Living

Lives shaded by grief

John Bananola, William Lowry and Patrick Maher were their heroes before they became ours.

Before bullets extinguished their lives, before black tape covered the badges of their brethren, before bag pipes wailed and thousands paid tribute, these men were husbands, fathers, sons, brothers.

These peace officers were soundly loved in private before their public sacrifice stood us all at attention.

Each was shot to death while on duty: Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Bananola, 1995; Tacoma Police SWAT member Lowry, 1997; Federal Way Police Officer Maher, 2003.

Our communities’ collective grief, though deep, was relatively brief.

The processions dispersed, flags returned to full staff,

we resumed our normal lives.

To the officers’ families, it’s as though a tsunami struck on the day each was killed, engulfing them in pain and forever altering their real and emotional landscapes.

Many of us think we can help, plan to keep in touch, but we back away, unsure what to say, how to comfort.

“None of us are trained in this. We don’t have any classes on how to deal with a grieving family,” said Des Moines Police Chaplain Lew Cox. “People want to see that victim back to their old self. The best thing to say is, ‘I don’t know how you feel, but we’re thinking about you; we’re praying for you.’

“No matter how much you may want to, you can’t fix it,” added Cox, who’s also a victim advocate, aiding the families of the four Lakewood police officers shot to death seven weeks ago.

Their grief is too fresh, their emotions too raw to speak about their losses now.

Members of the Bananola, Lowry, Underwood and Maher families say they felt abandoned in many ways once the public memorials faded from memory. They endured the protracted trials of suspects, each step capable of picking the scab off slowly healing wounds.

And they flinch anew, their pain pounding to the surface, when they learn of more men and women killed in the line of duty, as has happened in the last two months: Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton, Oct. 31; Lakewood Police Sgt. Mark Renninger and Officers Tina Griswold, Ronald Owens and Greg Richards, Nov. 29; Pierce County sheriff’s deputy Kent Mundell, shot on Dec. 21, died on Dec. 28.

You can’t stitch up a family member rent apart by sudden, soul-wrenching, numbing loss, say Brooke Bananola-Lamar, daughter; Jolin Lowry, wife; Renee Maher, wife.

They must heal at their own pace. Life will never be the same. They must find a “new normal.”

Here, in their own words, are their stories.

Deputy John R. Bananola

Pierce County Sheriff's Department

Age: 36

Killed in line of duty: Oct. 16, 1995

How he died: Bananola was the first of a strike team to enter an East Tacoma home in a drug raid, rushing through the back door. Brian Eggleston, suspected of selling marijuana, came out of a bedroom firing. Several 9mm rounds hit Bananola in the head and torso. Less than an hour after the raid, the 10-year deputy sheriff was pronounced dead. Years of trials, appeals and legal maneuvering followed. Eggleston, ultimately convicted of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and drug charges, was back in court in October 2008, 13 years after the shooting. He got a new sentence: 46 years, nine months in prison.

BROOKE BANANOLA-LAMAR, 29, DAUGHTER

Brook Bananola-Lamar knows her dad would be angry with her if she dwelt too much in sad spaces and spent too little time in happy places.

It’s OK with him, she believes, if she thinks about him, as she does daily. If she writes to him on the Facebook page she created on the Internet, “In Memory of Deputy John R. Bananola, (Badge) #271.”

“Well, Pops … 2010 makes 15 years since I last heard your voice, saw your smile or heard your corny laugh!” she wrote on his cyberspace “wall” on Jan. 1.

“I miss you now as much as 1995,” she continued. “You have 3 grandchildren that would’ve loved to hear you sing, play your guitar and take a ride around the block in your patrol car. There is something about seeing your father/grandfather in uniform that fills you with pride. I know you’re taking great care of all our recent fallen officers and entertaining them with your unique sense of humor. I love you always. … Boots”

Brooke created the page last month, using social media to keep alive her father’s memory for a network of friends, family and strangers.

It’s one of the ways she honors the father she recalls as “a big kid” who loved to play and laugh.

You may remember Brooke as the poised 14-year-old who lifted up a grieving community when she stood tall to talk of her dad before 3,000 people at his memorial service in the University of Puget Sound Fieldhouse.

She spoke poignantly of his prowess on the guitar, his love of Jim Croce and Eric Clapton songs, the beautiful way he played what became an anthem for those gone too early, “Tears In Heaven.”

“He was always proud, and it made me proud to be with him,” she said that day. “When I was young, I used to walk around with my nose stuck in the air because I knew I was with this honorable person.”

When the now 29-year-old Brooke created the Facebook page last month after the deaths of six area police officers, she posted this message:

“In the wake of all the recent tragedy in our state, it has definitely brought back a flood of memories for me. 14 years ago my father gave his all to protect all, just as the 6 officers who have recently sacrificed their lives. It is a pain no one can comprehend and it truly takes a lifetime to heal,” she wrote on Dec. 28. “Today I decided that it’s never too late to pay tribute to a hero, my hero. Dad – this one’s for you!”

She is self-confident and well-spoken, a bustling mother of three who manages a 300-plus unit apartment development in Kent, the complexities of her day including child loving and care juxtaposed with the needs of tenants and employees.

Healing has not been swift, nor easy.

“Your heart just got crushed” she says of such a profound loss. “Through the years, there is still a void” in your life. “Does it get easier? No. It’s just a different kind of pain.”

The path has been blocked with obstacles, sometimes laid in the way by well-meaning people who said the wrong thing, other times by insensitive people who pried too much, sometimes by raw, unrelenting grief.

Deep in loss and denial, she “just pretended it didn’t happen, pretended like he was on vacation,” for two or three months. Counseling was available “but it wasn’t right for me,” she says.

She “fell off the faith wagon.” She stopped eating. Lost a dangerous amount of weight. Was hospitalized.

“It’s so hard when you’re a teenager,” she says. “You have to figure out who you are” and deal with the loss of a parent in such a public way.

She left one high school because she was a curiosity of sorts, always asked questions about how she felt. A television news crew showed up in the principal’s office without warning one day, wanting to interview her. It was an invasion of her school space that she could not tolerate, she recalls.

Brooke ultimately transferred to a smaller alternative school in Fife where she could study in peace, left to herself by students sorting out their own troubled lives.

“It is a long road with many twists and turns,” she says. Her mom, Glori Manning, was always there when she faltered, a tender wellspring of succor “during those initial tough years.”

Today, she calls her husband, Colin Lamar, “my rock” and says their faith in God and volunteer work through Christ the King Bible Fellowship are immensely life-affirming and satisfying. They live in Tacoma.

Her three children all bear Hawaiian names, in honor of her father: Malia, 11; Keoni Bananola-Lamar, 3; and Kalina, 3 months. Keoni means John in Hawaiian, honoring the family roots, she explains. As her only son, he carries the hyphenated last name, the legacy of his grandfather.

As the daughter of a downed officer, as a survivor, as a mother, Brooke Bananola-Lamar credits the strong people in her life with helping her travel “a long road.”

Her experiences gave her “the ability to be empathetic, not just sympathetic,” she says.

She cried with Lisa Mundell, wife of slain Pierce County sheriff’s deputy Kent Mundell, at his memorial service Jan. 5. They exchanged phone numbers. Brooke said she would help in whatever way she’s needed with his daughter Kirsten, 16, and his son Austin, 10. She stands ready to help other families, too.

Seven children lost their fathers, two lost a mother in the Nov. 29 killings of four Lakewood officers.

“I know what it’s like. And I know what it’s like to have nobody understand what you’re going through,” Brooke says.

She is glad the families of the Lakewood officers and Mundell received a kind of “instant justice.” The Lakewood killer was fatally shot by a Seattle police officer in the ensuing manhunt; Mundell shot and killed his assailant during the gun battle that also took his life.

Sharing her story, she believes, might also give them hope.

“It’s a tremendously hard thing to go through,” Brooke says. “But there is life after this. It’s just a different kind of life. … Life is still beautiful. My dad would be angry with me if I let my grief take that away.”

Officer William Francis Lowry

Tacoma Police Department

Age: 39

Killed in line of duty: Aug. 28, 1997

How he died: Lowry, a SWAT officer, was shot as police attempted to arrest an armed domestic violence suspect after the man holed up in the East Side home of his estranged wife with several children inside. Lowry tried fruitlessly to get Sap Kray to surrender. Kray pulled an assault rifle from behind the door and began firing, hitting Lowry, who died soon after. Kray was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of release. Jolin (pronounced Joe-lin) Lowry, 48, wife

FRANCES LOWRY, 13, DAUGHTER, WHO WAS JUST A YEAR OLD WHEN HER FATHER WAS KILLED

“It’s been 121/2 years. Sometimes it’s yesterday, and sometimes it’s a lifetime ago,” Jolin Lowry says of the death of her husband, whom she calls Billy.

“I wish that on no one,” she says. “Not even my worst enemy.”

Jolin Lowry doesn’t want to be seen as a “survivor,” because she doesn’t see herself that way.

“I’m the wife of a fallen officer,” she says.

The reality and the pain are always there, she adds.

“It never goes away.”

Sitting over coffee, talking about her life as a full-time mother and enthusiastic volunteer at school and in other areas, Jolin Lowry wears a small replica badge, covered with a black band, on her lapel.

She speaks with passion about her mission, aided by legislators, to strengthen death benefits for families in line-of-duty deaths.

If she remarries, she could get 24 months of benefits in a lump sum, then forfeit any future payments.

Her daughter, Frances, “would get less than $200 a month.”

Frances, she says, is doing well now, an active teenager presenting mom with all the parental heartaches and headaches adolescence brings.

“Duct tape has come to mind a few times,” she says of occasional disciplinary needs. “But I wouldn’t trade her. She’s the spitting image of her father in a lot of ways,” including appearance and boundless energy level, Jolin Lowry says.

It hasn’t been a gentle path for Frances.

“When she started school, kids would tease her” when she said her father was killed. “They’d say, ‘You’re lying, your dad’s not dead,’” Jolin Lowry recalled. Other children could not fathom such horror.

The mother works hard to raise the daughter, to impart the lessons William Lowry isn’t there to give.

“It’s like, you know, sometimes I want just to bring his little butt back here because I’m tired of this,” she says, her tone conveying far more than child rearing.

William Lowry’s death forced his wife “to revisit what’s important in life and who is important in life,” Jolin Lowry says.

She learned, she adds, that some people were healthy allies, others were not, and she cut them out.

“It’s a journey. It’s a long journey,” to any kind of recovery, she says

Many people hadn’t an inkling of how to help.

“Some people would just look down and not say anything, they don’t want contact,” she says. “They don’t know what to say. I felt like I had leprosy. … It could have been extremely easy for me to say, “I’m staying under a blanket. I’m not coming out. I’m never coming out,” she says.

But she was responsible for another life. “I needed to teach my daughter that when bad things happen, you can’t stay under your blanket.”

So she moved on. Step by step. Day by day. Year by year.

“You have to accept it, recognize it and store it,” she says of her grief, and of some memories. “It’s a place to revisit,” not a space in which to dwell.

But she does not forget. She does not want you to forget, either.

She wants you to think of the officers left behind, like William Lowry’s colleagues “who have to work every day and not see him, not hear his voice on the radio.”

She comforts families of fallen officers when asked to do so, and sat with Lakewood Officer Ronald Owens’ family in the hours after his Nov. 29 death.

“Something good has to come out of this or Billy’s life was taken for no reason,” she says of the empathetic aid she can render. “It’s so important to give back. … God puts me where I need to be.”

Jolin Lowry, who was a reserve police officer for 22 years and worked in the Fife Municipal Court, rails against a criminal justice system that lets bad guys do too little time, that lets them go.

“I believe that soft judges make hardened criminals, she says.

There is no turning back of time, no do-overs for William Lowry and his family.

“From this day forward, you need to find a new normal,” she says. “You have to find out what works for you.

“I’m still here,” she adds, though she must grab a napkin and gently catch the emerging tears that fall nearly 13 years later.

Then in a strong voice, “There is hope. You can make it.”

Officer Patrick Maher

Federal Way Police Department

Age: 46

Killed in line of duty: Aug. 2, 2003

How he died: It took just 62 seconds for Patrick Maher to suffer a fatal wound. He was intervening in a fight at a convenience store at South 272nd Street and Pacific Highway South when one of the combatants fled. Maher gave chase on foot and grappled with the man, who grabbed the officer’s .45-caliber Glock and squeezed a shot under Maher’s protective vest. Maher, the only Federal Way officer ever killed in the line of duty, was pronounced dead at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. His killer, Jason Scott Roberts, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder 26 months after the crime. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

RENEE MAHER, 37, WIFE

Renee Maher would wipe Aug. 2 right off the calendar if she could. Erase it. Obliterate it as completely as a bullet destroyed the passionate, purpose-filled marriage she had to Federal Way Police Officer Patrick Maher (pronounced Marr).

She was a widow at 30. Her 5-year-old son, Nicholas, lost a loved stepfather and role model.

The couple, married just over a year, had moved to Federal Way from Hawaii a few months before Patrick died. They left behind deep family roots to cultivate new ones in Washington.

Renee had quit her job as a prosecuting attorney. She just wanted to be Patrick’s wife for a while, baking him lasagna, making muffins to go when he left for patrol, kneading dough into fragrant garlic and cheese bread for “just the sweetest man.”

“The reason we moved was to create this life,” she says, thinking back seven years.

They planned on more children.

“When Patrick died, I didn’t have anybody,” she said. “When the chaos and shock of the funeral wore off, it was just me and Nick.”

She had, she says, writhing a bit in her chair, an ugly “feeling like I was crawling out of my skin. I wanted to scream.”

Though her body seemed to want it, she couldn’t contract into herself.

“I had to get up every day for him,” she says of her son.

She got a personal trainer and worked out three days a week, sweating out tensions, trying to exorcise grief.

Just a month after Patrick died, Renee Maher took Nicholas – alone – to his first day of kindergarten, and what might have been an ecstatic milestone shared by a family became a hole-in-the-soul occasion.

There was no relief from the excruciating pain, nothing to numb it.

“I felt it all. Every single bit of it, every single day,” she says.

It took her “the better part of a year” to climb into Patrick’s cherry red 1996 Mustang.

She got it a license plate reading WA HERO and “for a time, when I needed a pick-me-up, I would drive it,” she recalls. “That car was him, the epitome of Patrick. It was cool, but in a humble, classy way.”

Renee stayed in Federal Way, in the house she and Patrick bought, to represent her husband during his killer’s trials, to allow Nicholas to be a kindergartner.

“There is nothing normal about this,” she says of her situation – and by extension any officer’s line-of-duty death. There is “nothing normal about a funeral procession 11 miles long,” she adds.

“You have to find a new ‘normal,’ created from scratch.”

The sharp, intelligent prosecutor now uses her skills to advocate for the families of police officers killed or disabled in the line of duty. She ran for the state Senate and lost, but helped get a law passed extending medical benefits to the families of downed officers. She’s working on the same cause for line-of-duty disabled cops.

She’s executive director of COMPAS (Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs), a lobbying organization for Seattle Police and King County sheriffs.

“I get to advocate on behalf of 2,000 heroes and their families,” she says. “I have the best job in the world. Every peace officer,” she says, “is a hero the day they put on a vest and swear to protect the public. These people have service in their souls. They do this to answer your 911 calls, not to write you a ticket.”

When an officer dies on duty, she wants people “to realize that this person is a hero and he died doing what he loved.”

Even knowing that about Patrick, Renee says the color drained out of her life on that Saturday morning six and a half years ago.

“August 2 is the worst day of the year for me,” she adds. “If I could wipe it off the calendar, I would.”

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