Thursday, April 26, 2007

It seems to be our month for difficult situations. I went to work this morning, having been asked yesterday afternoon to fill in for someone who was out sick. My first customers were two Montgomery County Maryland police officers, who had come to buy black bunting to cover the patrol car of a young officer who died of his injuries this morning. I had heard the story on the news before I left for work so when these two officers appeared with bands of black tape across their badges and holding a length of faded black cloth, I knew what we were facing. Actually, all of us in the front of the store knew and we were all very shaken as we tried to find black cloth which of course seemed to go into hiding at just that moment. We found a suitable piece and started measuring out what they needed, shaking a bit. Finally, as I was tearing the piece off the bolt, I told them that I had lost a son in Iraq and I knew what they felt like because frankly I thought they might be puzzled by the strength of our reaction. As they went to pay, I turned to my boss and burst into tears. She and I cried together for all those we had lost, and then we pulled ourselves together to move on: as she said, we had done this many times before.

It's a couple of days later, Saturday morning, but Blogger keeps the date I started to write this entry I think.

When I went home Thursday afternoon I drove past the police station where Officer Hoffmann, the young man who died, had been assigned. Our black bunting was draped over the front door of the station and some was tied to his patrol car, which was also covered with flowers. The funeral is today for this young man who apparently dedicated his life to service (he had also been a volunteer firefighter and EMT in Howard County). I ache for his parents.

Friday, April 20, 2007

There are some pitfalls in this situation that no one talks about much. My husband was stuck in the middle of one of these at the beginning of the week:

Richard was in New York Monday and Tuesday for a conference full of people who either he sees rarely or had never met before. In the course of the morning conversation with one of these people, the other fellow started railing against the war in Iraq and saying things like "People are getting killed over there!" He obviously did not know that we had lost our son Thomas there in 2004 and Richard felt that he had to tell him. Which he did. End of conversation apparently.

Unfortunately, later in the day, someone at the dinner table, also a comparative stranger who apparently had gotten a scrambled version of the story, said to Richard "So I hear you have a son in Iraq?" And poor Richard had to say once again that no, we lost our son there two and a half years ago (actually two years, five months and seven days but who's counting?). This also brought immediate and ghastly silence to a table of six.

And, worse, on the second day of the conference, Richard was accosted by someone whose name he fortunately does not know who announced that all the soldiers participating in the war in Iraq are evil, despite having been told that we had lost our son there. One thing we can be very sure of is that Thomas was not evil.


One of the other things we did while Anne was here was to go back to G Street Fabrics, where I was supposed to have gone to work the day Thomas died. I had seen many of my coworkers at the wake and funeral but many more were unable to come since someone literally had to mind the store, and I knew this might be hard. When you come into the store you either go up steps or take the elevator to the second floor--I always take the steps in the name of physical fitness--and it seemed a bit surreal to be climbing toward the main selling floor. I had vaguely thought that I would be walking around the store to see people (it's a big place) but as I got to the top, I paused at the information desk where Juli was sitting, and I didn't move from that spot for probably twenty minutes as my friends and colleagues came to me to hug me and cry (we all cried). So many of them have lost family members in various conflicts . . . well. A customer asked one of the cashiers what this was about but for the most part I have no idea what people thought on seeing this sight.

Anne had moved off to let me do this but eventually I needed to go find her. The manager in charge of scheduling told me that she would call me. (I had been told to come back to work whenever I felt ready but Mrs. I actually pushed me a little bit for which I am very glad.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Things begin to blur a bit as we reach the end of November (I can hear my reading public giving a sigh of thanksgiving!) so not much minute by minute stuff from now on.

We had to decide what to do with December and Christmas. My old friend Anne had decided to come out from Washington state in early December rather than coming to the funeral as she knew we would need some help consolidating things. I had already asked her how we were going to store all of the memorabilia: Thomas's things and also the letters, cards and other things that people had sent us, along with the news stories and tapes. Anne has always done crafts and knew about scrapbooking, which seemed an appropriate destination for some of these things. She came for a week and started cooking. She alphabetized the letters we were receiving and put them upright in clear shoeboxes. She went out shopping with me and we each bought expensive, Italian shoes that fit and are still going strong nearly 2-1/2 years later. We went and saw The Incredibles on a school night (no one was sleeping anyway). She walked in the park with me and let me weep. When someone has known you since you were twelve, that's what happens. Eventually she had to go back home to her own family, but I am awfully glad she came.

Monday, April 16, 2007

It's a sad day in the news: over 30 people, apparently mostly students, killed at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg VA, and a young firefighter who died in the line of duty, also in Virginia. I held it together until I saw the firefighter's picture, so young and shaven like my Thomas, but this was someone else's child. I mourn for them all.

Also at the end of November of 2004, actress Susan St. James lost her 14 year old son Teddy in a small plane crash. Since Miss St. James's husband is a producer for NBC, I think it was Tim Russert who interviewed her a few days later for the evening news. She was wearing a baseball cap and her usual smile, though it was clearly not her usual smile and said they were doing all right but I thought to myself "Oh Susan, I don't think so" but I also knew she didn't have a choice. Empathy begins to work both ways: you don't want people to suffer as you are suffering because it would just be more than you can bear. I'm not putting this well: grief seems to reflect back so that you grieve for other people's grief. At some point, I felt that I had to break this chain and that I could break this chain: it made it possible for us to go back out into the world and take up a quasi-normal life.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Good Friday is a hard day for mothers who have lost sons. I went to my parish's service last night anyway, knowing that as difficult as the subject was, I would feel better for having been there. I kept my eyes closed for much of the time, though I tried to listen intently to the readings and the homily. Our parish has a sort of living tableau of the Passion: the adults do this, as the children portray the Christmas story. For most of the evening, I was tightly contained, sitting next to my equally reserved husband. But at some point, maybe during the homily, I found that the tears were sliding down my cheeks abundantly. They dried for a moment, then began again during one of the meditations during the reverencing of the Cross. But I was right about feeling better: by the end of the service, I had rediscovered hope.

I have to back up a couple of days I discover (I saved the e-mail so I know accurately when this happened). For several years, I had been conducting a very desultory e-mail correspondence with Carole Nelson Douglas who writes a series of mysteries featuring Midnight Louie, a cat. I love Louie and his extended family, and I enjoy the dilemmas that Carole has created for her wide cast of human characters. On the 24th of November, she replied to an e-mail I had written much earlier in the year (she had broken her arm twice during the year which made typing a challenge). I replied that day and I told her about Thomas. It was a conscious decision to share the most difficult thing that had ever happened to me with a near-stranger, but it seemed important to acknowledge this event. I did not know how it would be received because this is a hard thing to hear after all, but for several weeks afterwards we exchanged messages regularly, and Carole sent me an autographed copy of a novella featuring Louie. It was an act of kindness and I will always be grateful that she took that time and made that effort.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A little break here. Locally, there is a move afoot to name a new library the "Rockville Memorial Library" and dedicate it to the memory of the Montgomery County, Maryland servicemembers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq (we believe the count is at eight). There are other worthy contenders for the name but my husband has written a letter to the county official in charge of the naming process, and sent it on to local papers and politicians explaining why we feel that the Memorial name would be most appropriate. Both of our names are on this letter, but this is Richard's writing: it explains our position beautifully. If you would like to know more, you can Google "Montgomery County Library Petition" and read the story in the March 15th Washington Post. Here is Richard's letter:

Al Roshdieh
Acting Deputy Director
Dept. of Public Works and Transportation
101 Monroe Street, 10th Floor
Rockville, MD 20850
Fax: 240-777-7178
Dear Mr. Roshdieh:

We understand Montgomery County is considering a name for the projected public library in Rockville, and your advisory panel is accepting comments from the public. One proposal is to name it the Rockville Memorial Library, and dedicate it to the memory of the brave men and women of our county who have fallen while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We are writing in support of that proposal, as parents of one of those brave young men. Our 20-year-old son Thomas Doerflinger was killed in battle in Mosul, Iraq, on Veterans Day, November 11, 2004, just one month after being deployed.

A question inevitably raised by the proposal is: What do books have to do with soldiers? One answer already given is that so many of these men and women joined the armed services, and gave their lives, to defend our way of life – our freedom to think, to read, to speak our minds – against the threat of terrorism. This was certainly true of Thomas, who joined with the 9/11 terrorist attack firmly in mind. He personally had no great enthusiasm for the war in Iraq itself – he wrote back to friends that he had doubts about the justification for the invasion, and for a time he hoped he would be deployed to Korea or Afghanistan instead. But he had no doubts
about the need to stand for treasured values threatened by terror. In his
personal diary that came back to us after his death, the first entry – written a
year before he was deployed – reads: “Steps must be taken to ensure the
preservation of that which, being most precious, is most easily lost.”

That diary brings us to the second reason why a library would be an especially fitting tribute in Thomas’s case (and, we are sure, in the case of others as well). You see, Thomas wanted to be a writer. He had been writing stories and poems for years, and his literary interests had received further encouragement from his favorite English teacher in the International Baccalaureate Program at Springbrook High School, Tom Tobin. Mr. Tobin spoke to us after Thomas’s death about the unusually mature and frustrating insights he could bring to his assignments commenting on literary works – frustrating, because once the insight was communicated he would decide he had nothing more to say and stop writing. There was no “filler,” Mr. Tobin said, in Thomas’s essays and papers. And he was so self-critical, such a perfectionist in his standards, that he often did not turn in or finish assignments if he felt he had nothing important to say.

This was, very consciously, another reason Thomas joined the Army. He was a
brilliant young man, but not a reliable student. He felt the Army would help him acquire the confidence and self-discipline he needed to overcome his mental blocks and use his talents more productively. By all accounts he did acquire that discipline. His superiors spoke later of his becoming a model soldier, and the medals awarded him posthumously included the Good Conduct medal in addition to the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Because Thomas never attracted attention to himself or spoke of his own accomplishments, we heard only later from others about some of the ways he put his intellectual gifts to work while in the Army. When the soldiers on his Army base in Washington state were invited to consider tutoring students at the elementary school on the base, Thomas volunteered to teach writing – and he read the students some of his own humorous poetry to inspire them. He volunteered to take the crash course in Arabic offered only to selected soldiers going to Iraq. He was assigned to be the driver of one of the Stryker armored vehicles, partly because he could easily master the technical manuals and maintenance reports involved. And while in Iraq, his friends told us later, he began mentally to write a play, a fictionalized version of their experience at war. He wrote back to friends in the States that if someone were going to write about the war – even to criticize it – he should be willing first to experience what it is like.

Back home, we sometimes would see pictures of American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan helping to build schools or libraries for the local children. And we knew that this is the kind of work Thomas would much rather be doing there.

On his last visit home before deployment, Thomas said goodbye to his best friend here by giving her a book: the memoirs of the great Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Living to Tell the Tale. As she later said at Thomas’s funeral, he told her this was only the first of three volumes – so he would have to return safely to give her the other two.

That was not to be. A month after being deployed, his own Stryker vehicle being repaired due to damage in a previous battle, Thomas volunteered to be part of another Stryker unit as it went into Mosul. Their mission was to repel insurgents who were bombing police stations and plunging the city into chaos. He was to stay
near the vehicle and provide cover fire to protect his comrades. Apparently he did this job well. He was the only American soldier to be killed in Mosul that day, shot by a rooftop sniper no one had seen.

As we and all who knew him grieve the loss of Thomas, we also know he was doing something he felt was fundamentally important, for his own character and for his country. We don’t know if he would have returned to write the great American novel, or play, or poem about the war in Iraq. We do feel, though, that if this library is dedicated to Thomas and the other brave men and women who have died in this struggle, it will be as though Thomas again had the opportunity to help teach children how to read and write. He will get to build his library after all. And if this does happen, we would like to donate to the new library a copy of Living to Tell the Tale – all three volumes, of course.


Richard and Lee Ann Doerflinger