Thursday, November 13, 2008

You know how sometimes little kids won't say goodbye because they don't want you to leave?

Most (if not all) of you reading this know that my dad passed away on September 29th. Although I have been by turns shocked, angry, disappointed, devastated, regretful, and disbelieving, I have for the most part stayed away from maudlin. I hope to continue to keep away from it.

We had a memorial service for my dad on October 11th, the day before the guy would have turned 62. We had it because we were supposed to, it's what you do when somebody dies.  We did it; I helped put it together, I contacted people, I got the flowers, but my heart wasn't in it.  It wasn't right; it wasn't what he would have wanted, and besides which I remained stubbornly unready to attend a memorial for my dad.   I did get a measure of satisfaction from giving the eulogy just because I got a chance to portray the man the way I thought he actually was, and I didn't think anybody else was going to do that.

Almost a month later (November 7th) we interred my dad's ashes with full military Honors at San Joaquin National Cemetery in Santa Nella, CA. Although I attended, I was no more ready for this ceremony than I was for his service in October, or his actual death in September.

So, the whole military funeral with Honors thing was a little odd for me. My dad loved playing Army the 
whole time I knew him- he hiked and camped in Army gear, he kept his pith helmet in the garage (handy for when a guy needs to take a pith), he wore his jungle boots in the snow. Yet whenever he talked about being physically present in the actual Army he always mentioned how much he had wanted OUT and just wanted to go home. Forever after, though, he loved the idea of being in the Army. I, of course, being an impressionable youth, also loved the idea of being in the Army - but since I never quite took to doing what I was told, I was not an ideal Armed Forces candidate. 

And I never really thought of my dad as an Army Guy, either. I mean, yes, he was an Army Sergeant once upon a time before I was born, but while I was growing up he was your basic ex-football/wrestling Corporate Suit Dad who went camping a lot and had a respectable collection of guns. So the level of surreal surrounding the ceremony was almost Salvador Dali in Wonderland. Firstly because there's a good portion of me that doesn't really believe my dad is dead (yeah, I know - unhealthy), and is expecting him to call my cell phone again while I'm sleeping one of these mornings. Secondly, because this ceremony is something I only see in the movies and it's always done the same way - exactly the way it wasn't done at my dad's service.

In the movies, the Honor Guard soldiers are chiseled and handsome and generic, and the son of the fallen soldier doesn't flinch every time they fire the rifles. They fold the flag and present it to the widow, and then everybody walks somberly away with their black umbrellas. That's how I've always seen it done.

In our version the day was bright and sunny, making us all sweat in our dark clothing. The men of the Honor Guard were real people (the kind of actual people who join the actual Army, not the folks who join the Movieland Extras Army for $20 a day plus sandwiches), and they required real effort to stand at rock-solid attention in the sun while my dad's Religious Leader Figure failed to both a) stay within his allotted 5-7 minute time frame and b) bring a prepared or meaningful statement. Both of these failings gave me the strong desire to walk quietly over to the Religious Leader Figure and mention that I was going to kick him in his Religious Leader Private Parts if he didn't find the end of his epic ramble. If my dad had known any primitive indigenous people who could have attended the ceremony with their blow guns, I would have given the signal about two minutes into the Blessed Speakingment - before the invocation of the poem written on the Post-Its. Irritated restraint won out over kicking, and I gripped my wife's hand really hard instead.

In our version of the ceremony, since my dad's best friend (my Uncle Colonel (Retired)) outranked everybody on the Honor Guard, they presented the flag to him; he was then to present it to my dad's wife. Sometime after I was done flinching but before the Honor Guard was done folding the flag (which they had to unfold first, making me think of my own house where we make my daughter fold the laundry but then each of us has to secretly re-fold it so it's less mangled and fits in our drawers), I noticed my Uncle Colonel (Retired) twitching over by the podium. I thought he was having a heart attack, which really wasn't going to make the day go any smoother or happier. Upon second notice I saw that he was twitching deliberately at me. His subtle, understated gesturing that had attracted everybody's attention was meant to communicate his desire that I should come over and stand next to him right now. Which I of course did; confused, yet fearing the lengths to which his subtlety would take him if I pretended not to notice.

So now I was in the ceremony along with Uncle Colonel (Retired). There we were: all the precise, flat-stomached Army guys, the impressive Special Ops Colonel (Retired), and me, Schleppy the Overweight Management Flack. With my uncle whispering instructions that only he and I and the front six rows could hear, together we received the flag and delivered it the entire eight feet from the podium to my dad's wife, at which point I retreated back to my own wife and gripped her poor abused hand.

Despite the intense feeling of NOT belonging in this ceremony, I will admit to gratitude that my uncle ranked high enough to make up his own damn rules without anybody arguing. The ceremony was already a powerful event (even a month after my dad's actual memorial service). Taking the folded flag from the Honor Guard and delivering it represented an overwhelmingly in-my-face experience of shutting the door on my dad's life, of putting the last period on the last sentence in the last chapter of the Book of My Dad.  Not ready.  My uncle felt strongly that this was a privilege I should share; maybe he actually planned his last-minute twitching because he knew there was no way I would have agreed to participate otherwise. Handling the flag and some of the brass from the rifle salute sure put a whuppin' on my denial, I can tell you.

I love my dad and we were close, but a good portion of the day's surreality came with the height of the honor and respect shown for my dad's memory. In life, the man always got a kick out of the fact that I treated him not as my Venerated Elder, but as one of the guys. We played together, we went to ball games together, we made fun of each other. One of the perks of my childhood was always having someone my own age to hang out with and take care of me (although he didn't succeed at being a rebellious teenager with me - he had to reluctantly assume the role of Exasperated Old Fart while I was dressing funny and being outrageous). When my dad talked about his own death he was quite flippant about it. For him, his death was no big deal - he didn't even want a memorial service, much less two of them. Although I think he would have approved of the Army ceremony, I think he would have approved far more of the lunch we had afterward where his friends and family all shared stories about some of the stupid and funny things he did during his life.

I'm glad we roasted the guy in his absence. I think it was long overdue for me, but the right time for his wife and friends. I want so desperately to remember him with all his flaws as well as his good points - for a while I was afraid that we would all be so damned respectful of his memory that we were never going to be able to speak his name above a hushed whisper or laugh about the things he did that drove us nuts. I think this last ceremony was the very last bit of respect we could heap upon my dad without the irony spilling out of control and making a mockery of how he had lived.  The man was not a saint, and I don't want to be the last man standing that remembers him as a flawed, multi-faceted individual.

I will admit that even though I don't believe (and neither did he) that there is any part of him that resides with his ashes in the National Cemetery, I will return in a few months just to make sure the Cemetery folks spelled everything correctly on his memorial marker. If he's not going to be around to stick up for himself, somebody's got to do it for him.