simply by being a part of them, for existing near them. My legacy exists in the ones that I love the most. In their memories and the stories they tell about me. In the way they grow up and grow old and eventually leave legacies of their own.
My story isn't a pleasant one, or an easy one by any means. I've suffered, I've fought, I've bled and I've died on more than one occasion My journey has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional, and back again. But I've also lived, and thanks to a special few in my life, I've loved and been loved.
So. Being of sound mind and faculties, I present to you my life. The good and the bad. For all its worth. Before I'm too old to forget it all.
"Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there any more."
There's an ongoing debate amongst humans about whether the events surrounding a person's life shape them towards greatness, or whether greatness is born and the person influences the world around them accordingly. Although the word 'great' has been following my name for the better part of a half-century now, I can tell you with utmost certainty I was not born into greatness.
I was born on Mindoir, a human farming colony in the Attican Traverse on April 11th, 2154. Humans had only discovered mass effect physics in 2148 and my father Jack Shepard was one of the early 'pioneers' of human colonization efforts outside the Sol system. He somehow convinced my mother to leave everything behind and follow him to this unknown planet and start a completely new life, full of unknown quantities. The Systems Alliance gave him 5000 acres of untouched farming land, money to build a home, and an opportunity. My father would later tell me "a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." It was a quote from Winston Churchill. Big Jack, true to his nickname, stood at 6'3, proud and strong. My brother and I were afraid of him, but more afraid of losing his respect than anything. He was a reader. Churchill of course, but also Faulkner, and Hemmingway were some of his favourites. Jack worked hard, and he loved the feeling of satisfaction he got when he finally accomplished something. I admired him for it. I also admired my mother, Stacia Gianopoulos. She brought my older brother Jack Jr., myself, and my younger sister Stephanie into the world while she and my father were trying to start a farm on a foreign planet. They had no support network other than themselves, and I never, not once, heard them complain. Needless to say, myself and my siblings were not planned, but we were welcomed. When we were old enough to count backwards from our birthdates we quickly realized we should have been named "Anniversary, Valentines Day, and Anniversary 2." My father would always joke that he needed cheap labour and wanted to avoid transportation costs. A half truth. As soon as we were old enough, we worked. Hard.
I don't wish to compare my family to the early settlers of Earth, as farming was made exponentially easier with the advent of new equipment and technology. Jack Shepard was tasked with producing soy, an essential ingredient in almost everything these days. My mother maintained a smaller garden (in comparison to a 5000 acre field, but, she was Greek) for vegetables and fruits, and we had a small contingent of livestock so we were able to be completely self-sufficient.
There is one memory that haunts me to this day. I was 7, just a small lad, and we had a sow giving birth to a litter of piglets. I watched as my father did most of the work, showing me each piglet before placing them down, and explaining the process in great detail despite my pleas to stop. Then one of the piglets became stuck in the birthing canal. Big Jack looked at me without flinching and said, "you've got small hands, get in there boy." He stood up and forced me down and before I knew it he was shoving my hands elbow deep in the pig, and verbally guiding me as fearful tears streamed down my face. Hundreds of years of farming technology available, and it seemed there was still only one way to deal with a situation like that. I freed the piglet and birthing continued as I held the squirming animal in my hands, a little stunned that I had made that moment happen. When I calmed down Jack told me that I had saved more than one life and that made me feel a little better. We had pork for dinner.
A few years later and a few more traumatic moments behind me, Big Jack brought a tiny turkey chick home and gave it to me to keep warm and look after. I named him George. George and I became fast friends and I would often rush home after school just so I could see him. I'd try to teach him tricks that never seemed to take. I fed him, I took care of him. I loved him. Then the day came where I had to learn one of the toughest and important lessons of my life. George was bought so we could have Christmas dinner. My dad pulled me aside and explained that George was going to be slaughtered, and I was going to be the one to do it. I was 10. I led George to the shed and my dad positioned me behind my pet and gave me a knife. I would like to say something nice about the killing a turkey. I would like to say that dragging the knife across the bird's throat is an elegant, silky motion. But that is not true. The bird dies loud and messy. It gurgles and twists and makes it known it wants it all to stop. A fifty-pound turkey motivated by imminent death is strong. Too much for me to handle on my own, my dad helped me pile on top of George, holding him down while I worked the knife through his neck bone. A full minute after his head was clean off we continued to struggle against the muscles below, cautious not to bruise the bird. Finally, George went limp. I didn't cry. I had seen my brother experience something similar with his pig Petunia, and knowing my day would come, he told me "don't let dad see you cry. And don't look away. It'll all make sense after."
I stood up, mostly covered in George's blood, shaking a little bit and my dad knelt in front of me and grabbed my shoulders.
"Do you know why I had you do this?" he asked me. I had no idea why. Maybe it was to make me tougher, make me cry, perhaps some sort of punishment. I shook my head no.
"Because death is necessary for life." He told me. "George died so you could have food in your belly. He died so you could eat. So you could live."
He made me kill George not so I could be stronger, to be immune to killing. He wanted me to be sad. He wanted me to understand that sacrifice was necessary. When we ate Christmas dinner and my mom brought out George on his large platter, Big Jack gave me his coveted nod of approval as I took the first bite of George. My dinner, my sacrifice for the family. He knew I understood.
"I just don't get it. One day he's all nice to me, touching my arm, telling me how pretty my hair is, how he thinks my eyes are the greatest things he's ever seen. Then his friends show up and he turns into a total asshole."
I stared at the ground as we continued to walk down the long dirt road, kicking pebbles as I went. "I don't know if I like talking to you about this, Steph. It's weird."
"Well you're a guy. I want your opinion. And I sure as hell can't talk to J.J. about it."
"He likes you." I replied, a little annoyed that she persisted with the topic. "But again, not sure why you're telling me this."
"I'm just asking for a little friendly advice here. You're pretty much the only guy I trust with stuff like this."
"How do I go about losing that trust?" It made me uncomfortable to talk 'girl talk' with my little sister, but I was also somewhat happy she trusted enough to confide in me. We were so close in age, only 11 months apart; we were each other's best friends when we weren't busy being each other's worst enemies.
She bumped my shoulder and smiled as we made the 8-kilometer walk home from school. Weather on Mindoir was usually pleasant enough to allow us to walk year round. It saved money at the expense of time and personal comfort, but mom and dad had been "okay with that." Over time, we learned to enjoy it, it gave my sister and I time to talk away from our parents. It was also the only time we could curse without fear of being smacked hard behind the head by or dad, or chased down with soap by an angry Greek mother. We had become faster than her, though, but Big Jack was enough to scare us into behaving around the house. Jack Jr., or J.J. as we had called him, was the stereotypical, type A, athletic, handsome, all around great guy in high school you've seen in every movie you've ever hated. Steph and I had developed a sort of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' type of relationship in response to J.J's incredibly frustrating perfection. It worked for us.
He wasn't always the perfect one. Growing up, he took the traditional role of big brother very seriously when it came to 'breaking me in.' While my sister could verbally destroy any opponent she faced, my brother was a much more physical person. We'd fight, for fun and out of malice, but we'd always be friends afterward. He taught me how to jimmy open the liquor cabinet, and hot wire the tractor. He gave me my first cigarette, and totally sold me out when we got caught. My brother was my other self. My grander, sadder, braver, shrewder, uglier, slenderer self. He was my most severe judge and my fiercest defender. I looked up to him. I wanted to be him. Siblings are weird and wonderful in that you are strangers, but you inexplicably love them.
"Seriously though, John."
I sighed and threw my head back and stopped walking to emphasize my next words. "Listen to me close because I'm only going to say this once. You deserve better than that jackass."
Women do this strange thing when they want a compliment. They intentionally insult themselves, or draw attention to a perceived flaw. But they do so in such a way that they make it a question directed at whatever person is standing closest to them. They go fishing for the words they want you to say. When my sister would talk about this guy who treated her like dirt, she knew she was too good for him. But she wanted to hear it from me. You must always be on alert for the compliment fish, because if you don't catch it, you could drown.
She smiled like I knew she would and we continued our walk home. Though that memory seems small and insignificant, it was one of the last I had with my sister, and I cherish it. It made me realize how I wanted to protect her from the scum in the world, and how she trusted me to do so.
My siblings and myself had each been 'blessed' with the strong Shepard genes. We all had jet-black hair, and were built tall and strong. Broad shoulders, dark eyes, and a bit of a quick temper too. Steph had no trouble keeping up with farm duties and she often bested both J.J. and I in a lot of ways.
I remember sensing my sister would have to endure the same lesson my father had taught both J.J. and I about sacrifice and when I approached her about it she was surprisingly comfortable with it all. Big Jack wasn't going to actually subject her to it, but when he needed someone to kill one of the rabbits for dinner, she volunteered immediately. We were all shocked. Big Jack included. But he coached her through the whole process and she snapped the thing's neck like she had been doing it all her life. "Rabbits cry like babies when they're wounded", I remember her saying. "That's why you have to do it quick."
We were all afraid she'd turn into a serial killer. But it turned out she just wanted to prove she was as strong, and maybe a little stronger than her older brothers. And she was. She was my mother in so many ways, it scared us.
Despite the complete horror show that happened daily on a farm (there's a reason I've only ever owned fish since then), we all turned out relatively well adjusted mostly thanks to my mother. She was kind, nurturing, loving, and unlike Big Jack she was never afraid to show it. They were total opposites in many ways, but I think that's why they were together. My mom could melt my dad right down to butter when she wanted. She was shorter, 5'4 and though not skinny by many standards, she wasn't over weight. She was 'voluptuous' she'd say. And we'd cringe every time she said that. She made us all feel loved. In a child's eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.
It takes courage to raise children. I thank God (and the Goddess), everyday my children are much more well behaved than I ever was. We would play 'war' in the house, effectively turning our home into a battlefield, before being thrown out the door to play outside. My brother and I continuously experimented with the various chemicals around the farm in order to create the perfect flamethrower. I had no eyebrows for months. We pushed each other to our limits, effectively injuring one another in the process. An only child can never understand the delicate joys of sibling abuse. My mother seemed to be pretty immune to it all. But she knew how to discipline.
My parents had two very different approaches to anger and I have always described them thusly. My father was like a minefield. You had to be careful where you stepped around him because any sudden movements could set him off and you'd lose a limb. But once you learned to navigate, you were fine. You'd poke and prod very delicately and find the areas that made him go off, and avoid them. If you accidentally set one off, you'd bandage your wounds and keep going. We were so used to his booming voice filling the house, we adjusted.
My mother on the other hand, was like an impending nuclear war. Tension would build and build, everyone would get more and more nervous, knowing that at any moment the world could end. And then an event would occur that would cause the situation to boil over. In a minefield, the one who stepped on the mine is the one who was injured. In a nuclear blast, no one is safe. Everyone dies. And fallout lasts for a while. My mother was terrifying when this happened. We always swore that clouds would form, and flames would shoot out of the ground when she lowered her eyes, and her voice and spoke in very clear terms what was going to happen. Although a rare occurrence, the threat of my mother's boiling point was enough to make us behave, most of the time.
But even though my mother would accuse us of aging her beyond her years, we could never break her. She did everything out of love for us, and for our family. She gave up her personal goals and desires so we could have our own.
I remember her hastily making dinner one evening, slamming the cupboards like she did when she was angry. I asked her why she cooked if she hated it so much. She told me, 'I don't like or dislike the kitchen. I cook because I have to. I have to stay in the kitchen so you can all eat and go to school. How could you only do what you like? There are things you have to do whether you like it or not." Mom's expression asked, What kind of question is that? And then she murmured, "If you only do what you like, who's going to do what you don't like?"
That's the wonderfully sad thing about mothers. That even if you hate her, can't stand her, even if she's ruining your life, there's something about her, some romance, some power. She's absolutely herself. No matter how hard you try, you'll never get to her.
I think the thing I miss the most about my family is the ability to talk about them, with them. I can't turn to my brother or sister and say, "remember that time we took the tractor on a joy ride and crashed it through the fence. Only to repair the damage, fill the fuel tank, clean the thing to cover our tracks…and then take it for another spin that would finally get us caught?" And we'd laugh and have a drink remembering the look on my father's face.
I can't watch my parents dance at my wedding remembering when I was a kid, watching my dad's softness in my mothers arms as he slowly swayed and sang her 'Love me Tender' in the most hushed voice I could imagine.
They'll never meet my wife. My children. I wanted to show them that I found this beautiful woman who was perfectly willing to stand by me through literally everything I threw at her. Someone who had seen all the worst parts of me, the horrible things I've seen and done. And loved me anyway. They would have loved her and I like to think they would have been proud of me. My brother would have asked if Liara had a sister. My sister would have finally got the sister she always wanted. And our family would have become even bigger. For a long time, thoughts like these made me sad. But I know they're out there, looking down on me and my girls, protecting them, and excited to meet them thousands of years from now.
The story of their murder is not an easy one to tell. It was years before I was stable enough to even start accepting what happened. Even Liara wasn't granted access to those particular memories immediately. It took a while to let her in, because it meant having to experience them again. I lost more than my family that day. I lost myself.
On July 18th, 2170, my life was forever changed….