Despite the deaths of five of her six sons, the matriarch of the Von Erich wrestling family finds hope in living and faith in God.
JEFFERSON, Texas-Doris Adkisson knows people will want to search her story. She knows they'll be searching for something, anything she did wrong. She knows they'll want an answer so they won't make the same mistake-so their children won't die like Doris Adkisson's have.
First, Jackie, just 6 years old, perfect and healthy in every way. Electrocuted in a freak accident in 1959. Then David, a strong, rugged 24-year-old athlete, wrestling under the flamboyant name his dad made famous: Von Erich. Killed by an intestinal disease in 1984.
Then Mike, Chris, and Kerry Von Erich-wrestlers all, and each struck down by his own hand. Three suicides in six years, three more of her babies to bury.
If you want answers, Doris Adkisson will save you the trouble of reading her story. Go, she will tell you. Don't look here. Go. Look in the Book of Job. Read in the Bible about a man who did no wrong and still lost everything. His land, his livestock, his servants, his seven sons and three daughters. Reduced to sitting on a dung heap, scraping his open sores with a pottery shard, asking, "why, God, why?" Why? Because bad things happen to good people. Because bad things happen to bad people.
Because bad things happen.
Only God knows why.
"The Book of Job," says Ms. Adkisson, "is my book."
Spring has arrived none too soon for Ms. Adkisson, bringing to an end a bleak winter that took away Kerry, the fifth of her sons to die. The dogwood and forsythia have burst into bloom in this quaint East Texas town that's been her home for almost a year. In her yard, a brown thrasher is building a nest, and two cardinals are noisily courting in the trees.
The sky is clear, the breeze warm, and on this day, all that Doris Adkisson wants is "my own dirt" so she can plant again. If her house didn't belong to someone else-she's been renting it for the past several months-she'd be outside on her knees, putting in bulbs and young plants.
It's a small yearning, smaller than anyone would expect of a mother who has lost all but one of her children. But then again, how could anyone know what to expect after something so unimaginable has happened?
Just the other day, says Ms. Adkisson, who is 60, she finally heard the story that's been floating around this tiny town; about how she was spending every day and night, sitting at a window, alone and pining.
Ms. Adkisson laughs. Yes, she's been doing a lot of sitting at that window. "This house gets so cold," she says, "it's the only room I can keep warm." It's a cozy little breakfast nook that she's turned into a TV room, with a day bed and a small space heater. The people who spread the story aren't friends of Ms. Adkisson's and probably don't know much more about her than the showy careers of her ex-husband and sons and the family's very public tragedies. And there is so much more to know; all the days of joy and miracles, the fierce love for her children that spans the chasm between life and death, and most of all, her Job-like faith-a faith so powerful that it can embrace a God that could have stopped the relentless assault of tragedy.
"I am convinced of heaven," she says. "The more tragedy that hits, the more heavenward I look. I think that happens to everyone who's a Christian."
If only that were true, says her friend of 30 years, Ann Forester. "The one thing Doris has had is the strength that has come over and over in her faith," says Ms. Forester, a Christian counselor in Dallas. "It's nothing mystical. It's nothing ethereal. It's very real-very practical and real. Then she acts on it. So many of us don't trust God enough to act on it."
Ms. Adkisson used to be one of those people. She remembers what it was like to be one of those "Sure, I'm a Christian" Christians who show up at church for baptisms, weddings, and Easter. Those days started back in the late 1940s, when she was Doris Smith, a Dallas schoolgirl, a student at Woodrow Wilson High who "was carefree, with all those dreams getting married, getting a job, maybe," she recalls. "I wanted to start out as an airline stewardess for the travel. I wanted to know what the world was like." Never a thought about motherhood, she says, and certainly not about the life she had by her 20s-bumping along two-lane blacktops, crisscrossing the country, the wife of a professional wrestler.
She had married Jack Adkisson, a football standout at Southern Methodist University, when she was 17. His injuries quickly stalled a career in pro football, so he turned to the rough-and-tumble morality play of wrestling. There have always been good and bad guys, and Jack Adkisson was the baddest of the bad-a fictional Nazi who called himself Fritz Von Erich. From one place to the next, he wrestled with a ferocity that fans loved to hate.
"New York, Alberta, Illinois," Ms. Adkisson says, trying to recount the blur of places they lived for only a few months at a time. "St. Louis, Des Moines, Minneapolis, back to New York, Houston."
At first, they lived in cheap motels, including one that, after several days, she realized was a brothel. Eventually, the young couple bought a trailer. Eight feet wide. Thirty-seven feet long. The closest thing to a home they could afford. It was an unusual life, but in many ways it was exactly what almost every other young woman was doing back in the 1950s-being a wife, becoming a mother, and always staying in the background. "I went right from being Mommy and Daddy's little girl," she says, "to being Fritz's wife."
She started having sons in 1952. First Jack Jr., then Kevin in '57, then David in '58. She discovered that she loved being a mom. Or maybe it was more than love. Motherhood seemed to define her. To this day, it is still at the core of who she is.
"She played a lot more important role in the family than most people know," says Kevin Adkisson, now 35, her sole surviving son. "My dad was the provider, the role model. My mother, she gave us what we needed. The consideration. She loved us so much."
The first death still rivets Ms. Adkisson. Such an incomprehensible death. A little boy. An exposed power line. A chance touch. A sudden, fatal shock.
As she recounts the story, her eyes dart, focusing on the past, completely transported back to that time. Her husband is on the road. She is alone, at the hospital, and no one has the courage to tell her what has happened.
"I said to the doctor, 'Is he going to be all right?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Well, how bad off is he?' He said, 'About as bad off as you can be'…Finally, he said, 'He's dead'-and I passed out. When I woke up, I was convinced it was a horrible nightmare. It was so crazy."
She still was on unfamiliar terms with God-talking to Him, but not knowing how to listen. "Right after Jackie died, I went out in the yard and said, 'God, send me a sign that he's in heaven.' But I knew I shouldn't have asked, and I immediately apologized."
The boy's death made the Adkissons long to end their nomadic life, to make a stable home for their family. They returned to Texas for good. Mr. Adkisson began wrestling around Dallas and traveling alone. Ms. Adkisson had more sons to raise. Kerry in 1960, Mike in '64, Chris in '69.
Somewhere along the way, as Fritz became more famous, the line between Adkisson and Von Erich became blurred. The boys got into fights with kids who wanted to whip a Von Erich. A teacher once scolded Chris that he "had not earned the Von Erich name." The notoriety turned the boys inward, making them more close-knit, more reliant on one another.
Ms. Adkisson relishes those times together, when she and her sons would tease one another, laugh, play. That there were good times is undeniable; the evidence is in Ms. Adkisson's face, where lines have been deeply etched by her smile and laughter.
Growing up, all the sons had a wry, off-the-wall sense of humor. They were all boisterous, adventuresome, athletic-anything they wanted to be on a big stretch of ranch land they called home just north of Dallas.
Life was getting better, except that, Ms. Adkisson says, there was still an empty place inside her that no amount of good fortune could fill.
She prayed. She searched the Scriptures. She searched her soul. One epiphany arrived on four legs. Her name was Katie, and she was the pregnant milk cow that Ms. Adkisson had asked her husband to buy. A year after Katie had her calf, though, she still hadn't weaned her baby. Ms. Adkisson didn't know that was hurting the cow until a neighbor told her.
"We had to separate them," she recalls. "I put Katie out in the pasture, and I locked up her calf in the barn. And they bawled. The little calf cried for its mother. And the mother cried for her calf. It was heartbreaking. I went out and said, 'Katie, this is not something I'm doing to hurt you. And it's not forever. It's going to be a short time.' I said, 'Katie, I wish you could understand my words, but I guess my mind is higher than yours.' And suddenly, it dawned on me, that's Scripture. 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.' Isaiah 55. It starts at Verse 8. The Scripture just came into my mind, and I had a really warm feeling. That was what God was telling me about Jackie. He couldn't explain it to me, but it was not to harm me."
Though she couldn't have known it at the time, this revelation was to become the armor that would gird her for the tragedies yet to come.
She says she didn't raise her sons to be wrestlers. She'd tried to show them there were other things in the world-music lessons, even ballroom dancing. But one by one, they gravitated toward athletics. As a son would follow his father into medicine or politics, so did she see her children entering the family business.
And then the family business changed.
TRAGEDY ON TRAGEDY
By the early 1980s, Kevin, David, and Kerry Von Erich were attracting a whole new generation of fans to wrestling. The three brothers were the good guys, and no wrestler before them had ever had it so good. Overnight, it seemed, they were teenage idols, regularly mobbed by fans. Thousands turned out for public appearances; hundreds of thousands watched their televised matches. "I had no idea it was going to skyrocket," Ms. Adkisson says. "I didn't expect the boys to shoot into this star thing. It was like riding a shooting star. You have no idea when it will stop. But it will stop."
The first tragedy that yanked the family back to earth was David's death in 1984. While in Japan on a wrestling tour, he collapsed and died of an undetected inflammation of the intestine. Somehow to fans, the death made the Von Erichs more heroic. For a time, the crowds continued to gather. But then, year by year, interest in the sport waned, business squabbles grew and, for the Adkissons, tragedy piled on tragedy.
First, Mike contracted toxic shock syndrome after a routine shoulder operation in 1985. His fever spiked to 107 degrees, and doctors gave up hope. A circle of family and friends prayed-deep, gut-wrenching prayer-and Mike pulled back from the verge of death. Ms. Adkisson considers it a God-given miracle.
After the toxic shock," she says, "I'd take Mike's sweet face in my hands and say, 'Oh, God, I'm glad you're alive.'
The blessing lasted less than two years. Ravaged by the infection, depressed by his slow recovery, Mike Adkisson, at age 23, took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1987. He left a note: "Dear Mom, you've always been wonderful. I'm in a better place, and Dave and I will be watching."
Chris was next. The youngest and smallest of the sons, he had suffered from severe asthma since infancy. He desperately wanted to be like his brothers, though, and so he wrestled. He wrestled until his body inevitably failed him. In 1991, the 21-year-old man put a gun to his head.
On February 4 of this year, faced with a failing marriage, mounting debts, and a prison sentence for a cocaine conviction, Kerry, too, shot himself. That afternoon at a Dallas restaurant, the 33-year-old wrestler had scribbled on a paper tablecloth: "Tonight, I walk with my brothers."
As Ms. Adkisson talks of David's death, Mike's death, Chris' death, Kerry's death, the eyes dart and she is back in the midst of her pain once again.
"I get through what needs to be done," she says, recounting her reaction to each death. "As the pain-the sudden, wrenching pain of the loss, as it goes up and crushes my heart-I think, hold up, hold up. There are things to do. I need to find my children. I need to tell my children."
TIDAL WAVES OF DESPAIR
After David died, she remembers bringing her four surviving sons together. "I broke the news to them as gently as I could," she says. "We all stayed together and cried."
And then she went off to grieve alone. She went to a secluded place, and she filled the quiet with a wail, a mother's wail. "I just let it out, crying to God," she says. "When your heart is breaking, it can take your breath away. The pain is so intense that you just gasp for breath."
She repeated this grim exercise-telling her children, then finding her own place to grieve-after Mike's death, after Chris' death.
After Kerry's death, "there was no one else but Kevin. There were no more children to tell."
Each death has brought a new task, a new time to deal with grief upon grief upon grief. Each has been harder to take than the last. Each has also prepared her for the next.
"In a way, it's five times worse," she says about her coping with Kerry's death. "In another way, its comforting. I know what to expect. I know how empty my arms will feel. I know I'll have that fear of forgetting his face. I know the process of grief. I know what will come next-the tidal waves of despair and helplessness and pain oh, God, my baby is gone.
Then the tidal waves will be less and less. Slowly, they don't come as often, and they're less painful, and you're able to put them aside. I'm in different stages for each one. I still grieve for my 6-year-old. None of them you get over."
With the suicides, in particular, she has had to deal with the complexity of the why's. "There really aren't any words (to explain suicide)," she says. "Then again, there's no room for all the words."
She now knows that, among other people, there is a predisposition to suicide. "Somehow, it is almost like a contagious disease. Somewhere in your soul, there's a little seed that says, 'Here's an alternative.' When that seed gets planted, that's the bad thing." Just as her children were all different, so were the suicides. "In each of my children's case," she says, "there is a circumstance that pushed them past that (breaking) point."
Mike's note, she says, wasn't an apology. "He was convinced he was going to a better place." Chris' suicide, she believes, was only half-hearted. "I think he was toying with an idea when the gun went off. I didn't feel like the note he left was written with conviction."
Kerry's problems, she knew, were piling up far faster than expedient solutions. "Things were not going to get better, and he was too tired to laugh them off. He put off looking for options until the options began fading away."
In dealing with each suicide, she also has had to work through her feelings of guilt. "It's not that I blame myself," Ms. Adkisson says, "but I think, could I have done something differently?"
A GOOD MOTHER
In her heart, says her friend, Ann Forester, Ms. Adkisson knows she was a good mother. "I talked to her probably three hours after Kerry's death," Ms. Forester recalls. "I just said, 'Doris, you are a good mother.' And she said, 'I know that.' You knew that she had bared her heart before God and come away with the sense that she'd done the best she could."
Once past the guilt, yet another question has awaited Ms. Adkisson: why didn't any of her sons come to her for help? In time, she says, she has come to realize that "the reasons they're hurting are the ones they can't talk to you about. They (suicide victims) actually believe they're sparing you the pain." Or they have tunneled into their own despair so deeply that they can overlook the pain their death may cause. Ms. Adkisson says she talked to Kerry, in particular, about the pain of losing a son. "Kerry knew my feelings," she says, "but the other thing was bigger."
Reason enough, it would seem, for Ms. Adkisson to be angry, yet she will not bow to that emotion. Ms. Forester says her friend has done the hardest thing for a mother to do. She has let go of her children to live their own lives, to do as they will-even if that means taking their own lives.
"I don't see that they took anything from me," Ms. Adkisson says. "I understand the feelings that make you do things you wouldn't do ordinarily. I understand how they loved me, and what they did wasn't done to harm me."
It's a treacherously narrow path she has maneuvered, between the guilt and the anger. But she doesn't think that its any feat. There are worse pains to endure than hers, she says. The pain of a child's murder, for instance-"to me, I can't imagine what that pain would be like, that someone jerked away that life. My sons' lives weren't stolen from them."
I STILL LOVE LIFE
Today, in her drafty, rented house, Doris Adkisson is at peace. Ann Forester says that's not hard to see. "If a woman is ever at a point where she's really content," Ms. Forester says, "I think Doris is, even in grief."
It is a whole new chapter for Doris Adkisson now, unfettered by a strained marriage that finally broke last year under the weight of the tragedies. To Ms. Adkisson, the end of her 42-year marriage wasn't so much a divorce as a declaration of independence. She moved to Jefferson to start anew, to answer the question, "What do I want to do with my life?"
She likes living alone. She also likes the fact that her son, Kevin, and his family are only a few minutes away. She doesn't think twice when someone asks in passing, "How are you doing?" "I'm doing good," she says. "I'm doing good."
There are grandchildren to adore. There's a house, originally bought for Kerry, that she's going ahead and refurbishing. There is her passion for antique hunting. There are her plans to learn more about the stock market, to go back to the oil painting she once took up, to find a home of her own with her own dirt.
And, yes, there is joy. There is laughter.
"As much as I know the Lord, as much as I know there's a Heaven, and as much as I know my kids are there, I still have the instinct to do. I still love life."
And when the pain comes, as it does with regularity, she asks God, "Can you take away any of it…just for a little while?" God does, she says, every time.
Every night, as she has done for years, she recites her prayers and reads her Scripture. It may not give her answers, but it gives her understanding.
Her hope and promise she finds in Isaiah 49: "Lift up your eyes and look around; all your sons gather and come to you. 'As surely as I live,' declares the Lord, 'you will wear them all as ornaments; you will put them on, like a bride.'
Doris Adkisson knows those words were written just for her. She remembers how it feels to have her sons' arms wrapped around her. Someday she will wear them all again.