It was her. It was all of them. It was her. It could have been any of them. Cops filled the pews of Trinity Episcopal Church on Wednesday, row after row of navy blue. They came downtown on a bright, bitterly cold day for the funeral of Buffalo Police Officer Patty Parete. She was one person; she was one of them. She was herself; she was larger than herself.
That is what happens when you pick up the badge and gun. You stand for something – something more than just one life.
Parete was shot twice on that awful December night on West Chippewa Street in 2006. Paralyzed from the neck down by the second bullet, the independent, athletic woman became imprisoned by the same body that previously had set her free. Complications from the shooting ultimately killed her Saturday at 48.
Friends spoke Wednesday of the daily struggle of a woman force-fed a fate beyond imagining. She was never abandoned in that journey – friends, family and caregivers immersed her in love.
Said Christopher Kerr, her friend and doctor, “Her hair was lovingly brushed, her cheek was kissed, and her unfeeling hand was held.”
Still, in many ways, hers was a horribly lonely battle.
A cop once told me that police are society’s sanitation engineers. They clean up the messes of humanity. They go into the dark alleys the rest of us avoid. They work in parts of town that most of us ignore. They deal with criminals often more pathetic than sinister, in the hold of an addiction or of unseen demons, unable to take the wheel of their lives.
Then there are the thugs, the street toughs, the young guys who do not value any life because they do not value their own. There are people such as Varner Harris Jr., so clueless and desperate and angry that he believed, regardless of his predicament that December night, that he would in some way, somehow make it better by shooting a cop.
Currently serving 30 years to life in prison, Harris now potentially faces a murder charge.
Patty Parete’s life was altered – and, more than six years later, ended – in the blink of an eye, with the “pop” of a pistol. It was her, but it could have been anyone in the rows of men and women in blue who packed the pews Wednesday.
She stands for all of them. This is the job. This is the life.
Officers Patricia A. Parete and Carl Andolina were responding that night to a fight call. Confronting someone such as Harris is something she – and any cop – would do every day. Simple. Easy. Except when it’s not.
After Wednesday’s service, I asked Daniel Derenda – Buffalo’s police commissioner and a former street cop – about the weight of the job.
“Every day, officers go out on routine calls,” he said. “And sometimes routine calls turn into tragedy.”
The possibility of the unexpected, of the deadly surprise, stalks each of them. It is why cops have a higher rate than the rest of us of alcoholism, of depression, of suicide. They never know what might be waiting on the other side of each “routine” encounter. It is why so many street cops go 20-and-out – retiring after 20 years, while still in their 40s. Grabbing the pension and running. No excuses made, none needed. The stress of the street is more than most human beings are wired for.
“We remember the sacrifice Patty made,” Chaplain Bob Fink told the assembled, “as we remember the sacrifices all officers make every day on our behalf.”
Parete’s shooting made headlines. There was an outpouring of sympathy. People donated at fundraisers for her medical care. But then we got back to our lives.
Patty Parete never got back to hers. She faded from public view, became for most of us a passing thought. Her most valiant battle was intensely personal, resoundingly private. Yet the finest moments of one of Buffalo’s finest occurred in recent years in near-empty rooms and on dark, quiet nights.
The body that had once hiked, biked, rollerbladed and straddled a motorcycle was now useless. The lean woman with the “pirate’s smile,” who had seldom needed anyone for anything, could not feed herself, dress herself, bathe herself. Somehow she learned to live with that.
“Her life was marked by physicality. … The injury was an affront to her,” Kerr said. “But she never surrendered her core strength, pride or dignity.”
That was her story. The word “hero” gets tossed around a lot, sometimes too casually. To my mind, it applied to her. I cannot imagine the guts it must have taken for her to face every day, to find light in the dark, to accept the petrified unfairness of what happened to her.
Wednesday, we mourned for her, thanked her, hoped and prayed she was now at peace in a better place. In so doing, I think we acknowledged all of the men and women who do what she did, who put on the badge and gun. They attend to the business of society’s underbelly, knowing that their lives can forever change in the blink of an eye, in the “pop” of a pistol.
It is a tough job, but Patty Parete did it. They all do.