My uncle Don has passed. His funeral was today.
My uncle was a Purple Heart decorated Vietnam veteran. My aunts and uncles chose for him to receive a military burial. I hadn't been to a military funeral before today, so I wasn't sure what to expect.
This morning I woke to angry thunderstorms. Dark clouds blanketed the sky as torrents poured down. I drove down the road, mentally checking the backseat for my sweater and umbrella. "Great" I thought to myself. Just great. Funeral, in the rain, with Moose. Fantastic.
As I gingerly made my way south, the tiniest pocket opened in the clouds and a brilliant stream of sunlight kissed my cheeks through the car's window. There it was. Hope. Maybe today wouldn't be entirely awful, after all.
My father had flown in for the funeral, along with my most favorite aunt and uncle, and other relatives. I was greatly looking forward to seeing Joe and Lisa. My dad...not so much. There are years of history there. Years of hurts and betrayals. Things I cannot, should not share in such a public venue. We haven't spoken for years, except out of necessity. Spending time with dad would be painful and difficult for me. As much as I have prayed over the years for God to soften my heart and wash away all the hurts, to plant His forgiveness and love for my dad inside of me, it still had not come. It just hadn't come. And believe me, I have begged.
And with a heart loaded heavy with grief for my loss and anxiety for sharing this time with my father, I drove down the road dressed in a slate gray satin blouse and dark trouser jeans. I forgot to take my black dress to the cleaners after the wedding I wore it to a couple of weeks ago. This outfit would have to do, even though I felt bad for not being more dressed up and not covering myself in black from head to toe like a good Mexican in grief. That's how we roll. I had armed myself with waterproof mascara and a box of tissues.
As I exited the expressway and followed the sign towards the national cemetery, my thoughts drifted back to my grandmother's heart way back when. Bless her for being such an exceptional, strong woman. She sent her sons off to war, together. I imagined her back then, not knowing if she would get them back and my chest felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me as my mother-love ached for how she must have felt. Her babies, gone. Maybe not coming back. As my car wound past the military installation, I thought of all the families who had children there now, maybe preparing for a trip to Afghanistan. Tears pricked my eyes for them. How brave. I'm not sure I could do it.
I wound and turned and followed the GPS for what felt like forever. I was dreading this. What was I dreading? Seeing my dad? Laying my uncle to rest? Hurting with my cousins and aunts and uncles? All of the above? Yes. All of the above.
I finally found the cemetery, tucked away in what could have been a nature preserve. The rain had stopped, though the clouds still loomed above. Dark and gloomy, fitting the emotion du jour. As I pulled in, a flag greeted me. I can only assume that this flag is perpetually flown at half mast, for this is a place of honor and grieving. The view still stung me. Flags at half mast always do. There is only one reason to fly a flag at half mast, there is only one message such a sight conveys: something terrible has happened. Life has been lost, and we are sad. We are so sad, we can only hoist this flag up halfway.
After waiting on the rest of the family and exchanging greetings and pleasantries, we were led in a procession towards a commitment shelter in the groves of trees. Me and my cousins and aunts and uncles followed each other past fields of headstones. They stood like a unit of perfect little white soldiers in formation, as far as the eye could see. All perfectly spaced, pristine white, lined up and going on and on and on. My breath caught in my throat and my heart ached a little bit as tears slid down my cheeks.
We arrived at the place where we would have our funeral. Cadets saluted as they were lined up in formation on each side of the outdoor shelter, with a small group of armed cadets to the left side. Three uniformed servicemen and women awaited, saluting, at the head of the shelter. And then I saw it. I saw grief in action, grief burdened heavily as my father and his brothers acted as pallbearers for my uncle. They lifted and pulled his casket, draped with the American flag, towards the head of the shelter. Fresh, hot tears sprang up. Such a burden, so heavy, to carry your brother like that. I had to look away. We filed into the rows of seating, and I sat beside my father. I did not want him to be alone now. The seed of forgiveness and love that I had asked for had been planted after all. Apparently, conditions have to be just right for that kind of seed to germinate.
We were warned that shots would be fired, and that it would be loud. We should cover our children's ears, and our own. Having only two hands, I covered Moose's ears and they fired. Covering his ears left my own naked for the assault on my senses. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. The shots rippled through the air and vibrated through the ground, each one bringing forth more tears than the last. It was like a stabbing through my chest, shaking everything within me in a deep, visceral way. I hadn't noticed the trumpets until they started playing "Taps". My brain recollected the words from high school chorus:
Day is done,
Gone the sun,
From the lake
From the hills
From the sky.
All is well,
God is nigh.
And then more tears came. The dressed soldiers lifted the flag from my uncle's casket and folded it up. The soldier in the center hugged it to his chest as he straightened the corners, and white-gloved hands presented it to my eldest uncle with a whisper of gratitude for my uncle's service to his country, and condolences for my family's loss. It was like a scene from a movie, each step and move perfectly orchestrated, with the rifle salute and the cadets and the uniformed service men and the white gloves. Except instead of it being actors there crying, it was my family. It was surreal.
Those Kleenex came in handy. I offered the box to my father at my left, took a few for myself and passed the box back to the weeping behind me. I placed my left hand in my dad's hand as he shook with sadness. The message was simple yet unspoken: Your feelings matter to me. I felt green sprouts unfurl from the seed in my heart. How odd, this juxtaposition of grief and growth at the same time. Life and death in harmony.
My cousin brought forth a bouquet of flowers and dissected it into individual blooms, presenting each of my uncle's siblings with one to set on the casket. My dad quickly handed me his. The message was simple yet unspoken: Your feelings matter to me. The roots of my little sprout grew stronger, as years of anger and bitterness crumbled away beneath it.
A priest offered his greeting, blessing and prayers and then sprinkled some holy water onto the casket, offering each of my uncle's siblings an opportunity to follow him with the same. First my aunt and her husband approached the casket, laying down their flower and sprinkling. Then my uncle and his wife. Then my favorite uncle, and his wife. And then I realized...my dad doesn't have a wife to go with him. I did not want him to be alone now. I went with him. After his little shake from the plastic holy flask, he handed it to me. I'm not Catholic, I don't do holy water, I whispered. Whatever. I shook the little bottle as officially as I could after resting my flower on the casket. It wasn't about the water. It was about doing it together, so I did it. Each of my other uncles and cousins quietly approached and sprinkled the casket, the priest said a closing prayer and blessing and we were done. The uncles were called upon again to transport the casket back to the hearse for transport to the plot. Again, I marveled at the physical and emotional strength required for this task. My poor dad. My poor uncles.
After our little service, we drove in procession again to my uncle's house. We sat and visited and ate and talked. Our kids played together and the uncles had a few beers together in the backyard and even if it was just for one quick afternoon, it was almost like when I was little and we visited at my grandma's house on a Sunday afternoon.
I took my dad home with me to stay with us for a few days while he's in town. Mister had a study group at 7, so after dropping him off there me and my dad and Moose went to dinner. We sat and talked and just kind of got to know each other a little bit again. It's been awhile. We don't really know each other anymore. It was good, though. Maybe we can start over again. Maybe he won't mess up so much this time. Maybe my seed has a chance.