Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I don't remember much of the Saturday after Thomas died. I know that I went to Mass, we went to the bank, then we must have come home--again I think a lot of people came, but fewer than on Friday. We continued to receive many phone calls, including one from the Traffic Division of the Montgomery County Police Department, offering their services for the funeral. (Maria had worked as an intern for the MCPD during her senior year of high school.) Our doctor's office called. People kept bringing food. We went to the bank. I think in the evening that a couple whose son-in-law had been killed in Iraq a few months earlier came over at the request of our neighbors. They did have some things to say that were helpful, but I really cannot remember any of the conversation except that they were kind and that our friend Barbara was in the livingroom holding her baby daughter.

Sunday morning, we went to our usual Mass which is held in the school gymnasium. This is one that Thomas had attended from fourth grade until he left for the Army so many people knew him. All of us, Anna, Maria, Matthew, my husband Richard and his brother Eugene (who is wheelchair-bound) and I went. I had a tote bag with a box of tissues. A lot of people already knew about Thomas--the singing group had clearly changed their musical choices after they put the numbers up on the board to songs that were more appropriate--but many more did not. Msgr Jordan came over to tell us that he would announce it before the Eucharistic prayer. When he did, you could hear a gasp that sounded as if everyone there had been punched in the stomach. And a lot of weeping. In many ways, it was the most difficult moment of that week. It was our first venture into public as a family who had lost a child in combat and it was, to me anyway, unexpectedly powerful. Maybe it was the first moment that I realized that a large community had also lost Thomas.

Many, many people came up to us afterwards. We were still waiting for Thomas's body to come back to the States so we couldn't give them any information on the funeral or wake. I kept handing out tissues and getting hugged until finally it was over and we could go home.

That afternoon, a few more people came to see us, a little more formal than the crowds of folks who had been there earlier, except that a group of women were cleaning my house in the middle of this. They merrily vacuumed and made beds and cleaned the bathrooms while we sat downstairs, talking to friends and business associates of my husband's. These ladies I knew from church and PTA and all I could think was that now they knew what a lousy housekeeper I really am.

My sister and her husband were flying in that evening and we arranged for our friend Steve (married to Barbara) to pick them up. There were still a lot of people around, and I am reasonably certain that Steve and Barbara had just decided to make sure that there was always someone around that week. I found it incredibly comforting to have all these friends and then family with us. I was very glad to see Cece, my sister, and Mike.

Sometime during the day, our CAO called to let us know that Thomas's body had arrived around noon at Dover Air Force Base. We had elected to not go which in the event was a good thing because originally he was scheduled to arrive late in the afternoon. But that had been a very costly week in terms of casualties--maybe they had to work more efficiently. I just remember seeing George Stephanopoulos's In Memoriam segment before we left for church that morning: 58 deaths, 55 names had been released. Thomas was there.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

When Thomas died, I felt as if I had lost my own identity. All of his life, I had been Thomas's mom, then I was mom to a soldier in Iraq, and suddenly I was the mom of a fallen soldier. For days and weeks I felt disoriented, not really accepting that final identity even though I knew I could not escape it. Moreover, I felt very alone in that identity. I did not know any other mothers, Thomas was the first of his unit to be killed so there was no one to contact there and all of the soldiers were in Iraq anyway, and at the time the Gold Star Mothers organization had some membership requirements that made me cringe (they did not apply to me, but I just couldn't do it. They have since changed).

So for some months, I felt adrift. And then two things happened: first the governor of my state held a reception in April of 2005 for the families of the fallen of Maryland. This was a private event at the State House (he continues holding them twice a year). It was sad but true that I felt better seeing other families because for so long I felt that Thomas's death might have been the result of some carelessness on my part: we kept speaking of having "lost" him which made it sound as if he'd just been mislaid somehow. I felt . . . foolish. But seeing these other families reminded me that we were not alone in our grief--that other peoples' children had also laid down their lives--and that our children had served their country with honor.

The second came several weeks later: Thomas's first sergeant died of burns he'd received in an IED explosion and I posted a comment on the Stryker Brigade News site. Michael had written to us just a week before he was injured, a wonderful note that gave us some idea of Thomas's activities in his last days. I wanted people to know that this had been a good man, and in fact my comment was picked up by a local newspaper as an illustration of the duties that fall to a sergeant. It also led to an invitation to a private bulletin board for the families of the fallen from the Stryker Brigades, and there I made a friend. Though I would like to say more about her, I haven't yet asked for her permission to talk about her and her son and family so that will have to wait. But let me say that we talk by phone and e-mail, have interests in common, and have found the knowledge that someone else understands immensely comforting.

And it was those experiences that led me to accompany another of the Maryland mothers, Linda, to the funeral of a young soldier last week. Linda's son Ray was killed in Najaf in August of 2004. We had met at the State House reception, and then at a Memorial Day ceremony and have talked two or three times a month ever since. When this latest young man died, the funeral was being held in Linda's community and we both felt that we wanted to be there for the parents. So we went, and that is where I realized finally that Thomas did give me one final gift: I am the mother of a fallen soldier, that is who I am now, but my soldier died in hope. As I listened to the prayers and eulogies given for this most recent of the fallen and recognized that so many of the characteristics in this boy were also in mine, including faith, I found some peace. I will always grieve, as this soldier's parents will, but I intend to use that grief and I intend to live in hope as I think this boy's parents will also. I will honor my son and live for the future that we have been given.