United We Stand!
Last month, I attended my Cousin Ashley’s funeral, who was tragically murdered in her home. It was a horrific situation and a sad day for the entire family. I came by myself and expected to pay my respects and mourn with Ashley’s family as we laid her to rest and to try to make sense of the motives behind her killer. What I did not expect was to be inspired.
Gas City, Indiana, is a small community about an hour south of Fort Wayne. The community was rocked by Ashley’s murder, a 29 year old single mother of two young children. When I arrived at the funeral home, I was surprised to see over 100 motorcycles of every make and model parked outside, poised to escort Ashley to her final resting place. The funeral home was standing room only, so many showed up that some had to stand in a side room and watch the service on a closed circuit television.
The service was touching and I watched with tear filled eyes as a video tribute was played and Ashley’s uncle, a preacher, provided the heartfelt message. It was a beautiful sunny day and I rode with two of my Aunts to the gravesite. The motorcycles rumbled through the city streets as they solemnly escorted Ashley to the cemetery. Hundreds of Gas City residents lined the streets and quietly watched the parade of vehicles pass by them. Cars pulled to the side of the road and people stepped out of their cars and held their hands over their hearts. I saw heads bowed in prayer. I witnessed a town coming to a complete halt as one of their daughters, whose life ended too soon, passed through the streets of Gas City one final time.
It was not until I stood at the gravesite that I began to look around at everyone who gathered to say goodbye. I was touched by what I witnessed. I saw a lesbian couple, black people, white people, Hispanic people, rednecks, bikers, Christians, non-Christians, people from every demographic and social status. But instead of seeing their differences, I saw a group united in grief.
At the end of the graveside service, before the group departed, balloons of different shapes, colors, and sizes were distributed among the crowd. Ashley’s two young children were given special metallic balloons. The group gathered in a circle and someone from the crowd cried out, “For Ashley!” and the balloons were released in unison. The cadre of balloons filled the sky of Gas City; they rose like rockets into the pale blue sky. It was a beautiful sight, so much that there was an audible gasp from the crowd. And like a flash, the balloons were gone. They drifted too high to see, like they rose to Heaven.
That same diverse group gathered for a dinner at a church hall back in town. We were treated by a fully catered meal, all donated from several restaurants in the city. I spoke to one of my cousins, that was tending to the food, and she stated that the food just started showing up. Total strangers brought hot freshly made entrees, desserts, and money to help pay for the funeral and take care of Ashley’s kids that were left behind. Shirts and buttons with Ashley’s picture on it were sold to help raise funds for the family. The night before, hundreds gathered for a vigil to honor Ashley’s memory. I heard that one of the meanest looking bikers of the group committed to take some of his monthly pay check and donate it to the family to help them pay for the funeral. Amazing!
Ashley’s funeral reminded me of the human condition. Life is tragic and eventually we all end up at a gravesite. Wherever there are two or more people, there will always be conflict and pain. Our country is not perfect and we have shameful periods in our past, but the entire human race has that. The United States is about as diverse as a nation can be and we have many differences, but in the end we always find a way to unite and support each other when it becomes necessary. Ashley’s funeral reminded me of that.
I saw beauty in the human race that day. I witnessed grace and understanding. We were not lesbians, conservatives, or liberals; we were just a community of souls mourning the loss of a young mother. Although the situation was tragic, I was inspired by how those in our family and community responded in such a positive and uplifting way. I was proud to be a member of the Rheam family, I was proud of the Gas City community for taken care of one of its own, and I was inspired by a group of Americans that showed up and were united.