Friday, October 27, 2006

I finally bought new running shoes today--let's hope they get me through this race!


Wednesday morning, six days after Thomas's death. My cousin Nancy and her husband Ron, a Viet Nam vet, arrived at Dulles having taken a red-eye from Seattle. They rented a car and made their way to my house, a further hour away, bearing two pounds of Sumatra coffee (which I'm pretty sure we immediately brewed) and looking a trifle the worse for wear. However, they gamely stayed up the rest of day. At some point I took my sister and brother-in-law, and Nan and Ron to Costco to buy an inflatable bed and other supplies. Why this seemed like a sensible thing to do I don't know. I drove my small SUV the ten miles which for some reason made me feel like a normal human being again, someone competent enough to actually go out on the road with only the usual concerns about traffic. (Costco stores all look the same, no matter where they are, so this was obviously not to show off our wonderful store.)

This was sort of the pause before the final storm as the wake was Thursday and the funeral Friday, so we were still living in a sort of anticipation. One other important phone call had come during the week--the parents of Thomas's best friend in the Army, David. Kay and Richard live in Ohio and they were coming to the funeral, bringing us a picture of our two sons together taken during one of their training sessions on the Stryker vehicles. Anna had put together three photo collages of Thomas from babyhood to basic training and this photo would round that out the collection. Thomas had not talked about David or any of his Army friends to us except in a very tangential way: he was a master at keeping his life compartmentalized and even in high school we were continually finding out he had friends we had never heard of, all of whom called him Tommy. We were very glad to have David's parents with us though, as of course all the boys were still in Iraq.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

(Juli on the left, me on the right)

The second anniversary is approaching. Last year, a group of young women I've worked with gave me a necklace in memory of Thomas--a silver teardrop with a ruby, his birthstone, in the middle and his initials engraved on the side. I don't wear it all the time, just when I need to. I also don't carry his dogtags with me unless it's particularly relevant as it will be on this coming Veteran's Day.

I really think that Thomas would have chosen this day to die if he had been asked. Because it is a day when we in the United States honor all of our veterans, a lot of events are held by many organizations. Last year, two of Thomas's Army friends came, put on their uniforms and went to visit his grave and reminisce (by the end of the weekend, they also made their way to Arlington to visit the grave of Michael Bordelon, who had been Thomas's first sergeant). The next day, a Saturday, I took part in a fun run/kayak race event held by Team River Runner as part of the Wounded Warriors Project. TRR has been teaching amputees and others who are recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center how to kayak. For more on them, go to And how did I get involved with this event? Go back to the very beginning of this story when I had to call my employer to tell them I would not be in. The receptionist, Juli Werner, took that message and then, for all the months since then, she has been making sure that I'm as all right as I can be. Juli has been a competitive cyclist since I've known her, and she is legally blind. When the race came up, she said "How about it?" She would kayak and I would run, though truth to tell she is a much better kayaker than I am a runner.

I hesitated a bit, not sure how I'd do in a competitive (sort of) environment. I hadn't run a race of any description since college and I was now 50 years old. When I had taken up running again at age 44, I had told myself it was strictly for fitness and that I would never make myself compete again. This seemed a bit different though. By the end of July or beginning of August, I was seeing that it could be a positive goal to work toward instead of simply dreading the anniversary date. As I jogged down my street one very sunny and hot morning, a butterfly landed in front of me, sooty grey with bright blue spots on the edges of the wings. I'd been thinking about Thomas and the race and it just seemed like this butterfly could be a messenger--it kept flying up the street in front of me and pausing to look back. Then it flew towards me, brushing my cheek and disappearing. Thomas would have found the whole episode unbearably corny, but I decided to take it as a sign. I bought a new pair of running shoes and started stretching out my runs.

The story of that day's race, the Blood, Sweat, Toil and Triumph Run-Boat Biathlon, is told very well on the Team River Runner website (though to clarify a bit, Thomas was the only American killed that day in Mosul). It was an incredible day, and I guess I'm going to do it again this year. It's hard to say no to Juli, and to the people who have been helped by this program. So, in something less than four weeks, on Veteran's Day, we'll be out there again paddling and running our little hearts out. I'll be carrying Thomas's dog tags while I run (and walk) and then hand them off to Juli so she can head up the Potomac in her kayak.

I need new shoes.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

We were continuing to receive phone calls from near and far as the word spread. Once our friends had expressed their sorrow about Thomas and asked how we were doing, they often moved on to news of their own families, especially if we had not been in recent contact. Some of it was a bit hard to process under the circumstances and I've forgotten most of it now. It was a kind of verbal way to hold our hands though, and I was grateful for the time we got to spend with old friends. We also received e-mails--the internet certainly made getting the word out much, much easier. In an abstract sort of way, it was interesting to see who knew whom, and in which directions the news traveled. But one of these paths was truly remarkable. On Sunday, a friend of my husband's, living in California, had asked for prayers in his Lutheran church for the Doerflinger family and in that way he learned that his church organist had played at our wedding in 1977. The organist in turn contacted a friend in Indiana we had lost touch with seven or eight years earlier. The Indiana friend called and e-mailed that he would be coming to the funeral. It is impossible to say what that meant to us.

Other people also took care of us. I've been active in the PTA's of my kids' schools since the oldest was in kindergarten and had spent 11 years in elementary, middle school and high school PTA's in Montgomery County (I was at that moment the president of the middle school PTA), with some overlap from church, and those people visited, brought us food on a schedule they arranged, announced they would take care of the reception after the funeral, cleaned my house and planted my daffodil bulbs. They brought us books on grieving which we skimmed and read for weeks, trying to figure out when it was going to stop feeling quite this bad. Cards and notes started arriving in numbers that made the mailman come to the door instead of using the box. Fortunately, neighbors had also started offering to put up our friends and relatives who were coming to town for the funeral. Realizing that we would never be able to put everyone up within walking distance, I also reserved a block of rooms at the local Marriott Courtyard. Bless them, they gave us a reduced rate, and apparently managed to accomodate everyone, even though I am pretty sure that I had not asked them to set aside enough rooms.

And also somewhere in here, we were told by CPT J.M. that Thomas would receive posthumously the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and a Good Conduct Medal. We were very dignified until she told us about the Good Conduct Medal--it may have been the first moment that we all actually laughed. Thomas was a quiet rebel, a bit of an anarchist at heart, and the thought that his behavior had been so exemplary that he received a medal for it was just too much for us. I know in my heart of hearts that he deserved it, but he had always been so dismissive of his own performance in the Army that we were totally taken aback when he received a medal for good conduct.

On Tuesday, Thomas's body was brought to our local funeral home from Dover AFB. We brought a suit of clothes, donated by Debbie's husband because Thomas had outgrown his only suit while he was in the Army. Thomas had asked that we not bury him in uniform and we honored that. He had told us that summer that he had left instructions for burial in a private cemetery and that he wanted to be buried in civilian clothes because he had only signed a five year contract with the Army; eternity belonged to him. People are always astonished that we had actually discussed these things, and so am I sometimes, but I am so glad we did.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Today the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania buried four very young girls, killed for no apparent reason by the local milkman. Every message that community has sent to the outside world since then has been filled with love and grace. These plain people are an example to us all.

I don't remember doing anything else on that Monday. Cemetery, funeral home, church--it was a very busy morning, but the afternoon is a blank. Matthew had stayed home again, that I remember, because on Tuesday he decided to try going to school. By then we knew that the funeral would be on Friday, the visitation on Thursday, so this would really be his only opportunity to try breaking the ice. He was 12-1/2, in 7th grade. I drove him in, and told him that we would pick him up whenever he needed us to. Then I sat and talked with the principal of his middle school, a man who had known all four of my kids. It was a time of breaking the ice for me too. Mr. H told me he would not be able to come on either Thursday or Friday because on Saturday his daughter was getting married and his family needed him home. I approved--weddings are a nice, life-affirming activity--and I knew that some of his staff would come anyway to either or both. Then I left the school to run some errands, though I'll be darned if I can remember what they were.

By this point, exhaustion had set in. Every night I fell asleep by 11 or so, and slept 8 hours with no problem. I could now swallow my meals with a certain enjoyment, but pills of any sort made me choke so my morning ibuprofen was no more (my friend the physician-nun disapproved of me taking those anyway!). Shock had turned to a sort of slow slog toward the funeral.

I do remember one of those Tuesday errands. I had bought a purple, sort of eggplant, suit earlier in the fall to wear to a wedding. I didn't wear the jacket to the wedding, just a beautiful sweater and the purple skirt, because the sleeves were too long on the jacket. I knew the suit would work for the funeral but I needed to get the sleeves shortened. So I took it to our drycleaner. This is the only time I remember ever seeing the person who does alterations actually working there. I told her what I needed, she measured off the sleeves, and then I asked her when it would be done. She said Friday. I told her that I needed it for my son's funeral on Friday morning and as she took that in, she stood up and swept me into her arms and began praying. She was a tall woman, I expect from one of the Carribean islands, as she was dark and exotic with that lilting accent I love to listen to. She may have prayed for five minutes and then she let me go, told me the jacket would be ready sooner, and would not let us pay. In fact, my daugher Anna took something to be pressed a day later and when they heard her name wouldn't let her pay either. I am grateful to this day for the kindness of that woman, Marcella, and to the drycleaners for making this one thing easy.

Maria picked Matthew up for us in the middle of the day when he decided it had been enough.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Today it is has been two years since I said goodby to Thomas in the parking lot of the Taco Bell outside of the gates of Fort Lewis. He was a major fast food fan and never gained an ounce from it, so this was a natural place to go for our last meal together before he left for Iraq. He kissed us goodby, promised he would be back, and got into the cab that he insisted would be easier than having us drive him on post. He did not look back.

I wear a pin on my name tag at work which says "Honor the Fallen". Yesterday, one of the newer managers, someone who came after Thomas died, asked me about it and I told him I wear it because my son was killed in Iraq almost two years ago. I have become used to this reality, and so have many of my coworkers: it just never occurred to me that this statement still has the power to shock. But this poor young man was clearly horrified and was speechless for several minutes. Customers appeared and we went back to our jobs, but a bit later he asked me if I was all right. I reassured him, and our day went on . . .

The trip to the cemetery and to the funeral home had included our Casualty Assistance Officer who took notes and advised us on the Army's role in various things. We had already decided that visitation would be in our parish church--for a young person, under these circumstances, the funeral home did not feel that there would be enough room or parking space in their facility. And I sort of liked the idea that Thomas's body would be in the church for all of those last hours.

Captain J. M. left us to plan the funeral, which was a Catholic Mass, with our pastor. We picked out songs and readings that seemed appropriate (mostly drawn from other funerals and memorial services we had attended), clip art for the cover of the program, people to do the readings and remembrances. The burial was to be with full military honors so we left that to them. The funeral procession was to be accompanied by a motor cycle escort from the traffic division of the local police department. In some ways, I couldn't help but think that this was like planning a wedding in the space of a day, with just as many details and only one chance to do it right.