Last week, our community suffered a great loss, as Mobile police officer Justin Billa was killed in the line of duty. Photos of his beautiful young wife and 1-year-old son emerged soon after the Mobile Police Department announced the circumstances surrounding his death, breaking all of our hearts as we saw a picture of his wife holding an ultrasound photo as she embraced her husband and another of Officer Billa proudly holding his baby boy. All so senseless and so tragic.
To those of us who didn’t know him, his death was a stark reminder of what could happen to any of our officers each and every time they put on a uniform. A routine call or traffic stop could turn into something deadly in an instant. And they go to work every day knowing this. And their families send them off each day knowing this, too. While we are all home, safe and sound in our beds, sleeping next to our spouses, they are out chasing the bad guys, while their loved ones sleep alone, hoping their husband or wife will return safely home. Most of the time, they do. But last week, one woman’s husband, best friend and father of her child did not. And he never will. He made the ultimate sacrifice.
The outpouring of support from our community and from around the country has been heartening. And it seems it has brought a greater appreciation for all the men and women who “protect and serve” Mobile every day and a better understanding of the risks involved in their often thankless jobs. I am sure all of this support has added some measure of comfort to Officer Billa’s family, but long after he is laid to rest, their grief will remain.
I have been thinking a lot about grief this week. And how different people deal with it in different ways and how it ebbs and flows.
My mother, the only parent I had, died 10 years ago this week. It also would have been her 68th birthday. She died just days after she turned 58. I purchased a birthday card for her that year, but I never ended up taking it to the hospital because she was too sick to open it. I remember throwing it away after the funeral. At first, I just wanted everything that reminded me of her out of my sight. That was how I dealt with my grief. It was just too hard to process.
At the funeral, we provided stationery so her friends and our family could write a few of their fondest memories down about her and mail them to me after the service. Many people took the time to do this very thoughtful act of kindness for her (and for me). But as I saw the lovely ivory envelopes we had stamped with my address the night before her funeral start to come in, I started dreading getting the mail. I couldn’t open them. I would just wait a little while, until I thought I could handle it. I put them in the box with her ashes, which still sits in my closet.
Yes, she’s in my closet because I just couldn’t put her in the ground somewhere away from me. She would have hated that. I always joke that she wanted to be up my butt in life, so why should we change that in death? But I still haven’t opened any of those letters. And it has been a decade now.
Ten years? Can that really be right? In some ways that just doesn’t seem possible, as I remember the ups and downs of her lengthy illness so vividly. But mostly, it does, because she has missed so much. And she will continue to miss so much.
Since her death, I met and married my husband and we’ve had two kids, who are growing up way too fast. It still amazes sometimes that the most important person in my life then never got to meet the three most important people in it now.
In addition to her own birthday, she will also miss my daughter’s 6th birthday party this week. She missed the first five, too. I still wish she was here to help me bake cupcakes or decorate for her party. (Or just annoy me with ideas for it that I would dismiss — the most likely scenario.) But it has gotten easier to accept that that’s just not going to happen with each passing year.
They say time heals all wounds. Maybe “heal” is not exactly the right word when that wound is the death of a loved one. You will never be the same again, but time certainly makes it easier. I think this is part of God’s plan so the ones left behind are able to go on with their lives. Because you have to.
I remember right after she died, I wanted to pick up the phone and call her so many times. Mainly because at that time she still would have known all the people I was talking about or was up-to-date on the issues I was dealing with at work or whatever, and even the TV shows we both liked to watch and talk about. It was just part of our routine, even if we had nothing much to talk about.
But as time marches on, the people and situations in your life change, as do your routines, so you don’t have the need to reach for that phone as much. Sometimes you even feel guilty for not feeling that need, if that makes sense. But I guess we shouldn’t. If our wounds stayed as raw as they did right after we experienced a great loss, none of us would be able to carry on.
Someone told me right after she died, you’ll know you are going to be OK when memories of her bring a smile to your face instead of tears to your eyes. I’m not sure if someone famous said that or if it’s some ancient Chinese proverb or what, but I have found it to be true. Though the tears still come — sometimes when you least expect it — the smiles come way more often now.
I pray Officer Billa’s family and friends will be able to find more smiles than tears eventually, too.