Yesterday morning after our weekly swim lesson, annual visit to the flu shot clinic, and much-needed followup stop at the donut store to make the tears stop faster, the kids and I stumbled upon a major road closure as we headed to a local park for a picnic. There were police cruisers with flashing lights at every street corner and parking lot entrance, as well as helicopters circling overheard. Terrified there was a standoff or something dangerous going on nearby, I kept scanning around for an escape route as traffic began to pile up behind me and I became more and more trapped. The kids started getting antsy in the backseat and I began to grow a bit anxious too. I contemplated getting an officer’s attention to ask what was going on, but I also didn’t want to distract as they looked very serious and somber. Then the woman in the car behind us filled me in: the police officers were shutting down the road temporarily in preparation for a funeral procession to say goodbye to a sister they lost in service. Her name was Deputy Jessica Hollis and she died last week while checking a low water crossing during some flash floods that ripped through Austin. She was a mother, a wife, a strong swimmer on the police dive team, and apparently a woman full of spunk who touched the lives of everyone she met. Her tragic story has been all over the news here, but somehow I missed the part about today being the day she would be laid to rest.
We nearly made it through this road closure; I was the second car stopped. In fact, I had driven through the now blocked intersection successfully just a few minutes prior, but a change in plans had me turn around and head straight back into the road block. Rather than continue to feel anxious and try to find a way to turnaround once I knew what was going on, I decided to put the car in park, settle in, and just be grateful for the fact that I was alive and able to be sitting in traffic with my children at that moment. Soon we would have the opportunity to pay our respects to a brave and selfless public servant, and I can’t imagine anything that could trump that.
I passed the kolaches and donuts to my kiddos in the backseat (thank goodness we happened to have some food with us since it was their lunchtime) and opened my door to stand outside of the car as soon as the procession started. Motorcycles, police cruisers, ambulances, and firetrucks from all over the state began streaming by us, and just as quickly tears for this stranger began streaming down my face. Twenty minutes later, two lanes of vehicles were still steadily leaving the church with no end in sight. Then forty minutes later. The kids were starting to grow antsy and seemed confused by this point. Toddler Gaga wanted to know what this “parade” was for and why there wasn’t a marching band. I was caught off guard. I didn’t want to scare him by telling him what we were really witnessing, but at the same time, I didn’t want to lie to him. I have never really understood why we are so awkward about discussing death with children since it really is just a fact of life for all of us anyway. One thing we all have in common is that we eventually die. Perhaps if we appreciated that more from a young age, we would have a greater respect for our time here on this earth. Wishful thinking, I’m sure, but with that mindset, I decided to be straight up with my son.
I told him there was a brave woman named Officer Jessica who was out one night in a bad rainstorm trying to protect the rest of us and make sure everyone could get home safely. I did avoid mentioning too much about the water/flood since I didn’t want to create unnatural fears of water or rainstorms in my three year old. So I left out some of those details, but just said she had an accident and died. I explained that dying is when your life ends — you go to sleep and you aren’t able to wake back up again. And now this parade we were witnessing was to honor Deputy Jessica because she was a hero who died trying to keep other people like us safe. As I was saying all of this, I was second guessing every single word coming out of my mouth, wondering if my toddler, who already fights me every single nap and bedtime, is *really* going to resist now that his mama just told him that sometimes people go to sleep and don’t wake up again. Ugh.
It felt extra tricky because we are not a religious family, so I did not have the advantage of being able to sugarcoat with promises of heaven and an afterlife. But I did try to explain that this is why it is so important to value every minute we have together on this earth. As I’m typing this out I still have no idea if what I did was the right thing for my boy or not. I was so tongue tied and ill-prepared for this talk. Then again, I figured I’d rather have our first real conversation about death be about a stranger as opposed to waiting until it’s someone we know.
About eighty minutes after we first stopped at the road block, the procession appeared to finally be nearing its end. For the past hour and a half, it truly felt as if time had stood still. It was so quiet and peaceful outside, with the only sound being the white noise of engines whizzing by us. Even my children had been unusually patient, kind, and cooperative, despite the unexpected change in our morning plans. Before I got back in our car and ready to return to reality, I asked the officer who was blocking the intersection near us if he had ever seen a procession that long for one of his colleagues. He shook his head “no” in bewilderment. I think we were all moved and impressed by what we had just witnessed. This woman, gone too soon at the young age of 35, clearly seemed to know a thing or two about how to live a meaningful life. I felt humbled to have crossed paths with her, but sad that it had to be on this final journey of hers. I thanked the officer for all he and his colleagues do for us every day, then got back in our car and drove away from those strangers with whom we shared a few tears and intimate emotions. It was a heavy morning, full of valuable life lessons and reminders for all of us, despite our age.