It has been five years since my father died, my Facebook feed reminded me with its On this day feature…. one, two three, four, five years ago today. We were at Camp Geiger in North Carolina, waiting for Logan to graduate from his Military Combat Training: a month long required training after 13 weeks of boot camp to instruct the new Marines in the use of powerful weapons. “Every Marine is a rifleman or riflewoman” they boast… “from the KP To Infantry…. if Marine…. then skilled in the correct use of weapons…”
It was one last time that we would get to see him before he would be placed or deployed anywhere …From Iraq to Okinawa or maybe even Ft. Dix NJ only 20 miles up the road (that was my hope). I knew we would make the eight hour drive to Camp Geiger even if we could only visit him for a few hours and even though my Dad was in the hospital, after all ….Dad was recovering and said he felt better than ever before.
As I looked at the Facebook memories feed, I instantly was taken back to those moments right before I knew- the innocence of not knowing… the naiveté of life before a significant shift occurs to mark the end of an era, the photograph taken right before I found out. The smiles that didn’t know that in just a matter of moments my life would be different forever.
Ethan and I, so full of pride bookending our beautiful unsmiling boy dressed in his crisped cotton cammies, arms at his side. Me with my red Marine Mom top proudly displayed and Ethan in his Retired Marine Shirt that I accidentally bought without reading the small embroidery thinking it simply said US MARINES – darn reading glasses, never around when you need them. Ethan always felt like an imposter wearing that shirt, as if someone found out they would say…. “Liar you never served” no one ever did. Red was the uniform parents were instructed to wear- Red so when the graduates looked out at us they would view a sea of scarlet waving parents and friends wishing and praying for safety from what was to come ….For some it was the last time they ever saw their boy or girl.
Another picture on my Facebook feed was of the graduates lined like camel colored crayons in a box each one stacked in perfect space and place alongside the other waiting for command. The clock on the back wall read 9:15 as if memorializing in time, the very moment when…. I was reminded that is when the phone rang from an unknown caller. I silenced the ringer and after decline, took a picture of those kids in flawless order – three more times it would ring.
Bulletproof focus betrayed my reality, I though it was a telemarketer, it was a number I didn’t recognize and the cell lines had just recently been made open on the market. I remember stuffing the phone in my pocket determined not to let anything rob me of that moment. It was a few short beautiful moments, filled with awe and relief…. From where Logan had been…..how far he had come…. Unwilling to entertain the thoughts of where he would go I was happy to be present in that moment with Ethan at my side and Logan safe in front of me. I didn’t have to think about what would come, what could come, and I remember feeling so proud of him, and so, so happy.
When the graduation was over the parents and guests were herded over to a make shift bazaar like area with tables set up like a flea market bearing the goods of Marine regalia and souvenir. Like mewling, hungry infants searching for the comfort of mother’s breast we rushed to buy something we could hold in our arms that would remind us and sustain us in the emptiness of letting them go. Something to mark us as Marine Mom’s and Dad’s, something tangible to help us try and forget for a moment that we were sending our babies into deep harm. No real consolation -just material comfort and anything would do at that point to take away the fear of not knowing…..
I bought a brand new scrapbook that was made from an old cammie uniform folded in perfect square with USMC stitched on the left pocket. I’ve done exactly one scrapbook in my whole life and it painfully betrayed my lack of crafty prowess…but I had great intentions of filling that one with Logan’s memories of boot camp and MCT The letters I so cherished as my only connection to him those long lonely weeks. Sad, scary weeks with no contact, he left with the just clothes on his back…not even a toothbrush, or glasses. They were instructed to bring NOTHING…that’s a tough one for a mom who sent her kid to camp with two huge suitcases and a carry on for a weeklong excursion – just in case they needed something.
Sending him off with nothing made me feel useless and unprotective, and my mom radar was going wonky….what if he needs?…. Ethan reminded me often, he will need for nothing…. So I was left ,waiting ….waiting to see if he would survive, let alone make it through 13 terrible weeks to the crucible. I remember hearing his bellowing voice for the first time when I went through the gates at Bush Gardens…. our stop on the way down to Graduation. … “Mom- I’m a US Marine”…. It was perhaps the most terrifying and wonderful words I have ever heard in my whole life.
Yes, I had great plans for that scrap book, A testament to how some times hard things and scary things turn out ok, and how at some times the thing in life we are most often afraid of, turns out to be the best thing that could have ever happened. I was determined that was what the scrapbook would represent. I would look at its finished pages while he was away -wherever they sent him- and I would remind myself how hard he worked and how far he had come and what could have happened had he not decided to join the Marines.
When the woman handed me the receipt and put the scrapbook in the bag, I saw Ethan coming from behind one of the tents. And though he didn’t say anything right away, I knew….I knew something was terribly wrong, my soul just knew something awful had happened. When I had silenced my phone for the third time, they called Ethan. He held the news as an offering for my delight and innocence for just a few more moments during the whole graduation, quietly grieving himself while faking a smile and figuring how he would tell me. He let me fully relish that moment of pride for my son.
As I stood in that hot parking lot C at Camp Geiger with a bagful of intentions and a sweet nostalgia for Logan’s transformative journey ….Ethan’s eyes let me know before he ever said the words….
He didn’t need to say anymore
And my body, unassisted by will, crumpled to earth in disbelief.
He was gone …
Just like that
My Father was dead.
My father who had been feeling so much better,
My Father…. who was telling me dirty jokes 10 hours earlier,
My father …who I didn’t answer his call when he called for the fourth time the day before so I could trouble shoot why he couldn’t turn up the volume on the brand new Ipad my sister bought him the week before as an early Father’s day gift.
My Father… with whom I shared such a complicated
and strange and funny and difficult and kind and messy and loving relationship with was dead.
My Father gone: In a moment, his life was over.
And Logan’s bus was leaving in five minutes and I had to pull it together so he wouldn’t know ….we didn’t want to worry him until we had more information about the service and if he could even get leave to come home. We would figure those details on the way home….
So I kissed my son clutching the bag with the scrapbook of intentions and watched him carry his heavy cammo, backpack filled with military issue and climb onto the bus for Pensacola, Fla for the next leg of his journey. Smiling like nothing happened I was trying to be a good Mom and give him just a few more hours of peace until he knew and everything changed for him….
Ethan and I drove back to NJ that day and for eight, seemingly endless hours we spent half the time in silence and tears and half in laughter and memories… of all my Dad had done, all the stories he told, all the crazy, unpredictable, outlandish sometimes immoral things he had done in his life…. if nothing else my father was colorful and complex and wild and beautiful and caring and he loved his children with all his heart even sometimes when it didn’t feel that way.
Ethan and I realized on our way home that day….that we would have to navigate a new normal now, a new place for us both, neither of us had lost a parent, our children had never experienced a death in the family. Being parents ourselves, we realized the gravity of the loss we understood and in that moment though we never spoke of it we considered our own mortality and thought of where and how our children would be when we were gone. The awareness of the terrible and beautiful fragility of life hung like a sheet between us in the car and we both felt its heaviness… how strange and precious life was.
As I scanned the pictures in my phone for one that captured the y totality of what and who my Dad was, to use for the Facebook post I would begin….“ It is with deep sadness’… I so wanted to include the other pictures…. this was the last picture of me – taken before I knew my father was gone. See the smile on my face that was the very last time I knew that I still had a father who was living…. That was the very last time I was whole…. We are so often surprised by death, by its difficulty and its inconvenience, an uninvited guest in the party of life, but death really is the only guest on everyone’s event list. Promised to show up for absolutely everyone at some point without fail.
Logan finished his service in the Marines on January 28 of this year. Went the entire term without deployment. In my heart I know I was one of the lucky ones, I dodged a bullet to my soul, I got to see my boy again, got to hold him and tell him I love him, and I am so very proud of the man the Marines allowed him to become.
And as I look at these pictures on my Facebook feed….this day a year ago, two, three, four and now five. I am swiftly reminded, to be present: where I am, to honor the moments I am in, to be kind always, to answer the phone, even when I don’t want to talk, because it may be the last chance I ever get to say hello.
RIP Dad 6/11/2013