Thursday, January 11, 2007
Old Soldiers Never Die
An old soldier was laid to rest today, as we buried my father with full military honors.
A veteran of World War II, he will be reunited with my mother, whom we lost nearly five years ago.
His funeral mass was held at Our Lady of Angels Church in Bay Ridge, the same church where he and my mom were married 56 years ago.
My sister told me that after my mother's funeral, as they followed her casket, he said to her, "the last time I walked down the aisle with her was with her." Now they're together again.
My father did not express his emotions easily so when he said that to my sister, it was a bit of a shock.
For while after my mother's death, when my father was still driving, he used to drive over to the cemetery in Staten Island and visit my mother's grave--or "go to see Mom," as he put it.
I was worried because his driving skills had eroded considerably and every day at 4 o'clock I'd call him from my office, praying to God that he had made it home safely. Every day my prayers were answered.
One day I called him and asked him how things went at the cemetery. His response was painfully blunt.
"I feel like getting down there in the grave with her," he said with great sadness.
I couldn't think of anything to say. Men from his generation rarely admit to being depressed and he often spoke scornfully of counseling, saying it he didn't need it. I tried to encourage him to go to one of the local senior centers and make friends, but he wouldn't hear of it.
"Robert," he said with disgust, "you know as well as I do, people are assholes."
I don't know about that, but I could see that he wasn't going to let down his guard, that he was going to try to build a life after my mother's departure. So today, he got his wish and will now share the same patch of earth with my mother.
Honorable and Faithful
Alex, the funeral director, used to live on our street and he arranged to have an honor guard present at the graveside service.
When he first told me, I thought it would be a nice thing to have for my father. But after seeing it, I was quite moved and very happy that Alex had made it happen.
Two reservists stood at attention while a third played taps on a bugle--we later learned this was a recording and that the bugle was just a prop, but it was still very effective.
At the close of the ceremony, they folded the flag and one of the reservists marched slowly to my sister and placed it her hands.
"On behalf of the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense," he said, "please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your father's honorable and faithful service."
God, those words are so powerful. It made me realize that my father was a hero, an ordinary guy called upon to do extraordinary things. I kept threatening to record all his war stories in a journal or on a tape recording and, of course, never did. Now I'll never get the chance.
I've heard from family members that the war had caused him a great deal of anguish and maybe that explains the way he behaved toward his family. But I'm not going to judge him; there's so much I don't know, so much I'll never know, that it's pointless and flat out wrong for me to say anything against the guy.
My sister held on to the flag and then Alex asked if anyone had anything they wanted to say. We stood silent for a few seconds and I then decided that I had a right to speak and started blurting out chunks of words.
"You're finally reunited with mom," I said. "We love you and thanks for everything."
Then each of us placed a rose on his casket, got to the limo, and drove out of the cemetery. We went back to Bay Ridge and had lunch at Goodfella's, one of my father's favorite restaurants.
I didn't want the meal to end because that would mean my father's life was officially over--the viewing, the funeral, and the dinner. After that, the living and dead have to part company.
I spent so much time either watching my dad or making sure he was being taken care of that I feel kind of useless now, like a large part of my reason for being has been wiped away.
I don't have a wife or children and now with both my parents gone, I don't have any more excuses. For a long time I've been saying that I can't do one thing or another because I had to watch mom and, then later, dad.
I thought of how I'll now be able to go out any time I want; I won't have to cancel plans or hire anyone to come over here and watch my dad. I didn't feel liberated by these thoughts--I felt great sadness. I'd rather have my dad back than have the "freedom" of going to a stupid movie any time I felt like it.
My aunt, my brother from California, and I came home late today and looked at the 3-D slides of my parents' wedding. As I've mentioned before, these pictures are beautiful: they don't age like other photographs and the people are all so young and happy, you feel like you can reach out and grab them.
We saw the church again, saw my parents walking down that same aisle as newlyweds, and saw all my relatives, smiling and lifting their glasses toward the camera.
That's a good way to remember my parents. I'll miss them something awful, but at least they're together, beyond any pain or suffering.
Rest easy, guys, and remember that some day we'll all be together again.