TOLEDO, Ohio — Toledo Police Officer Brandon Stalker was often outnumbered.
“He was able to hold his own," said Kim Traczyk. "He spent a lot of time...with the women. Yeah, it would be Cosette, myself, my girls, and Brandon. He’d often be the only boy in the situation."
Stalker was like a son to her, as his mother and Kim shared a friendship spanning roughly 20 years. Their families were rarely apart, often spending holidays and silly moments together.
An army of tough women was perhaps the best training Stalker could receive to protect and serve.
“I miss him every day. I miss his smile, mostly, just the love and doing things with him," Cosette Stalker, Brandon's mother, said through tears.
The young father of two received his final assignment to serve a year ago in the afternoon hours of Jan. 18, 2021. He worked to keep Toledo safe, as SWAT tried to force an arson suspect out of his home.
They fired tear gas, and the man came out firing two guns.
A bullet struck Stalker’s head. He was just 24 years old.
His family was devastated.
“I had tried to call Cosette, and she didn’t answer, and I knew, already knew," Rebecca Miller said, her voice faltering. "I tried to call Ashley, and she didn’t answer. My heart just dropped.”
After Miller called Brandon's fiancé Ashley Ohmer with no reply, she immediately thought of her then 7-year-old daughter she shared with Brandon, his oldest child. Her heart searched for answers.
“I fell to my knees because it hurts me, yes, but it hurts me more for Kennah than it does anything," Miller said through tears. "It was a bond like no other. They were best friends. Literally inseparable. She loved having her dad around."
Hours later, Cosette and Miller told Kennah her daddy got hurt at work, and he’s in heaven now.
“She cried. She knew," Miller remembered.
Grief has the power to transform, especially one year later. It can transform the meaning of community. And for that, Cosette is so thankful.
“I’ve always instilled in Brandon to be there for others and help others and be there for everybody, and to have it come back to us is...I don’t know if it’s God’s will, but it’s amazing, because this is what I’ve instilled in my son," an emotional Cosette said.
Traczyk, Cosette's best friend, agrees.
“The outpouring of love from the community has been incredible," she said.
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Grief can also deepen a friendship.
“I think part of me always wanted to let her know that it’s OK to not be OK," Traczyk said, pausing to look at Cosette. "And I never want to say to her, ‘I understand, I know what you feel like,' because I don’t know what it feels like to lose your only child. But I always want her to know I’m here.”
Grief can even change how you understand yourself.
“How strong I am, that’s the big thing, because I found myself trying to help other people more who've lost someone," Cosette explained.
Ultimately, grief feels a lot like love with no place to go, and love is creating some big career goals for Kennah.
Miller shuddered and took a deep breath.
“It would take a lot honestly, but if those are her dreams, then I would want her to fulfill them," she said. "I don’t want her to be scared of anything, and she’s not. She’s definitely fearless."
Because Kennah wants to step into her daddy’s shoes.
“She talks about the police, TPD, actually saving Brandon’s spot for her. She goes, ‘I just know they’re saving daddy’s spot for me.' So if you ask her what she wants to be, it’s a police officer," Miller said with a chuckle.
Kennah isn't the only one who wants to do big things for Officer Stalker. His fiancée Ashley continues to honor Brandon's memory with determination and random acts of kindness in his name.
She invites anyone to participate in a public Facebook group called Brandon's Random Acts of Kindness. She and their son Grayson, now 1, have moved to Cleveland for a fresh start.
Similarly, until she is reunited with her son, Cosette says she's created a scholarship fund in Brandon's name for upperclassmen at Whitmer High School where he played baseball. She invites anyone to donate.
In the meantime, Brandon's family is trying to keep the meaning of family alive, just the way he would have wanted. They cling to each other, Grayson, and Kennah -- little pieces of Brandon -- every day.
"Brandon lived the life he wanted and he died doing what he loved. I don't think he'd want it any other way," Traczyk said, taking a deep breath looking toward Cosette. "The love I have for that child is as if he were my own child. The memories I have, even up until that day, are the best memories ever."
Sitting at the table, Cosette nodded, smiled, and touched her friend's arm.
Brandon's Battalion forever watching his six.