Monday, May 16, 2016

My Brutiful Visit to Washington, D.C.

Last weekend was unforgettable. Here's what I posted Saturday night on Facebook:
My heart is heavy and light, at the same time. How is that even possible? Because I opened my eyes today to witness a community of people carry each other's pain. I was reminded that my loss became dozens of other people's loss - and their losses became mine today - as we honored seven fallen men and women from the West Point Class of 1992 (including my brother Jackson). What an honor it was to hug the people who [still!] love my brother, then cry with them and laugh in the same breath as we shared Jackson stories. Tonight, I can't decide whether to smile or weep in gratitude. I guess it's both.
One of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, describes events that are brutal and beautiful with a mash up word: brutiful.

That word is exactly the one I would choose to describe this past weekend: it dented my heart while simultaneously healing it.

For those of you who don't know where I went and what I did this past weekend, I'll start from the beginning.

My brother, Jackson, graduated from West Point in 1992. Four years later, he died of cancer. That makes this year the 20th anniversary of his death. [And I will sit here, dumbfounded, pondering that last sentence for a few moments.]

Jackson's classmates planned a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery as a way to honor the unknown soldiers buried in the tomb and the seven West Point classmates who have died. As Jackson's next of kin, my sister Mary, Jackson's widow Bonnie, and I were invited to the ceremony. In conjunction with the ceremony, friends of the fallen classmates were asked to write articles telling their life stories.

I caught a flight into Washington, D.C. early Saturday morning. I knew the weekend would have its tender moments, but wasn't prepared for the entry to ramp up as quickly as it did.

Before I was in the airport even ten minutes, I came across the arrival of an Honor Flight. [If you don't know what that is, pause here and click on that link. You'll need a tissue.] I rounded a corner and found a team of people in fluorescent yellow shirts, cheering an elderly man who was walking through their mini parade. He was dressed in his military uniform, and I was stopped in my tracks by this scene.

I waited while another veteran followed the first one, then found a bank of escalators to ride to the bottom floor baggage claim. As I rode down, I could hear sounds of the next stop in the Honor Flight celebration: a female choral group greeting the uniformed veteran with the Army song, "The Army Goes Rolling Along." Of course, I stopped here too, tears welling up in my eyes.

The group sang the Navy song for the second veteran who had arrived. At this point, I realized I had to keep moving because I had my own event to attend.

I caught the shuttle to the hotel where my sister and her family were staying and she met me in the lobby with a big hug. We hurried to the room for more hugs with her husband Wally and daughter Peyton, changed clothes, then headed to the lobby to meet our lunch group.

We had fifteen people at lunch: Bonnie, my Uncle Rob and Aunt Terri, my cousins from Mom's side (John and Mike), Jackson's college roommate (Tobi and his family), and twin brothers Paul and Pete, who have known Jackson since middle school. Paul also went to West Point, so he got to play double duty all day!

We had a long lunch and I sat in the middle of the table (anyone who knows me shouldn't be surprised - it's my childhood youngest-child-issues coming to the surface) so I could hear stories from all the groups around me.
Mike, me, Mary, and John
I got the details from Tobi's wife, Kate, about their life since college and updates on Tobi's family. One of his family members is the key reason for my decision to attend Mizzou for Broadcast Journalism, which - obviously - changed the trajectory of this Georgia girl's life.

I listened as my aunt from Dad's side asked my cousin from Mom's side about his life in the military, and resisted the urge to curl up and bawl as the mantra, "Mom and Dad should be here" started playing in my head. It didn't stop repeating until I fell asleep on Saturday night.

At one point I looked around the table and realized out of the fifteen of us there, nine have grieved the loss of an immediate family member very early in life: sibling, parent, or spouse. Of course Mary and I had lost our brother (and Bonnie's husband), but there were four people who lost their own siblings and five who lost parents. Jackson is our common denominator, but grief is our shared language. These are people who get me when others look at me as an alien.
Aunt Terri listens to Mike's military stories,
while Bonnie and Uncle Rob catch up.
The best part of lunch was hearing Paul and Pete tell stories of Jackson's high school escapades. I was reminded of all the reasons I adored - and abhorred - my older brother. He was hilarious and bold and larger-than-life, and also a big pain in the rear. (Aren't all brothers?!)
Paul and Tobi graduated
from West Point together.
Paul told my Uncle Rob the story about their *almost* arrest when painting the high school logo on the road leading up to the school - TWICE. Paul also told a story of their attendance at a Bon Jovi concert, when the ride home ended with Jackson driving the car while hanging out the window and punching a guy in the car next to them. I thought I already knew all there was to know about Jackson, but - clearly - there is still so much to learn about my brother! Even twenty years later...

After lunch, we had to run an errand for Wally, then headed to Arlington.

We found our friends in the Welcome Center, and met some other classmates from West Point. As we were waiting for everyone to arrive, so did the rain outside. Uh oh!
Robert is on the left side of this photo,
wearing the lighter gray sport coat (and the boots).

My cousin Robert (from Dad's side) also arrived. At one point, I looked down and saw his snazzy snakeskin boots. I commented on them and Robert replied, "Do you know whose they were?" Immediately, I recognized them as my brother's old boots. Mary saw them too, and told us how Jackson bought them in Texas while visiting her and Wally when they were stationed at Fort Hood.

It was time for us to leave the Welcome Center and walk up the road to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The rain wasn't letting up and we couldn't wait for it to clear, so we huddled under umbrellas and started hiking. In a dress. And strappy sandals. With only a windbreaker as a raincoat to shield my camera. (You didn't think I'd leave that at home, did you?!) I was especially glad I wore my hair curly and didn't spend time making it all pretty.

After a 15 minute walk, we arrived at the Tomb as a guard changing ritual was taking place. We crowded on the steps to catch a glimpse between open umbrellas while trying to dodge the raindrops and maintain silence (a requirement at the Tomb). In the photo below, can you see the people in yellow, blue and white ponchos on the far right? It was an entire busload of Honor Flight veterans who were visiting the Tomb. Cue the tears, again.

If you've never been there, you must know the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is sacred ground.

Guards patrol 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Even during rain, blizzards, and hurricanes. The depth of commitment is only overshadowed by the ultimate sacrifice given by the fallen soldiers buried in the Tomb, whose names we don't know.

While I took photos, the crowd started murmuring as people were moving about after the guards transitioned. All of a sudden, the soldier on duty stopped his patrol and stepped off his mat to face the crowd and shout, "It is requested that all visitors maintain an atmosphere of silence and respect at all times!" Trust me, there wasn't even a slight peep after that and my nerves shot through the roof.

After a few more minutes, we went inside the museum building beside the Tomb. We were all dripping wet, standing almost in the doorway without much room to move as cemetery visitors looked at exhibits and West Point families greeted each other.

I realized my hands had started shaking and my heart was thudding, and I recognized all this as a signal that I was on the verge of an anxiety attack.

Here's the ironic thing: I started having anxiety and panic attacks after Jackson died, but I haven't had any since I finished my grief counseling thirteen years ago. I forgot how overwhelming an anxiety attack feels, but it didn't take long for me to remember.

With anxious tears threatening to overflow my eyes, I stepped over to a quiet corner and silently prayed with my eyes open. I worked on breathing and calming, and got myself back to a centered heart. My family came over to join me after a little bit, then the time came to go back into the rain for the wreath-laying ceremony.

Mary, Wally, Peyton, Bonnie, and I made our way to the bottom of the steps to stand at the railing. On the top of the above-ground Tomb, there sat the most brilliantly red cardinal bird. It was tweeting, even in the rain, and jumped off to flit around the area. Mary turned to me and whispered, "Did you know cardinals symbolize someone who has died and has come back to visit?"

Tears sprang into my eyes and I told her, "Why on earth would you tell me such a sad tale at this exact moment? Do you want me to become a complete mess?!"

The ceremony began with the guard announcing the crowd was about to witness a wreath-laying ceremony by the West Point class of 1992.

I recorded the rest of the ceremony on my phone, but the file is too big to post here. I have posted it here on YouTube, if you are interested in watching it. (It is about two minutes long, so it won't take too much of your time.)

I am proud that I held my phone relatively still during the ceremony so the recording isn't quivering like the rest of me was. "Taps" always breaks me, so I'm surprised I didn't sob audibly.

After our ceremony was finished, a second wreath was presented in the exact same way by students from a local middle school. Before I knew it, our group was stepping away and leaving the Tomb area. I followed, taking a few last photos with my phone. I was never able to use my nice camera during our ceremony, so I only have lower quality phone photos to share.

All of us walked to the back of the amphitheater behind the Tomb museum, and that's where I texted my friend Anji and finally met up with her, her husband, and their two kids.

Yes, my friend trucked her whole family 45 minutes from home so they could hike the cemetery and stand IN THE RAIN to witness the wreath laying. In order for you to fully appreciate this gift, please understand this: I have only known Anji for ten months. We met last July at the She Speaks writer's conference I attended in North Carolina. We spent three days with each other, and have been in daily contact ever since. It was so good to see her in person again!

I greeted Anji, met her family, then turned to introduce her to my family. I saw Mary talking to one of Jackson's classmates and his family. I was waved over to meet them too, and was introduced to their 15-year-old son, who is named after my brother.

All of a sudden, every emotion I was desperately trying to suppress came exploding out of me and I, embarrassingly, went into the ugly cry. I had to turn away from this sweet family in order to avoid falling on the ground and curling up into a fetal position. My Uncle Rob had a look of alarm on his face, and I knew I had to Get. A. Grip! Tobi stepped into the circle of people and hugged me and I calmed enough to gather my breath so I could turn and properly meet this young man named Alec Jackson; his middle name is my brother's middle name. I apologized for being so emotional, then thanked his parents for such an incredible honor, especially his mom for graciously allowing her child to be named after a guy she never met. Her eyes were filled with tears, too.

After a little more chatting, we made our way out of the amphitheater and started walking back to the Welcome Center.

When my sister got a chance, she sidled up to me and told me something I am GRATEFUL I didn't know when I was standing with Alec's family: he was just diagnosed with cancer two weeks ago. TWO WEEKS AGO. I winced at this news and teared up, yet again.

Sometimes your brain receives just one more piece of information and decides to shut down. My brain did that, and I was saturated with emotion. I simply couldn't take on one more drop of heaviness.

In the second mercy my friend Anji brought me that day, we began discussing life since we met in July then Anji and Mary compared notes of where they lived while being military spouses. I am grateful I had someone there to chat with because the news of Alec's cancer was overwhelming me

As we walked, I got my camera out and took some quick photos of the graves in Arlington. It is such a breathtakingly beautiful place, made even more so by the rain-saturated colors.

At the Welcome Center, I said goodbye to my friend Anji (three times!) and went with my sister's family to their car. We had a pass so Wally could go to Section 60 of the cemetery, where most of the soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.

Uncle Rob, Aunt Terri, and Robert met us there, and we searched the graves to find a bunch of Wally's friends.

And, sadly, yes: there are a bunch. Wally has lost too many friends.

Section 60 is full of graves of men and women from MY generation, which means their families are still alive to visit the graves and leave mementos and flowers.

There are placards and photos...

...and stones...

...and this grave had a poem written for the deceased son's mother as a Mother's Day gift on the previous Sunday.

At one point, I turned and saw this beautiful barn swallow sitting on a headstone.

(Sidebar: did you know swallows represent hope? Some sailors believe if they die at sea, a swallow will carry their souls home. And ancient Romans believed the swallow was a "totem bird for mothers in sorrow, and that it embodied the souls of children who had been lost in childbirth." See here.)

As we left Arlington, we were passing by another section of the cemetery when we saw a man sitting in the middle of the graves. He had brought his own chair and umbrella, so I assume he had been there for a while and probably visits regularly. Once I zoomed in my camera, I realized he was sitting there talking to his wife. My heart ached for his lonesome vigil.

We were invited to a reception for family and friends at the house of two West Point graduates. It was a beautiful reception where we toasted each of the seven deceased classmates.

All the graduates gathered for a photo before we broke off into groups to talk and eat.

I spoke to Alec's family, and his parents told us more details about his recent diagnosis. They don't have a full diagnosis or prognosis yet, and aren't even sure exactly what cancer he has. They are waiting to hear if he'll start radiation or any other treatment. Before we left, I asked Alec if I could take his photo. I planned to tell my kids about him so we could start praying for him and his family.

Bonnie had to begin her drive back to Kentucky, so we said goodbye to her and her mother.

Mary and I stayed for a while to share stories of Jackson with Uncle Rob, Aunt Terri, and Jackson's classmates. Tobi and Mark told us stories of pierced ears on spring break, and the time Paul left a melting snowball on Jackson's desk blotter (which he was extremely particular about, using a ruler and highlighters to draw lines and track daily dress codes and upcoming events). It was so SO good to hear people talk about Jackson again, because not very many people in my regular St. Louis life know about my brother.

As the rain started up again, it was time for us to leave. We thanked our hosts and drove back to the hotel (and Wally gave us a driving tour of monuments and landmarks).

Now, do you see why I described the day as a healing dent in my heart? It was a really BRUTIFUL day.


Brina said...

Oh Elizabeth, I can feel your emotions in this post. Tears are rolling down my face. Brutiful perfectly describes such an emotionally exhaustive day. I loved all of the side notes about birds. I had no idea. Thank you for sharing, all of it...the anxiety, the ugly crying, the joy in hearing new Jackson stories.

Anji Budzynski said...

It was a great privilege for us to help honor your brother and his fellow fallen classmates. Our drive was but a quick minute compared to the loss of your precious brother. Thank you for allowing us to be a small part of your family and friend's special day. I'm sorry we didn't ever know your brother but it was neat to hear some stories about him. Especially to hear that eight young men were named after him. Your brother was a blessing to many!


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