(Video courtesy of Officer Alfredo Araiza's family.)
They were living life like most twenty-somethings do: They were bright-eyed in love, building a career, starting a family – when suddenly, it was over.
“It was a beautiful relationship. My husband was so romantic," says Live Oak resident Mari Abrego Araiza. "He was always writing me love notes. I would come home and I’d open the commode and there would be a love note stuck to the toilet!”
And even after thirty years, the loss is not something easily talked about.
“You build a wall and you kinda don’t go there," she says.
As the nation respectfully pauses for seven days to reflect on those lives cut short while keeping the peace, National Police Week opens old wounds and brings back a flood of painful memories for Araiza.
“When we met in high school, we dated, and before he gave me a promise ring, he told me 'I want you to know this is my life, and I may die doing this,'" she said.
Her husband, Officer Alfredo Araiza, had only been on the force for a year, but he was already making a mark in the community, particularly with the people he was most passionate about: children.
“He would always tell me I want to help others, I want to save kids. He loved stopping and chit-chatting with the kids in the community. He’d carry baseball cards and hand them out," she said.
But what should have been a long career in uniform was over just as quickly as it began. On Jan. 17, 1980, after only a year on the force, the young officer was patrolling I-35 when he began to pursue a speeding vehicle. It was a chase that continued on Loop 1604 until his cruiser collided with a tractor-trailer.
Araiza was instantly killed in the fiery crash, becoming the first Live Oak officer killed in the line of duty. His death left his wife behind on the long, lonely road to recovery.
“You get angry. You hate them for leaving you. You’re sad. You go through remorse and guilt," she said.
In the midst of coming to terms with shattered dreams, Mari was faced with the unexpected challenge of transitioning from the companionship of a husband to the loneliness of life as a widow.
“In those days, I think women were more sheltered by their husbands. There were skills we expected the man to do, to take care of, (like) how to read maps, to put gas in your car.” she said.
The burden to carry
Even though she doesn't carry a badge or a gun, being a police officer's wife has its own set of responsibilities. She says seeing your husband hurting is part of the burden a police officer's wife must carry.
"The hardest thing was when he would come home with these sad stories of abused children. Where he'd have to hold the child in his arms because there had been violence or they had seen their mom killed in front of them," she said. "He would be depressed. His face would be sad, and he would cry in his quiet moments without letting me know what was going on."
And then there were the many lonely nights.
"Working the night shift, the dog watch. That's the hardest life," she recalled. "The sleeping in the daytime, trying to make the room dark so they can rest, so they can be fresh and alert working that night shift, that was hard."
She says the emotional toll that comes with the job can be too overpowering for some families.
"I know for many police officers their relationships crumble because of the stress," she said. "If you don't have someone to talk to and share with you can become bitter."
But for Mari and her husband, there was an open line of communication, even on the most difficult of topics.
"He told me it's very likely I could be killed in the line of duty," she said. "I didn't want to hear it, but I think it was his way of toughening me up and saying 'You've gotta be strong for me.'"
They met young and dreamed big, and life was full of seemingly endless possibilities. Mari would attend college and later enter the education field.
"He would surprise me at school. He'd drive up and honk three times and all my kids would run to the window and wave" she said.
And what should have been a story of high school sweethearts falling in love and experiencing anniversary after anniversary instead has been limited to his handwritten notes and a treasure chest of memories.
"He was just romantic, one of those people that loved dearly" she said. "I have a huge chest with over 107 letters he wrote during our relationship."
It's been 30 years since her first love was taken away on that January afternoon, but the traumatic loss has never left Mari -- especially thinking about what might have been and what will never be.
"I have never remarried. It's scary. I think I never remarried because I was afraid to love and be abandoned" she said.
It's just part of the damage done when an officer is called to lay down his life and what "the ultimate sacrifice" means for the spouse left behind.
“When you’re high school sweethearts, you build a life in your imagination, you plan your future," she said. "We always talked about being old people, holding hands – that was our hope, that was what we wanted to do -- to be together.”