Go with me, my good angels, to my end;
And, as the long divorce of steel falls on me,
Make of your prayers one sweet sacrifice,
And lift my soul to heaven.
– Shakespeare, Henry VIII
If there is any immortality to be had on this earth it is through the selfless sacrifice of a life lost in the service of others. Twenty-five years to the day that he joined the Albuquerque Police Department, Officer Richard Smith’s bullet-riddled body was laid to rest. His perdurable legacy is this: over two thousand people crowding the church, a police procession stretching for eight long miles under a cloudless New Mexican sky, and hundreds of common citizens lining the roadways for this, his last watch.
The immediate family rode in five gleaming white limousines, but in a sense every man, woman and child there were part of the family. For the police there was the camaraderie of brothers in arms, the thin blue line which had been sundered in a muzzle flash and just as quickly reformed and solidified and strengthened by indomitable will and courage. For the family there was a deep hole that seemed bottomless and yet was already filling with remembrances and memories and the consoling realization that he was our own and he was the best and that his presence would forever be part of us, stronger than bone, deeper than blood, closer than the soul. For the strangers beside the road he was a symbol crafted of flesh and blood and his blood had been spilled to keep them safe, and their presence was an act of thanksgiving and respect.
Around the time the motorcade cleared Tijeras Canyon and began its descent into the city, I stood bewildered in a field wet with rain. Dark storm clouds rolled off to the east, dragging rain and lightning in their wake like an unruly and tempestuous child. Overhead the sky was roiling, light and dark clouds seething and writhing and shredding apart to reveal tattered shades of blue. Not for the first time I wondered if I had done my cousin a disservice by remaining in Kansas, if the distance separating me from my family and the cordon of uniformed men and women somehow lessened my placement in their ranks.
Nor did my surroundings diminish the sensation of disjointedness. Even as I imagined the city unfolding before the convoy, I watched four white-spotted fawns bound away in pursuit of their mothers. No sound of traffic nor any other thing than the low rumble of the grain elevator and the song of a cardinal and my own shallow breathing. Rather than vehicles and a violent cityscape and the incessant wail of sirens, I presided over nodding goldenrod and brome gone to seed and rainpools shining silver in the morning light.
I had wandered all night through empty streets and alleys, past churches whose doors were barred and nailed shut, down broad greenbelts that faced backyards devoid of any life other than a solitary majestic elk, but what I sought was unknowable and unfound. By dawn I was exhausted, and woke and went to work as always and returned as thunder faded and light grew ascendant, and I kissed my wife as she left for work and then wandered into the field to ask the day for answers. And none were forthcoming.
The literal translation of bewilder is “to lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” Such was my state of mind as I thought of my family accompanying Ricky to his end, and me here alone with no idea how to say goodbye without feeling inadequate. As if by my willful exclusion I had abandoned them. What rite, what ceremony, could bridge that distance and set aright this terrible emptiness? Knowing none, I stepped farther into the field. Grass soaked my pants to my knees. Sunlight tore through a rent in the clouds and sparkled on the dew, pinning me in place.
Hundreds of miles away, as the hearse pulled away from the funeral home and began the long slow drive to the graveyard, an alert tone cleared all traffic from police radios. “All units will ten-three,” the dispatcher said, and every officer in the city paused in what they were doing except for the motorcade, and they listened and struggled with the words.
“This is the final dispatch for Officer Richard Smith,” the dispatcher announced. “It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to you. In life you were a loving husband and a wonderful father. As a police officer and White Striper, you always carried yourself with such class and integrity you were often looked to for guidance. Always smiling and full of life, it’s easy to see why those who met and knew you appreciated and loved you. We will never forget that you gave the ultimate sacrifice.
“Officer Smith, respond now to your final dispatch.”
In all that vast city, on every police radio, in the hearts of all who heard, there was only silence.
And in the silence heard even here I said a short prayer for Ricky’s soul and for his wife and daughter and father and mother and all the rest who were there and not here. And even as I uttered the words I saw first one and then a dozen and then a thousand dragonflies wending their way southward, weaving and skirling through the skies and above the grasses and all about me in an intricate, untraceable pattern, and I raised my arms and cast the prayer off and they took it and made it their own. I imagined in my weariness that my prayer was borne aloft by thousands of glittering restless wings, magnified and translated into an unspoken language which knows death is only another form of migration, and that the end of the journey is home.
Beautiful, Tom. Powerful and beautiful!
Thank you for this soulful, brave, beautiful post.
Thanks, Tod. I almost forgot how gut-wrenching the last call is until I heard it again yesterday.
Thanks, Reece. I thought I posted that back in 2005 but apparently I forgot to. it was an emotional time, as you know. Still is when hearing the last call again...
KJ: Thanks for being part of the journey.
Here is to share who Ricky was and how he was killed. These men risk their lives for us, above their families.
A powerful, inspiring piece. Thank you.
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