We learned about the candlelight vigil on Tuesday around 3:30. I was again rabidly checking facebook, desperate for signs that people cared. I saw it on the Fire and Rescue page first, though it was a reposting of the PWCPD posting. We called my parents, and they easily agreed to watch Mia while we were gone. I think they were relatively desperate to help us in any way they could. I’m glad of this, because I had to lean heavily throughout the week.
I’d only been to one other candlelight vigil before, at Mary Washington for the victims of 9/11 soon after the attacks. As horrible and sad and awful as that experience was, this was my friend. This was Mike’s friend. This was a person everyone knew and liked. This wasn’t a symbol of a country’s loss and of condolences for families somewhere else. This was for a man we knew, a man who was taken too soon. This was different.
Mike was relatively frantic. He usually doesn’t care about details. He just assumes I’ll get everything taken care of and goes with it. This week was so different. He asked me at least six or seven times if I knew where we were going. He left fifteen minutes early so that we couldn’t possibly be late. He discussed types of candles to consider bringing. I later realized that these details were all he could do for Chris. He was craving to be the perfect mourner. He couldn’t say to Chris that he cared, couldn’t fix it, couldn’t help. All he could do was mourn his death with as much perfection and dignity as he possibly could.
They held the vigil in the parking lot of the target right next to the place he died. I tried hard not to visualize the accident from the pictures I’d seen. I tried hard not to think of the violent chaos on that street just one day earlier. I, of course, failed miserably.
I cried as soon as I got out of the car. This made me feel foolish. Really, I knew him so little compared to others there. I saw him a few times a year, that’s all. A few handfuls of time. Still, my heart ached with his loss. A woman who could have been me lost her husband. Three children that could have been mine lost their father. So many men like my husband lost their friend. He didn’t deserve to die. I know that so few people deserve to die. Still, more than that, he deserved to live. To be happy. To see his positivity and generosity make the world better.
It seemed so strange to me that so few people were crying. I couldn’t understand. I still don’t. Many of the people at the vigil didn’t know him well. Some came out just to support and remember a fallen officer. He wasn’t a person to some people, he was a symbol. I appreciate that, but he was more than that, of course. Others, who did know him but didn't cry, were officers. Officers are stoic. They have to be. I understand that. Still, as Mike said, it doesn’t make them less of a man to mourn a friend. Chris deserved tears. I shed many.
Target had provided baskets full of candles. The posts about the vigil asked us to bring our own, but many didn’t have them. I had brought two jar candles, thinking that they would stay lit in the wind, but I asked Mike to pick up two tapers as well. As Mike had worried, I also wanted to honor him properly. I wondered if my scented jar candles were appropriate. They smelled of honeysuckle.
There were bagpipers there. They plated “Going Home”, a song I had associated with movies: The Departed and Clear and Present Danger. They play it at the funerals of the fallen officers and soldiers in those movies. It always made me cry. Songs are like that. I’d never heard it played in real life before. It cut me to the core.
When we were asked to light our candles, the wind seemed to pick up. I had brought an Aim and Flame, familiar with trying to light fireworks on the beach. I lit my taper from the bin, with a Dixie cup around the flame to protect it from the wind. The man next to me, an officer whose name I don’t know, had no cup around his flame. It kept blowing out. I handed him mine, thinking it was important for him, an officer, to have a candle that would stay lit. I pulled out my honeysuckle jar. He later got his other candle lit as well, so he held two. I felt a little guilty for not taking back the first candle, but he didn’t offer and I didn’t want to ask.
Most of the speeches from the vigil are a blur. I was surrounded by the scent of honeysuckle. I remember Chris’s brother, Dale, also an officer, getting up to speak. I don’t remember what he said. I remember thinking he was brave and strong for doing it, and I realize now that he was soaking in the support from his friends and brothers in blue. Dale's friend spoke after that, apparently at his request. All I remember him saying was something about Chris’s mom making him sandwiches. I thought he was an odd choice of speaker, but I think now that he was there more for Dale and the family than to actually remember Chris. They needed that. Chris’s other brother spoke as well. I don’t remember anything that he said, but I remember the tears in his voice. Maybe that was more important.
After the appointed people had spoken, they opened the microphone to anyone who wanted to talk about Chris. They do this at weddings sometimes, usually with disastrous results. I wish more people had spoken that night. An older woman from the citizens’ academy spoke about doing a ride along with Chris. She talked about how he was driving, reading a map, on the computer, and talking on his cell phone all at once on the way to a call. I could picture Mike doing that. Katie got up to speak about Chris being her FTO. The part of her speech that stuck with me was when she talked about how Chris asked to have a copy of her positive evaluation after she was cut loose, like a proud father. I could imagine that pride: the puffed up chest, big smile, and twinkling eyes. A little girl went up with her mother to talk about how Chris used to be her neighbor. All she said was that she’d miss him. It was lovely. I imagine this little girl was probably friends with Paige, Chris's daugher.
I wished some of his friends would have spoken. I wish some of his friends there had gotten up and told more stories about him. After the vigil ended, they stood around in the parking lot telling each other those stories. Things like going out to get Chinese food, forgetting your wallet, and Chris not letting you pay him back. Things like driving in a car with him and having him show off his driving skills like he was in the Indy 500, throwing you back in your seat. Things like him always finding the person in a crowd who felt lonely, or out of place, and starting a conversation with them. This was the story I knew so well. And caring. Always caring. I wished more of those stories were told at the vigil that night, but I suppose they got shared in the way they were meant to be shared.
When the microphone was empty, the chaplain asked us to raise our candles as he said a quick prayer. Somehow, through the wind, almost all the candles stayed lit. I don’t remember the prayer, but I remember seeing Mike’s head bowed from the corner of my eye. The man who never prays.
And then they said it was over. Mike turned to me and asked if we should blow our candles out. I remember saying that I didn’t want to. The scent of honeysuckle was all around me. I thought briefly of the stupid Nora Roberts book I just read, in which a ghost’s presence was always accompanied with the strong smell of honeysuckle. I hoped that Chris’s spirit knew that we cared. It was freezing cold that night, but somehow the scent and flame of the candle made me feel protected. I didn’t want to let it go.
After the ceremony of the vigil, people milled around the parking lot. These are strange circumstances, these post-memorial social hours. It seems strange to say things like, “Nice to meet you” at gatherings like this, and yet I found myself meeting many people I didn’t know. Mike hugged each person he saw. Mike is not a hugger. It was touching, really, to see him looking to connect with all of these people, who knew Chris as he had. Some hugged back hard, others did the one armed man hug.
We were reluctant to leave. We milled around the parking lot as it started to clear out. The cars of the family had long departed. The tables of coffee and doughnuts provided by the community, so rife with irony, had long ago been picked over. We just kept looking for one more person to talk to, one more hug to force, one more story to tell. When does the vigil end?