Rev. Michael Cunningham, of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, said it was in one of the toughest moments of his life that he received words of comfort that he won’t soon forget.
Speaking to about 60 community members Tuesday morning during a ceremony and luncheon at St. Mary’s to honor local first responders, Cunningham shared a personal story about his final moments with his late wife, Deborah, who died in April.
Cunningham said his wife was on the floor of the couple’s home complaining that she couldn’t breathe, when Cunningham and their daughter stepped back to let emergency personnel take over.
“When things were at their very worst, those sort of inexorable moments that you know this is really bad and this is always going to be bad, one of you here today put his hand lightly on my shoulder and said, ‘We’ll take it from here, Father Michael,’” Cunningham said, motioning out to the audience comprised mostly of first responders. “Those are the kindest words ever spoken to me by anyone in my life.”
Cunningham shared that experience in an effort to stress just how influential first responders can be when called upon.
“You were gentle,” he said. “You were professional. You treated her with such care. It was all so horrible. It was like watching a train wreck: You can’t take your eyes off the disaster, knowing the whole time that these images will be seared in the back of your eyeballs for the rest of your days and they will never go away.
“You gotta understand this (experience) is not unique to me,” he added. “These women and these men that we honor on this day have seen horrific things. The back of their eyeballs is littered with things that they’ve seen and been changed by forever.”
Among the attendees at the event were personnel with the Lompoc, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties fire departments, Lompoc Police Department, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, emergency room workers from Lompoc Valley Medical Center and local tow truck drivers and public safety chaplains.
Lompoc Mayor Bob Lingl was also in attendance for the ceremony and luncheon, which St. Mary’s has been holding annually since 2007. The event is usually held in September, around the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh was the only other speaker Tuesday. He referenced the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as well as the recent relief efforts in the Southeast following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, while reading a commendation for members of his department.
“We all come together when things happen to us,” he said.
In his commendation, Walsh singled out Officer Nolan Jones and dispatcher Rita Neumann, whom he said coordinated with several agencies across Southern California in the late night hours of June 30 and early morning hours of July 1 for an emotional show of support following the death of Lompoc teen Noah Scott, the son of Lompoc Police Officer Charles Scott.
Noah Scott died from cancer that night at a UCLA medical facility. Jones and Neumann arranged for members of the Los Angeles Police Department, UCLA Police and CHP to provide an escort for a procession of vehicles that carried Noah’s body and members of his family from Los Angeles to Lompoc.
Along the way, the two Lompoc Police employees also arranged for other first responders, many with their emergency lights on, to stop on bridges and overpasses and offer salutes to the convoy as it passed through each town en route to Lompoc, where hundreds of community members gathered along streets in the early morning hours to also offer their support. Many of the Lompoc residents that morning were kept informed thanks to public updates that were provided through social media by Jones and Neumann.
“It was humbling and very emotional,” said Walsh, who rode in the rear of the procession.
Walsh said the display was a “powerful reminder that we are part of a brother and sisterhood” and noted that the compassion and caring shown by Jones and Neumann — who acted without being asked, he noted — “brought great honor to you, the Lompoc Police Department and public safety as a whole.”
During the ceremony, Cunningham and others led prayers and hymns in support of emergency responders, and Cunningham, on behalf of himself and his church, offered thanks and appreciation for all that the responders do.
Walsh said the annual ceremony is “a breath of fresh air for me.”
He noted that he worked in a larger city — Portland, Oregon — before moving to Lompoc and that while people in big cities show appreciation for public safety workers, they don’t do so in such large, open ways.
“This is a nice small town that still prays,” Walsh said to open his remarks.
“And it’s nice that we can do this in public and not be sued for it,” he added, drawing some laughter from the audience.