SPRING HILL — Chuck Mecklenburg, alone, sat down in Turner Funeral Home on Wednesday morning and cradled his son's urn.
As he described it later, the 61-year-old closed his eyes.
"I held him," he said, his voice trembling. "I held him like I held him on the day he was born."
His son, Hernando sheriff's Deputy John Mecklenburg, died July 3 in a Tampa hospital hours after he lost control of his patrol car and hit a tree during a high-speed chase. Today, Chuck and his wife, Judi, plan to take a portion of their son's ashes back to their home for a service this month in Wisconsin, where Mecklenburg, 35, grew up until the family moved to Florida during his teenage years.
Wednesday afternoon in the back yard of their daughter's Spring Hill home, the couple reminisced about their son and expressed thanks for the overwhelming support they've received since he died. They declined to talk about the details of the case or Mecklenburg's accused murderer, 35-year-old Michael James Anthony.
Chuck, his mind often wandering, fiddled with a cigarette lighter and squeezed a cup of coffee splashed with sugar and cream. A pack of Santa Fe mini cigars was tucked in his T-shirt's front pocket, just beneath a quarter-sized orange button that memorializes his son. He wears it every day.
"It's just another reminder," he said, "that John's with me."
Chuck can still imagine the days when, in their mobile home next to a lake in Wisconsin, he heated water to make a fresh pot of coffee and stared out the window at his son sitting on the dock.
"I'm not a Doubting Thomas. I know where he is," Chuck said of his belief that his son's in heaven. "But I miss his smile."
Friends and co-workers knew Mecklenburg for that infectious grin and as a guy who just didn't have bad days. The deputy, his parents said, was born that way.
They recalled Deputy Mecklenburg's young son, Andy, talking about his father before he would go on duty. "It's time for Daddy to go get the bad guys," he'd say.
Judi smiled as she told the story. "If you knew John, you would know there aren't any bad guys," she said. "There are just people going the wrong way."
Sitting next to her husband, Judi, 57, slipped on a pair of glasses to read a list she'd made of all the people who have helped the family since they arrived last week: Fraternal Order of Police representative Steve Klapka and the pilots from JET I.C.U., who flew the family down from Wisconsin in a Learjet last week; James Gibney, the Spring Hill dentist who capped Chuck's tooth for free after he chipped it biting his nails; the restaurants and stores and neighbors who brought them food; Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, which gave the whole family lifetime passes; and Gov. Rick Scott, who they say missed last Friday's shuttle launch so he could attend the funeral.
Those people, and their faith, have carried them since their son died.
The night before the fatal crash, the couple attended church where they heard a sermon about carrying Jesus' yoke.
"We didn't know the yoke the next morning was going to be on us," said Judi, crying. "The worst thing you have to do is bury your own son."
In a moment, as he talked about his boy as a kid, Chuck paused.
"I loved him," he said.
Chuck stopped, realizing he'd spoken in the past tense.
"I love him."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.