We were driving home from eating lunch with Ryan today when we passed a firetruck parked by the side of the road with its lights on near Ryan's office. The kids both pointed it out and Ryan speculated that there might be a grass fire nearby. After I dropped him off and was making my way home, an ambulance and a police car had joined the firetruck. All with their lights on and no emergency in sight.
I made a note that it was out of the ordinary then quickly forgot about it as I continued down the road towards home, choosing a long straight highway that usually is just right for lulling the kids to sleep. I hoped for at least an hour of simultaneous napping so that I could have some time to get a few odd jobs done around the house.
And then a mile later I passed another firetruck parked on the side of the road with its lights on. And shortly after that, a car parked off to one side with a family standing outside looking down the road. At a red light I saw an ambulance blocking a side street, the paramedics standing outside looking into the distance.
I was beginning to worry. We always listen to CDs in the car, so I wonder in the back of my mind if I'm missing some big news event, a severe weather warning, a terrorist attack. Post nine-eleven, post motherhood thinking at its most rational.
But just after I stopped at a red light, a group of motorcycle policemen crested a hill in the distance, driving solemnly in formation with their lights on. I suddenly remembered the policeman who was killed in a motorcycle accident last week. I knew exactly what was going on. This was his funeral procession. The light kept cycling through red-yellow-green but no one moved.
The motorcycles kept coming. Hundreds of them from police departments all around the region as well as cities as much as four hours away. All snaking down the sixty-five mile per hour highway at twenty miles per hour.
I watched in awe. Then a voice from the back seat.
"Why are all those policemen coming?"
"It's a parade, Sweetie. They're here to honor another policeman who died."
"Why did he die?"
Until this moment I don't think he realized that people could die. Like roly polies and ladybugs sometimes die when he leaves them in his bug catcher too long.
"Well, he was in a bad car accident and he died."
I've told him dozens of times that I need him to stay calm in the car so I can concentrate and not have a car accident. I tell him we go the speed limit so we won't have a car accident. I am now regretting every one of those conversations. Profoundly.
"Why did he die in a car accident?"
"Because he was hurt very badly and his body couldn't work anymore."
My voice cracked. I didn't tell him that the policeman had two sons. Brothers just like them who were probably looking forward to their dad coming home that awful night last week so they could do the same things we do every single night. Dinner, playtime, bedtime stories. I couldn't tell him that the man who died was a dad. That something as ordinary as a car accident could kill a man strong enough to throw them up in the air when he arrived home after work. That somewhere in this parade was a woman who was living my nightmare.
We'd been watching for ten minutes and the motorcycles were still coming. I glanced at Charlie in the rearview mirror. He was somber and slouching in his carseat as he watched them come over the hill, two by two, as far as we could see.
I turned to face him. "You know, most car accidents aren't very bad, right? And I'm very careful and do everything I can so that you are safe in the car. You know that, right?" He continued to stare at the procession. I wanted to drive far far away and buy him an ice cream cone and let him spill it all over me and laugh. I just wanted him to laugh, crack a joke, yell "penis" at the top of his lungs like he used to do. Anything but the stunned silence.
The hearse drove by. The limos carrying the family. Then the police cars. Dozens and dozens of them. Then ambulances, firetrucks, and more police cars driving in slow motion. Wes thought it was great and waved at the passing officers. Several of them waved back.
Charlie finally spoke. "Are all those policemen going to get the bad guys?" he asked quietly.
"Oh, Buddy, no. These policemen are a part of a ceremony called a funeral which is to honor a policeman who died in a car accident. They have come from all over the state to show their support for the policeman and his family. They have a special church service, sort of like Big Church, and then they all drive in a long parade to the..." I let that one drop.
"Why do they have their lights on? Why do they drive so slow?"
"Because they're sad and it's respectful."
"But why are they sad?"
"Because their friend died. He had a bad car accident." I cringed when I used that word again. I looked at him. "It's very sad, isn't it?" He nodded quietly.
Finally another a group of traffic cops on motorcycles appeared, marking the end of the procession. I finally exhaled, put the car in drive, turned Raffi back on, and headed for home--thirty minutes after I'd stopped at the light.
I was so grateful for the change of pace when Charlie had a letter from his new teacher waiting for him in our mailbox--he carried it around proudly the rest of the day, showing it to everyone who would look. I was most grateful of all when, several hours later, he ran to show it to Ryan, just arrived home from work, safe and sound.