Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Marine from Virginia died on Friday in Iraq. Another family starts this journey.

The main body of the church was full: there was family which had made the drive from New York, my family from the West, my husband's two brothers who were local, and friends who had come from as far away as Texas and Georgia and Indiana or who lived nearby but we had fallen out of touch for several years. Nearly every priest who had ever known Thomas as a parishioner came, and the bishop of the Military Vicariate. The 10:30 singing group had volunteered to provide music and, since they were the people Thomas had heard most often, we accepted happily. We had asked that people donate to Catholic Relief Services in lieu of sending flowers to the funeral but some had gone ahead and sent flowers (which we later realized Thomas had asked for on his instruction sheet. Hopefully he forgave us).

The service began with "The Song of the Body of Christ". I haven't found a sung version online, but the words are here: http://www.spiritandsong.com/jukebox/songs/13460 I have always loved this song, even if it did make me cry before all this happened. You can imagine the effect now.

I don't really have much in the way of clear memories of the liturgy. I thought Fr. Kazista gave a good homily--he had known Thomas when Thomas was very little and he was pastor at St. John's when Thomas was confirmed. We had reminded Fr. Kazista that Thomas had taken St. Maximilian Kolbe's name for Confirmation when he was fifteen and he used that story. I remember expressing the wish that Thomas had picked a saint whose claim to fame was not self-sacrifice, though perhaps some would now find it prophetic. Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was a Franscisan priest imprisoned at Auschwitz who had offered his life in place of the life of a young Jewish father (these executions were punishment for the escape of other prisoners).

We took Communion standing very close to the casket. As we were in the front of the church and kneeling, we could only see the people who passed directly in front of us, many of whom I did not know. I could only think that Thomas knew many, many people we never heard of because he just did not talk much about his life outside of home.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The closing hymn yesterday was "Soon and very soon" (words here: http://sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiSOONSEE.html ). They sang it the Sunday after Thomas's death was announced too and I ended up in tears as usual because I remembered that day. Amazingly, the teenage girl sitting behind us also remembered. It was a very powerful moment, both two years ago, and yesterday.

The day of the funeral was grey but not cold or rainy. The funeral home's limousine picked us up around ten I think--the funeral was to start at 11 but we needed to be there a bit earlier because a general from Ft. Lewis had come to present us with Thomas's medals beforehand. They had asked us to just bring immediate family but I was certainly not leaving out his grandmother, his aunts and uncles, my cousin and her husband, and the several friends who had helped Thomas or us along the way. Our Casualty Assistance Officer read the citations while the general presented the medals: the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Bronze Star. Afterwards we talked with the general briefly who offered to help any way he could (we did end up contacting him a few weeks later), and the sergeant who had accompanied Thomas's body home but really I don't remember much about it.

Everyone else went into the church while we waited in the building next door, and then Eric came to get us. We were seated in the front of course, on the right hand side of the church if you were facing the altar. My husband's oldest brother, Eugene, is functionally quadriplegic and cognitively somewhat impaired (mostly short term memory loss and some disinhibitions) as the result of car accident when he was 19--he is in a fairly large wheelchair so he was placed in front of us in the empty space between the pews and the steps to the altar. He can use his right arm some, so he adjusted his chair himself so he would be facing the casket. Gene had been Thomas's confirmation sponsor and he took this death very hard.

This is turning out to be hard to do, not just emotionally, but because there were so many details and I'm trying to not forget any of them. My internal editor has gone on strike! One thing I did which some thought very peculiar at the time was to have our friend Steve take pictures of both the wake and the funeral because I knew that I would never remember what it all looked like. In some cultures, I found out later, this is the norm. I am glad we have these pictures now, even though I keep putting them down and then finding them months later under another stack of papers.

Well, if it takes a few days, so be it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

This past Saturday went well. It was a beautiful day, just like the day Thomas died. This year, we went in shifts to the cemetery. My daughter and her boyfriend went early in day and left three roses. Then they noticed two young men looking lost--Anna wondered if they were looking for Thomas's grave and went over to them. They were indeed; one who was his close friend we had met once before, and the other someone we had not yet met and I'm sorry I don't know much about except he had known Thomas too and needed to come. They had brought a patch from their uniforms, the lightning bolt, and left it on the marker. They told Anna they just could not see us this year,(it was just too hard I think) maybe next year, and returned to their homes, eight hours away. My husband, mother-in-law and I came later and found Anna's flowers and the patch, which left us wondering. We also brought flowers (mainly to feed the deer) and set them in the vase that is part of the marker. While we stood there in the sunlight, one of Thomas's local friends appeared. Brian was dressed all in black (a fashion statement I think, though certainly appropriate). He took up a place at the grave next to us. We talked about the frog pond he and Thomas had built in our backyard when they were in 5th grade--the frogs are long gone but the sheltering bamboo the boys planted is still there. My mother-in-law was tiring--it's hard for her to stand on her arthritic ankles and knees--so we said goodbye to Brian who stayed a bit longer and made our way home.

A stranger had asked that the Saturday evening Mass at our parish be for Thomas so we went. We had told a few of our friends about this who apparently told a few more and so more people than we had expected appeared and sat behind us, people who had known Thomas since he was nine, people who had known him from the day he was born. It was really nice. I did cry, I always cry. Afterwards, many of us returned to our house and ate pizza and watched all of the children who had been babies two years ago wander around exploring my house and eating their dinner. I think Thomas would have like all of it.

One thing I did on Saturday that I rarely do was to Google his name. I found an entry to a blog that talked about him and posted a comment which may have brought a few people here. I am grateful beyond words to have found this entry which talks about Thomas during basic training: http://bungi74.blogspot.com/ because it fills in a few more blank spots for us, and it also shows the immense affection Thomas could inspire in his family and friends (we also got exasperated with him!). My own blog is primarily meant to record details I'm afraid my aging memory is going to lose, and to share with anyone who is interested what the experience of losing a child in a war is like.

I'll write about the funeral another day.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

This is the anniversary. Two years ago, Thomas died in combat on a street in Mosul, Iraq. In other countries, according to my calendar, this is Remembrance Day, which seems fitting.

I had thought I would write about the funeral today--this was not a conscious goal but apparently my brain had other ideas--but I think I will put it off. The funeral came eight days after the event and brought some kind of closure but today I am too distracted by the thought of visiting the cemetery, going to Mass, and having some friends over to eat pizza and keep us from collapsing to actually write a coherent account. I've always said that I will do what is possible, and today that is not possible.

I'm adding a link to a picture of Thomas--not great but the last one I'm aware of.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Discretion is about to win out over valor. When I finally looked carefully at the Team River Runner website yesterday, I realized that the race is actually Sunday morning, not Saturday as I had carefully planned for. Though the scheduling conflict created by my inability to read was not insuperable, when I called Juli to point this out, she greeted me with the news of a week of not-great health. So be it. We are middle-aged women, and doing things like kayaking and running are kind of hard on us at the best of times, and this is not the best of times. So we are bowing out this time--I apologize to anyone who was looking forward to the spectacle! I encourage anyone who feels so inclined however to make donations to TRR or to one of the many other organizations helping our veterans return from this war.

Thursday afternoon was the wake. We had divided it into two parts though I am now forgetting the times. Three to five and seven to nine? Something like that. There was a two hour break so we could eat dinner and regroup. The neighbors were to order pizza for delivery for us. We all got dressed and went to the church.

Luckily, it was another beautiful day. I had no idea of what to do, but at least it wasn't raining. Anna had made three large collages of pictures of Thomas set up on tripods in the entrance of the church. The visitors' book was set up there as well, and the uniform jacket with medals and insignia was folded and set out on a table. Thomas's casket was in the front of the church, set up in front of the altar. It was open, not because we'd really asked for that but because we hadn't actually said anything about it all. Thomas was dressed in the civilian suit donated by a friend--he had outgrown the suit he bought before he entered the Army. The flag was folded and in the casket with him. Captain J. M., our casualty assistance officer, an ever-quiet presence, was there. Richard and I walked to the casket, and then turned and stood waiting for visitors.

There are several hundred signatures in the book. The first person through the door was actually a woman who had gone to college with me, D. I had not seen her in probably 15 years and did not realize that she was still in the area but she came and told me she would be at the funeral the next day, gave me a hug I think, regarded Thomas and turned to leave. She got as far as the door and came back to give me the pin she was wearing, an icon of the Blessed Mother. She is holding seven arrows, pulled from the bodies of wounded warriors is the story I think D. told me. Taking care of our sons. I keep it next to my bed now, but I wore it for the rest of that day, a promise of peace.

As the day and the evening went on, more and more people came and we were astounded by the number of those who cared. Some we knew well, some we worked with, some were friends or parishioners, or just people who had seen the notice in the paper and wanted to thank us for our son's service. The American Legion post sent representatives. The Governor of Maryland sent a representative with a state flag for us. Several congressmen and a senator made their way over from Capitol Hill, as friends and professional acquaintances of my husband's. PTA people came, and the counselors from Thomas's old middle school. Several Montgomery County police officers came, people who had worked with Maria the previous school year while she interned at their station. Thomas's friends came, most of them having had to come home from college to do so.

Through all of this, both sessions, my sister and her husband, and my cousin and her husband, sat in the pews quietly talking, watching everyone, just being support. Anna and her friends had stayed near the entrance of the church, Maria had to go home at some point because she was running a fever of 102, and Matthew came only for the first session I think, then stayed with his best friend, the other Matthew.

At the end of the evening, our pastor arrived to do a short service before we closed the casket. Everyone had come back as I recall (and exhaustion and grief make this hard to be sure of). We prayed and then everyone left us for a few minutes to say goodbye. I looked at my son's body and touched his hands--they were dry and showed signs of peeling a bit. He always had dry hands. But this was just his shell and I did not want to stay any long longer. We said goodbye and they closed the lid. Erik took him back to the sacristy and we went home.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The new shoes seem to be working out all right. My friend Debbie swears that running saved my life after Thomas died (I had already suvived a life-threatening illness earlier in the year because I was in such good shape for my age). My heart was broken, but not destroyed by his loss.

And finally we arrive at the Thursday morning, one week after Thomas was killed. The funeral home had gotten his body some time on Tuesday but our director Eric had Wednesday off (I could hardly blame him for wanting time to decompress from what must be a very difficult job) so it was Thursday before we saw the body. We asked our friends Pat and Harry to drive us to the funeral home, while we sent my relatives off to tour a bit of Washington DC with our neighbor. The rest of the day was going to be hard for all of us and I was happy to think they were getting a chance to take a deep breath first. Pat and Harry had known Thomas since he was a bump, and both had dealt with many deaths in their own families, so it seemed reasonable to ask them to do this with us.

It's funny, my heart is pounding as I write this, almost two years later.

So, at something like nine or ten in the morning, we presented ourselves at Collins Funeral Home. They directed us upstairs to a room where Thomas's body was laid out in the casket provided by the Army. Eric had assured us that the body was viewable so I was not surprised to find the casket open. It just did not look like Thomas, and yet it did. So much of what distinguished him was the spirit inhabiting that body. I think he was still in uniform, as he would have been sent from Dover. His face was a bit darker than usual but of course he'd spent the previous four weeks in the desert. I saw no evidence of his wound, nor did I ever try to find it. We settled a few more details about changing his clothes to civilian attire as he had told us he wanted, and about moving his body to St. John's for the wake, and then we left. I don't think we'll ever be able to thank Pat and Harry for what they did for us that day.