Wednesday, December 14, 2016
At the six month anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, Tara and James Connell invited me to sketch a ceremony honoring their son at Greenwood Cemetery. Tara's directions were a bit confusing but James gave me a ballpark approximation of where to find their son's resting place. The ceremony was to start at 5:30pm but I got there early around 4:30pm. I drove through the cemetery in search of one headstone among thousands. I knew that the site was near the 408 and in a corner of the cemetery under a tree. I circled around the winding lanes multiple times hoping to spot James Connell's name. A black headstone read Papadakis and gorgeous white sculpture of an angel kept catching my eye as I circled.
Finally I parked and just started walking among the headstones. I was lost. Finding an individual stone would be like finding a needle in a haystack. I was searching for rainbows as a hint that I might be near. There were random sparks of color. New grass outlined some grave sites. Instinctively I walked towards a dark live oak tree that was right next to the road. Amazingly, I walked right up to Cory James Connell's head stone. A football jersey read, Cory Strong. A signed football was at the site. There were Christmas candy canes decorating the site along with red solar powered Christmas lights. Two lanterns with penguins on them flanked the headstone. I was the only person around. I sat down and started to sketch. Behind the head stones, the sky lit up with a stunning vibrant sunset. I was blinded at times staring right into the blazing sun. To the right of Cory's head stone were the head stones of a couple who had died together at Pulse. Anthony Luis Laurean Dilsa was buried right behind his partner, Leroy Valentin Fernandez. To the left of Cory's stone was the headstone of Alejandro Barrios Martinez, another victim of the senseless violence. There were engraved photos on each stone. Gorgeous live flowers decorated each site in the granite vases. A burly man with golden shades walked up to Leroy's stone and placed a bouquet of flowers at the site. He stood in silent thought for the longest time and then left.
After sunset, the family started to arrive. A little girl laughed as she raced her brother. She grew silent when she arrived. Well over 40 people gathered around the stone and lit candles. 49 balloons of every color of the rainbow were brought over. A couple held each other for strength. Headlights glared as cars raced down the 408 access road just beyond the fence. Orlando city skyscrapers were visible in the distance. Everyone was instructed to find a video online that was a tribute to Cory. After a countdown, everyone pressed play and watched. Heaven was needing a Hero, cut the silence. I struggled for some emotional distance and strength.
The balloons strings were untangled from each other and handed out to each person. Markers squeaked messages of love and remembrance. Everyone moved out from under the live oak canopy, away from the grave site for a group photo. With one more countdown, everyone released the balloons which slowly floated up to the stars. Cell phone videos caught the ascent. With the sketch complete, I drifted away among the headstones into the dark to head down to Pulse where prayers and song continued to honor all who were lost six months ago. I felt sad for love lost but needed to keep moving. It is all that I can do to try and understand.
"Love is stronger than death, even though it can't stop death from happening, but no matter how hard death tries it can't separate people from love. It can't take away our memories either. In the end, life is stronger than death." - unknown