Saturday, November 27, 2010

Funeral at Arlington

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.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I’m trying to remember the first time I attempted to read Ulysses. I’m a fan of James Joyce, at least as far as Portrait of an Artist and Dubliners goes. Portrait of an Artist can be read purely for the story and so can the short stories in Dubliners, for the most part. Sure, some of the stories confused me a bit, since I wasn’t sure who Parnell was, and was pretty ignorant of the details of Irish history, but I’ve always been pretty good at ignoring the parts of a book that I didn’t understand and still enjoying the parts that I could comprehend.

But Ulysses confounded me, over and over again. I would make it through the first three chapters fairly regularly, but with a sinking sensation that most of what I was reading was going right over my head. I even got as far as the beginning of the Bloom story, but somewhere among the trips to the outhouse and the journey to the butcher’s I would give up.

Eventually I decided that the only way I was ever going to be able to read this book would be to take a class. I thought I would probably have to take a college English class, maybe as part of my “masters in English Lit” retirement fantasy. But here in New England I’ve discovered the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (see this entry about the class I took on Nabokov last year). When I found out a class on Ulysses was being offered this fall I knew I had to take it. No more excuses! I was finally going to read this book.

Because of my high school reunion and the Twin Cities Marathon I missed the first class, but by the second class I knew this was going to be a good experience. The teacher has taught this class since 1997 and seems to know just about everything there is to know about James Joyce and Ulysses. I soon enough felt better about never having been able to read this book on my own. Ulysses is complicated!

As we make our way through this strange book, chapter by chapter, week by week, I’m increasingly impressed by Joyce’s vast knowledge. References to Shakespeare, Dante, Greek mythology, Irish history, JEWISH history, Catholic references, music, science, etc. etc. etc. abound. How one man ever managed to keep track of these references that twine their way through the book, repeating, turning in on themselves, while the characters wander around Dublin for twenty four hours is nothing short of awe-inspirng. And I can’t help but be a bit suspicious of my friends that claimed to have read this book while we were in college (and Finnegan’s Wake too by golly). Yes, maybe you read all the words, but did you understand what you were reading? Did you get it? I’m reading it with a class, and a teacher, and a separate annotated book to explain some of the references, and I STILL realize that I’m missing some of what Joyce is trying to do. My little ADD brain just can’t stay focused long enough to really, really get what’s going on.

For those of you that have never read this book, one of the more perplexing things about it is how the point of view keeps changing as the book goes on. First you’re following Bloom’s stream of consciousness, then you’re listening as Stephen Dedalus expounds on his theory of Shakespeare’s motivation for writing his plays, then you’re watching and listening as various other characters tell THEIR stories. And THEN the book gets even weirder. A chapter is written in a style that has been called musical, with words and phrases repeating themselves in patterns like a piece of music would. Several chapters are written as parodies of various writing styles, seemingly just because Joyce could. A very long chapter is written as a play (that’s the chapter I’m reading now), but not a play that you’ll ever see on a stage, as the characters change shape, costume, species and even gender from one line to the other. And of course there’s the famous last chapter, one endless sentence, with the one line that most people have heard if they know anything at all about Joyce “…yes, I said yes I will yes.”

At this point my internal jury is still out on whether I actually “like” this book. Like seems like a rather feeble word to describe what it’s been like to read Ulysses. Admiring, annoyed, bored, fascinated, irritated, curious, touched…I’ve felt all of those things this fall. I feel a little proud of myself for getting through this mountain of a book, finally! When we get to the last chapter I really feel like the class needs to go find a pub and have a drink, in honor of Joyce and in honor of ourselves for finally reading this book.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Harper and I have our routines. We go for walks. We throw toys and retrieve them up and down the hall in the house. We practice our training and enjoy our hot dog and freeze-dried liver treat rewards. We watch the squirrels outside from our bed on the cedar chest and routinely have a heart attack when one strays into the yard. In general we have a good time together.

One of our routines is going outside one more time to go potty before bed. Since it has gotten dark I take a flashlight with me. I always go outside with her after dark. There are too many scary animals in our neighborhood. I figure a talkative human and a light are enough to keep them at bay, and so far that has been the case. Harper has learned quickly that after she does her business, if she runs right back inside its time for a treat before bed.

Two nights ago we got ready to go outside one last time. I put on her electronic collar, grabbed the flashlight, and out we went. But instead of running over to our usual potty place, she headed behind the gazebo and started barking frantically. Uh-oh! Before I could say “Harper! No!” she was over the wall and chasing SOMETHING into the woods!

Harper has run through the electronic fence once before, but the previous time was during the day and I could see what it was (a cat). This time it was dark and I had no idea what she was chasing. I clambered over the rock wall, since you can’t call a dog and ask them to come and get shocked in the process. I started screaming for Lee, but he was inside watching TV and couldn’t hear me.

I started chasing Harper and yelling for her to come, but I didn’t have to go far. Suddenly she was practically leaping into my arms and with her came an unbelievable stench. Intellectually I knew it had to have been a skunk, but in reality it smelled like nothing I had ever experienced before. It smelled more like garlic to me than skunk. Actually it smelled like what I might imagine very old and rotten garlic might smell like, if I was the size of an ant, and embedded inside a garlic clove.  I’d NEVER been this close to active skunk spray before. This wasn’t like the unpleasant smell you notice from a car window or out in the woods. This was really intense. My olfactory senses basically shut down and in short order I couldn’t smell a thing.

Harper was drooling and foaming at the mouth, all over my coat. If I thought things smelled bad, God knows what she thought, with her superior sense of smell. Poor thing! I removed her collar and ran back to the house, still yelling for Lee.

I burst into the house screaming. “Harper got sprayed by a skunk!” Quick-thinking Lee grabbed her and threw her in the guest shower and closed the glass shower door. He started stripping off his clothes so that he could get in the shower with her and start cleaning her off.

We knew doggie shampoo wasn’t going to be enough to get rid of the smell. Should we try tomato juice? All we had was V8; would that work? Lee said “Google de-skunking your dog!” and so I did.

I quickly found out the tomato juice is an old wives tale that only covers up the smell, and besides, makes a white dog turn pink. The remedy I found was 1 quart hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup baking soda, and a couple of teaspoons dish detergent. I quickly mixed up this concoction and handed it to Lee, who proceeded to rub it into Harper’s fur. It worked! With some diligent scrubbing the skunk smell was quickly removed from our dog.

I then removed most of My clothes (fortunately my coat was washable) and threw it in the washing machine with the remainder of the solution. That removed the smell from my coat and pants as well.

I know I should think this is funny, and perhaps eventually I will. Picture two semi naked people and a sodden miserable dog, frantically trying to wash out skunk smell…

The only thing that we couldn’t get the smell out of was the electronic receiver collar. It must have received a direct hit. We tried the hydrogen peroxide solution, poison ivy soap (Tecnu, always important to have on hand) and a cleaner called Nature’s Remedy that we use to get dog accidents out of the rug. Nothing doing. Every time I “tested” the receiver by bringing it up to my nose, the whole experience came back, vividly. Unfortunately we had to buy a new receiver.

Today there is still a rather strong skunk smell in the garage and basement. We think the skunk must have been wandering around near the garage before Harper found it and the smell got drawn into the basement somehow.  At least until there is snow on the ground in the evening Harper is going out on a leash. I don’t want to chance an experience like that again. My nose is still recovering!


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