A decade ago, Mary Rondeau Westra's life was nearly as bright as her son Peter's.
Living on the shore of White Bear Lake in Dellwood, Westra enjoyed her two jobs: raising money for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts when she wasn't taking care of her three kids.
Peter, her only son and middle child, was gregarious, smart, good-looking and athletic. He scored a perfect 800 on his math SAT, was a charismatic leader of the cross-country ski team at St. Paul Academy, went on to Middlebury College in Vermont and, by 24, had landed a $125,000-a-year investment banking job at Deutsche Banc in London.
Peter came home to celebrate his grandmother's 90th birthday in July 2001 and, on his way back to England, stopped in Philadelphia for his college buddy's pre-wedding bachelor weekend. He played mini-golf, rode a go-kart, went out to dinner. Hours later, Peter was dead on the sidewalk outside the Naked City strip joint in Atlantic City, beaten to death by a bouncer who would spend seven years in prison.
"We had this perfect little life all wrapped up, like nothing bad is ever going to happen here," said Mary, who is now 65 and lives with her husband, Mark, in White Bear Lake. "Well, try having your son murdered, drunk and on the pavement."
For years, including sitting through the heart-wrenching trial of the bouncer, Mary wrote in her journals to help ease her grief. Now, after years of writing classes, writing groups and hard work, Westra's memoir -- "After the Murder of My Son" -- has been published by North Star Press of St. Cloud.
"Peter was such a bubbly, outgoing person and I'm so glad Mary has written this book, even though it's something we're uncomfortable talking about," said Mickey Scott, Peter's former high school ski coach.
Scott organizes the annual and popular Peter Westra Sprints high school ski event every December to honor him. To this day, Scott has kept a 15-year-old hand-written note from Peter, urging her to coach the ski team.
"Not many teenage boys would write a letter to a teacher they didn't even know," she said, "but that was Peter."
When she heard about his mother's book, she told Westra it would be hard to read.
"Mary is really frank," Scott said. "She looked me in the eye and said, 'But you didn't have to live it.'"
Going beyond cathartic
Westra said she wrote her book for several reasons and not simply as a cathartic exercise. She hopes the book can help people who are grieving a loss -- and the therapists who work with them.
"The cathartic part lasted the first two years; after that it was more about reframing the raw, rough feelings into a narrative that would have meaning for readers," she said.
Throughout the process, she'd hear imagined voices saying: "Oh, you're living that again? Can't you get over it? Can't you get on to something else?"
Writing became the something else.
"I was working and crafting and making something, not just reliving and rehashing," she said. "I suppose part of my motivation was to validate Peter's life and make sense of his murder. And, I have to admit, I want to keep the best of him alive because Peter is much more than a kid who happened to be drunk and got caught in a bad, sordid place."
One exercise in a class at the Loft writing center in Minneapolis, she said, was a turning point from merely cranking out journal entries she never intended anyone to see to "the really scary" reality of taking a deeply personal story and opening it up for public consumption.
An exercise in moving on
In that one class, students were asked to make a collage with images -- but no words -- that told their story. Westra's collage included a big red heart in the middle, surrounded by fragments of snapshots and sporting images from Peter's childhood. There was also a big black boot -- the murder weapon that an autopsy said caused fatal blows to his head.
"That showed me the central message is: Love doesn't die. The big boot was on the periphery," she said, "while our love for Peter and his love for us was in the center."
She's not thrilled that the book is being labeled a "true crime memoir," because it's more a reflection on the aftermath of Peter's death than a murder mystery. A large chunk focuses on the bouncer's court case, which ended in a mistrial. He pleaded guilty before a second trial and four other strip club officials pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
At several stages, she considered quitting out of fear she was tarnishing her son's legacy. She writes about the timing of Peter's murder -- just two months before the Sept. 11 attacks -- and the jealousy she felt about his death being overshadowed by the many who died at the World Trade Center. But time improved the writing, she said.
"If I stopped halfway through, it would have been pretty raw and bitter and fearful," she said.
She hopes the book will lend insight to people going through crises as well as their family and friends.
"I've learned there aren't too many people who can say they've been totally spared and totally lucky," she said. "I don't want to compare one grief to another because it's all tragic and awful for whoever goes through it. I'm just offering my personal experience because there isn't much on the shelf for those who have lost loved ones to murder."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767