Sunday, February 14, 2010
Till we meet again
I had just returned from Quincy where I had a two-week vacation, if you can call it that, jumping out of airplanes at the World Freefall Convention, tanned and happy to be back at work. I remember the phone ringing at 9:00am in the office and hearing the clicks and pops of a long-distance connection, and then a hysterical woman on the other end, saying things I could not understand. (Chris' wife Silvia was German and didn't speak great English at the best of times.) When I finally put together who she was, I felt a sick feeling and asked her what was wrong. She babbled something about Chris and finally said, "he's dead!" It was like being kicked in the stomach.
Finally Chris' Commanding Officer came on the phone and told me that Chris had died while he was on a three-month tour of duty in Macedonia. He told me in the gentlest way that I was to go home and wait for the soldiers to come to my house and inform me. I have a memory of one of my co-workers driving me home, but I was in shock. Once I got home, three young uniformed soldiers knocked on my door, one of them a young woman holding flowers in her hands and looking scared. They answered my questions, and told me that Chris' wife had asked for him to be buried in Germany, and as the next of kin, she could make that decision.
Then I found that there was no provision from the Army for me to get to Germany to see my son one more time. You see, I was no longer considered the next of kin, Silvia was. But when my boss Mickey heard about this, he presented me with a round-trip ticket to Frankfurt and $500 and told me to just go. I went to Germany. The link above will tell you about my time there. I learned that Chris had been happy and very well liked, and I spoke to his unit one morning about how glad I was that he had found his place in life.
The funeral was very tough. Nobody had told me about the Army's calling his name three times as if he were to answer, and when he didn't, they played "taps" to honor the fallen soldier. It was truly hard to bear. Some very thoughtful person had recorded it and gave me a copy of the Memorial Service. I have never watched it, but it holds a very special place on my keepsake shelf, along with the triangular box that holds the flag with three spent shells inside.
I was 59 years old when Chris died on August 15, 2002, on the anniversary of the day that his brother Stephen had been born 36 years earlier. The difference between me, the 59-year-old, and that young 22-year-old who lost her child was like night and day. If anyone were to ask me which one was harder to bear, there is no question: the poor young woman who lost her son who never had a chance to live, or the older woman who lost her other son after he had found himself, a career and a wife -- I don't have to tell you, you already know.
I also wrote another post about my two lost sons on my other blog, which I called "Amethyst Remembrance" after a favorite Emily Dickinson poem. It gives more detail, but here I want to talk about who I am today, and how the loss of my children has helped to make me who I am. When Stephen died, I could not bear to be in the same room with a small baby, whose beautiful chubby cheeks or fat arms tore at my heart and made me so aware of my loss. I turned away and avoided touching that place inside that felt like it would never be healed. Chris suffered too, because he reminded me of his brother, and I wouldn't let myself love him unconditionally. I hardened myself in ways I didn't even realize. I think this is one reason why I went from one husband to another: it was impossible for me to reach down inside and be truly authentic with anybody.
But when Chris died, I had found a job, a life I loved, and a man who supported me emotionally. He had helped me work through some of the buried grief and I learned that I was not going to find myself through another person, but through examining my own motives and desires. This is much easier to do when you have a partner who knows how to facilitate this, and I have been very fortunate to have Smart Guy, who always asked the right questions.
Because I had healed from my earlier wounds, I was able to grieve properly for Chris. I didn't look away when I went to Germany and met his fellow soldiers, when I went to the PT field and did pushups and jumping jacks in his place. I let it in. And although I miss calling him and hearing from him on Mother's Day and his birthday (he called me then, not on mine), I know that he had found himself before he died. It's all any mother can ask for.
Chris died just before the war in Iraq started. Every one of those young men I met in Germany was deployed to Iraq, and Chris would certainly have gone there too, and would probably have died there instead of in Macedonia. He never had to go to war, and for that I am grateful. His roommate in Macedonia told me how Chris would come back to their room after having been in the heat of the day, guarding the border: he would strip down to his shorts, turn the air conditioning to high, grab a beer out of the fridge, and plop down with a satisfying "ahhhhh!" That's the way I like to think of him, with a hedonistic grin and pleased with a job well done.
When you don't have grandchildren, and both of your offspring are gone from the world, your life doesn't necessarily include small children any more. But I find myself enjoying them so very much. There is a young boy, 13 months old, whose dad brings him every morning to the coffee shop where I have my latte. I've watched him over the past few months learn to walk, first by holding onto tables, then those first tentative steps like a drunken sailor, and now the confidence that he doesn't have to hold onto anything. It gives me such pleasure to watch, knowing that this beautiful child doesn't have to be my kin for me to love him.
Next Sunday I'll talk about these last few years that took me away from a job I had for almost three decades, and how I moved from a full-time job into retirement.