Letters to Holly

Thursday, May 29

What I Remember

I wanted to jot down the big moments that happened since Saturday. There's no order to these.

1) Mom didn't want a full military funeral for Dad because he didn't retire. He had a flag on his closed coffin. Dad didn't look like himself in death. The morticians did a fine job with him, but without a recent photo to work from, they didn't know what coloring was normal. He looked clean. But he didn't look like the Bruce everyone remembered. His eyelashes were gone. His eyebrows were gone. He only had wisps of hair on top. His nose was unmistakable though. So were the ears. He looked a lot like his dad right before his dad died. Mom thought he looked like a particular brother.

Anyway, about the flag, even though we had no color guard for the funeral, the funeral directors attended to the ceremonial flag folding. I had only seen this live once, and that was with my Uncle Ray last year. He got the full show -- bugle, 21-gun salute, the choreographed march, etc. And just as with Ray, two people picked up the flag from the coffin, stretched it out, folded it twice longways, and then made the traditional 13 folds, turning it into a padded triangle. It looks like a giant paper football. Then the lead director -- a guy named Scott Fowler who took care of us since Sunday -- handed it to Mom and gave the traditional flag declaration: On behalf of the President of the United States and the Department of the Army, this flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service. Mom had often said that this would be the hardest moment of the funeral and joked she might fall into the grave herself. Scott joked that he could use a shepherd's hook to yank her out, and reminded her with a wink to not fall in after he handed her the flag.

When it rains, the funeral home will give you a plastic, transparent cover that fits the flag like a glove, and she cradled it while we stood and said goodbye to the funeral attendees. I promised myself that, no matter what, I would stay sober and dry when Mom took that flag. If she lost composure, I'd be secure for her to lean on. But she did fine. I whispered to her that we have so many reasons to be proud of Dad.

OK, I just now lost my shit. I felt it coming all day, and I wanted it to happen when I was alone, and it did. Finally. I kept it together since Saturday, and I think the majority of the exhaustion and weariness is out. It's a big relief. I've lumbered about all day with this weight.

Let me tell when I almost did crumble during this whole mess. I'll be quick.

a) When I walked into the emergency room for the first time. Mom and Mrs. Crow, the neighbor who called me about Dad, were standing in the small private room with what appeared to be an empty piled with bundles of blankets on it. Before I could get near to Mom, I craned to look at the bed and thought maybe they had taken Dad for a scan right before I saw the top of his head. He was curled on his left side asleep, and he looked to be about three feet long. He was diminished. A teenager would have made a larger profile on the bed. I saw his socked feet sticking under the blanket at the bed's edge, and this physical reduction almost did me in. Then I saw Mom's red eyes, and I had to keep together. I hadn't heard any details of his condition yet.

b) When they wheeled him to palliative care. They unlocked the room bed and slowly pushed it to the other side of the hospital. I had already been there an hour, and we knew he wasn't coming home. He was only hooked to a simple IV and a catheter. His breathing was like, well, an animal. A growing animal. As he made the first turn out of the room, I had to cough down the crying fit.

c) When I thanked the pallbearers before the funeral. Four of them I had known all my life. I had always thought of them through my kid memories of big adults, and here I looked them in the eyes. We were all adult men, and they were doing my Dad the biggest favor they could, and before I could even get the words of gratitude out, my mouth stiffened and stretched. I cleared my throat and shook their hands, and then quickly walked to the back of the chapel and ate it.

So back to the memories:

2) Your Dad's face when we first saw each other in the chapel. He gave me a bearhug, and I was tempted to apologize to him for being the means by which he had met Dad and was brought to this moment. I had just walked into the room, and was hugged by cousins and aunts I had never seen before. Some folks I did know. Lots of people told me then and the night before that I looked just like Dad, and I had the ready joke that I grew the beard for Mom's convenience.

3) Right after the funeral, I saw my local buddy Travis, Kathy's husband, and he couldn't even speak. He was on the verge of tears. I thanked him, told him to go if he needed, and that I'd call him this weekend. His reactions surprised me. Your Sis suspects he, as a new dad, has a fear of leaving his wife and daughter behind in a similar situation.

4) I met a church couple who have a son who only answers to Peter Parker. As a lifelong geek, I am both relieved and shocked I never thought of that. When we played heroes as a kid, I was either Batman (because I have the middle name "Bruce") or Superman (because I wore glasses as Clark Kent would).

5) I developed a politician's handshake at the visitation. I'd extend my hand and place me left hand on the person's back while we talked. My left shoulder was killing me when he left the funeral home.

6) Your Sister did a lot of emotional heavy lifting. Mom and I tagged off to juggle the workload, but Your Sis and I tagged off to juggle Mom. She deserved a better birthday weekend. I'm trying to make it up to her.

7) My uncle Louis made things difficult. He had knee-replacement surgery last week, but he was adamant he didn't need rehab. He needed a next-of-kin to release him, and he called Saturday night while Dad was still in the hospital. Mom, who has always buttressed him, didn't need this shit and shrugged him off. He left the rehab center. He was at the visitation with a walker and decided he was immediate family. I ran interference to keep him from hovering over Mom. But he tends to turn any occasion into the Louis Show, and he tried it that night. He wanted to stand with us at the casket, and I maneuvered him away from Mom and Your Sister. He likes to play women for sympathy. We had four stools at the foot of Dad's coffin, and he was furthest away. Then me, then Your Sis, then Mom. I think it worked OK. It let me introduce Heidi to people, and Mom could overhear the names to spark her memory. Louis also as an anchor at the funeral, but we minimized his impact.

8) Mom and I had a great conversation at the mall food court after buying her new shoes for the visitation and funeral. We're starting to talk like old friends instead of stilted relations. Might be the only good thing to come from all this. Your Sis and I also had good meals with my Uncle Don and Your Parents.

It's now Friday, and I'm mostly back to normal. I've called Mom twice, and she sounds OK. She suggested I stay home this weekend, but we need to keep momentum on our new friendship, and there are some things at the house that need doing. I've stayed busy; my momentum from the Saturday-Wednesday constant stream of task completion has got me stuck in a new gear. I can't sit still. I've washed the cars, done the laundry, bought gardening materials, signed my painting, baked bread, and barely sat through the Lost finale (which was good and gooder). I still need to mow the lawn and transplant the veggies to the back yard. I have quite a number of things to do. And new initiative to get them done.

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