It’s taken me a while to post about this. I wasn’t sure I wanted to at all, and then I thought I had to, and then I wasn’t sure. In the end, I wanted to share this because it was just so moving.
My maternal grandfather had a heart attack last November. He opted not to have surgery. At that time we were a little upset. We didn’t understand why he wouldn’t have surgery to extend his life. He told us that he had lived a long (89 years), good life, and that he wanted to live out his final days/weeks/months at home. He was afraid that the surgery would not go well, and that he might be left to live the rest of his life in the hospital or a home.
I talked to my paternal grandmother about this. I asked her if she would have the necessary surgery. I was sure she’d say yes. She surprised me by saying she would pass. She said the same thing: she’d lived a long life and would let her life take its course. Hearing her and some other older folks say this made it easier for me to accept his decision. (There is some back-story which I will not discuss here that made me want him to stay around longer, selfishly.)
During the following 6 months, we made more frequent visits to spend time with him. Little Dude absolutely loved seeing “gampa”. He always took his toy plane along, and Grandpa would talk about WWII planes. During March and April, Grandpa was having fluid drained from his lungs more frequently, and the procedures were leaving him drained. We saw him losing weight and strength. His eyes would light up, however, whenever he would see Little Dude. In those few months, they became buds.
At the beginning of May, Grandpa experienced some abdominal pain. He was admitted to Hospice, but expected to be there only a few days. It was clear after a few days that he wasn’t doing well. My parents made arrangements for him to be discharged from hospice on May 17, his 90th birthday, to spend one final weekend in his house, before being admitted to the VA hospice.
On May 17th, we received a call from hospice. They told us that we should rush down immediately because they expected Grandpa would pass during the weekend, if not that day. I’d like to remind you that May 17th was his 90th birthday. We hurried down, expecting the worst, but Grandpa made it through the day – rather happily, I might add. He had tons of visitors, including the members of the Vet 21 Salute Honor Guard.
Grandpa joined this honor guard after the death of my grandmother. It became his life; he threw himself into it. The number of funerals he attended was astonishing. He loved it, and the rest of the team loved him. Whenever we would see one of them, they would gush about how wonderful how Grandpa was.
Grandpa passed away peacefully (still at hospice) on June 1st. His funeral was held on June 5. It is the funeral, more specifically the graveside ceremony, that I want to share. (I know . . . it took me a while to get there, right?)
I mean no disrespect to the pastor, but the church service was pretty much just like any funeral I’ve attended. It was very . . . very . . . Lutheran. (I say that proudly, I might add.) No one was really overly emotional. I suppose when someone lives a long full life, you do tend to think of it as more of a celebration of life. (As a side note, that was very different for me. Unfortunately I have been to too many funerals for young lives cut short, and those services are just awful. Awful.)
At the conclusion of the service, we went to the cemetery. Despite attending several funeral services at churches and funeral homes, I’d never been to the grave site. I knew that the Vet 21 Salute Honor Guard was going to shoot, but that was about it.
I first choked up when we arrived. There were about 16 to 20 of them (I didn’t pause to count them) lined up to form a sort of aisle for us to walk through, on our way to Grandpa’s burial plot. Beyond them, I could see the 7 gentlemen lined up who would perform the volley. (Knowing that there were usually only 7 of these guys present at funerals, their presence blew me away.) We sat down under the canopy and noticed that there were two woman from the National Guard there as well. They stood absolutely still, and looked so polished and stoic.
After the pastor said a few words, I noticed that something was going on behind us. I turned around to see that rather than having one person carry the urn to the grave site, the men in the honor guard passed him down the line. Once the hand-off was complete, the gentleman would salute Grandpa. One by one they saluted him. I was a mess of tears. I blew through my 4 tissues and just let them roll.
The pastor said some more things, most of which I don’t remember. The women from the National Guard then stepped up to unfold and fold the flag. One of them then presented it to my mother. She knelt before my mom and said a few sentences, which I believe were “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Department of the Air Force, and a grateful nation, we offer this flag for the faithful and dedicated service of (Grandpa’s rank and name).” (Thank you, google.) I started bawling when she said “President of the United States”. The rest of the family seemed to follow suit. S had to don his sunglasses at this point. It’s not like I thought Pres. Obama really knew this was going on. (Though if you knew how much trouble these guys went to to pull all of this off, you might wonder if they didn’t call Obama and ask if he could fly to Lancaster for an hour or two.)
While we are all drowning in our tears, one of the guys from the Honor Guard stepped up to my mother and handed her three bullets, which stand for duty, honor and country. He had tears in his eyes as he said his piece. He rose and walked away, but kept walking. It was too much for these men. These men perform at funerals every day. Sometimes they’ll have 3, 4 or even more in a day. They are accustomed to grief, and have learned distance themselves from it. That day, though, they were grieving the loss of one of their own. It was hard to see these men so emotional, and it was hard to see my husband, brother, and father so emotional as well. I don’t like to see men cry. It shakes me.
At that point, the bugle player played Taps. This is the role that my grandfather had in the Honor Guard since he was not able to shoot a gun any longer. Knowing that this was previously his role really sent shock waves through me. Taps is always such an emotional song anyway. Tissues long gone, I took to wiping my face with my hands. Ew. Whatever. Like I cared.
Just when you think I’m at the end, I need to tell you that there was a bagpiper who had been standing off in the distance. Mom told me that Grandpa specifically requested a bagpiper be brought in to play. He (or maybe she? I don’t know) started to play. The two saddest instruments to me are the bagpipe and the cello. Had they both been there, I would have literally turned into a puddle.
Emotionally drained, we observed a few moments at the grave before heading back to our cars. By absolute chance, a plane – not a commercial jet, but not a military plane – flew overhead. I know for sure that this was not arranged in any way to coincide with the funeral, but it was awfully timely. It was amazing.
I think that it took until the moment the National Guard member said “On behalf of the President . . . ” for me to realize the impact of military service. It hit me that we could be sitting at the site of burial for a 19 year old man, not a 90 year old man. We could be his parents and siblings. Or we could be there, mourning a 29 year old woman, leaving behind a grieving husband and children. I cannot fathom how a ceremony like this must impact the family of a service member killed on active duty. I simply can’t imagine.
I know some of you have husbands, wives, or parents who are in the service and have thought about this. I know some of you have lost your husbands, wives or parents in the line of duty and have dealt with this. I know this blog is inadequate in addressing the sacrifice of military service. I am not trying to do that. I am just trying to recount my own personal experience.