“SHE IS THE VETERAN!”
My uncle, his wife, my sister and I all yell in frantic unison. The Funeral Home’s sales rep mentally facepalms himself. After jotting down her info for over 20 minutes he had conveniently forgotten we had opened the exchange stating she was ex-military. Deliberately, my sister slowly slides over the Colonel’s ID and the 214 form needed to request an Army officer’s funeral with honors at the VA’s National Cemetery. Her eyes narrow down on the poor unfortunate soul who absentmindedly made a couple of enemies.
If looks could kill…
Every answer to the request form questions revealed aspects of my mother’s life that had been private and fuzzy, to many, until death finalized the choices that defined her.
– Well…technically divorced. (Her first marriage lasted a few months to a Lt. Coss back in ’78-’79,. The divorce decree was ratified early in the 80’s, prompting my sister to tease me about who my real father was. If only life had been that type of interesting.)
“Career?” – Retired military officer.
“Years of service?” – 36/37 years?
“Which branch? – Army, PR National Guard.
“Retirement year?” – 2015. (Only 3 years!)
“Is the veteran already interred at the cemetery?”
Gods, give me strength to deal with gender biases and stereotypes right now…
The flash of excitement and incredulity only lasted for a few seconds. Everyone in the room swiftly understood our predicament was unique. I’m fairly certain she was the first female high ranked officer that the mortuary had to process, and definitely younger than most of the vets that were hosted at the facility. If we hadn’t been clear about the reasons that qualified her for a spot at the National Cemetery we would have been more forgiving and less boisterous. I’m sure the patrons heard our grievanced cries and wondered what all the fuss was about.
None of us hard core introverts wanted to be there, coordinating a funeral we had thought was already paid for. As her mind slipped, we forgot to check her files. Literally, we took her word as gospel and ignored the context. Time and time again she had stated everything was selected and paid for but this was because in that moment it was true. No one in our close knit circle had anticipated grandma would cash in on the prepaid funeral prior to my mother. Grandpa was already at the VA, preparing the hearth for his girls’ homecoming.
Four months of extracting data from my mother’s diseased mind had left us all exhausted and confused; two wakes in three weeks, ufff! In a perfect world, 20-30 years into the future, the person taking notes would have been more avant-garde and more careful with their words. They’d also be talking to a very different set of people, a less touchy group of older and wiser souls. A year from now we may all laugh at their blatant disregard. Today, I bury my nose in the books of sample obituaries and cards to collect my bearings and sigh. It’s a rough start but alas, we manage to endure.
The epithets barely do her justice…
While my sister signed off on the finishing touches, I took a break to deliver the news to my husband, the adored son in law and apple of her eye for nearly two decades. The 4 hour difference between our locations compounded logistics – thanks to daylight savings. He was on his way to work when I finally reached him. At first W was reticent to book the next flight out after securing a dogsitter for Zach. My frustration at his indecisiveness was amplified by his need to prioritize work over family, to cling to routine in the middle of tragedy.
When he finally snapped out of it, I was able to ask him to pack my favorite blue dress which I had left behind in a haze of mixed emotions. The clan had decided we should all wear blue for the next couple of days as tribute to our fallen commander-in-chief. It was both regal and bright, more in line with celebration than mourning. The uniform gave us direction, a sense of purpose, presenting us as a united front, as part of something greater than ourselves. My aunt held the crown given to her with aplomb and grace, doing her best to let my sister and I run the show while uniquely honoring her favorite sister with tributes and pictures filled with love and joy. 😉
Consoling people during the first 12 hours of the two day was an arduous task, as many used the opportunity to grieve in their own way. My father was devastated and could barely tolerate the pageantry of old friends and colleagues paying their respects. He’d retire almost two decades ago and left all the pomp, drama and circumstance behind with his post master duties. Hundreds of people showed up to pay their condolences, gathering to say their farewells and share stories about their beloved Army “jefa”, pioneering ROTC CI Ranger cadet, and always effervescent high school sweetheart. Music played in the background. I shook hands and consoled people more than their warm wishes and comforted me.
This last part was amplified by the Debbie Reynolds – Carrie Fisher situation our grandmother’s unexpected passing had created. “Now you can all spend more time with your grandma!” 🤦♀️ “Didn’t you hear? She died recently too.” 💔 Smiling, nodding, and keeping composure for the sake of guests was as hard as I had imagined it would be, and then some. My sister split the difference and took care of those who had my mother’s confidence. By the end of day 2, the mass, and the caravan to the cemetery, I was ready to take a long hot bath and purchase a one way ticket to a spa in the middle of the desert. It was too much, too fast.
January 10th became the last day I officially saw my mother…
The scene at the cemetery felt like it came out of a movie, reminiscent of Goose’s death and Maverick’s graduation in Top Gun. Dozens of men and women wearing their best “blues” flanked the family and the casket as military protocols were enacted. The VA grounds coordinator gave us a quick set of instructions to prepare us for the events to follow. Once the ceremony was over, the groundskeeper would take the casket away for internment. We were allowed short speeches and 20 minutes total to pay our respects. Scrambling, we decided to play it by ear and we signaled the pallbearers to start the processional.
By the time the flag was presented to my sister by the Adjutant General, there wasn’t a dry eye in the gazebo. Strong, tall men openly wept for their beloved leader and friend who was taken too soon. The Color Guard presented arms and released three volleys, gunshots that rang deep in my ears making me feel so proud that I had to smile and snort, make my sister chuckle. Totally surreal! Just when I thought we were in the clear, the damn Taps song started to played from this tiny unassuming bugle. Tears streamed down my face; my aunt lost her balance and had to be propped up by one of her cousins. My sister and father were miles away. Disbelief set in. Snow White was trapped in that beautiful blue mahogany enclosure, this time for the rest of eternity. Preserved for future archeologists and historians to find.
Executing on her last wishes was one of the worst and best moments of our lives.
My aunt, cousins and I gave brief statements for those who could stand to listen the heart break in our voices. Once we finished, the important men in her life – her brother, my father, her sons in law, her nephews – lifted the casket into the flatbed truck headed for Lot N, her new address. The flower wreaths sent by our vast community – teachers, coworkers, ex-pats, absentees – adorned her grave. A few yards away the staff planted a magnolia tree that her best friend donated to the cemetery in her memory. The formal granite marker will take about 60 days to be manufactured engraved with an epitaph that summarizes her life in 27 characters. Finding the words wasn’t as difficult as many thought it would be even though we were beside ourselves with sorrow. “Una vida de amor y aventura”. A life of love and adventure. Fitting for a woman who lived a simple courageous life full of joy, peace and compassion.
A few rows down and to the side lay my grandparents, all facing the ocean from the grassy knoll. On clear days one can see cruise ships coming to port, and the occasional airplane making its landing approach into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Part of me fantasized she was enjoying the view, hitching a ride to the far away exotic lands she wanted to visit after retiring, with her children. According to her, living a modest life that allowed her to save for the future was her greatest adventure.
Saying goodbye wasn’t her strong suit and neither was mine. The memories will have to speak for her now, until we meet again. With great sadness in my heart, and a mountain of tasks and paperwork to complete, my husband and I boarded our flights and returned to the place we now called home. Hopefully the MBA should keep us busy as we pool all our resources to keep on trucking. Life is hard enough without a safety net; without my #1 fan. I know my sister feels the same way as she prepares to herald her 30th birthday missing her, wanting to feel her embrace one more time.
Rest in peace mom. You earned it!
P.S. The best pictures of ourselves are those captured by those we love. My mom’s smile in the cover picture was for me, the person behind the camera. I was her dream, her pride and joy, and she loved me so much she made me a sister to not have to ever go through the pain of being alone when the inevitable happened. Our eulogies were short because her life was perfect and she wouldn’t have changed a thing. This is why losing her was so complicated emotionally. I’m happy all of the expectations she had for us were met, I just wish she was here to see further result of her efforts. She sleeps with the angels now, with her loving parents whom she followed around even in death. Forever encased in our love.
I love you too, mom. I’ll love you forever!