Wrecked

I am wrecked.

I have been wrecked since this time last week when I found out a man I graduated high school with and then graduated college with, a person whose face I saw almost daily growing up and during my last few years of college, was shot in the head and killed. And that kind of news is devastating, even though we hadn’t seen or communicated with each other in years.

But that is not, exactly, why I am wrecked.

His death was callus and cruel, but I am wrecked for reasons beyond that cruelty, and beyond the knowledge that I clearly wasted the opportunities handed to me to know such a wonderful person better than I did. I am wrecked because, though we were not incredibly close, he was part of my extended family on my sweet brother’s side.

I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking it’s more understandable to be distraught when a tragedy like this touches your family, even if it isn’t a blood connection, especially if you have to watch someone – like a brother – deal with the pain of the forever kind of loss. And you’re right.

But you don’t quite understand.

You see, he died as the result of what I’m starting to consider to be a hate crime. It was premeditated. His shooter had already proclaimed his intention to shoot any member of this family who walked through the door, and it was a crime based on color – one of many acts of violence targeted at this specific group across the nation to date. And it is evil, unfair, and devastating.

But still, you don’t understand.

I went to his funeral, where over 5,000 people, it was reported, attended to pay their respects to a pillar of the community. His visitation drew the governor-elect, who met with the family privately because he didn’t want his visit to become a media stunt but rather he wanted it to be about respecting a well-loved and well-lived life that had been lost.

After the funeral service, where his brothers sang and quoted scripture – the Beatitudes – in his honor, where his cousin raised her own voice in a song of worship, and where the head of our family looked at us all at the opening of his remarks and simply said, voice laced with disbelief and heartache and tears, “We have lost our Daniel,” a procession of hundreds of cars that stretched almost 20 miles bumper-to-bumper lined the parking lot. As the thousands of us in attendance stood in the parking lot waiting for the rest of the family to make their way to their cars, I watched as they brought out Daniel’s casket. I watched his young wife as she stood just behind it, and I watched her cover her mouth with her hand in grief and with the hope of trying to hold back the sobs that were surely coming forth as they walked the casket away from her and down the stairs to load it into the hearse. She was watching her husband get farther and farther away from her, truly separated now.

And I was wrecked. But still, you have yet to understand.

I rode in one of the cars toward the front of the procession – after all, he was part of my family, too – and I will never forget the awe I felt as we exited the parking lot.

You see, not all those who loved him and appreciated him for who he was were able to attend the funeral, so they lined the streets to pay their respects. Thousands upon thousands of people from the community were there in a show of love and support. They stretched for miles down both sides of the street on what is normally the busiest thoroughfare in town, but there was no traffic that day other than the procession. They were silent, some of the people openly weeping at the loss of such a great young man. Some held balloons, some held banners, and some wore shirts that were made in support of his family. He was only 33, and he was well-liked even by his enemies.

But our procession didn’t end in that town. We traveled over 100 miles and through five counties to his burial site, down the interstate and through several towns. There wasn’t a street that wasn’t lined with people and stopped cars. There wasn’t a town where they weren’t holding signs of support or where they weren’t crying – even perfect strangers he’d never met – over the loss of our Daniel.

And I was wrecked. But you still don’t get it.

He wasn’t famous, our Daniel. In fact, before this past week I don’t even know if he ever made the news aside from the usual hometown newspaper articles about high school clubs and engagement announcements, the things only mothers pay close attention to. He left behind a legacy of kindness, though, unlike many who have come and gone before him. He helped stranded motorists, bought brand new car seats out of his pocket for a family who’d had a collision and had two young children and no seats for them or way to purchase seats, gave regular rides home to an elderly woman who was too afraid to walk from work after dark, helped a man pay for a hotel bed one night when he found out the man was going to sleep in a tent outside a business in order to make it to a job interview there in the morning, and even followed one of my own good friends out of a bar one night – even though they didn’t really know each other – and convinced him not to drive drunk because it wasn’t worth the risk. I never even knew that until after his death.

And I am wrecked. How could someone wish to hurt such a good man? How could anyone hate a whole group of people so much that they could pull that trigger?

Here’s what you don’t understand: Daniel, our Daniel, was a police officer.  The family he and I shared is a family of law enforcement officers in his community and their loved ones. He and my sweet brother stood together in what has become known as the Thin Blue Line, which is the only official line of protection civilians have against criminals.

In a nation where hate and fear is more prevalent than ever, and where people have the right by law to spew it in a steady stream at anyone who might disagree – even when it’s at a person they don’t know and have never met or seen or heard of, and where in many cases it is directed at law enforcement and the media helps to fuel and propagate it, being a police officer – a good one – is not an easy thing to be. It would be far easier to be something else, like a doctor or professor or banker (and I should know, because I took one of those easier roads), where if a mistake is made by one person in the field, it might never be commented upon by the public, the media, the politicians, or even by that other doctor/professor/banker around the corner who always seems to have had it out for you.  It will never be assumed that because there are a few bad eggs, all people who hold the same title should be condemned to perdition. It would never occur to a nation of people to think that, in those cases.

So why do we, as a country, assume it is that way in other cases? Are people really that stupid?

And it isn’t just law enforcement who are targeted. There are other groups who are targeted as well. Quite frankly, I’m exhausted to the point of illness by this hatred. In a country purported to be a melting pot, a land of tomorrow and of the great dreams of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and of Opportunity, we are woefully dividing ourselves by color, and class, and gender, and religion, and now occupation. We are creating a tomorrow of darkness and decay, a nightmare of Death, Oppression, and Devastating Grief, and we are stealing opportunity from ourselves the longer it goes on.

And this is one of the reasons why I am wrecked.

I’m tired of those who cry out for justice by way of violence. I completely agree that all lives matter – all of them, not just a few, whether black, white, yellow, red, or even blue.  It doesn’t make a difference to me what color a person’s skin is, or what color uniform they have to put on in the morning when they go to work, or even which bathroom they’re required by law to use.  It is not my right to judge. Discrimination and oppression are still alive and well in this country, and almost every person who breathes can find some way some other person is aiming one or the other at them. I have eyes, and ears, and a functioning brain, and I can see it when it really is happening, because it does happen, and I can also see it when it isn’t happening but someone just wants something to be offended about because they have too much time to contemplate their own lack of contribution to the world and they feel the need to be a part of a movement without actually having to do anything. These things are obvious.

But, lives matter.

I agree that there are some who have been placed in positions of authority who are unquestionably corrupt, and that they should be held to the same standards of any other citizens who are not in positions of authority, and that must start with our highest political leaders and with the elite and wealthy who control much of this nation’s government and economy. They need to be leaders by example, and we should demand integrity from them and they in turn should demand integrity from those they lead. And if we don’t, and if they don’t, then we all have failed. And this extends to law enforcement.

But I refuse to believe that all police officers are corrupt, or, as one citizen expressed directly to me in my time of grief recently, that all police officers should die. I had never even met or seen or heard of this person before, and when I posted on social media quite simply that “All lives matter,”  I didn’t direct my statement at any one person or any group. I was tired (am tired) of hate and violence, and I posted my thoughts in three words, and within 15 seconds I received a profane, direct message from this stranger, who had no context of the situation, telling me our Daniel deserved to die, and that all the rest of the law enforcement officers in this country deserved the same treatment – including my own brother, who is a school resource officer as well as a hostage negotiator, and whose job it is to protect children and adults alike, from all walks of life.

Daniel’s life mattered. My brother’s life matters.

What kind of people, collectively, are we that it’s okay to wish violent deaths upon people we’ve never heard of or met based on assumptions we make when we have no facts about a situation? How have we managed to sink to this low level of selfishness and brutality?

For those who have decided to hate an entire group of people, hundreds of thousands of them, based on the terrible actions of what amounts to only a handful of the entire group, I can only say may they never be the victims of armed robbery. May they never be beaten to within an inch of death by a person who has promised to love and cherish them. May their children never be at school when a crazed gunman shows up to carry out a massacre. May they never need someone to pull their loved one from the twisted and mangled wreckage of a collision, or to let tractor-trailers traveling over 80 miles per hour know that they’re stranded in the dark with a flat tire so they don’t get run over while they wait for it to be changed. May they never know someone who is assaulted, molested, raped, kidnapped, or who has a heart attack or stroke in a public place, may it never happen to them, and may they never live near a house or car that has been turned into a meth lab, and if they do may it never explode.

May they never be called upon to notify the loved ones of a friend or stranger that tragedy has befallen them through no fault of their own. May they never have that kind of grief directed at them.

Those are the types of situations law enforcement officers willingly sign up to help prevent and/or deal with every single day, often with very little thanks. A few of them may think they’re above the law they’ve sworn to protect and uphold, and those who do think that should absolutely be dealt with the same way any other citizen would be. But the majority do not feel that way. They respect that law, and the citizens it protects, and that’s why they go to work each day.  That’s why Daniel got up to go to work each day, and he was protecting a citizen and her right to be safe when he was murdered in front of his fellow officers (who, by the way, did not kill his shooter but who instead showed great restraint by subduing him and arresting him – and I can’t honestly say I could have shown the same restraint and professionalism).

So I am wrecked.

I’m wrecked because this hate and fear that has caused the loss of our Daniel has created within his immediate family, within a department, within a community, an open wound that will never completely heal. I’m wrecked because the day after Danial was mortally wounded, my brother got up and wept as he put on his uniform, clipped on his badge, and went to work. I’m wrecked because he had to do that less than 24 hours after he watched his friend and brother bleed out as he rode in the ambulance with him to the hospital, where he sat and waited into the small hours of the night for the family he had to contact and to whom he had to deliver such devastating news.  I’m wrecked because Daniel’s wife has become his widow after only a short time, and because his son has lost a father and has no idea why, and no one can explain it to him, because we don’t know why, either. I’m wrecked because she has stood strong, but when he was carried away from her, she covered her face in pain because he will never come back.  I’m wrecked because hundreds of fellow officers – most of whom had never met him – showed up from across the country to mourn Daniel’s death and to salute him as he was laid to rest, and because those same officers stood at attention the entire time, even as tears streamed down their faces. It is heartrending to see such strong men and women brought to such weakness unashamedly. I am wrecked because other officers in five counties manned intersections and maintained a salute or a bowed head as a 20-mile procession of cruisers and family vehicles slowly filed by, and because for over 100 miles of travel, every overpass bridge was filled to the barriers with first responders who stood atop their trucks and saluted the fallen. I am wrecked because on Veteran’s Day, I saw countless veterans from World War II, Vietnam, and Desert Storm forego celebrations of their own valor in favor of honoring a fallen police officer, whom they’d never met, in full salute.  I am wrecked because even strangers wept at his passing.

I am wrecked because there is nothing so heartbreaking as watching a wife, son, mother, father, and sisters and brothers say goodbye forever when they don’t understand why. There is nothing so heartbreaking as watching an entire department of men and women sworn to protect say goodbye to one of their own, whom they could not protect through no fault of their own.  It is unimaginable how difficult it must be to know there was nothing anyone could do.

There is no sound on this earth as tormenting as hearing the final roll call over the radio, when his badge number is called just like all of his fellow officers have heard it called every day before, and when that call is met not once, and not even twice, but thrice with silence. And those of us with loved ones in that department, and those all over the country with loved ones who go through roll call every day, who’ve heard their own badge numbers called over the radio and who’ve heard them respond immediately? We are wrecked when we hear that radio silence, because until there’s no answer, our hearts want to hope that this isn’t real, and that we’ll hear his voice answer the call in the affirmative. We want to believe this can’t happen, not really, not to our Daniel and not to any of our other sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, or friends. When we stood at the burial site at the twilight hour, it was not the 21-gun salute or the lone trumpet playing “Taps” that pushed us over the edge of grief.  It was that radio silence, and the only sound to be heard over it was the sobbing of friends and family members who know the daily worry that their officer won’t answer, who can too easily imagine the emptiness and the debilitating hurt of it, me included.

We are wrecked because as overwhelming and amazing as a traditional law enforcement funeral is for a fallen officer, we must go home and know that tomorrow, we could be those loved ones getting notification that something has gone terribly, irrevocably wrong. We live daily with the knowledge that the growing hostilities of a people who are quick to accuse and judge all because of the actions of few are becoming more and more prevalent, and we live daily with the knowledge that our loved ones – the men and women who really are in it to protect and serve – have become living targets.

So don’t tell me I don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of so much hate and fear and violence. Don’t tell me none of us on this side of the line know the loss that is felt when someone we love is targeted and profiled even when they’ve done nothing wrong. And don’t you dare tell me that Daniel’s life and my brother’s life and my friends’ lives don’t matter as much as other lives.

Because I do know.

And I am wrecked.

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