We were there that night. Swimming in Torch Lake.
Raini. And me.
The sirens kept us from pulling out of the tiny little parking lot onto the road and shushed the laughter.
The lake had been a relief. A cold, long dredge from the deepest well of cool, healing water on a day you never want to do again. Washing away the tears from our faces, the sweat from our bodies and the anguish from our souls.
It was the day we sat together in a church and paid our respects to Grandpa and for a few brief moments we'd let the sadness go.
The sirens brought us back.
They kept coming. More lights. More sirens.
The dread grew in our hearts until it was as palpable as the sweat dripping down our backs. The coolness of the water we’d just played in was replaced by the steamy, sticky, humid air all around.
We prayed, silently, alone in our own hearts. But we knew.
Late the next morning we heard his name, stunned that the life that was lost that night was that of a friend.
Friday came too soon, despite the dragging hot days in between.
I stood in the barn and saw the row of policemen closing the circle and wanted to stay in the shade of the barn and pretend not to see the tears of the men in uniform.
They had circled the wagons. I’d never seen that before. So many engines and rescue trucks and police cars; enough to envelope more than 600 people in the comfort of their strength.
We stood, in the sun, because there was nowhere left to sit, and around us the people continued to gather over the next hour.
“Greater love hath no man…”, the minister said, and the words hit home in every heart listening.
The bell rang. And rang again. And again.
Three times because that’s what you do when there is a man down. A man who has heard the final alarm and answered the call.
They folded the flag and carried his helmet and while I tried to look away, there were tears on the faces of all the young men and the pain was everywhere, unavoidable, and my tears fell with theirs. Not just because of Loren, but because I know what that first taste of death feels like, what that loss of a childhood friend does as it drags the innocence from your soul.
They radioed in a roll call from all the stations, calling goodbye to a brother down the open lines. And left it open while the static said more than any words could.
We moved around after the final prayer in uncomfortable camaraderie with everyone else there. In a while there formed three distinct groups: the boys out behind the barn, throwing back beer after beer in his truck, sweat pouring from their bodies, tears from their eyes; the ems and firefighter crews hiding behind the wall of trucks, seeking privacy to mourn their brother in uniform, a brother who will never be forgotten, immortalized in the halls of their particular fraternities; and the rest of us in the middle. Attempting to comfort each other; the family; the community.
I stood in the group at the front, taking some pictures, reading the cards on the flowers, looking at the old photos of a little boy riding a horse.
And then there was no one else left in line and I stood in front of her, wondering how to do this, how to… how…
I stepped forward.
I hugged her and whispered the lamest words on the planet and stepped away, looking into her eyes, wondering whether she recognized anyone at all. There ARE no words to say, not even from a mother to a mother unless you have walked that path through hell and back.
She has walked it twice now.
She is Job.
It was hard to turn and leave. As we walked away there was this knowledge that when the hugs are finished, when the words of condolence have evaporated with the heat, when all the people are gone, those who loved him most will wake up to pain.
Pain and hopefully dim memories of this god-awful day.
The sirens wailed for us all as his brothers drove away, down the dusty road.
* Loren worked for Colby one summer a few years back. He died trying to save the life of his friend while swimming in Torch Lake on Sunday, July 17, two days before his 22nd birthday.