Black Band and Blue Ribbon
Lori A. May
I am surrounded by a few thousand strangers, yet they are my family. I adopted myself into this community of black and blue the day my spouse and I exchanged vows. I promised to love, honour, and cherish this man until death do us part. I knew, and know every day, that his death could come well before mine, that his death could come at the hand of another while in the line of duty.
As I look around, seated amid a full capacity audience in Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple which boasts a congregation of 6,000 members, I see uniforms of various colours, ranks, and regions. I see spouses, children, parents, neighbours, and friends. I see myself reflected in every one of their eyes.
Officer Brian Huff, badge number 4600, had been on the job with the Detroit Police Department for 12 years when he responded to a 3:30 am call. A report came in of shots fired, and Huff, along with several other officers, surrounded the known drug house. They positioned themselves and made entry only to be met with gunfire. Huff was fatally shot. Four others were victim to non-life threatening wounds. The shooter was sentenced to three terms of life in prison without parole. Justice didn’t bring Huff back. It didn’t erase what happened that morning.
Front and centre, Huff’s wife Melissa and his 10-year old son Blair are seated before the altar. The Mayor, Chief, and a string of dignitaries boast about Huff’s service and dedication as an officer; colleagues share anecdotes and offer condolences to the family. Blair, a miniature replica of his father, takes the stage for a moment to say how proud he is of his father, “Big Huff Daddy,” and to announce to all how he is going to take care of his mama, how he’s the man of the house now. The crowd simultaneously chuckles and chokes back tears.
I never met Brian Huff. I never met his family. But, by association, I know them. They are us. They are a family that kisses each other before and — if all goes well — after work.
The auditorium is stuffy even as vents release conditioned air. This is a city church. Here, in the northwest corner of Detroit, just a few miles from busy Botsford Hospital, the church calls people together when so often the city is divided. Greater Grace Temple is tucked off the intersection of Seven Mile and Telegraph — a road that divides low income housing with even lower income housing. Telegraph is the margin where factory workers align and a working class neighbourhood is a step up from boarded over buildings. Just around the corner is one of the last standing K-Marts and a hole-in-the-wall restaurant my spouse frequented for Chicken Fried Salad laden with ranch dressing, fried strips of chicken, and eggs. This is no tourist neighbourhood, but it works. Or, rather, the people who live here are making it work.
This is a mega-church. Here, neighbourhood families come together to worship. Voices routinely call out in praise, sing loud in chorus. My mouth is dry. Tears stream down my cheek into the creases of my lips and taste of salt. I dab my eyes often. I feel the lump in my throat choking each swallow. I cannot look at my spouse, so afraid am I that it will make me lose control.
For years, my husband worked on the east side where Huff was assigned the day of the shooting. On the day of the murder, my husband was called out to the crime scene to assist in the investigation. He was called right after the scene was secure, and even though the suspect had been apprehended, I failed to sleep until my husband arrived home more than 12 hours later.
Some nights I jolt from sleep, sit up abruptly for no apparent reason. I try not to psych myself out, tell myself it’s not some sixth sense or women’s intuition, that it’s just a dream or noise outside, it’s not my body and heart telling me something is wrong. Just as soon as I accept that, my mind wanders, knowing it could be like that someday. It could be a knock on the door in the middle of the night or early in the morning. It could be a phone call. It could be my spouse calling to tell me he loves me through his last breath. It could be two solemn-faced officers at the door. Then I hate myself for thinking like that, imagining that, and accept how irrational I can be sometimes. Usually I fall asleep again. Sometimes, I make a quick call to tell my husband I love him, realise I’ve just interrupted something, feel like a schmuck, and go back to sleep.
I can’t help it. I’m a small town Canadian married to a Detroit cop. Guns were not a part of my upbringing. Sure, Canada has crime. It’s not the same. My experience in Detroit has not been the same as the experience of my birth country. And I cannot believe how I ever thought moving just a few hours across the border wasn’t going to be a big deal. I laugh, now, at how I so easily shook it off when others asked if I was prepared for culture shock.
When I first moved over to Michigan from Ontario, the housing market had just crashed and there was no foreseeable time when we’d be able to sell my spouse’s bachelor pad — a modest house located in what used to be known as Copper Canyon. On Detroit’s east side, mere blocks — and yet worlds away — from the more celebrated Grosse Pointe border, Copper Canyon formerly housed many of the east side first responders. That was when residency by-laws were in effect and city workers had to live south of Eight Mile. My spouse was the last man standing after everyone else cleared out after the by-law changed.
The market crashed, we were married, and I moved in. Our street was short and mostly inhabited — unlike many blocks within the city limits — but we had our fair share of drug houses down the road. Across the street was a greater threat: a city park without working lights and ‘fireworks’ that went off just about nightly.
It took only a few months to drown out the routine sound of gunfire. The first few weeks, months even, I would call my spouse if it sounded like something particularly unruly was happening. Soon, though, the rattle and pop across the street, down the road, became white noise in the background. It came to be that I no longer distinguished the local gunfire of Detroit from the sounds I was formerly accustomed to in southwestern Ontario: squirrels running up trees, skateboarding kids, an active public transit line squeaking to a stop every 10 minutes.
My Canadian ears adjusted to their new norm, except for New Year’s Eve. While I recognise it’s not just Detroit, not just Michigan, that shoots up the night on the last day of the year, it’s not something I am comfortable with and when we lived within the city limits, across from that active park, I knew well enough to shut off the lights, stay clear from the large living room window, and bury myself under the covers praying for the quiet of January to come.
In the years we lived south of Seven Mile, I saw more than one house ablaze in fire, one destroyed completely due to a chemical drug lab explosion, and more than a few ambulances taking away body bags. But one thing I learned about Detroit is that this city has heart. For all of its struggles, for all its hardships, the people who live here are passionate about their communities. They want to make things better. They work hard. They come together to support one another. Living in Detroit changed me. It ingrained in me the significance of the city I moved to and the man I married.
Following Huff’s family and friends, my spouse and I exit the church after the service and manoeuvre through the gathering outside. The massive crowd from inside the church increases with those who were lining the streets, awaiting the procession.
Streets, entire blocks, are blocked off, where scout cars line the surrounding area. Even with off-site parking, shuttles were arranged and the Detroit Department of Transportation arranged free bus rides from the precincts. Each bus is decorated with a floral wreath and black fabric that skirts the bottom. Individual cars are decorated, too, with flowers and posters or framed photos of Officer Huff.
Blue lapel ribbons are handed out as they are at every police funeral. Volunteers, usually women, offer tiny blue ribbons to honour and acknowledge those who lost their lives. The volunteers are survivors: spouses, offspring, parents, siblings, and colleagues. They give their time to others who experience what they have already themselves sacrificed. These are the same volunteers who will arrive at your door, offering condolences and support should the unthinkable happen.
I smooth the silk ribbon between my index finger and thumb, then pick up the pace as we continue to weave through to the other side of the procession. Once everyone has exited the church, formations align throughout the wide street. Members of the Honour Guard stand rigid, awaiting their time to salute. The Mounted unit is off to the side, while K9 members pace through the street, showing their presence while also securing the area. This is an unfortunate necessity. It’s not unheard of to have death or bomb threats at police funerals.
When I see a line-up of Canadian Mounted Police, I want to rush to them, talk to them, tell them this is my new home, and thank them for coming, but I don’t. There are several Canadian officers here thanks to the nearby border crossing. From the US, there are hundreds of departments represented. We notice cars from Tennessee, Florida, Texas, California, and everywhere in between. It’s the same for every police funeral I’ve attended. They feel one another’s loss.
Huff’s uniform is framed and carried on display as the Mayor and his dignitaries emerge from the church. The crowd is quiet now as the Metro Detroit Police & Fire Pipes and Drums escort the casket out into the street. The band offers their time and talent to any Michigan family for the purpose of honouring the fallen.
An American flag is folded up for the family. The bugle plays Taps. The Police Chief hands the folded flag to Melissa Huff. She squeezes the fabric, as though her husband breathes within those threads. Like a chorus, uniformed arms raise and hands tilt firmly against the brow, saluting the fallen officer as the Honour Guard fires. A flyby roars overhead.
There is beauty on this street. Here there is community, solidarity, and representation from across the country and beyond and it is moving. We grieve together, yet we share pride. Honour. And feel stronger because of one another.
The hearse carrying Huff’s body to his resting place leaves, but the crowd lingers. This is a reunion, where officers are brought together under the worst of circumstances. Here, there are familiar faces not seen for months or years. No one wants to walk away. No one wants to go on with the rest of the day, as though an item has been checked off the to-do list.
A few colleagues call my spouse over and we stay on the street a bit longer. They joke, laugh, tell stupid stories. They suffer, but they must cope. On their chests, they each wear a badge. Each is individual, with a number identifying who they are, yet collective in uniting them as a department. Today, and for the remainder of the week, each officer will wear a black band across the badge to keep a lost colleague close to their hearts.
I’m introduced to a few folks unfamiliar to me. One is a lieutenant who has seen my spouse work under fairly gruesome circumstances. “You got one of the good ones,” he says as he shakes my hand. Then, after he’s informed of where I’m from and how I moved from a quiet town in Ontario to Detroit, the lieutenant sweeps his eyes across the lingering crowd and says, “Well, then. Welcome to Detroit.”
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Lori A. May is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
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