Two kinds of people gathered Sunday afternoon to celebrate the life of Laci Rocha Peterson.
Those who knew her.
And those who wished they had.
The latter sat forward in their seats, listening intently to every word and feeling new emotions. The tears came often and they wiped them away.
Never miss a local story.
It hurt to imagine her.
For Laci's friends and family, the experience was entirely different.
At times, as the 120-voice choir reached a crescendo, those who knew Laci could be seen softly disappearing into mental movies of the past. They sat motionless, tears sliding unhindered down their cheeks, before they snapped back into the moment.
It hurt to remember her.
"It was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do for a friend," said Stacey Boyers. "But Laci deserved to have these things said for her and to have her life told with wonderful memories."
An estimated 3,000 people filled First Baptist Church in Modesto for the memorial service, which was held on what would have been Laci's 28th birthday.
People walking in immediately became part of a breathtaking scene.
The white-gowned choir -- the union of Big Valley Grace Community and First Baptist church singers -- filled a large stage. Two video screens displayed large photographs of Laci.
Dozens of flower arrangements blanketed the altar in reds, pinks and whites. One white heart-shaped bouquet of flowers held a red line of petals down the middle, symbolizing a broken heart. Nearby, a white column held the figurine of a child next to white roses, a tribute to Conner -- the child who lived and died with her.
In the center of it all, surrounded by hundreds of flowers and lush, green plants, stood a single portrait of Laci.
She was home again in her garden.
Brother: 'Today is a good day'
Five minutes before the service began, the Rocha family entered the hall and took seats in the front. Their expressions were solemn, their eyes tired and red. Laci's father, Dennis Rocha, wiped away tears as he walked in carrying a bouquet.
Brent Rocha, Laci's brother, was the only family member to speak.
"Today is a good day," he said. "Today is Laci's birthday. All of us are given an opportunity to remember Laci and Conner. Laci would be very grateful and just astounded that she would get this kind of attention. I think with all of us here, we're sending a very powerful message."
Rocha told about how three years ago, at their grandmother's funeral, Laci told him she didn't want people to be sad at her funeral.
"When I die, I don't want people to be missing me," he recalled her saying. "I want people to be happy."
The memorial service had moments of laughter, but ulti-mately, it was an immensely sad occasion. Last month, the bodies of Laci and Conner were recovered at the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay. Laci had been reported missing on Christmas Eve.
Scott Peterson has been charged with murder in the deaths of his wife and unborn son and is awaiting trial. Nobody mentioned his name at the service Sunday. His image had been removed from photographs of Laci, including several from her wedding day, shown during a video montage.
The audience remained subdued during the early moments of the service. Eventually, people began to applaud when songs and speakers concluded. Many people clutched tissues and dabbed their eyes.
Laci's 13-year-old cousin T.J. Vasquez spoke with emotion that brought many people to tears.
"Even though Laci is not with us here today, she will always be in my heart and in my memories," T.J. said as he choked back tears. "Happy birthday, Laci."
His words stretched to those people in the room First Baptist provided to hold the overflow crowd. Shortly after T.J. spoke, two men got up and left with tears streaming down their faces.
Everyone remembers her smile
Terri Western, Boyers' mother and a close friend of Laci's, remembered how her daughter's friends usually chose Western's house for their sleepovers. Years later, she learned, that was only because she could sleep through anything.
She spoke of Laci as a loud, vivacious woman with a contagious smile that never left her face.
"I don't know much about letting go, but I'm learning," Western said. "One of the ways I can let go is to imagine that Laci and Conner have moved on ahead of us, paving the way for us into a life unknown."
Laci's friends and family wanted to ensure the service was a celebration of her life. Their words evoked moving images of a woman as she was, and as they wished she could be.
Addie Hansberry, one of Laci's cousins, talked about a 5-year-old girl whose older brother had dared her to take off her swimming suit and jump into the pool in front of about 20 people.
And suddenly, there was Laci, wrapped in a towel, being escorted from the pool and schooled on the virtues of proper swim attire. She blamed her brother for daring her.
Lori Ellsworth gave a memory of two 14-year-old girls making silly home videos of commercial re-enactments.
And suddenly, there was Laci, with a towel in one hand and a bar of soap in the other, belting out, "You're not fully clean unless you're Zestfully clean."
Ellsworth said the video has become one of her most prized possessions.
Kim McNeely told of a woman who, upon learning she was pregnant, went out and bought every parenting book she could find.
And suddenly, there was Laci, decked out in full maternity wear even though she was only three months along and hardly showing.
Boyers talked about receiving a phone call from Laci around that time. She didn't know if she should buy new maternity clothes, and eventually asked Boyers to loan her some things.
And suddenly, there was Laci, announcing to everyone at the party how neat it was that her maternity clothes were part of Boyers' regular wardrobe.
Kim Tyler talked about meeting Laci four years ago on a trip to San Luis Obispo and Hollywood.
And suddenly, there was Tyler, riding back home to Modesto and finding it quite strange to be missing somebody she had just met.
Lisa Loeffler remembered dressing up in her best clothes -- it was mandatory -- to attend one of Laci's gourmet dinners.
And suddenly, there was Laci, a brown-eyed, dark-haired version of Martha Stewart, moving through the kitchen, a portrait of elegance and grace.
Terri Western offered up an image of Laci and Conner now.
And suddenly, there were Laci and Conner, walking hand-in-hand through the hallways of heaven, having already earned their golden wings.
"We are all better people for having known Laci," McNeely said. "I take comfort in knowing that Laci and Conner are together, and the same smile that I will miss every day is now shining down on us through heaven."
Final song inspires clapping
The service ended with the playing of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl."
When the song started, Laci's longtime friend Rene Tomlinson leaned forward and sang the words as the rose in her hand danced. Several of Laci's friends seated in the row behind Tomlinson began to sing as well. The chorus kicked in, and people in the crowd began clapping.
Western jumped to her feet, clapping, telling the crowd it was all right to celebrate a life. And everyone did.
As Tomlinson sang, she looked over her shoulder at a couple of her friends. The women all looked at each other; it could have been a scene from any one of the road trips they had taken together.
And suddenly, there was Laci, wearing sunglasses and driving the car. Anxious to open a nice bottle of wine.
Heading swiftly toward the beach to make it in time for sunset.
Bee staff writer Patrick Giblin contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at 578-2331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.