My dad was never an extravagant man, and his humble nature would never approve of the title ‘hero’, but he would receive a hero’s service.  I rode to the chapel with David and my dad.  It was as quiet as it had been the last time we were all together.

Panic struck me as I struggled to remember if I told my dad that I loved him the last time we spoke.  I remembered only his “I love you”.  Had I really forgotten?  Was I that thoughtless and stupid to think there’d always be more time?

I watched David stare vacantly out the window, wondering what atrocities he saw in Afghanistan.  Wondering if he would ever be the same-if I’d ever get him back.  Not likely, I decided.  I looked closer at the ‘S’ shaped wound drawn down the right side of his face.  Instinctively, I wanted to trace the track of stitches that led from above his brow to just below his temple.

Then, I thought of how bad my dad’s injuries had to be to require a closed casket funeral.  I cringed.  I shoved the image as far from my mind as possible, remembering only the good things.  His strong jaw-line and contagious, toothy smile that pronounced all of the little lines framing his eyes.  His deep laugh and the way he would peel off his reading glasses when he was really pleased with a piece I played on my cello.

I leaned up against David, loosely wrapping my arms around him.  He flinched slightly at my touch.  Lost in his own thoughts, he forgot I was there.  We stayed like this all the way to the chapel.

I was a little intimidated by the sheer number of people filling the old chapel.  Marines, Sailors, a few Army soldiers, and plenty of mourners in civilian attire, flew from all over the country to bid their farewells.  I recognized several faces from his current unit and a couple from previous units as well, but most were foreign to me.  The Hamlin’s were there to, of course, but unlike everyone closest to my dad, misery had not tainted their perfection.  They had not been marred by dark circles from sleepless nights, or sallow skin from lingering shock, and they had not succumb to the redness of imminent tears.

Eulogies were kept mercifully short.  Marines that were with him when he died testified to his heroism and sacrifice-some, visibly moved by what they witnessed, but grateful that the sacrifice had not been theirs.  Others, those closest to my dad, praised him for his love of country and family, attesting that they had become better men just by having known him.  The words and memories were touching, but still left me empty; unable to comprehend why it was him.  How selfish-wishing it was someone else that could have been brave that day.  What a horrible person I was becoming, or was this the real me?  I couldn’t tell anymore.

David took my hand as we followed the six pallbearers down the aisle.  His hand was the same temperature as mine and there was no unexplainable electricity to cause me to pull away.  It was the most normal human contact I’ve had since I saw him last.

We stood between the tall, white pillars, watching as the Marines placed my dad in the Hurst.

“Are you okay?” David asked.  What?  No!  Of course I’m not okay.

But all I said was, “I just want us to get through this.”

“We will,” he promised, squeezing my hand.

For an American, I suppose there is no place more honorable to be buried than Arlington National Cemetery.  Before today, it had been nothing more than a place I had heard about or seen pictures of in news articles, and now, the images of this imposing garden of stone rendered me speechless.

The wind picked up, but it scarcely affected the pallbearers as their steady march drew my dad closer to his final resting place.  I promised myself that I would be strong and I wouldn’t make this harder on David.  It kills him to see me cry.  So, I filled my head with meaningless things to keep the tears at bay.  I thought of pointless things like, the pallbearers having necks the size of a runner’s thigh, and the endless hours and fertilizer that it must take to keep the grass so immaculate, and then I started counting the rows and columns of head stones.

I was thankful that only the closest of family friends were permitted for the graveside service.  The sobbing and sniffles at the chapel were all too contagious.  Here it was quiet.  Only the rustle of the leaves and the Irish accent of the priest filled the air.  I mostly stared at David’s hand still holding mine-afraid that the right set of teary eyes would cause a chain reaction.

I held myself together fairly well, that is until my dad’s commanding officer knelt down in front of me, placing a precisely folded flag in my trembling hands.  As a distraction, I lightly traced one of the thick embroidered stars adorning the canton of blue.

“On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation…” he started.  And the rest I tuned out.  I simply nodded when his lips stopped moving.

The last sounds to resonate in my ears were the three volleys of riffle fire, and the haunting echo of taps through the damp morning air.

I stood unmoving by the wooden chairs with my dad’s flag tightly pressed to my chest, staring hopelessly at a casket that should have never been filled.  Normal circumstances make standing six feet from a loved one seem relatively inconsequential.  Soon, that sum of space would be filled with darkness incomparable to the deepest, moonless night, and the eerie silence of an earthen covered box.  Soon, my dad would be cast worlds apart, making that particular distance alarmingly unbearable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s