I’ve been anticipating this blog post for awhile, knowing this event was something I would want to write about, yet very aware that I wanted and needed to protect the privacy of those involved. I gradually came to the realization that all my blog posts are about me, and this time is no exception. So no names will be used in this post, while at the same time assuring anyone that is concerned that I’m writing about my experience only.
I haven’t been to a lot of funerals. It sounds weird and kind of creepy, but I just haven’t known that many dead people. Of course this is a function of age and as I’ve gotten older more people have died, including my grandmothers and my father. But (looking around anxiously for a bit of wood to knock on) most of my close friends and relatives are still living.
I know this situation won’t last forever. Aging involves loss, and if I’m fortunate enough to live a long life one of the misfortunes of that will be losing people I’m close to. In this past year a member of the group of ladies I’m friends with from Texas died, and a friend’s husband died. This friend’s husband had a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery today, and I was honored to be able to attend.
I landed at Dulles for the first time in many years. The last time I had flown into this airport it was new and out in the middle of nowhere. Now it’s a convenient airport for accessing the Washington suburbs. It still seems like a modern and well-run airport. It was no problem to follow the signs, pick up my luggage and head for my rental car.
I brought my GPS with me; the thought of driving in Washington traffic had given me something to fret about for a couple of weeks. But it turned out that driving in Boston traffic for the past year, with their extremely aggressive and absent-minded drivers and tangled web of roads, made Washington’s roads and drivers seem the epitome of politeness and organization. I had no trouble getting from Dulles to my friend’s house in Fairfax, Virginia.
One of her sisters answered the door and I immediately mistook her for another sister. I figured out my mistake soon enough. Although there is a strong family resemblance and they are all relatively close in age, they are actually very distinctive individuals. It was only time and age that caused me to make that mistake.
I received the grand tour…it is a beautiful house, perfect for bird-watching (her passion) and filled with hand-made Williamsburg-style furniture, made by her husband with a lot of help and participation on her part. It was fun to see how his talents and expertise had improved as he progressed from one beautiful piece to another.
It was a strange day. I was tired from my early flight. It was wonderful to see her sisters again after so many years and meet their husbands for the first time. Her parents have aged greatly since the last time we met, and her mother is ill, but her father seemed the same, quiet, observant, friendly. I’ve always liked him somehow. Back in junior high there was something cool about the odd hours he kept. We would be having one of our interminable slumber parties at her house. Her father would come home at three in the morning from some project he was busy with at work and sit down and work a jigsaw puzzle with a bunch of 14 year old girls. In retrospect he must have been a chronic insomniac back then, but to my teenage mind there was something exotic about a father that thought teenagers were worth spending time with.
One of the other sisters also had a childhood friend that came for the funeral. I remember her as a very little girl (my friend is the eldest of 4 girls), always over at their house, but I had probably never exchanged a word with her before. We had a great time comparing notes on their family throughout the next day and a half.
I was to be one of the designated drivers to Arlington the next day, since I would need to leave for the airport without returning to Fairfax. We had wonderfully explicit directions on how to get there but driving in a strange city can be so unsettling. I had visions of managing to get lost and having one of my friend’s sisters miss the funeral.
But it all worked out. We met early on Tuesday in the lobby of one of the hotels. One of the sister’s husbands sat in the front seat of my rental car and gave me moral support and calm guidance through the rush hour traffic. We arrived at the Fort Myers Chapel with plenty of time to spare.
When we arrived the honor guard and the horse and caisson were already there and waiting. There was a band too. We entered the chapel and visited quietly until it was time for the service to begin. My friend was doing well on the outside but I could only imagine how difficult this must have been for her. Because it takes so long to schedule a funeral at Arlington, she had had over 3 months to anticipate and dread this.
My emotions were so confused. I have unpredictable reactions to funerals. I’ve been known to sob at the funerals of people I barely know, and remain dry-eyed at times when tears would be appropriate. One of the sisters laughingly said that she cried the first time she saw The Sound of Music and I rejoined that I cried the first time I saw The Music Man…we planned our Kleenex vs. handkerchief strategies (my friend claimed that a handkerchief would be less likely to leave bits of white fuzz all over a black outfit, a good point I thought). It’s funny how tears and laughter are such close emotions.
The service was brief. My friend’s husband was so accomplished, but very modest. A private person, my friend though he would have disapproved of hearing his achievements announced from the pulpit, but for those of us there, it was good to hear about what a fine person he had been. The hymns chosen by my friend were simple; God of Our Fathers, America the Beautiful. I watched her singing bravely in the front of the chapel. I sang too and remembered our years together in choir in high school. I thought to myself, “This is the first time we’ve sung together in over 40 years”.
After the service the mourners filed out of the chapel. A few people chose to walk behind the coffin to the burial spot, but most of us needed to move our cars, so we headed in a long slow line through the cemetery.
The cars were moving so slowly, following the horse-drawn hearse and the honor guard, that I was able to roll down my window and take dozens of pictures of the rolling hills of graves and a few of the city of Washington beyond. It’s such a majestic place, but the thought of all those deaths due to war is disturbing. Why oh why must mankind continually fight and destroy? What is wrong with us?
Finally a quiet hill and a waiting grave. A flag-draped coffin. A three gun volley and then Taps. A folded flag presented to my friend. No one should have to bear this, yet eventually we must. All we can do is try to share the burden, because without the love and care of others it will break us all.
There was a reception at the Women’s Memorial afterwards, hosted by his WestPoint class, charming in their navy sport-jackets and straw hats. Someone had made amazing posters with pictures of a little boy, a suave teenager in a red convertible, a soldier, a fisherman, an older man happy with his children and his wife, pictures from a good life richly lived.
A few of us decided to go see John F Kennedy’s grave, not realizing that it was the anniversary of his death. From there we walked to the graves of Bobby and Ted (a simple cross). From there we walked to see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We arrived when it was only a few minutes until the changing of the guard so we stayed for that as well.
My friend’s husband’s family has a tradition of luncheons after a funeral, so from Arlington we drove to a Korean Barbeque place. I loved how everyone was game whether they had ever tried this sort of food or not. Although I avoided the kim chi, the barbeque itself was very good. Soon enough it was time to say my goodbyes and head back to Dulles and from there to Missouri and Thanksgiving.
I’m grateful, so grateful today for my family, my children and especially my dear husband. Inevitably death comes, and comes whether we are unready or having been waiting for it to arrive. But on this cold and cloudy Thanksgiving morning, life is all around me, from the birds at the feeders to the cats sleeping in their baskets on the chairs. Soon I will get dressed and go get my mom and go to my sister-in-laws. I will hug my children and my brother-in-law will fix me a bloody mary. I’ll smile at my nieces and nephews and talk to my husband’s cousins and sisters. I’ll play with their dogs and eat too much food. And inside my heart I will raise a toast: to life, to life, to life.