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National Police Week: Tears at the wall

The day before a hurricane arrived was probably not the best time to make a pilgrimage, but there I was. Actually, the weather felt appropriate. I’d driven three hours to get to the area, arrived shortly after noon, and was then faced with the task of finding a place to park. Forty-five minutes later, I found a place eight blocks away.

Rarely in my life have I described anything I’ve seen as “breath-taking” — the birth of my daughter, the first time I saw the surface of the moon through a really powerful telescope, the Oklahoma City bombing, not much else. Yet, there I stood with the rain and wind ripping around me, and no air moving in or out of my lungs. My shoulders slouched forward, as if there was a heavy weight on them. There was an emptiness in the pit of my stomach, as if I’d taken a really good shot to the gut. It was awe-inspiring, it was humbling, and it hurt.

The first thing that hit me was its size. Three acres in the heart of Washington, D.C. I guess I’d expected a tall wall, scrunched in between buildings. Instead I found a long curving line of marble, about three feet high. I stood at one end of the curving wall and it seemed as if I couldn’t see the end point — it felt like the line went on forever. Then I realized that there was another long, curving line of marble maybe 25 feet away, mirroring the first.

‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘two of them!’ They formed an oval of curving marble, with a fountain, grass, and trees in the middle. For a moment I was befuddled; I couldn’t figure out which side I should move to first. Large sculptures marked the end of the lines, a lion watching over some cubs. I moved past the sculptures to the line closest to me.

That was when I saw the names. Each wall was formed of 64 panels, 128 of them altogether. Each panel was inscribed with names, starting at the top, continuing to about half way down. Just names, I thought, one after another. There was no rhyme or reason to the listing, no division by date, department, or gender. Some of the names were Hispanic, others Irish, still others Vietnamese. Many seemed uncommon and quaint, clearly a product of another region or century in this country. I was struck by the diversity of the names, and wondered at the different backgrounds each had come from. They were just names, one after another, unified by one common element — they were law enforcement officers who had died while protecting others.

Then came the overwhelming realization of the number of names — those present, those absent, and those yet to be added. A question from my childhood came to mind — half empty, or half full? As I looked at the marble panels, the answer came to me: Both. The weight of the names carved there was heavy, and seemed to shout, “Look how many have died!” The empty space below the names quietly waited, as if to say, “More will come.”

I found myself crying.

I began walking the length of the first line. I couldn’t read each name; there were just too many of them. Instead, I made a point of letting my eye travel over each panel as I slowly walked by, focusing on a name every few seconds. As I silently read a name, I wondered whom they had been, where they had worked, and how they had died. I wondered if those killed since 1991 had ever thought their name would wind up on the Memorial. I wondered if mine ever would.

I reached the end of the first line, and found a directory of names in a covered kiosk. The directory was organized alphabetically, and would enable the reader to locate the specific panel and line where a sought name was located. Pamphlets were located next to the directory, protected from the rain.

I realized a subway stop was located under the Memorial — the Judiciary Square Subway Stop, F Street Exit. People hurried by, anxious to be out of the wind and rain. I wondered how many of them realized what they were walking past — who they were walking past, and if they cared. Did they ever eat lunch here on a nice day, reflecting on the sacrifice the fallen had made?

I began walking down the second line, again scanning each panel. Inscriptions from the wall continued to run through my head. “It is not how these officers died that made them heroes, it is how they lived,” and “In valor there is hope.” Reminders to civilians, I thought. Reminders to us as well. I finally reached the end of the line, and paused to lay a hand on the life-sized bronze lion there.

I turned back to take it all in, and found I couldn’t — it was just too big. I tossed a coin into the fountain, and made a silent wish. Walking first to one side and then the other, I offered a salute to each and a silent thanks. It was the least I could do.

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