I recently attended a funeral, a policeman’s funeral. I had never been to a policeman’s funeral. I revisit certain moments, certain glimpses, in an attempt to return back to my lone seat among the pews. I keep a store of the details of that morning in my head. Somehow, I find an unoccupied nook in that cramped crawl space, under the oaken rafters and next to the box marked “imagination.” Respect and courage locked horns with a steely sadness that day, in an upstate New York house of God.
Narrow timber panels stretched the building’s length above me, joining to form the church’s ceiling. They created a deep perspective, gentle wooden fingers inviting me inside. Strong perspective in art and design captivates me. I feel my eyes, followed by my body, being seduced into the painting or the architect’s hall. Above where the altar stood, a round window offered a welcome secure serenity, reminding me that sentries of maple and pine surrounded me. From my seat, great green boughs seemed to reach out to me. I felt as if I was sitting in a tiny rustic church, randomly placed on some moss-covered island glade, visible only to those who know it is there. My eyes returned to the window many times. I sidestepped to the middle of the pew, rear left corner of the glade.
People were just trickling in as I sat down. I watched. I tried to imagine the relationship between these persons and The Chief, who we were honoring that day. I decided that many were fellow police officers and co-workers. My sizable Irish head was certainly not going to stand out in a sea of many. Seated in the pew in front of mine, was a gentleman with an impressive moustache, accompanied by whom I guessed were his family. He was greeted by numerous passers by on their way to seeking what were now rare places to sit. I attributed his somewhat mayoral status to a long employment history with others in attendance that morning. I didn’t think he was a member of The Chief’s family due to the proximity of his seat to mine. The mass was beginning, and this personal mystery would soon be solved.
I was anticipating an honor guard, because I noticed a congregation of white-gloved officers forming in the foyer. I sent my emotions a quick warning that there were going to be bagpipes played. I could hear the unmistakable breathy mutterings of the instruments priming and tuning, seeking pockets of quiet in which to sing. I prepared myself for their proud, but sad siren’s wale. Perhaps my emotions were doing the sending.
All fell quiet. One last inhalation before every bit of breath is dedicated to keeping tears at bay or latching open their floodgates. Then… song. The white-gloved memorial orchestra absorbed the airspace, laying down a narrow pathway of sound on which The Chief’s Wife and Son could tread. A gentleman of about thirty-five years was on The Chief’s Wife’s other arm. He held a lean, modest, metal crucifix in his hand. I guessed a cousin. Hundreds of mourning eyes were upon them as this parade of tears, led by the casket in which The Chief rested, processed down the pathway. Once they were settled in the first pew, I lost sight of them from where I was sitting. But I could feel their presence. That area of the church was now an emotional nucleus, or maybe more of a vortex.
The first person to speak, to my surprise, was the gentleman with the impressive moustache. He was sitting in front of me this entire time. He was indeed a fellow officer of the Chief’s, and a friend. It is common for people to lack skill in oration, often due to the vulnerability one succumbs to when all eyes are upon them. Not The Friend. He ascended to the pulpit with graceful strength. I believe he possessed a confidence in the tale he was about to share, born from a fulfilling history with The Chief. I had never met The Chief. The only chance I would have to do that, to shake his hand, lived within the words of The Friend. He calmly and concisely told of a man who did not hesitate one second before helping out another police officer with a concern or a problem. He was a leader, a fortified human being with an exceptional heart. The Friend’s words were not polished or gilded. They were honest and devout. He has my respect.
Even at my tender age of thirty-four years, several times I have had to drink at the same table as death. When I see a family member rise from their seat at the head of a funeral service, it seems to reach deep into my reserves and extract my most potent emotions. Perhaps one needs to experience this level of loss in order to free those reservoirs. The Chief’s Son navigated his way to the left of the altar. The Chief’s Son is my friend. He had an invisible arm around him as he spoke. He is an only child. His father and mother complete their trio. As I listened, it was this bond that occupied my thoughts. His father was a man of the community, not only in its law enforcement, but also a committed champion of its youth. A reliable pillar, his father supported his family’s happiness, growth, and safety, with seldom selfishness. Modesty, I learned, was the realm in which The Chief offered himself in aid of other people. His son injected his praise with a bit of self-deprecating humor. That is his style. No matter how hard his devoted father had tried, he told us, athletic skill never became his ally. That is why, at present, he writes about sports instead of engaging in them. Humor is always a welcome modicum of change at these times, a little shade for all on a blistering day. The Chief’s Son was speaking about his beloved father while his mother, family, and friends watched and listened. He was eloquent and brave, surrendering to emotion when needed, then collecting strength to continue. I was proud of him. I could not see his mother at all, for she is small in stature. I had a free invisible arm.
I find a priest’s words at a funeral to often be devoid of much warmth or passion. Even though he or she may be the family’s regular pastor, there seems to be a standard funeral script that is delivered. This script has, more than likely, been spoken many, many times. However, this was not the case that morning. The Chief’s family priest was probably near his eightieth year, and European, perhaps Polish. I was immediately affected by his manner and attracted to his words, for he expressed himself so naturally and fluidly. It was as if he was having a conversation, a conversation with several hundred people. He engaged us with tales of a younger Chief and his Wife as early members of his church. From his position at the altar, he said he could see The Chief’s usual seat, now empty. This was personal for him. He even asked The Chief’s Wife a direct question about their catholic high schools. She answered from her pew. At first, his forwardness stunned me. Then, I appreciated it. I appreciated him. He felt an affinity for this family. I know he did.
Earlier that morning, I noticed that a group of approximately ten motorcycle officers had collected behind me. They stood together at the back of the church. All were clad in longer leather tunics, reminiscent of 1970’s uniforms, and high boots. The Chief’s Son informed us that his father was with “highway” during his formidable career. Following the priest’s exceptional address, as parishioners mimed a cross over their faces, I could hear, so faintly, the creaking of those “highway” tunics. This moment, this lightning flash in time, has had a profound effect on me. I feel tendrils attempting to get a grip even as I recount those few seconds now. It was an audible salute to a fallen comrade. Wolves howl into the chill night air, mourning the loss of one of the pack.
I had never been to a policeman’s funeral. Its pageantry and decoration was foreign to me. At its close, the same honor guard returned. They surrounded The Chief, hoisted him up and carried him out on their shoulders.
On their shoulders, without using their hands.