By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
At the time Nancy was pregnant with Kimberly and Kevin, she was working at a restaurant where she fell in love with a co-worker, Dan Jimenez. Because of her crush on Jimenez, she banished William Bragg from her life, and from the lives of their children, even before they were born. The kids were given Brennan’s name, though he wasn’t their father and, it turns out, Brennan was a pseudonym he used. Meanwhile, they grew up calling their stepfather, Jimenez, dad.
Nancy, Jimenez and the twins lived in an apartment near Virginia Bragg’s home. As Nancy became more ill, Jimenez began his progressive withdrawal from the family. When Nancy became too weak to care for her children, the family moved in with Virginia, who still keeps Kevin’s bedroom with the teddy bears, stuffed wool lizards and the fire engine he used to play with as a child.
Kevin was a “mama’s boy,” Bragg remembers, not just because of his own temperament, but also because of the way Nancy doted on him. This was among the reasons that Kimberly forged a particularly close bond with her grandmother, and why Nancy’s death may have devastated Kevin even more than it did his sister.
Bragg remembers Kevin’s bravery at the scene of his mother’s death: Bragg, Kevin and Jimenez were all in the hospital room when Nancy stopped breathing. Hours passed, and the body needed to be moved from deathbed to gurney. “I don’t know what to do with this boy,” Jimenez said, trying to face the difficult task ahead of them. “I can’t do this with him in the room.”
Kevin told his grandmother that he wanted to stay.
“And Kevin walked with her all the way out to the hearse,” Bragg recalls while chewing on an ice cube.
Bragg says that Jimenez didn’t show up for the funeral. She remembers Kevin pacing up and down, looking everywhere for his stepfather. Jimenez withdrew from the family after Nancy’s death. So when Nancy died, it was as if the children lost two parents.
Virginia Bragg walks slowly through Harry Truman Elementary School in Palm Desert, which Kevin attended. It’s an hour after the day’s final bell, and a marching band is practicing in a classroom off a narrow walkway. A chorus of clarinets wanders in the vicinity of a common note, a trumpet squeaks. Bragg walks by, slowly, remembering how Kevin played clarinet in that same band, for a term.
Farther inside the quad, there’s a beehive of activity — tables being set up for a dinner fund-raiser. Tablecloths are tossed over benches, then linens and silverware hastily spread.
Barbara Frenznick, a fifth-grade teacher who had Kevin in her class, tells me that Kevin was a good student and well liked by his peers. “At the beginning of the school year,” she says, “I have them do a writing sample — tell me something I wouldn’t know just by looking at you. Most wrote about their hobbies, what they did over the summer, but Kevin chose to write about his mom, and the event of her passing, and how that affected him, an emotional piece with unusual depth about the loss of a parent. He was always very respectful, not super outgoing, maybe a bit introspective, a few friends, not as many as most, but he wasn’t a loner.”
As we drive out of the parking lot, Bragg, in the passenger seat, squints into the sun, remembering how Kevin also used to hang out after school with the janitor, part of his endless quest for father figures.
In middle school, Kevin excelled in the Cadets, an after-school police-training program for youth, administered by the Riverside Sheriff’s Department. He basked in the discipline and male camaraderie, the marching in formation and the standing in place. He was an altar boy at his grandmother’s church, St. Francis of Assisi in La Quinta, where parish priest Jack Barker gave both twins as much care and support as he could, using the church as a kind of extended family.
The stucco and Spanish-tile church is nestled beneath a looming crucifix planted in a daunting cliff of desert rocks directly behind the cavernous chapel. The air is cool inside. Bragg stares at the stained glass.
“I used to watch Kevin in his Cadet drills and during the Book of Names service at the church. I was amazed by his self-discipline, his ability to stand stone still, almost like he wasn’t breathing, for an hour at a time. ‘Grandma, it’s in your mind,’ he told me.”
Kevin’s mind may have been strong as steel, but his sister could tell his heart was breaking. She sensed something was wrong and tried to get her grandmother to talk to Kevin, to get him to open up in a deeper way. But Bragg is of a generation that doesn’t do that, doesn’t know how.
Kimberly noticed that Kevin had never cried since he was a child, not even at their mother’s funeral. Kimberly understood that she had careened into a huge depression following her mother’s death, which she talked through with counselors and her closest friends. She found herself sobbing uncontrollably in the middle of the night and growing uncharacteristically irritable. Sometimes she found it difficult to face the day, to go to school. She was frequently ill.