Saturday, February 28, 2009

Requiem for a soldier

"There is an appointed time for everything and there is a time for every event under heaven-- a time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to shun embracing. A time to search and a time to give up as lost; a time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; a time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace." Ecclesiastes 3.

Along with 19 others, I was asked to prepare Marc's favorite dessert for the memorial service. What a privilege to do something, anything, for the family. I carefully chose only the very best granny smith apples to make the apple crisp. Ordinarily, I just slap food together to be as quick as possible to finish the task of cooking, but I found myself painstakingly cutting and mixing this dish and thinking about other food I served this family. After the birth of the youngest child I brought to their house fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. The only reason I remember this is because Mary often talked about it. She always said how nice that was, but then laughed about how I didn't know at the time she hated cheese.

As I baked the dessert the phone rang. It was someone from our police department--the emergency call system put in place to tell us of fallen trees on the road or downed power lines. The call goes out to everyone in our town. Today we were told the route Marc's body would take from the funeral home to the park where the memorial service would be held. To honor our hometown fallen soldier, residents were encouraged to "line the streets." And they did. Citizens came out on this bitter, cold day--the elderly, veterans, moms and dads and little kids. They stood along the roads, flags in hand, awaiting the procession.

Fred, three of my boys, and I arrived at the park. There were so many people that shuttle buses were carrying us from a distant parking lot to the pavillion at the edge of the woods that Marc so loved. Thankfully, this open structure was covered with clear plastic curtains to block some of the wind, but they flapped wildly with the icy blasts. Once again, we saw our old friends and neighbors, bundled up in their scarfs and hats. But this time there was nothing to say. The ceremony was solemn and respectful. The eulogies were in turn sad, humorous, and heartbreaking. We cried, then laughed. Amazing Grace came in haunting tones from the bagpipes as the wind howled around us. At the very end, a recording of the old song Ballad of the Green Berets was played. The author of that song was like Marc--a Green Beret, a medic, and a staff sergeant, only he did not die in the war in which he served. I knew every word to that song. It's a song from my youth that was on the radio constantly during the Vietnam era, but today it has new meaning.

"Silver wings upon their chest, these are men, America's best, one hundred men we'll test today, but only three win the Green Beret."

At the end of the song a woman's anguished cry pierced the frosty air. Mary? A sister? The fiancee? Her desolate wail squeezed our hearts and tears flowed again. Is there any meaning to be found here? A life well-lived, full and rich--but much too short in our eyes. History repeats--war and death. Amazing grace--the only hope in this desperate world.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Somber reunion

With fear and trembling (literally), Damien and I pay our respects to the family. Why is this so difficult? Because we may say or do something to offend these hurting people? Because we are afraid we may not know how to speak or act? Because by immersing ourselves in their grief, we are acknowledging our common mortality and the fact that this pain could easily be our own?

On the porch stand two men--Marc's step-father and a neighbor from the other side. My relationship with them in the past consisted of friendly hellos and shared social events. However, today we sob together and hold each other tightly. All we can say is, "Oh, my God!" over and over. Their sorrow pours out, drenching me in it. How can this be happening? Inside the house, Mary's pain is too deep to reach. She is just going through the motions-- hugging, visiting with the crowd, talking, and then suddenly running away to the refuge of her room to get away. In the kitchen, people stand around talking softly, smiling hesitantly at those they haven't seen in awhile. I remember the loud laughter and fun of this house 18 years ago when we lived next door. Laughter that was still heard just a few days ago, I'm sure.

Marc's siblings have come from other states. Beautiful kids, all grown-up. The whole neighborhood is here, it seems. The twins from down the hill who confront Damien on how he used to harass them. Other kids who used to play street hockey in the driveway or capture the flag on the grassy hills around our yards. I see the snooty past president of the PTA. She's still snooty, but old. Maybe she looks at me and thinks I'm old too. We hug though, and it is good to be here and see these people-- even her.

Several days later we go to the funeral home for Marc's viewing on a cold, blustery night. A long line of people has formed around the building. There are so many people here that they can't fit inside. Old veterans stand motionless out front in this frigid air, holding tightly to big flags that snap in the wind. We wait over an hour just to get in the building. At first the mood is reverent and still as we wait. As the minutes go by and the wind picks up to seemingly gale force, we recall stories of the former days in the old neighborhood and shiver and laugh. But we sober up right away once we get inside. Pictures of Marc surround us. His mementos from school and sports, his awards. He was a Green Beret. The tears flow again. We reach the casket. No, it isn't Marc. Doesn't look a bit like him. He was full of life, mischievous, always smiling. I can't look anymore at this stranger.

Mary. Oh, Mary. She's exhausted, drained. Greeting people for hours, standing here near the body of her son. What a strange custom we have that a family must endure. Mary and I exchange a few words--what we wouldn't give to have our children little again, to go back to those carefree days, ignorant of this impending tragedy. As we leave we run into more people, old friends, classmates of my boys. A grand reunion here in this funeral home. A young woman beside me in line graduated with Jon. She says, "What fun it would have been to catch up with everyone at a different time and place. A wedding maybe." Marc's wedding that will never be.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Boy next door

My former next-door neighbor and good friend is the business manager of our local library. After our kids grew up and I moved to a different part of town, Mary and I didn't seen each other much until she got this library job. Now we frequently see her and catch up on family news. There is something special between next-door moms and kids who grow up together.

I saw Mary last Wednesday. We talked for longer than usual while my girls looked for books. We told stories of old neighbors we've seen and what our kids are up to. She always asks about Damien--her favorite of my kids. I asked about her son Marc, an Army medic, who recently left for Afghanistan. She said Marc was eager to go and that his girlfriend has just forwarded a picture she'd received from Marc. Mary said he had a big smile on his face and that he'd grown a beard. I pictured the little blond, blue-eyed boy I once knew--now a man--and we laughed about that.

On Friday Damien called me, devastated, broken, weeping. He responded to my cheery voice on the phone, "I guess you didn't hear the bad news." A chill went through me. What bad news? "Marc was killed in Afghanistan."

Oh no oh no oh no oh no! It can't be! It can't be because I just talked to his mom and she said he was okay! So how could he be dead?? The horror of it! My thoughts go to Mary. How can she bear this? Oh, the world is a terrible place. This should not have happened.

A sign in front of our municipal building explains why the flag is at half-mast. In honor of Marc.