I have been apprehensive about this day since the tour began, but not for the reasons one might think. I was worried about the travel and the logistics. You see, the day before, we had left Bellingham, Washington around lunchtime for a 13 hour drive back to California and then there were 3 rally stops scheduled on this...our last...day. We would continue south, stopping in Chico in the morning, Sacramento in the afternoon, and Fresno at dusk, after which there would be a 4 hour drive back to Los Angeles. And since most of our group would be flying home first thing the following morning, there would be much work to do once we arrived in LA. I was exhausted just thinking about it.
Not that any of this ever matters when we reach a stop.
As we arrived at Casey Berry's stop in a field next to a Walmart, we were immediately greeted by smiling faces. The table, covered with a patchwork quilt, had 3 larger candles (hope, peace and believe) surrounded by many more smaller symbolic candles. The poster board was brightly colored containing pictures of Casey with his sister, Casey with his mom, rainbows, guitars and peace symbols. There was a copy of the book Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer along with the Eddie Vedder CD from the movie soundtrack. All these items, inspired by Casey's life, gave us such a sense of him, which I'm sure was the point.
Casey Berry was 25 when he disappeared on 2-14-07. He was last seen leaving his home in rural Alamosa Colorado, where he lived with his wife, young daughter and another couple. He was presumably headed to visit someone who lived outside of Blanca Colorado, another rural town in Costilla County about 20 miles away. His roommate at the time told police a convoluted story involving Casey's being killed by the man he had gone to visit. The roommate (along with his girlfriend) subsequently vanished and the police have never identified the man he accused.
Casey was raised in Fresno and that's where his family still resides. He is described to me as a son, brother, dad, uncle, nephew and cousin; a free spirited man who should have been a 60's child. His large extended family spent the rally telling stories and honoring him in ways they thought he would enjoy including releasing Chinese lanterns into the night sky. What fun we had figuring out how to light and release these translucent, brightly colored lanterns, watching each one rise and fly away up into the darkness. The best part, though, may have been when the freaked out Walmart manager came running out announcing that he never approved us sending fire up into the Fresno sky.
In speaking with Casey's mom, Terri, I learned she had been at the conference four years ago. We reminisced a bit about that year and I urged her to return. I try to encourage all the families I speak with to attend the yearly conferences, its so important for so many reasons...
We spoke mother to mother about our sons. For the second time in a day I was asked a question I had never gotten before. This time I was more prepared to answer, although, I still stumbled with my words.
"Is it better knowing your son is dead?"
Earlier I had just said yes, which is such a simplistic and predictable answer. Nothing really compares to having your child go missing. In my case, I felt right away that Mathew was dead, I even knew where I thought he was. But, even when your heart knows what happened, there is no proof. Initially recovery is worse because there is no more hope. At least when they are missing, especially initially, there is a chance you may see them again...hold them again. Recovery is a pain unlike any other. As time goes by, you begin to breathe again, and just as you adjusted to living with a missing child you now adjust to having a deceased child. So in the end, yes, it is better.