Fabian Flores was only a few weeks short of his 21st birthday when he was killed in a drive-by shooting in downtown Greeley. He had recently gotten out of prison for robbery (a juvenile stunt with friends that got out of hand) and was preaching to friends when a bullet struck him while sitting in the backseat. That morning he had dedicated his life to religion and helping others.
He had a bright future.
As a photo intern at the Greeley Tribune I came face to face with what is left behind after death.
It is utterly draining and it is awful.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do behind a camera … Sitting in the corner of a church with a 300 taking photos at a funeral.
That day I knew I would be going to the funeral. I knew that he had been killed in a drive-by and he was my age.
So I put on a tie and some nice clothes and drove to Greeley. Walked in the newsroom and asked my editor for any suggestions as this was my first funeral.
“Don’t get in the way,” he said. “But remember the family wants us there.”
He was right, Fabian’s family had spoken with a reporter and wanted a photog at the funeral.
So the writer and I drove to the service together, giving me little bits of knowledge as we went.
When we walked in I could feel the eyes following the 300 in my hands. We went to see the family in a back room. I had thought about what I would say.
“I’m so sorry for your loss Mr. and Mrs. Flores. He was too young.”
I had practiced those words in my head many times.
We walked in. His parents were sitting in the middle two chairs of a semi-circle. Literally surrounded by grieving family members. They didn’t seem shocked by the camera, almost relieved. I’m not sure I understood, or understand to this day.
The writer introduced herself, said something, I’m not sure what. In the moment I saw the tears, the heartbreak and could barely utter a sorry, nodded and walked away.
I regret that I could not have said something, anything, to say how sorry I was to Grace and Fred Flores. They must have thought I was callus or maybe even that I didn’t care. I did.
I found the front right corner and watched as the ceremony got underway. I was doing fine. Just breathe.
One after another friends, family members, coworkers and religious figures got up and spoke about Fabian.
The ceremony drew to a close and I felt as if I had nothing to take back for the paper. Nothing. You know that feeling? I had nothing.
“You good?” the reporter asked.
“Not sure, … not really.”
She could tell, she is a vet and knows when a photog isn’t happy.
“Get up there then.”
She motioned towards the front as people filed by the open casket that I had tried so hard to avoid.
So I put aside my stress (if that’s the right word) and walked up near Fabian’s parents and family as they gathered around the casket. Tears were flowing. They didn’t notice me. I felt sick. Like I was intruding. Like I was taking something from them after so much had already been taken. It was awful.
But I had gotten it. I knew I got at least one good photo. Usually in that moment I would feel reassured, almost happy that everything was alright and I’d done my job. But I knew I hadn’t, I couldn’t do Fabian justice. The best I could do was try and show they people who did this how senseless it was. Maybe cause someone to look twice at the paper and realize that Fabian’s death was senseless.
I took a few more photos outside as the casket was brought out, then climbed back into her car and we drove away.
She said something, I didn’t hear it.
“Are you ok?”
“What? Oh ya, ya I’m fine. Just my first funeral is all.”
But she knew, she knew I wasn’t the same person that had walked into that church. Despite my best efforts to act like a veteran, she knew inside I felt like hell.
We got back to the office and I was already running late for another story.
Grabbed my gear and walked straight to my car from her’s. I sat down and waited for a few seconds, not sure what to do or how to feel. I pushed it all deep down, mapped my next assignment and took off for Windsor.
Grace and Fred: If you ever read this, I cannot express how truly sorry I am for your loss. I’m sorry I couldn’t have told you then and I’m sorry I can only take photos to help honor Fabian.