“SHE IS THE VETERAN!”
My uncle, his wife, my sister and I all yell in unison. The Funeral Home’s sales representative has been taking down her info for 20 minutes and conveniently forgot what we had said. Every answer to the previous questions revealed aspects of my mother’s life that had been private and fuzzy until death defined her:
Well technically divorced. Her first marriage lasted a few months to a guy known as Coss back in ’78-’79, years before I was even conceived. (No drama there.)
Retired military officer.
“Years of service?”
36-37 years, Army National guard.
“Do you have proof?”
My sister slid the documents across the desk and the dude collected copies of her military ID and 214 form. This paperwork was required to begin the proceedings with the Veteran’s National Cemetery, for a funeral service that included active duty honors.
It was this next question that got the angry response for the crowd:
“Is the veteran already interred at the cemetery?”
Gods, give me strength to deal with gender biases and stereotypes right now…
We understood our situation was unique. My grandfather was already buried with honors, with my grandmother who had left us a short three weeks earlier to join him. My mother, the badass of the family, was about to join them in the same lot, a few rows up and over. I’m almost certain she was the first female high ranked officer that the guy had to process, and probably younger than most deceased vets so if this had been his initial assumption about what qualified her to a spot at the National Cemetery we would have been more forgiving.
Cancer had forced our hand.
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, and we hung on to her every word to decipher her intentions and correlate them to her actual actions. She had adamantly stated everything was selected and paid for but this was because she didn’t anticipate grandma’s departure from this earth so closely to her own. Four months of extracting data from her diseased mind had left us all exhausted and confused. In a perfect world, 20 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.
While my sister signed off on the finishing touches, I had to break the news to my husband, her adored first son in law, who had her in his life for a little over 17 years. PST was 4 hours behind and he was barely awake when I reached him. W frantically booked the next flight out, secured a dogsitter for Zach, and packed my favorite blue dress in a haze of mixed emotions. It was a sad couple of days but the idea of wearing blue for her last day above ground gave us some sense of purpose, of unity and fraternity. The uniform served as a shout out to our fallen commander-in-chief. Losing both the Queen Mother and Queen Regent-in-Training in such quick succession left us all discombobulated, broken. My aunt picked up the responsibilities with aplomb and grace as I am not seasoned enough to take up that mantle. I’ll leave that to the Colonel’s favorite sister. 😉
The first 12 wake hours, out of a two day viewing, went by fast. Friends, colleagues and family gathered to say their farewells and share stories of our Army officer, CI Ranger cadet and high school sweetheart. We joked around, we laughed as much as possible, and we rejoiced at the thought of being together, hand in hand, as we closed out this chapter of our family’s history. The Debbie Reynolds/Carrie Fisher situation was very awkward to explain, since not everyone knew of grandma’s passing which resulted in lots of good but incorrect advise about spending or having more time to take care of her. Smiling, nodding, and keeping composure for the sake of guests was as hard as I had imagined it would be, and then some. My dad was devastated. I can’t imagine what losing the greatest romantic love of your life must feel like. 😭💞 I hope W lasts me 1,000 years.
January 10th became the last day I officially saw my mother…
The burial was one of those experiences that is hard to capture with words. Dozens of men and women wearing their best uniform flanked the family and the casket as military protocol was enacted. By the time the flag was presented to my sister, there wasn’t a dry eye in the ceremonial gazebo, about 100 yds away from her final resting place. The Color Guard presented arms and performed three volleys of three shots each round that made me feel so proud that I had to smile and make my sister chuckle. We had been preparing for this moment ever since we knew we had a special lady in our hands. She didn’t want us to fight over the honors so we had already decided who did what and when. Then that damn Taps song was played from that very unassuming tiny bugle and tears streamed down my face. My aunt had to be prop herself up with the help of one of her cousins. Lilo and Dad were miles away, shock and disbelief clearly noticeable in their demeanor. Regardless of how you framed it she was gone, trapped in that beautiful blue enclosure for the rest of eternity, for future archeologists to find.
Executing on her last wishes was one of the worst and best moments of our lives.
Lot N is her new address now, her retirement center of sorts or the closest we will ever come to a family plot/mausoleum. We left flowers on her grave and took pictures of the magnolia tree her best friend donated to the cemetery in her memory. The grave marker will take 60 days to be manufactured, and we did our best effort to summarize her life is 27 characters. It wasn’t as difficult as many thought it would be even though we were beside ourselves with sorrow because my mother was a very humble and amazing soul that thrived on simplicity and transparency. “Una vida de amor y aventura”. A life of love and adventure.
At some point we’ll go back there to check up on her. From her lot you can see cruise ships come to port and airplanes making their landing approach. I’m sure she is halfway around the world by now visiting the many exotic places she missed out on while working and raising us girls. Well, she’d claimed she didn’t miss out on anything because we were her adventure, and I don’t doubt for a second that was all she needed to be truly happy. 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, W, Lilo, my bro in law and I boarded our flights and went our separate ways. Hopefully the estate settlement goes smoothly and nothing surprises us. Lilo needs time to heal and find a career path that suits her new life, and the 30th birthday extravaganza she rightfully deserves. The MBA should keep us busy on our end as we pretend to keep on trucking. Life is hard enough without a safety net; without my perfect #1 fan.
Rest in peace mom! Fly high. I’ll take care of the world we were going to make, and the one we designed together, even though it will never be enough because we don’t have you in 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 the result of her efforts. She sleeps with the angels now, with her loving parents whom she followed around even in death.
I love you too, mom. I’ll love you forever!