In the midst of celebration, Wyalusing mourns
WYALUSING - Even the heavens don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Monday afternoon, the sky first weeps raindrops and hangs heavy with dark clouds, then breaks out in joyful sunlight and blue patches - then, grieving again, sends down more rain.
It must be the way many in Wyalusing have felt.
The young men and women of the Class of 2012 are getting ready to graduate from high school the next night, yet one will be missing. Eric Latini, only 17, died in a motorcycle accident May 29. So even as people prepare to celebrate, they mourn.
"Good luck 2012 grads" read words on the high school's sign. This was Eric's school. He walked the halls here, sat in class here, no doubt had a lot of fun with friends here. And no doubt, he was a diehard, green-and-gold-in-the-blood Ram here.
But today, in the front office, a large green foliage plant sits in a basket, decorated with a gold bow.
"Thinking of you in your time of loss. Sullivan County High School Faculty, Staff and Students," reads a card on it. A plant from Troy High School sets next to it.
Flowers from the Hughesville school stand on the counter.
The U.S. flag by the front doors flies at half-staff.
And across the road from Eric's school - the school where he was supposed to graduate Tuesday - people gather at Homer Funeral Home for his viewing.
At the funeral home, Jeff Homer says the attitude's been "somber, obviously" - especially subdued since the calling hours are for a young person.
Seniors are expected to return late this afternoon from their senior trip. Another visitation's set for evening. The Latini family "tried to set it up so that the kids on the class trip would have the opportunity to come," Homer notes.
Gene and Doris Sharer, Spring Hill neighbors of the Latini's, attend the viewing this afternoon.
"We know they're a close family. They always have been," Doris says later. That, she says, makes it harder for the Latinis.
"Your heart breaks for them. It's something that's so hard to get over," she remarks. But, for parents - "well, they never do."
(On Tuesday, the Sharers' church hosts a dinner for Eric's family and friends after the funeral. The organizers plan for 60 to 80 - there end up being 100, including "a lot of young people there," Doris says - we interpret that to mean "hungry teens." But the pastor advised Doris and the others to have faith. It works. They have more than enough food.)
Over in the Who Knew? Consignments shop on Route 6, Peg Huyck says she's noticed a subdued mood at the school. Peg's a cheerleading adviser and spends time there.
Although it's a tragedy, maybe Eric's accident will show students things like that "can just happen," she says.
A couple doors down at Wyalusing Florist, Penny Hamilton stands at her counter. Gifts fill the store - teddy bears and signs ... and angel figurines. A decoration behind her reads simply: "Life is beautiful."
Penny came in early to finish bouquets for the funeral home.
"It's very, very sad," she says. "It's a tragedy." She's heard students are having a hard time dealing with Eric's death.
Even if a young person dies from illness ... it just doesn't make sense to her.
"You're not supposed to bury your children," she states. Your parents? Yes. Your kids? No. "That's the way the circle of life is supposed to go!"
Ironically, Penny's daughter Miranda had a minor accident May 28. Eric's parents were driving behind her that day, just a couple of cars back.
Miranda was all right.
"Thank God!" Penny said. She was "just one lucky girl!"
The next day, Eric had his accident.
And Penny ended up helping the Latinis with flowers for their boy.
They prepared things like crosses and wreaths, using lilies, roses, carnations, snapdragons, orchids, ginger, sunflowers.
People did "a nice tribute of flowers," she says.
"I truly believe the community was saddened."
Out in the parking lot, a car window holds green and gold words: "Congrats" and a student's name, and "2012." But over at Genesis Salon, the women think about the loss.
"You're just very sad ... it's a very sad situation," Judy Schmitt says. "We're all feeling for the family."
"Graduation will be very difficult," Melissa Knowland predicts.
Irene Flyte believes Eric was the type who'd be friendly to all the kids, not just those like him. He'd make people laugh. "He had that personality."
Judy knows a relative of Eric's.
"It's a family name that goes way back." They're "very well-liked," she adds.
One of the women mentions all the notes about Eric left on Facebook. "That's all you can do - let the family know that you are there," Judy says. "If there's anything we could possibly do, we would do it."
This is a close-knit community, she adds. "Everybody knows everybody. ... We all feel it."
Across the road at Century Farm Meats, a paper hangs on the wall advertising a benefit event for a man who was hurt - in a dirt bike accident. When things like that happen, people around here care.
"You pray that God can be ... with everybody at that time," states Mark Dietz.
His son Adam, a firefighter, was sent to Eric's accident. Afterward, Adam came into the shop. He couldn't talk about specifics, but "I knew when he came in," Mark says, he was "really distraught."
Eric sometimes stopped by the shop. He was "always smiling, always happy," Mark recalls.
Employee Alicia Singleton agrees. She graduated last year and even though she didn't know Eric well she remembers seeing him in the hall at school. He seemed "just happy, outgoing," she says. "Probably a pretty laid-back kid."
He was a "very nice kid," Alicia says. "It's a shame that he got taken away."
Mark knew Eric's dad, Joe, when he was a tiny boy riding in a grocery cart. But time flies. Today, Joe and Mark both are grown with families.
Mark picks up a photo he keeps right in the shop, showing his son, daughter and others. "Family, Life's Greatest Blessing," the frame reads. There's his son. Mark points - there's his daughter. "She's going to have her first baby!" he announces.
But today ... what's it like for Eric's family? "I can't imagine," Mark says. "I can't imagine."
And it's not just Mark. "It's one of those things," he says, "just hits the heart of the whole community."
It's nice the community is small, Mark adds. Because that means something else:
"People really pull together."
Eric's funeral card has a poem: "When I Must Leave." The words urge loved ones to go on, to smile, to work and cheer others. It ends: "And never, never be afraid to die, For I am waiting for you in the sky."
Overhead, between the funeral home and school, the clouds part for a brief moment.
Sunshine lights a cloud, as if trying to kiss away its tears. And beside it, blue sky peers through. It looks something like an angel.
And then it floats away.