EL PASO, TEXAS >> Just about every morning for the past two weeks, Antonio Basco has risen before dawn to buy as many floral bouquets as he can fit in his car and carried them to a makeshift memorial for the victims of the mass shooting in El Paso.
He places the flowers one by one around the white wooden cross for Margie Reckard, his wife. This is his solemn ritual, born of grief and unmooring: tending Margie’s garden.
“She loved any kind of flowers. I could walk down the street and find flowers that had been run over a thousand times, and she would think it looked like a million dollars,” Basco said Friday morning.
Hour later, the La Paz Faith Memorial and Spiritual Center in El Paso would be spilling over with bouquets, as hundreds of strangers came to pay their respects to Reckard at her visitation and prayer service.
Basco had invited the public to the service this week, worried that he would have to bury his partner of 22 years alone. Reckard, one of the 22 people killed in the attack on Aug. 3, has children, but Basco has no direct relatives. When Perches Funeral Homes, which was handling Reckard’s arrangements, learned of Basco’s intentions, it extended an open invitation to the service on its Facebook page.
The response was unimaginable. The funeral home received about 10,000 messages and tributes, and more than 900 floral arrangements.
They sat along the front of the chapel, below the stained-glass windows, on every table in the foyer, in the fellowship hall and on the staircase. They were sent from across America. New Hampshire. Oregon. Kentucky.
Some came from Dayton, Ohio, the site of a mass shooting less than a day after the attack in El Paso.
And crowds filled the center to capacity. Hundreds stood in a line snaking around the church and on the blocks beyond.
“This is amazing,” Basco said as he walked down the center aisle, surveying the unfamiliar faces.
“You took a stranger off the street,” he added, and showed him love.
Victor and Mary Perales, of El Paso, said they had come to support Basco because they knew something about sudden loss: Their oldest son died unexpectedly two years ago. Victor Perales wrote a letter to give to Basco offering his condolences but also offering friendship.
“We know how hard it was for us, and we were surrounded by family. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to go through this alone,” said Victor Perales, 72, a retired truck driver. “I said we are going to this funeral to give him a hug and let him know we can be his family.”
The moment Alicia Solomon Click heard about Basco, she knew she was taking a road trip. The professional singer drove six hours from Sante Fe, New Mexico, and had stood for two hours in the visitation line. “I am here to tell Mr. Basco for every crazy nut there are thousands of us that love him,” said Solomon Click, 61.
For part of the service, a mariachi band played as Basco and Reckard’s relatives greeted and hugged guests. Basco met some of his wife’s relatives for the first time. When a performer began singing “Amor Eterno,” or Love Eternal, much of the church sang along.
“This was an assault on all of us,” Fred Valle, 44, said of the shooting. “You don’t have to know him to feel for him.”
Bishop Harrison Johnson, a Perches funeral director, delivered the eulogy. Before he began, he looked out into the standing-room-only sanctuary and turned to Basco. “Look at all the friends you have now,” Johnson said, to thunderous applause.
He preached from Matthew 14:22. Faith will get you through anything, he assured the crowd, even something as evil as the Walmart massacre. He talked about a united El Paso that was not defined or divided by color — a direct answer to a racist attack.
“Whatever you do, do not stop walking through the storm,” Johnson said. “Don’t stop because you will walk out of the storm.”
Reckard’s children and grandchildren also attended the service. Her oldest son, Dean, 48, described her as loving and kind. “She would have been overwhelmed to see all the love El Paso showed her,” he said.
Basco and Reckard met more than two decades ago at a bar in Nebraska. He was immediately smitten.
“I took one look at her eyes, and it was over with,” Basco said before the service Friday, tears welling.
They settled in El Paso about nine years ago, although their hobby was visiting places by train. Reckard, who was a grocery store cashier in Nebraska, had several health issues, including Parkinson’s disease. Basco worked at a rodeo at one point but now runs a car wash business. He was outside fixing his truck when Reckard left for Walmart that Saturday morning.
“She was a lady,” he said, “and she was the love of my life.”
Basco said that when he wants to feel closest to his wife, he heads to the makeshift memorial and talks to her. Sometimes he returns at night and sleeps next to the cross, hardly visible among the piles of flowers and mementos.