Monday, July 17, 2006

I have been praying for peace in Jerusalem since I was eight years old. My father had taken a construction job in Israel in 1963 and we lived on the edge of the Negev desert for nine months, until the beginning of the summer of 1964. I felt safe there despite the sight of armed soldiers on every street and the rumblings of war that were always percolating through the region. Now I am watching Israel and Lebanon explode again, and my heart is breaking one more time. This time though, we are already involved in Iraq--the thought of conflict spreading out like the brush fires in California and meeting in the middle of Syria, say, is both horrifying and plausible. To my prayers for Jerusalem, I must add prayers for Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut.


Maria came home Friday evening. We had seen the news report, then got into a friend's car and headed for Reagan National Airport to pick her up. Matthew stayed home, feeling he just couldn't do it, so two young couples we knew came back over after having spent the afternoon with us and stayed with him, playing Monopoly and watching TV. It was very hard experiencing that first day of grief again with Maria, especially in the middle of the airport, but I was very grateful that I had asked someone else to drive us.

I slept a bit more the second night. We got up Saturday morning and again I went to Mass. This time the celebrant was an associate priest who apparently had been away because it was clear that he did not know about Thomas. The liturgy was short and to the point and totally devoid of emotional content, at least for me, which was probably a good thing. Without sympathy, I was actually able to cope somewhat better with the rest of the morning.

We went to the bank soon after it opened, looking with horror at our $12,000 check issued by the Department of the Treasury. Feeling unable to explain to an anonymous teller what this was for, we waited to speak with the branch manager who had helped me on many occasions and had actually helped Thomas update his account the previous summer. He took the check, deposited it, brought us the cash we asked for, hugged me, handed me tissues and looked terribly shaken as he explained what we would have to do to get access to Thomas's account. The passing thought that I should be on Thomas's account had just seemed too dire to express the day we got his new ATM card but it would have saved us some trouble if I had just said "Let's do this." Thomas died without a will (apparently the lines were too long and he only had us, not a wife and children, so he must have figured we could handle it, whatever it was) so several months later we got an order from the Clerk of the Court that allows us to handle his financial affairs.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

We've never done a lot for the 4th of July except barbeque and go to our local fireworks. Mostly, it's just the day that came between Anna's birthday (the 2nd) and Thomas's (the 6th), part of a week-long birthday celebration. Nonetheless, this is the nation's 230th anniversay, and on this day also, we remember.


Before news teams descended on us that Friday night, our casualty assistance officer, Captain J. M. arrived at our house at around six p.m., bringing us a check for $12,000 meant to hold us until the life insurance could arrive. Capt. M. is a veteran of Iraq: one of the most buttoned-down women I have ever met, no hair out of place, but kind and compassionate. She was possibly a bit nervous but she took us into her heart immediately, as we took her. She gave us her contact information and told us she would be with us as we did things like contact the funeral home and the cemetery. She may have been a bit taken aback as Thomas had told us on his last leave home that if anything happened he wanted to be buried in civilian clothes at our local cemetery, even though Arlington is only about 40 minutes away. (He told his dad that he'd signed a five-year contract with the Army: eternity belonged to him.) We sat around our dining room table settling this business, while our friends clustered in the living room, trying not to listen.

After Capt. M. left, Thomas's name was released by the DoD, and the media came. Anna dealt with them and at 10pm, we watched the report on our local Fox channel. As they have an hour-long program, they actually had a pretty lengthy report, including footage of Mosul. We kept wincing at the sound of explosions and gunfire but the reporter's wrapup, filmed in our front yard, was perfect: He said: "Tonight the house behind me is filled with family and friends", letting the rest of the world know that we were going to be all right. I often repeat that phrase to myself: for whatever reason I still find it deeply comforting to remember how true it was.


I've gotten this far without really saying who I am talking about, though anyone enterprising enough could certainly have figured it out. Thomas was Army SPC Thomas K. Doerflinger, KIA 11/11/2004 during combat operations in Mosul, Iraq.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

We have a Gold Star banner hanging on our front door. I often wonder what the random people who knock on our door think of it. At first I felt that I needed to explain it to everyone, but we have had a lot of work done on the interior of our house during the past eighteen months, and I just couldn't go on explaining it to workmen. The exception was the guy who thought we had a one-star general in the family and were just showing off. He was nice about it when I explained about Thomas, heck he was even nice about it when he thought we were bragging, but it did show very clearly that Americans have forgotten this tradition. The young man who brought us the banner, active duty Army himself at the time and a friend of all my children, explained that we are allowed to keep this banner up until the war is over. Since Thomas died in the War on Terror, I suspect this banner will be hanging for a very long time.

I slept about an hour that Thursday night of the day Thomas died. Sometime early, I gave up, showered and dressed and went to the 7:30 a.m. Mass at our parish. Our pastor was celebrating--he had clearly told others of what had happened as a lady from the bereavement group came and sat with me. I wept all the way through (after the funeral I remember thinking we should have bought stock in Scott paper or the Kleenex company). We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon having visitors, dozens of visitors, many of whom brought food or books. Some just brought themselves and their babies--the babies were wonderfully comforting and cooperated fully while grieving adults passed them around. My husband's officemates brought sandwiches. One of our visitors, a nun who is also a physician, sat next to me and watched like a hawk while I tried to eat--Hanna was satisfied that I got through half of a sandwich and relaxed a bit.

It was important to have all of those people around us. The four of us could not just look at each other all day waiting for the next thing to happen. The notification team told us that we would be assigned a Casualty Assistance Officer for 90 days (in the event, we have never let her go) who would contact us. She called during the day on Friday to tell us she would be by in the evening with the death gratuity check--um, death gratuity check? I knew Thomas had life insurance but this had never crossed my orbit.

Sometime during the afternoon, Maria called. She had finally been told about her brother about 22 hours after we were, partly due to the Federal holiday (Thomas died on Veteran's Day), partly due to Red Cross rules which required confirmation of the casualty, and possibly partly due to her commanding officer, who waited to tell her at a time when they could make travel arrangements. It was a terrible call, and for the rest of the week, it was clear that Maria was about 24 hours behind the rest of us in her grieving.