The moment was solemn and breathtaking. And wretchedly sad. Not merely because Sicknick had died at 42 years old in the line of duty, which is already more than any family should have to bear, but also because it had happened while he was defending that building, our lawmakers and our democracy from his fellow Americans who stormed it on Jan. 6.
The Capitol dome was aglow and looking more beautiful than ever when Sicknick was brought back to this revered place. A lone officer stood on the plaza at the back of Sicknick’s hearse. Awaiting him. The officer was silhouetted against the Capitol’s pristine stone steps, the site where so much trauma and history had unfolded in a few short weeks. There was blood on that broad stairway, perhaps not visible to the naked eye, perhaps not visible to those who refused to see it. But it was there nonetheless, just as anger, hate and lies were so evident during the prelude to Sicknick’s death.
His remains were carried in quiet dignity. And the shadows of his bearers and guardians multiplied and converged on the Capitol steps in poetic chiaroscuro as if to remind those watching that the multitudes were with this man and all that he symbolized. The ghosts of the ages walked with him.
President Biden and the first lady came to honor Sicknick Tuesday night. They came in quietly in their dark overcoats and the president made the sign of the cross as he stood in front of the remains. He and Jill Biden placed their hand over their hearts. The vice president and the second gentleman came, too. They paused and reflected. For both couples, their presence is their power because there’s little that can be said to a family in a time of grief that can change the trajectory of their emotions. Even the most public people still must grieve alone.
Sicknick lay in honor but the public could not come to pay its respects. And so our representatives did so in our stead. On Wednesday morning, at a formal memorial, members of Congress, law enforcement officials, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the newly confirmed defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, all passed through the recently installed non-scalable fencing, the razor wire and the watchful gaze of National Guard troops to offer condolences to the officer’s family on behalf of “we, the people,” who were held back by the barricades because so many of us can no longer be trusted to keep the peace.
“Blessed are the peacekeepers,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in his remarks at the memorial. And what about the rest? Pray for them, one supposes.
The morning ceremony was dominated by the men and women in uniform who vow to serve and protect but who, we have often been reminded, are also flawed and human. Many lowered their heads in prayer before they raised their arms in a slow, graceful salute. One after another they came and stood before Sicknick’s remains and one wondered how they were sorting through the heroism, heartache and darkness in their own ranks.
Republican Senate leaders including Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and congressional representatives Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) silently paid their respects.
In her remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) promised Sicknick’s parents that “we will never forget.” And one hopes that pledge can be kept, as there seems to be an urgent desire in some quarters to move on, let go and get on with it. This is, after all, a forgetful country.
As the Rotunda slowly emptied, as each person paid their final respects by simply being present and standing close to the bier displaying Sicknick’s remains, the end was much like the beginning. Members of law enforcement stood at attention on the East Front of the Capitol, the side that looks off into the surrounding neighborhoods in the city, the side that was once opened up to just regular folks. One officer carried the folded American flag; the other carried the small polished box of ashes. They placed both in the waiting hearse.
Bagpipers played “Amazing Grace,” with the wind whipping the plaintive melody, the one that always sounds drenched in tears, into the air. There is, perhaps, no other hymn that expresses the capacity of humans to be so individually flawed and yet collectively worth salvaging.
The hearse passed through a phalanx of officers and ferried Sicknick to Arlington National Cemetery. The ceremony ended. Not with the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not with a drumbeat of might or even resiliency.
But with a melancholy plea for forgiveness.