One week ago today, I again headed south of Indianapolis, seven weeks to the day after I had begun a similar trip for a similar purpose, all-too-sad, all-too-soon.
It was time to bury Ethan (Reporting for Duty, Sir).
Small-town funeral homes have a certain cross-similarity to them. Either they are restructured, early-twentieth century, Victorian-style homes far too small for their grand claims to shepherd one’s dearly departed to Glory, or they are unassuming, generic, one-story, brick-faced edifices that could pinch hit for a Knights of Columbus hall, if that ever were to turn out to be necessary.
Either way, you usually can’t miss them, GPS or no GPS.
As I did for Porthos’ funeral those weeks before (“Taps” and the Last Musketeer), I made my way into the parking lot, where I was properly tagged for the eventual procession (here, a rectangular, orange paper tag to hang on the rear-view mirror, sort of a souvenir, I guess you could say), and I then backed myself into the parking spot at the rear of the building, glad that my blue Volkswagen Beetle could be maneuvered thus without much worry for the mammoth SUV to my left.
I had arrived early, as I had not been able to come down for the viewing the night before. When I got inside, I eventually caught up with three colleagues who had already been there: Ethan’s two therapists and his Family Care Coordinator. After quick greetings that were regretted by all only because of their location, not their intention, I headed into the main salon.
There to my left was an open casket, flag-draped, Ethan’s body lying within, holding a Bible, oriented toward a long-before-taken family photo that was keeping vigil over him. To the right were two easels smothered in pictures of an always-smiling young man, sometimes goofily mugging before the camera, sometimes simply enjoying the very fact that this very person was taking a snapshot of him at that very moment.
On one easel he was clad in various, well-coordinated outfits of Army chic, accessorized with appropriate guns here and there. He was a few pounds lighter than I had known him, but not by much. Unlike many such pictures that I’ve seen through the years, his were never posed in the “Don’t Tread On Me” stance so common for the young and—yes, I’ll say it—the well-armed. His smile, his innocent, “Good morning to you, Sir” smile, was ubiquitous.
Next to it was another easel of more contemporary, always civilian pictures, same dizzying mixture of the goofy and the mundane, by himself, with others, eating, drinking, showing off, sitting.
Same smile, but . . .
Well, eyes have a way of outlining otherwise-genuine smiles to provide an onlooker with a clue that perhaps, just perhaps, this smile is having to work overtime to keep at bay other facial expressions far less pleasant, far less tranquil.
Then over to the left, on the other side of the casket, was a display of military memories. As I walked toward it, I could see his dress uniform from his Airborne division, a stunning oil portrait of him in that same uniform, his Purple Heart award . . .
. . . and his boots. It was the boots that brought me short, threatened me with more than a tear or two. Empty boots—ones with a gun propped up in them, helmet perched on gun’s end—are the “soldier’s memorial,” the makeshift tombstone, the one honor all military men and women can give to a fallen comrade in the field before all are returned home. A soldier’s boots (almost as much as his gun) keep him alive.
At that moment, I felt Ethan more intensely than I had in days.
It was then that I turned to see his mother and stepfather come into the room. I went up to them and (emboldened by the last funeral, I guess you could say) embraced them both. His stepfather then said, “The pastor would like to talk to you.”
I accompanied him to another room around the corner, where I met a man a good ten years older than I, with the smile and the build of a preacher who knows not only who the best cooks in his congregation are, but also where to find them, 24/7.
“Thank you, Doctor,” he said as he shook my hand. “Will that be OK with you?”
My face must have shown the obvious question with the word what inserted before the words be OK, for Ethan’s stepfather quickly stage-whispered to us both, “We were wondering, Doctor, if . . . if you’d be willing to read what you wrote about Ethan during the service.”
“In fact,” the pastor added, “I’ve got a copy of it. Right here.”
As he handed it to me, both the men smiled smiles that seemed to be assuring me that this really wasn’t quite the bombshell it appeared to be.
“Of course,” I replied. “I would be honored.”
Soon the room was full of folks of all ages, all dress, from the semi-formal to the tank-top and shorts. There were handshakes, a few backslaps, but overall everyone was settling into a quiet that was fully recognizing the loss that each was continuing to experience.
Then Robin came in, accompanied by her father, then joined by Ethan’s parents. She was dressed in a simple black dress, one for which, I’m certain, Ethan would have most readily complimented her. Her tears had apparently decided to take a break, but they’d more than left a residue that they could return to at a moment’s notice. She sat in a wingback chair on the front row, right in front of her husband’s body, slipping from view as she sank into the overstuffed cushion. Parents seated themselves on both sides, and then for a few moments, silence.
Then, over the speakers, the sound of a banjo.
It only took a few bars for the song to reveal itself: it was the old gospel hymn, “I’ll Fly Away,” sung in perfect Appalachian harmony, melody and tenor, almost as if taken note for note from the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou?
I don’t know what it is about that song. Perhaps it has its own, special neuronal bundle somewhere inside my noggin, ready to be tweaked and ignited at a moment’s notice to flood me with revival meetings of long ago, I don’t know. Yet something about it always makes me wish I could exchange my bass-baritone, if only briefly, for a nice, soft second tenor that can modulate from chord to chord, carrying me away, “by and by,” to “oh, Glory” and beyond.
Barely had the song ended and my smile begun to relax when other chords took their place, guitar, violin, cello. A gasp went through the audience,clearly far more acquainted with the standard repertoire of Nashville than I am.
It was Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This,” a simple ballad, written as a letter from a soldier to his wife and family “just in case.” It’s a song of pride, of sorrow, a song of hope for peace, of hope for good lives for all those left behind, long after the soldier has given up his. It’s quintessential Country. Many tears were shed.
Soon Ethan’s best friend got up to speak, his voice breaking even as he stood firmly at the podium, proud of the man whom he’d loved more than any other, the man whose name his son bears as part of his. In their brevity, his words spoke volumes.
It was then my turn to take my place at the mike. I looked at the words before me. I was very glad that, this time, I no longer had to use pseudonyms. My own voice held firm itself until those final words: if anyone had the heart of an angel and the resolve of a guardian, it was Ethan. A few moments’ pause, and then when I was done, I turned to find myself face-to-face again with the oil painting—and with a smile that, depending on one’s theology, one can only hope has returned somewhere, by and by.
The service ended, folks began to pass before the casket. Strong, handsome young men, some in sunglasses that were almost certainly hiding a multitude of sins behind them, grabbed onto each other for dear life to stand before their buddy one last time. Old, young, they all passed by, we all passed by. I shook his father’s hand and thanked him for the honor of knowing his son. I embraced Robin as she thanked me for my words and for my commitment to Ethan. I embraced his mother, his stepfather, all of us knowing, without saying, that words only get in the way at moments such as these, only in the way.
The procession to the cemetery was long, car after car rolling past the respectful gazes of drivers who’d stopped their cars, persons peering out of downtown eateries and offices. We all scrambled to find parking somewhere near the graveside once we’d arrived at our destination. It looked as if it could begin pouring any minute.
The same strong, handsome young men who had gathered at that coffin in tearful embrace then, without a word, lined up, slowly slid their friend’s flag-draped coffin out of the hearse, steadied themselves, and in a unison that was felt, not commanded, carried their pal—even, in a way, quietly marched him—to his final place of rest.
The pastor said a few words, and then the VFW Honor Guard sprang to attention, guns cocked, fired, cocked, fired.
And then the bugle, a “Taps” perhaps even a bit more andante than had been Porthos’ those weeks before. Same clear tones, however, same perfect intervals, same call from across at least two hundred years of history.
After the last tone had faded, two soldiers took their places at the ends of the casket, just as their predecessors have done so many thousands of times before, and they ever so slowly, ever so precisely lifted, folded, folded, folded, until finally one saluted the other, after which that one handed the triangular flag over to the most senior soldier in attendance, who then gently lowered it into Robin’s lap, words whispered, salute rendered.
It was done.
As the family gathered together in embraces and tears, I bade farewell to my colleagues, who were hoping that they might miss the worst of the oncoming downpour. As I’d brought my umbrella, just in case, I decided to turn back to look at the casket. It was perhaps more “in state” than it had been up to that point, silent, a monument holding the remnants of a life that had suffered, a life that had loved, a life that had smiled.
As I walked up to it, I stood alone. Slowly I lowered my fingers to his coffin and remembered a similar touch only weeks earlier. I wondered about the appropriateness of repeating again the Latin phrase I’d spoken to Porthos. For a few moments it felt like a formality quite out of place with the guitar chords and gospel songs of rural Indiana.
Yet it was at that moment, believe it or not, that I thought of opera, an art form at which I suspect Ethan would have more giggled than to which he would have wasted any moments of life listening. But you know, really: opera, country music . . . worlds apart, yet the same world, no? Rodolfo crying out at the death of Mimi, Tosca tossing herself in grief-stricken rage off the heights of Rome, Butterfly contemplating that knife as Pinkerton stands nearby with his American bride, Rigoletto holding his dying daughter, Gilda, as she sings of joining her mother in a far-off Heaven: are any of their griefs, their words that different from the griefs, the words of songs sung far less loudly, yet no less sincerely, in quiet recording studios, at fairground amphitheaters big and small?
Perhaps at that moment Ethan and I met one last time. Like many of the men whom I serve, he was often in awe of my doctor-lawyer pedigree. He would have had no doubts whatsoever that I could be one of those types who gets into all that “fat lady singing” nonsense. Yet when we were working together, trying to hold between us unspeakable pain that was slowly allowing itself to be spoken, we were just two guys from Indiana, one a generation older than another, both trying to make Life work as best as we can.
War tried to destroy him. It made a good go of it. But as I contemplated that smile one last time at that grave, both Ethan and I knew better.
Yes, I did say the words: Cruciatus consumptus est, Ethan. Requiesce in pace. The torment is over, Ethan. Rest in peace.
Yet also I had to whisper just a few more words, ones that I suspect I could have taken the melody to Ethan’s tenor and we’d have both sounded just fine, thank you, sounded just fine.
Fly away . . . oh Glory, fly away.
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Thank you so much, to you and to Ethan’s family for sharing him with us…may he rest in peace.
Oh, hell, I wish there was a “dislike” button. Sorry, this is just too much for me today.
wow – powerful stuff and beautifully written – i served in the US army for four years even though I am English – i discovered a delightful spirit in a lot of the young men from rural America and enjoyed their company – thankfully the years i served were not years of war for America and i did not have the pain of loss for those i served with. I can imagine it though. The bond that is built even in peace time is powerful. your words are a wonderful tribute to this young man.
As a general physician with an interest in mental health, I was struck by the contrast between this blog posting and the HBO series In Treatment, where Gabriel Byrne goes to the funeral of Blair Underwood, an aviator whom he had been treating and who subsequently died following his return to duty.
I’m currently working as a medical volunteer with displaced people and migrants from Myanmar, on the Thai border. When I ask our medics and nurses about PTSD, they have no idea what I am talking about. Physical illness is the priority here, but I’m trying to change that.
Dr Ian Cross