A Thought: One Year Today

I took this photo the morning of 3/1/2016. It was a beautiful spring morning and I decided to take the 50-minute walk to my lab instead of taking the trolley. It was a perfect commute and I commemorated it with this picture. I put some appropriate hashtags with the image (#morningcommute #nofilterneeded #agooddaytovote) and went about my day. Now, I think of this picture as the picture-when-everything-was-still-good. It was a generic Tuesday after that  — I taught a stats lab, had office hours, enjoyed a talk at our division’s lunch lecture series, sat through a lab meeting, and probably did some reading. At some point, Jared and I went to vote in the Virginia primaries.

In the afternoon, I was supposed to work out with my friend, Peter. But, he’d had a rough day because he’d recently lost someone he cared about and so he suggested we have a drink at the local brewery instead. I’d had a few sips of beer and we’d just gotten an appetizer when Jared came rushing through the door and found us at the bar. He told me to come with him right now. I gave Peter a look, raising my eyebrows, jokingly indicating wonder-what-could-this-be. But then I saw Jared’s expression. I became confused. As he pulled me toward the door, I stopped him, all of the sudden in a panic. I asked him what happened. I think he just said again that I needed to come with him. I stopped walking and asked him again what happened. He uttered the words: “Your brother. He’s been shot. He’s gone.

Jared somehow got me outside of the brewery. He ran back to Peter to tell him we had to go. Somehow, he maneuvered me back to the apartment, just a few blocks walk away. I walked and collapsed, walked and collapsed towards home, crying over and over again “It can’t be! It can’t be!”

It’s odd how your mind plays tricks on you when you’re in shock. My thinking wasn’t making any sense. Somehow, I booked our flights, intermittently begging a god I don’t believe in for this to please not be true. Then, I thought about whether I could still go to the conference two weeks away. Little did I know I wouldn’t be able to do any kind of work for months. Then, I realized I had to pack, but I couldn’t understand what you’re supposed to pack for your brother’s funeral. I decided to stuff a suitcase full of already-worn clothes because I figured I’d worn them already, so I knew they’d at least match. Then, I threw some black items into the suitcase as well. I realized that my grandmother was sound asleep in Switzerland, and I knew I had to lock her out of her Facebook account or she’d see what had happened online. So, I did that next. I called cousins in various parts of the world and charged them with telling their branch of the family what had happened. I called a few of my closest friends — one after the other, each started to scream or plead when I told them what happened. Jared called my advisor and arranged for neighbors and friends to take care of our pets while we traveled.

Somehow, we got on a flight. Somehow, as I sat at Philly airport waiting for the connection, alternating between total shock and sobs, Jared picked up bagels in case we wanted to eat something later. But, we wouldn’t really eat for days. We arrived in Dallas, and I ran right by the officer who had been sent to get us. I don’t know where I thought I was rushing to, just that I needed to get there. She caught up with me and directed us into a private room while our luggage was found. Soon after, I arrived wherever my family was (I still have no clue where that was) and walked in thinking: “This can’t be right. They look normal.” Well, it was right. 

Next, decisions had to be made about the service. Speeches had to be written. An urn chosen. We had to help family from abroad arrive. We had a slideshow to make for the viewings. We had to attend those viewings. I remember getting, literally, hundreds of hugs at one of the viewings. Hundreds. Tight bear-hugs, one after the other, from all the officers. I was weeping, inconsolable, and it was almost as if the tears were squeezed out of me. We were driven from one thing to the next, always with the motorcade of blue lights flashing ahead and behind us. I remember the absolute outrage in the bus when someone cut off the motorcade. None of us could eat, but we drank a lot of Fireball, because that was Dave’s favorite. Finally, there was the big service at Pennington Field. As Our bus rounded the corner, leaving Marta and Dave’s house to head to the service, two little boys stood outside of a home, quietly waving American flags. The bus fell silent. That image is seared into my mind. I will never forget those boys. Just as I will never forget the agony of Dave’s Last Call, beautifully and gut-wrenchingly done by one of the dispatchers.

Next, we had to make plans for and decisions about the service at St. Patrick’s cathedral in NYC. More family traveled to NYC, then did we, with a water cannon salute bidding us goodbye from Dallas. We were taken, by motorcade, from Newark Airport to NYC, all the roads had been blocked and we were flying though an empty Lincoln tunnel before we maneuvered empty NYC streets, and we were finally greeted by dozens of NYPD officers, some in uniform others in civilian clothing, saluting us as we entered the hotel. 

 It goes on and on. I will never be able to put down all the details of what happened in those few days. I can’t even make sense of much of the timeline. 

I’m not quite sure what made want to write this all out and put it “out there” for the world. Maybe, in a way, I’m still trying to understand what happened. Maybe, I just want the world to understand that my brother was not just a uniform. He was an amazing, beautiful, hilarious, intelligent, loving soul, and every single day, hour to hour, minute to minute, his loss lingers over everything we do. Maybe, I’m trying to figure out how to move forward. I think many of us touched by this tragedy are making it through our days, somehow, but completely unsure of how exactly we’re doing it. Finally, at least part of the reason for writing this is because I want to acknowledge the literally hundreds of people who have been there for our family over the course of the last year, and the thousands more who have sent us their thoughts and prayers every day. I learned that tragedy brings out the best and worst in people. Some friendships didn’t withstand this storm, but at the same time, total strangers have become unbelievable sources of comfort and strength. 

The moving-forward-part, though, is much harder to comprehend. I’m not sure how to do that. There’s no recipe for this. A driving force for me has been to think about how I can make an impact in a way that would make Dave proud. So, I’m thinking a lot about that. But, no matter how unclear it all still is, I think there are some lessons we can take directly from Dave. As young as he was when he was taken from us, there was a kind of wisdom to how he lived his life. We just need to look at what he did, to know what we can do too. Like him, let’s love our families. Let’s invest in our friendships. Let’s not worry too much about spending that dollar or smoking that cigar or having that drink. More than anything, let’s care for one another, and ideally, make each other smile or laugh while doing it.

Dave, I miss you beyond words. You were my best friend.

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A Story: Surprise

You know how Facebook allows you to check what happened on this date in previous years? Well, for obvious reasons, I’ve become obsessed with checking it every day. I guess, in a way, I hope to recapture a bit of my interactions with Dave. Every few days there’s something funny or inappropriate he posted to my page, or some cute K-9 video I posted to his. It’s sad, but also somehow a relief to find something that connected Dave and me.

Today is a tough one. The app showed me the video of when Dave, Boris, and I surprised our dad for his 60th birthday just a few days before Dave was killed. It’s so heart-warming, but it’s also gut-wrenching to know that mere days later, from some of the happiest times we went to the absolute worst of times. But, in case you don’t know the story, here it is.

Knowing our dad’s 60th was coming up, we started scheming about what we could do to mark the occasion. Dave always had these ideas about gifting him something really extravagant, like a Harley (or when our mom said “absolutely not” to that idea: a snowmobile). Whatever the idea of the moment, he’d send me links to what he had picked out and was always lobbying for us to start putting money aside for it. Anyways, for this birthday none of us had that kind of money, so we had to come up with something else!

I live in Virginia with my hubby, an obvious possibility was for us to drive the 6 hours for a surprise visit. From there, the surprise mushroomed. I checked with Dave if there was any way he could fly in from Texas, and with Boris to see if he could come from Taiwan — we’re talking about a 20-hour trip here. We hadn’t all been in one place for many, many years since we all live really far from each other and, naturally, someone was always missing from our gatherings. But, somehow, this all came together. So, Jared and I drove up a couple of days early, and were the first unexpected visitors. But, it’s only a 6-hour drive, so this wasn’t all too crazy. Dad was happy, but had no idea what was still in store.

The next day, we made up some story about going to have drinks with some friends who were in the area. In reality, we rushed to the airport were Dave and Boris (with our niece, Valerie) were supposed to arrive. Instead of coming straight to the Newark, Dave had flown into NYC to hang out with his friends there for a few hours. So, by the time he arrived, he’d had a few drinks and, somehow, couldn’t find the international arrival’s hall. How is that even possible?! By the time he finally found his way to where I was waiting for Boris, he had a mischievous grin on his face as I pretended to be irritated. If you know Dave, you know exactly what he looked like with his slightly-apologetic-but-you-can’t-actually-be-annoyed-at-me face.

Shortly after Dave finally found me, Boris and my niece arrived from their long journey from Taipei. We all squeezed into the car and headed back to our parents’. When we arrived, Jared and I went in first and found my dad spread out on the couch watching the news. Dave followed behind me giggling and just sat down next to dad. Then, for the coup the gras, Boris and Valerie walked in, and my dad was completely speechless. Of course, the surprise was great and totally unexpected.

I have a video of the moment everyone walked in, but I can’t bear to post it. It’s too raw, to0 painful and I want to protect that private moment for our family. But, I took a couple of screenshots of the grainy video to include here.

The days that followed the surprise were perfect. We had an amazing 60th birthday dinner. We sat outside on the terrace, chatting, Dave smoking cigars. We had animated, at times contentious, political discussions (imagine imagine for a moment, discussing Bernie vs. Hillary vs. Trump with Dave was wearing a sparkly cowboy hat, drinking whiskey out of a coffee mug). Dave and I had a heart-to-heart about his job and his plans for the future. My mom, as always, told him she was scared for him every day.

So those days were perfect not because we’re a perfect family, but because we were all together. That alone was enough.

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A Thought: The Coming Days

We’re inching our way closer to the looming March 1st end-of-watch anniversary, and everyone is struggling. How could it have been a year already? The weeks ahead of this date lead to constant thoughts that essentially sum up to the worst countdown ever: every day is marked by a “last” something that Dave did or said.

Not long from now, on my dad’s birthday, I’ll think of our plans to surprise him for his 60th birthday last year.

I’ll think of my mild irritation when Dave couldn’t find the international arrival’s hall at Newark Airport (to pick up our older brother and niece before the surprise) because he’d had a drink too many with friends in NYC before he came to meet us. I’ll think about how he was immediately forgiven because of the mischievous smile on his face as he found me and gave me a big bear hug hello.

I’ll  think about re-watching the video of when we all arrived in Princeton for the surprise and my dad’s stunned face when one after the next family he didn’t expect walked into the living room.

I’ll think about the last heart-to-heart conversation we had the day before he left, where he told me how tough his job could be.

I’ll think about how when he said that he would only have a day and half of work coming up when he got home, I suggested to him that he just ask for those days off and just stay in NYC to hang out. I’ll think about how I really wish I pushed him harder to change his plans.

I’ll think about the last hug I gave him around 5am February 29th to wish him a safe trip home.

A Thought: Christmas

Three years ago today I was visiting our grandma in Switzerland and Dave was at work in NYC. That evening we facetimed to wish each other a Merry Christmas and I randomly took this screenshot. Little did I know that this silly picture would become one of the most meaningful.

I miss you baby-brother…beyond anything you can imagine.

This world will never be the same for any of the us.

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A Thought: 8 Months Gone

Today marks the 8th month since that horrible day. I don’t know about anyone else, but it seems like I’ve been in a time-warp. 8 months?! How is that even possible?! The words fail me today, so I will leave you with some of Dave’s own words.

Back when we moved to NYC, and both Dave’s and my English was pretty poor (I was 14, Dave was 11), we entered a beautiful school in Brooklyn Heights that allows students to pursue whatever interests they can dream up. Dave decided he wanted to give pottery a try. Well, due to a little language mix-up, what he saw in the course listing turned out to be POETRY not pottery – a big surprise on that first day of class. Regardless, Dave must have liked it, because he ended up staying in that poetry class from 5th grade all the way through High School.

Dave wrote many, many poems during that time that we recently rediscovered. Dave kept his writing to himself, so I hesitate a bit to share this. But, just as Dave was good at getting me out of my comfort zone, I was good at doing the same for him. In his thoughts about fragility and impermanence, I see March 1st.

The trees were shaking.
Then I hear thunder.
I looked outside again.
Now the trees were shaking even more.
It was a scary sight, something so
Powerful, so big, so strong.
And yet, shaken up so easily.
Crack…
Or should I say,
Broken so easily.

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I think the poem may be from beginning of high school — so around the time of this photo

A Thought: On Strength

People tell us that they admire our strength. Honestly, I don’t feel strong. I don’t think my parents feel strong either. Many days we’re not quite sure how we made it through. In the early weeks after Dave was killed, my mom would say that she didn’t know how she was breathing, and we all knew exactly what she meant. Now, things are a little more manageable.

I guess.

It’s so hard to put into words what life is like now.

My life looks, mostly, “normal.” I walk my dogs. I shop for food and cook. I go to the gym. I attend classes, run data analyses, teach, have meetings and write reports. So, anyone looking in would see a busy grad student. But, mostly it feels like a facade. Just underneath the surface, more often than not I’m thinking about what happened on March 1st, about how long it’s been, about missing Dave. There are constant reminders of him everywhere I look. If I see a patrol car pass, I wish I could talk to the officer – to feel closer to Dave’s experiences, to thank the officer for doing their job, to talk to someone who knows on some level what all of this means (so far, no luck — I’m much too boring for the police to pay attention to me!). When I see a bird of prey overhead, I remember how much he loved them. He could identify the exact type of bird by their outline as he watched them from below. When someone mentions their sibling, I feel a knot in my stomach. When I see something ridiculous, I hear the joke Dave would have made. Sometimes, I manage a chuckle.

Spending time with my family and people who knew and loved Dave is the time when I have permission to let what’s under the surface come to the forefront. In those moments, with those people, I can just be in that grief – however it may express itself. Instead of pushing my thoughts and feelings to the side, I can let them come and go. The best part is, everyone understands. I think that in allowing myself that time, I can work on building myself up again.

So, whatever strength I have is coming from the love and care around me. The grand gestures aren’t what makes this easier — it’s the little reminders that you’re thinking of us: the random texts to say hi and the absurd snapchats that are best forgotten soon after opening. It’s the clever, gritty jokes that remind me so much of Dave’s sense of humor. It’s getting made fun of for being a “tree-hugger” or “super-liberal” (I imagine a cape-wearing superhero). It’s the little tributes to Dave that pop up regularly on Facebook, or just new comments on old posts. I see you think of him and of us, and I know you’re sharing our burden.

So, we may not feel strong, but I guess we’re still standing, still taking one step at a time into, hopefully, brighter days ahead. We’re doing what needs to be done, and we’re doing it with you by our side. So, thank you.

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Our table in the Texas Senate chamber for the Star of Texas ceremony on 9/12/16

On Your Birthday

Today, you would have been 30, baby bro. Today, I should have been able to call you and sing you an atrocious rendition of “happy birthday.” I should have been able to tell you that you’re officially old, and you should have been able to tell me that I’m older still. I should have been able to tease you about having to look out for those hangovers that would all of the sudden start, probably even with that night’s celebration. 

I should have been able to welcome you into one of the best years of your life: a year where you and your love would have had your beautiful wedding day with all your “best buddies” (since you could never restrict yourself to only one best man); a year filled with Mickey’s shenanigans in your newly renovated first home; a year where you FaceTime me from your fire-pit, a glass of whiskey and stogie in hand, just to show me how amazing your pool looked and to tell me that life is good; a year of constant requests to come visit again, or you know, to just move to Texas already; a year of texts to show me the newest smoker experiment and, probably, tell me there’s Fireball in the marinade; a year of super-impressive dubsmashes and wildly inappropriate, yet surprisingly artistic, snapchats; a year of random much-too-generous gifts for the people you loved; a year of ridiculous German accents and impressions; a year of gym selfies showing off your “godlike physique” and updating on the circumference of your biceps; a year of spreading only the biggest laughs and the deepest care. 

We should have been able to tell you to have an amazing day celebrating, envisioning only the most wonderful things for you. Instead, we’re left with only the memories that have already been written.

You are so, so loved. And, you are so, so missed. The amount of love you have generated in others is beyond comprehension. If we can achieve the same in our lifetime, we will have done well. 

Today, we’ll raise our glasses to you. We’ll cry for you. We’ll laugh for you. And, most of all, we’ll try to live our lives a bit more like you did, ’cause let’s face it: you had this living-thing down. 

Birthdays Without You

On Sept. 1st, Jared sat by me and asked me what we should do for my birthday. And just like that, I started crying. Every day since we’ve reached September, I knew these days were coming. My birthday today. Dave’s birthday two days later. Just two days apart, we celebrated them together as kids and as adults (forget the teens…we were annoyed by each other then).

And, now I’m supposed to do what exactly?

Here are a few of our past birthdays that we celebrated together.

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Sept. 2007

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Sept. 2009

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Sept. 2013

Last year, I was in Virginia and Dave was in Texas, so as a poor substitute for having fun celebrating together, we sent each birthday message on via text and Facebook.

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“Bruderherz” literally translates to “brother-heart” and is a ridiculously cheesy, old-fashioned German term to refer to a beloved brother. Whenever I wanted to annoy Dave (so, very regularly), I’d tease him by calling him that in a super-irritating voice. Reading my silly Facebook note, black on white, and understanding that not six months later he would be killed hurts beyond imagination.

We never know when our time is up, so the only thing we can do is to love and care for the ones who are important to us. Laugh with them. Cherish them every day.

Love you, Dave. I know you knew that.

A Thought: “Don’t fear us. Don’t hate us.”

The Facebook world is extremely emotionally draining to me right now. I have friends on all sides of the political spectrum and the anger, misunderstandings and generalizations are so glaring, so confusing, so overwhelming, that most of the time I just feel that this whole problem is hopeless. I’m stuck in the middle, able to see the various sides, but the gulf between the parties seems so vast. I’m confused that people only seem to recognize the pain on one side of the equation: Black pain or Blue pain. In my mind, it’s all just pain. And, instead of yelling at each other from opposite sides of the table, we should acknowledge when someone is hurting. I feel utterly helpless.

This helplessness has caused me to avoid commenting on a lot of controversial issues, not because I’m ignorant to them or because I’ve put them out of my mind, but because my thoughts are confused, my emotional capacity has been drained by the loss of my brother and best friend, and it simply feels like no reasonable dialogue can be had. At least not in my current state, and definitely not on social media.

But, once in a while, I see a message that I think captures something important – a message that seeks to clarify and reconcile differences, a message that emphasizes that we each can do better in our own little world, a message that ultimately desires unity. With his permission, I wanted to post one such messages by one Texas police officer.

Thank you for your words, officer. And thank you for keeping Dave in your heart as you go out in service of our communities.

“This is a little outside the norm here for me. You guys know this is usually an outlet for my sense of humor. But this was heavy on my mind today. In light of recent events, pretty much right at my own front door, I’m sitting here looking for the motivation to go to work, wondering why I do this. Then I’m very aware that 100s of thousand others across this land are going to work as well with the uncertainty of what’s waiting for us when we check in service. My thoughts are: we are peacekeepers; it’s time to work. However recently, we are hated targets.

Two young officers I respect have both reached out to this old man and asked, “what keeps you going?” One answer is “It’s what we chose to do.” The other one, most recently, pretty much answered her own question when she told me “We do it because that’s our job. We strap up because we are warriors.” She pretty much nailed it. That’s what we are for the peaceful.

I think we are the excuse used by the lawless for violence and now have to be, and need to be, the catalyst for change. We aren’t the killers many accuse us of being, but sometimes a life is taken, but NEVER because it’s a desire to do so.

There’s no way to describe what comes over you and takes place inside you when you point a gun at another human being. That’s something and someplace you never want to be. Well, we don’t either.

I think back over the last 30 years, why I chose this profession, or why it chose me. Simply put, catch the bad guys and help everyone else. It turns into a job of dealing with more bad guys than helping it seems like.

I think tonight, I’ll try to pick up where Dave left off. David Hofer, one of our young officers whose life was taken recently, was a good officer and a kind young man. Dave, I think, pretty much set the example or set the bar for kindness to everyone, good or bad. Tonight my goal, other than to go home at the end of the shift, is to see how many positive encounters I can have, to be like Dave!

My beat is largely minority with some that have been identified as a threat to police. I personally don’t see ethnicity. I don’t see color. I see behavior and deal with the behavior. I see what’s needed and what needs or has to be done. I think you’ll find almost all in my profession see that the same way, believe it or not.

Don’t fear us. Don’t hate us. Just know we are there, doing a job most would never want to do. So much hate in this world. Someone I don’t know yet, will want or need my help today, so I guess I’ll get ready to go to work now and see what’s waiting out there.

Pray for the Blue, say a few words of encouragement to the next cop you see.

Pray for peace, love one another!”

To the Families of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa

Today, I’m tired. I’m tired because as I’m mourning my brother who was assassinated in the line of duty on March 1st in Euless, Texas, I have to think about you. I think about the moment you received a knock on the door from uniformed men and women with somber faces. I think about how you walk up to the door thinking that this isn’t good. But, believing at the same time that it can’t really be bad either, because you love your officer. It just can’t be that bad. And, then it is.

It is, in fact, the worst.

I think about the moment you receive a phone call or a visit from a panicked loved one and you hear the words uttered that: “He was shot. He’s gone.” And all you can think is: “No, it can’t be. It’s not him. It can’t be him. I love him. He can’t be gone. He’s a good person. He can’t be gone.”

But, he is.

But, he can’t be.

But, he is.

He is.

I think about how you will rush to the hospital, or make your way to the funeral home. You will see the rest of your family and those closest to you, and you will sit in silence, confused, because this is all wrong. Then, something odd will happen or someone will say something funny and you smile or laugh, because this is all so unreal. And, you will think how can I possibly laugh right now. My husband is dead. Or, my dad is dead. Or, my brother is dead.

In the next moment, you will look around and wonder why you’re there, in that moment, in that situation. And you’ll remember that:

“He was killed.”

And you’ll think that it can’t be. He was a good person. This only happens to “other people.”

But, it happened. And, you’re really at the funeral home, making decisions about caskets and flowers.

I think about how your family in Blue will take your hand, squeeze your shoulder, bring you a plate of food that you don’t want to touch. They will glance in your direction, feeling helpless that they can’t do anything to ease your pain, except perhaps, get you to drink a cup of water and eat a bite of anything at all. You will feel ill. Your stomach will hurt. Your chest will feel so heavy. You will feel like you can’t breathe.

As you sit there, making decisions on music and viewings, you will think:

“How can a person bear this much pain.”

“How am I still breathing? How am I still walking?”

Some moments you will think: “I wish the world would just open up and take me away.”

I think about how you will go to sleep at night, exhausted, and when you wake up, for just a moment things will be ok, and then the knowledge of what has happened will wash over you and you will experience the deepest, darkest sadness you will ever know. And this will happen morning after morning, at least for a little while.

I’m no expert at grieving, but I’m a few months ahead of where you are. There is nothing that anyone will say or do that will feel right, because right now everything is just wrong. People will try to comfort you, tell you there is a reason for everything, tell you that an angel went home or that something good will come from all this.

Know that they mean well, but they can’t possibly understand what it means to have someone you love torn from you in the most violent way possible.

After Dave was killed I received a letter from a father, who lost his own son too soon. He wrote: “Time does not heal the pain.  The pain you feel at the loss will never diminish but every day you will get stronger in how you deal and cope with that pain.” This was the most helpful thing anyone has said to me.

These words will bring you little comfort in these horrible days ahead, but know that we are thinking of you. We understand. We’re here. You will, somehow, make it.

You have to make it, because your man in blue needs you too.

~ Meret H., sister of David S. Hofer, EOW 3/1/2016

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