We buried my father-in-law, Fred, Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery. He now shares something in common with great people who will be remembered throughout history, people like John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Medger Evers, and Charles Durning.
Today is Independence Day. The grand day all over the United States where we listen to John Philip Sousa, eat hamburgers and hot dogs, and then, after it turns dark, blow things up.
I’m not really celebrating today. Oh, I cooked for my family, watched the fireworks on TV, and shared some laughs. But my thoughts keep going back to graves and to the flag sitting in our house that was given to us on behalf of the President of the United States by a young man, dressed in blue woolen dress clothes, as he kneeled on one knee on a 90 degree day in July.
Ours was a simple ceremony by Arlington’s standards. We were led on the grounds in a procession to the funeral pavilion, with the lead car carrying Fred’s cremains. As we pulled up, there were soldiers waiting on us – all in these same dark woolens, shoes shined so much the sunlight bouncing off of them hurt your eyes. As two soldiers took Fred out of the car, carrying him to the pavilion, all were at attention, saluting this man I had loved and adored for nearly 17 years.
As we walked to our seats, out of the corner of my eye, a young man in green woolens, a lone bugler, between the columns, standing in salute, waiting for his moment to play the haunting sounds of Taps.
I don’t remember much what was said during the service, nor of the service itself — I remember the young men, dressed in their finest, unfolding the flag of the United States, heels clicking, with movements so precise it was as if I were seeing brain surgery. They stood, holding the flag to shadow Fred’s cremains — I can’t remember if there were eight or ten — honoring a man they’ve never met and just one of the 20 or so families in mourning they’d see that day. I remember jumping and losing my breath when the volley started — the soldiers who’d greeted us were shooting into the sky, giving Fred one last salute.
And then, the young boy, who couldn’t have been much older than 25, presenting my mother-in-law with a flag. Then we were asked by the Chaplain if any of us would like to carry Fred’s remains to his final resting spot.
This is what I do remember, clearly:
For as long as I live, I’ll never forget my husband saying “I’ll take him,” standing up, and with two hands, gently cradling the remains of his father, carrying them on the walk to his final placement. He held him like he held our newborn son. His shoulders stooped, his face masked in deep determination, love, and pain, as he made that walk. It wasn’t far, only a hundred or so steps. But each step behind him made me see him in a new light — one I’d never seen him in — and gave me insight I’m not even sure I had ever fathomed in this man I’ve been married to for nearly 15 years. He placed Fred is his vault as gently as you’d lay a sleeping newborn down — I still don’t have words for what I saw — I can only describe it to you now.
My mother told me afterwards, “You always want to be able to do one final thing for your parents. You’re biggest regret in life is if you’re not able to.” That’s what he did. Fred brought him lovingly home from the hospital, and Tony placed Fred lovingly in his final resting place here on this earth.
During the service, Chaplin Jenks told us (paraphrased) “The men and women buried here supported their country when it needed them most. We honor them by caring for them throughout eternity.” There he’ll lay, with Presidents, Civil Rights Leaders, Generals, Movie Stars, common men and women, all of them Freedom Fighters with one thing in common, that they served to honor and protect the flag of the United States.