Sunday, September 24, 2006

My husband and I returned from a short trip to Rome, Italy this past Wednesday, the 20th. He was going to a conference so I went along to play tourist. Even there though we found ourselves talking about Thomas--people kept asking how many children we have. But because of Thomas I now feel that I will be able to handle whatever answer people give me when I ask the question. I spent a good deal of time chatting with one woman during a particularly opaque talk--when I asked her how many children she has her answer was slightly startling--she had five but had lost two, so three living. I told her that I too had lost a child, and we sat there holding hands for a moment while we blinked away our tears. Hers had died as newborns which people tend to minimize when they talk to me, but my own feeling is that grief for a child is deep and eternal, no matter how short the time you were able to hold that child. She thanked me afterwards for having told her about Thomas.

Monday morning. Richard had set up three appointments for us: the cemetery, the funeral home, and our pastor. Thomas had specified that he wanted private burial, not Arlington, so we chose the Catholic cemetery, Gate of Heaven, about 15 minutes from our home. It is extremely startling to see "Gate of Heaven" coming up on your caller ID. That was the first appointment, to pick out a plot and arrange for a marker. The cemetery employee was very matter-of-fact about picking a place--we got in her car and drove to a couple of spots. It's not a huge place, but big enough, and we found a place near some large rocks that Thomas would have climbed on as a little kid, with a bench under a tree a few feet away. Then we went back to the office to pick out a marker. We had been looking at other people's markers as we went, trying to figure out what we wanted on his. I wanted something about Iraq on his because people who come after were going to be wondering why someone so young was here, and we wanted to honor who Thomas was. There were space limitations. It may be the most succinct piece of writing we will ever do:
"SPC THOMAS K DOERFLINGER, 6 JUL 1984 - 11 NOV 2004, IRAQ, Beloved son, brother and friend"
(this is subject to editing--I thought I had a photograph but I can't find it on the computer right now.)

Then, to the funeral home. We were greeted by Eric, our director, a young man who also was very matter-of-fact. We had already decided that the wake would have to be at our church because this would be a very large crowd of people. Since we knew the body was at Dover but not precisely when we would be able to get it, we composed a death notice with those details to come.

Monday, September 11, 2006

This is what I wrote to a much younger friend this morning:

Though it may sound awful, I am glad that it is raining. On 9/11/01 the sun was shining, it was a beautiful late summer morning, truly. I am very aware of the position of the sun and stars (when younger I was an avid stargazer) and even yesterday was hard as the sun slanted down.

A lot of remembrance is going on: my usual talk radio station is not coming in this morning so I've been listening to other programs. I have reached one conclusion: I have no patience for conspiracy theories.

On 9/11/01, I was at home, making a phone call when my daughter called me on my cell phone to tell me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I turned on the television to see tape of the second plane hitting, or maybe it was the actual event--it hardly matters. We finished the conversation as if everything were normal, even though we both knew it was not. We stole five minutes away from the grief that was coming.

Maria called me the day before yesterday, remembering that this was why Thomas had signed up for the Army as soon as he could. She's angry at the world--I suggested target practice. How many 19 year old girls do you know who can clean and shoot an M16?

On the whole, this day was harder than I thought it would be. It has been 22 months since Thomas died.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Also on that Sunday, we received a phone call from Iraq--LTC Robert Brown who was in command of the Stryker Brigade called in the middle of the afternoon which must have been rather late in his evening. He was able to give us a few more details about the day Thomas died. All we knew up to that point was that he had been killed in combat. We didn't know why he was in combat, whether he had been in the Stryker vehicle or anything about the battle, except what we had seen in the news. As Col. Brown told me what he knew of the story, I realized that this was what we would be telling people and please God that I remember it right, because this story was going to take on a life of its own. As far as I can tell, I did indeed get it substantially correctly--we talked afterwards to eyewitnesses and accounts were reasonably well-matched to the story I originally heard.

The facts seem to have been these: Thomas was a Stryker driver who hated driving. His vehicle had been damaged in combat earlier in the week which gave him the opportunity to volunteer to go missions in other positions. This day, he was a rear air guard, which was apparently the riskiest of the positions since you were exposed from the chest up. They were wrapping up their patrol when Thomas was hit by a sniper using armor-piercing ammunition--it went through the helmet. Feeling was that he died instantly, though they did work on him at the field hospital. We received a letter a few months later from a young man who wanted us to know that a priest had administered Last Rites.

Thomas was the third to die in that rotation of the Stryker Brigades. The first two had died in separate incidents on Tuesday--Thomas died on Thursday. Col. Brown and I discussed that briefly, as there had been some difficulty in locating next of kin for one of these men and the release of his name had been delayed several days.

Why would I have even known that? I'd been visiting the StrykerBrigade News site for a couple of weeks, basically since Thomas's deployment to Iraq. The SBN site posts news articles, blog links, hosts a bulletin board, and maintains a list of the fallen, with links to any news articles that they are aware of. I have continued to follow the Stryker brigade news because, well, because. It left me feeling more connected to my son and his friends and that became important later on.

I'm going to be thinking about 9/11 for the next couple of days, and what changed for us that day.