Monthly Archives: May 2013

Motorcycles and Flowers

I walk out of the store with two bouquets of flowers and, as I walk to the idling car where my husband and boys wait inside, I wonder if these will be enough for four sites. I think it will as I open the car door and, with windows down, we continue on our journey to Arlington beneath a gorgeous May sunshine.

We are flanked by motorcycles on our drive down 395 toward the National Cemetery. My three year old points out every single one, counting them as they pass. At one point he counts to ten and then decides “there’s too many to count!”, and indeed, there are. Rolling Thunder has hit DC full force, and as we drive below each overpass we see each one lined with people, firetrucks, and american flags, awaiting the informal motorcycle gangs that rally and ride together into the city before the formal noon ride.

The highway bends and we drive alongside the Pentagon parking lot; we tell our son to look out the window so he doesn’t miss what’s about to appear. One more overpass and then a three year old’s dream: shiny chrome, leather jackets, loud engines. Motorcycles as far as the eye can see. Hundreds, maybe thousands of bikes, all waiting patiently in the Pentagon parking lots for their noon ride today, Memorial Day Weekend, to commemorate, to honor, to pay homage to and to thank our veterans. What began as a tribute to Vietnam vets has morphed into a pilgrimage of gratitude for all who serve. The sheer number of them is overwhelming, and as we pass, I feel a familiar lump in my throat and I blink back my tears.

We drive onto Arlington and, with visitor pass in the windshield, drive toward our first stop: Section 60. The cemetery is crowded today and tourists on foot are busy trying to see as many “attractions” as they can. But Section 60 is different. Here we find the headstones of those most recently lost: husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, grandchildren, friends. It’s more than a tourist destination; it’s a stark reality.

We unload the kids and then walk to the site. The cool breeze rustles the flowers in my arms and tousles the curls on my toddler’s little head. Beneath the crystal clear sky and bright sun, reality sets in. The harried departure from the house, the traffic from the Rolling Thunder tribute that made our commute 30 minutes longer–all of those distractions are now gone and we are face to face with a stone bearing the name of our friend; a father, a husband, a son, a brother. I show my son how to place the roses in the vase and he is an eager study. We place the flowers next to his name and then sit, pray, cry. Our sons, too little to understand, allow us just a few moments before reminding us that they are hungry, that they want to play; they allow us a few moments before reminding us that life goes on–because it must.

We visit three more sites–two other friends and one relative; the relative is my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. Killed during WWII, just a boy at 22. My grandfather, also just a boy of 20, was notified by chaplain of his brother’s death while in the infantry in Europe. His older brother, his best friend, his protector, the head of their fatherless house, gone. Much like his brothers and sisters in arms who lay in eternal rest by his side, he was not given the chance to say goodbye. My two boys romp around my great uncle’s headstone, playing peekaboo and chase. I cut the flowers and place them in the holder, first placing it on the left side of the stone and then moving it to the right. I stay seated for a moment, watching this scene before me: my two small boys, playing on the grave of my grandfather’s brother and best friend. And I wonder, will they ever understand the sacrifices made for them? Can they? Can anyone, really, until they live it, see it, feel it?

I stand, and my husband pulls me in. With our two boys, there isn’t much time to steep in all that this day, that this place, really means. But he holds me close and whispers in my ear “thank you”. And I whisper back “thank you“, and then louder, “and thank them” as I gesture to the aged headstones, the young soldiers lost during WWII, their names faded, their shape wearing. Those without wives, children, or stories to tell. Suddenly our boys are off, running down the hill, indicating that our time is done. We scoop them up and as we walk between graves of those who fought decades ago, my three year old shouts “Thank you everyone!” as he waves to Section 12. I start to cry. And then I smile. He understands, at least a little. “Yes, thank you everyone!” I say back to him, to everyone. I whisper a silent prayer to our friend, to my husband’s friends, to my family. And then, hand in hand in silence, we walk back to the car.

The motorcycles are still amassing as we drive past the Pentagon on our way home. Again, I am overcome. The sheer number of bikers is overwhelming–all of these Americans rallying together, the camaraderie–it moves me. I notice that in the parking lots there is little more than bikes and people. These riders have come, some from hundreds of miles away, to do nothing more than ride. They ride for our veterans, they ride for fallen comrades, they ride to honor. But mostly, they ride in gratitude. And as we wave to the bikers, my heart swells. Each in our own way, we say thank you.

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Dinner with our past, present and future

My husband is seated across the table from me under the glow of a box chandelier carrying what must be four dozen lit candles. With wine in hand, we smile at each other through the warm light and listen to our hosts discuss their children, the neighborhood, their secret romance when they were young. The dinner is homemade, deliciously fragrant, and the lower the sun drops in the sky, the more comfortable we all become, settling into our chairs and digging deeper into the depths of our conversations. One by one, each of their children has made an appearance tonight. They are introduced by their names, but also by their ages at the time of their father’s diagnosis with stage III melanoma–the eery parallel that unites us.

Our host, my husband’s age when was first diagnosed with stage III melanoma fourteen years ago, introduces his eldest, who was our toddler’s age. I observe him as he peruses the refrigerator: shooting up out of the ground, towering over his parents. He seems to be growing as we converse. He is quiet in a teenager sort of way and he disappears from the conversation given the first opportunity. I imagine my toddler in this teenage boy, this boy who is intimately familiar with his father’s journey with cancer. I shudder as I wonder how we will ever explain all of this to our two sons.

Their middle son bursts through the door as we are finishing our dinner, a mass of curls and energy and limitless hugs for his mother. “This is our middle son, he was the age of your baby when I was diagnosed,” our host informs. My husband and I find each other from across the table and I can read his thoughts: could this be our baby? Will they ever be this big? And, fearfully, I wonder if my husband will know our boys to be teenagers.

When their daughter is introduced I blink back my tears. She is younger than her middle brother by 4 years, and to me she shines like hope. Since my husband’s diagnosis, my body does nothing but crave more children, an improbability at best. But seeing her there I think to myself, just maybe… Our hostess tells me that she was born during the “relaxing years”–the three year period when our host was deemed cancer-free, before it reappeared in his groin, and allowed to carry on his military career as usual, sending them to their next assignment in Hawaii. I shoot my husband another look across the table: my dream; I hope we are this lucky.

In between the introductions, we exchange stories about cancer, hospital stays and our host’s experience in the stage III arena, divulging the details of their similar journey through treatment. I wonder if they see themselves in us as they listen to our stories and recall the darkest moments of their married lives. His story about IL-II treatments and the subsequent hallucinations makes my heart race and I can feel myself perspiring. I whisper a pleading prayer that this not happen to my husband.

Our hostess is leaning back with wine in hand, her foot up on the chair and her arm resting on her knee. With her crisp white shirt and faded blue jeans, she exudes both strength and calm. She begins the story of the end of IL-II treatments.

“It was his sixth treatment. He was sitting in the fetal position in the hospital chair. He started crying–do you remember that you were crying?” she asks him across the table. He shrugs, and she continues “–and he was broken. So I told him, ‘we’re going to stop now, okay?’ And we did.”

I look at this couple and feel as though I am looking into the future, hoping one day we can look back on this from a distance and breathe as easy as they. She speaks so simply, so unaffected, as if she’s recounting a trip to the grocery store. I am in awe of her, inspired by her. And I wonder, am I as strong as she? Can I be?

She takes a sip, then her eyes meet mine and she asks, “What has been the hardest part of all of this for you?” And then she waits.

I try to untangle my mind that is instantly crowded with a thousand answers. The abrupt end of our life as we knew it. That my husband might die. That my boys might grow up without him. That I might be a young widow. That there is no end to this disease. The loss of control, the thousands of unknowns. The pain. The crushing, relentless pain.

I start to speak, I can hear myself talking but the words aren’t clear; I am crying now, hot tears streaming down my face. I am embarrassed but mostly relieved; someone is asking me to talk about all of this. About how I am doing. It’s freeing and yet it’s too much to bear. I try to get myself together while our hostess instructs our host to find me a tissue. He is off and then returns a minute later, still searching, unsuccessful. And though I am no longer crying, the secret is out: I am not okay.

Our hostess speaks: “This is the part that no one tells you. For the rest of your life, people will ask you “how is your husband doing?”, but no one will ask about you. They just don’t know to. If he dies, you are the survivor. We are the survivors. We will have to pick up the pieces and keep it all together. They focus on their health; we focus on everything else. It’s really hard.”

She has said it. In front of my husband. She has acknowledged the enormous, cancer-filled elephant in the room that has plagued me since the November diagnosis. My husband could die. I look to my husband to gauge his reaction to this statement. He’s gazing right back at me, strong, unfettered–“unflappable” as his mother would say. I look to our host, also relaxed. Either they are too exhausted by their fight or too aware of their possible fate to care. I exhale, not realizing I was holding my breath. At this table surrounded by people who’ve been exactly where we are now, and, fourteen years later, are embracing us through it, we have found refuge.

Two hours later we are back at my in laws’ home. From our bed I hear the small voice of our toddler; he is crying out from his room down the hall–a rarity. I go to him and find he’s crying, maybe from a bad dream, but he doesn’t say.

“Mommy, will you lay with me?” he asks me in the saddest, sweetest voice. And though I would usually politely decline, tonight I indulge. I lay down, and he cuddles into the concave form my body creates. His breathing becomes steady and deep, and soon he is asleep. I lay with him a few moments more, thinking of the children I met tonight, those three warriors with so much to carry on their small shoulders. I feel I’ve glimpsed our future. I inhale deeply, trying capture as much of his little boy scent as possible. I play with his golden curls, and then wrap my arms around him and embrace his innocence, his blissful ignorance before he’s too big to fit into my arms; before he knows too much, before he himself is a little warrior with too much to carry. And though I cannot protect him from his future, from learning of his father’s diagnosis and all that it may bring, tonight he still needs me; tonight, I am his refuge.

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