Three times now, Vanessa Vega has walked to school flanked by a full force of officers. Friends of her father’s, now doing their duty in his place.
“They said they’re going to do it for prom too, which kind of ruined my prom plans,” laughs Vanessa.
It’s been tough negotiating adolescence without her dad, Palm Springs Police Officer Gil Vega. Explaining to new friends at a new school what happened on Oct. 8, 2016.
“Didn’t want to ruin the moment in a way. Because you know, if you say your dad died, then obviously it’s going to be, I’m so sorry, or just going to make the situation a little awkward,” she says, somewhat awkwardly. She often looks to her closest friends to do the explaining for her, or avoids it altogether.
Vanessa, who turns 12 next month, says she misses her father most when she realizes what they’re missing together.
“Like I’m in volleyball now,” she smiles. “Like what if he came to my games? And I feel like he’d be cheering me on in a way… But then, it’s like, I love my friends, but if I could give back everything that’s happened for the last three years, I would.”
Vanessa still holds on to the memories she has of her father. Many of them are humorous. Like the time her dad took her fishing.
“And right at that moment, birds just started swooping in, and (points to her shirt) and they just dropped their load on me,” she giggles, with a disgusted look on her face. “My mom had to take me to the car to clean my shirt off, because I didn’t have extras, and when I came back, my dad was still laughing, of course, because that’s how he is.”
Vanessa says she doesn’t hold a grudge against the man who killed her father and his partner Lesley Zerebny that day, but she wishes people would try to put themselves in the shoes of police officers.
“They’re putting their lives on the line, like some people don’t understand. Just being in the simplest rank, you could sacrifice everything, and lose everything you love. You could leave a baby (like Zerebny), you could leave anything…laying there, and you might never see them again.”
Vanessa was just eight the last time she spoke with her dad, and if she could talk to him now, she would tell him she wants to take golf lessons, one of his favorite pastimes. Gil Vega was set to retire two months later.
If Vanessa could have a last conversation with her dad, she says she would tell him, “That I love him, and I appreciate him. And that I’m grateful that he became an officer, and that I’ll wait for him.”