Dear Ryan, Liam, Finn and Owen,
It's been exactly one month since you experienced the most defining moment of your lives so far. I say "so far" because I'm hoping it doesn't become THE defining moment of your life long-term; there is so much living ahead for each of you! I trust God's ability to bring beauty from ashes, and I am expectantly waiting to see how He'll continue to define and refine your lives.
But this letter isn't about what's to come, it's about what happened last month. It's about the death of your father, Sean.
One day - probably years from now - you'll read this letter. I am not sure what you'll remember from the days we laid your dad to rest, and I trust the people in your lives will be able to fill in gaps for you.
I asked your mom if I could be one of those people and write this letter to you, and she gave me permission to do so. She also gave me permission to take photos at your dad's visitation and funeral, knowing one day you might want to see the honor that surrounded your dad's farewell.
It has taken me a month to write this letter to you. I have been waiting for the shock to subside because I didn't want this letter to be about your dad's death. I want this letter to be about Sean's life; THAT is worth writing about! But, of course, I have to start with his death or, rather, the days we said our formal goodbyes to him.
Before I get much further, I'm going to ask your forgiveness. I know parts of this letter won't make sense, because I'm struggling to make sense of your dad's death. I should wait even longer to write this letter, but then it won't ever be written because I'll never make sense of Sean's death! I'd love for this letter to flow nicely, but it's going to be scattered and sloppy because the memories are so intense.
Boys, please know this before you read any further: your dad was so deeply loved. The loss we all felt when he died was more than an emotion. It was a physical presence. It's as if the Loss has become a person who pulled up a chair in each of our lives and has refused to budge no matter how desperately we've been ignoring it. Then Loss invited Shock to the table, and Grief became the hostess.
Everyone who knew and loved your dad has been walking around with these "companions" for a month now. I can see it when someone posts on Sean's Facebook page, telling a story about him or simply saying how much he is missed.
We can't shake the grief, because we can't shake the love either.
When I left your dad's visitation and funeral, I jotted notes in my phone because I knew I wanted to tell you about these days - one day in the future. Here are the things I don't want to forget:
On the day of your dad's visitation, hundreds of people showed up out of respect and love. There were so many people, we ran out of parking spots at the Stygar funeral home. There's an unused furniture store next door, so people started parking there and walking over. The parking lot is enormous but when I pulled up that night, it was already half full. Overflow was overflowing! I parked (illegally - it would have made your dad laugh) and hugged some friends in the parking lot. I looked at the fire trucks and the flag flying from the ladders, and started choking back tears. I've seen fire trucks and flags like this before, but never for a friend of mine.
Dan, Jackson, and I started walking towards the front doors of Stygar. The firefighters in their uniforms stood with each other, talking quietly. I wanted to pretend they were all friends of someone else, but I couldn't pretend once I recognized some of their faces. When I saw Nick Hercules in his uniform with Christina by his side, the reality of our shared loss unraveled us all.
In the lobby of Stygar, there were so many people it was hard to walk. The line of people who were waiting to speak to your mom and your dad's parents and siblings was so long, it wrapped around the perimeter of the funeral parlor.
In the middle of the hardest days of her life, your mom's grace was tangible and fierce. I watched her comfort the people who were supposed to be comforting her, the people who meant to give sympathy but instead received it. Your mom was wrecked, but she wasn't destroyed. I can't explain what it was like to be a witness to her dignity and strength.
Liam, every time a friend arrived at the visitation, you played host and made sure the friend got to see your dad and say hello/goodbye. You also wanted your buddies to see the firefighters who were standing guard over your dad. When you made sure your friends had greeted your dad, you carried on and went about the building in a way that showed your understanding and acceptance.
Ryan, I watched you become a leader for your brothers. You walked with courage through an experience no one could have prepared you for. For years now, your parents have been laying a foundation for your character. When your dad died, that character went from invisible to visible. We saw the heart of a boy who is becoming a man.
At the end of the visitation, everyone who was still there took a seat. You boys sat with your mom, waiting for the firefighters to file past the casket and salute your dad. In the silent waiting, Finn and Owen’s voices could be heard asking your mom things like, “Does Daddy like my picture?” and “Are we going to have fun tomorrow?” Everyone in the room fought back tears as best as we could, but it didn’t help because the firefighters’ goodbyes made the tears flow again. When that was finished, all of our hearts ached when Ryan grabbed Owen and Finn’s hands and led them to your dad’s casket. When Ryan and Finn turned to sit, Owen stayed. The entire room gasped, then sobbed, as we watched Owen salute the casket then make the sign of the cross before folding his hands into prayer. He stood like that for just a moment, then turned to join your family.
When the visitation was over and almost everyone had left the Stygar funeral home, I was standing with Nick and Kevin. One of the Stygar employees walked over to talk to us. She didn’t know your dad, but wanted to share the grief she felt being present during the visitation. Then she looked at Kevin and Nick, locked eyes with them, and thanked each of them for their service as firefighters. It touched me to see the way a stranger could feel the depth of love for your dad and take the time to share it with someone else.
The funeral was on Thursday. Your family met at Stygar to escort your dad to the church. One of the ladder trucks from your dad’s firehouse was draped in black, and all the other trucks followed behind it on the drive to St. Joseph’s.
As we drove closer to the church, the bells rang long and loud in his honor. The firefighters stationed at the firehouse across from St. Joseph’s stood on their driveway, saluting your dad.
Outside the church, firefighters stood at attention to welcome your dad and family.
I remember sitting in the back of the church, looking at the crowd of people gathered in respect for your dad. During his homily, Monsignor invited Owen and Finn to stand so he could tell them about a stained glass in the sanctuary. Owen and Finn, you stood on your seats and all I could see was your heads popping up above the crowd like prairie dogs.
When we left the church and drove to the cemetery, the funeral procession stretched for two miles.
Traffic came to a standstill. Some people even got out of their cars to stand on the side of the road to honor your dad’s service.
We passed another firehouse, and another team of firefighters stood in their driveway to pay their respects.
When we parked at the cemetery, Dan and I realized we parked by the bagpiper. He was preparing for the funeral, and I heard his warm-up notes before I even opened my car door.
During the burial ceremony, your dad’s partner from the firehouse (Kim) rang a bell three times. The tones went off and your dad’s last call was announced by the fire district dispatcher. We couldn’t stop crying.
When the ceremony was over and people started hugging and consoling each other, we didn’t quite know what to do next. It was like nobody wanted to leave, but we knew we couldn’t stay. After one of the firefighters alerted the other first responders that someone had fainted and an ambulance arrived, we all scattered. Some people said their last goodbyes, and some went on to the reception at the union hall.
Before Dan and I left, we watched your McMullin grandparents, aunts, and uncles as they went to your dad’s casket one more time. Your Casner aunts and uncle did, too.
Later that evening, I drove back to the cemetery to visit your dad’s grave. It isn’t far from my house, so it was the first of many visits for me. I sat by his grave to cry and think about his life and all the things I already missed about him: Adidas and karaoke and mix CDs and singing Eminem together and touring the firehouse and Smithwicks and St. Pat’s parades and Sigma Derby in Vegas and beach volleyball in Jamaica. I thought about one of my first memories from the beginning of our friendship, when your parents were the first people I shared our new pregnancy with. Even if I knew then that I would sit by your dad’s grave now, I wouldn’t change anything – except telling him I loved him more often and responding differently in the last texts we shared. When he texted, "Let's get together soon," I wish I had responded with more than, "Yeah, we should do that."
Sitting by the grave, I also thought back over the last six days since your dad died. So many new memories came to mind: the memory of your McMullin grandparents, aunts and uncles holding each other tightly and carrying one another's burdens. They allowed us to share their loss, graciously acknowledging Sean’s reach went beyond the roles of son and brother.
I thought about your Casner family showing their love through their presence. Your mom was never left alone, and every meal and bath and clothing item was handled by your uncles or aunts. Your cousins gladly took you under their wings, giving you a place of normalcy and safety.
I thought about how the loss of your dad affected our whole community. On Wednesday, Thursday and the following days, I noticed flags flying at half-staff at local schools, police stations and fire houses. When I passed the flags, my heart was heavy with a mixture of pride and sorrow: pride that I got to call Sean my friend and sorrow that I won’t get to hug him or laugh with him again this side of heaven.
I thought about you four boys. Over the past few days, all eyes were on you because the four of you are your father's legacies. You are the last - and lasting - gift he gave us. When we look at you, we see Sean. We see his eyes smiling after a good joke. We hear his voice in the way Ryan or Liam phrase their words. We see his lips when you smile, because you have the same light in your face that he did. Even now, it makes me ache to see the echo of your dad in you – but it makes me so tremendously happy, too. As you live, so does he.
There will be hard days, and there will be easy days. There will be days you feel like things have gotten “normal” again and you’ll be lulled into thinking the hard days are past you. And then somehow, things will feel hard again and you’ll remember life in two parts: life before and life after September 24, 2016.
You have a heavy load to shoulder, but I believe in you. You are Casner-McMullins, and your lineage is your best defense for the road ahead.
And even more than that? You have some deeply good-hearted people on your side, and I’m not talking only about your relatives. You have a community of first responders who want to take you under their wings. You have friends, neighbors, school alumni, church members, and random people your dad helped rescue during his career – people who want to help you succeed and are willing to carry your grief with you.
I am one of those people. Although my individual impact is very small in the grand scheme of people who support you, I’m praying for God to bind all our small hands together so we can carry you and your mom through these days.
Your dad's death took us all by surprise, and it reminded us to love deeper and better and more fully. Your mom told me you've been talking about keeping your eyes open for the helpers when tragedy happens, and I hope compassion and empathy help your eyes stay open through the coming years.
Never forget how loved you are, Finn. You have your dad’s wit and straight-shooting character, never mincing words and always “telling it like it is.” You made him laugh. A LOT!
Owen, I hope you never stop hearing your dad’s voice calling you “Owie.” Don’t forget the memories of him letting you sleep on his belly. You were his little guy, and he protected you and carried you close.
Liam, you are like your dad in the way you march to the beat of your own drum. You aren’t afraid to stand out, and you stick to your convictions. It’s like your dad listening to crazy music no one ever heard of or shopping at British clothing stores. He loved the unusual and unique, and you are so like him in that way.
Never stop seeing your dad’s smile in your eyes, Ryan. You are his first child, and firstborn sons get special blessings from their fathers. Your blessing is in the character your mom and dad handcrafted and labored over these last 12 years. He was always so proud of you.
Each of you are so loved and precious to countless people, including me.
I love you boys!