I went into the church early and found a spot at the outside end of a pew in the family section. I had my grandson with me, Joel's son. Orion is only 9 months old and it was his nap time. He was tired and overwhelmed by the number of people who just wanted to see him and touch him, a living link to Joel.
Orion and I sat down in the quiet church, only soft piano music playing, and he took down a bottle and nestled into me. His little head pressed firmly against my heart, a tiny arm thrown up over my shoulder. He snored...quiet and steady. I felt a sense of peace for those 30 minutes that I hadn't felt in more than two weeks.
The church filled up slowly with people who were strangers to me - but that came with the common goal of celebrating Joel's life and his impact on ours. It was a sea of uniforms and mourning faces. Young and old, civilian and troop, many races and belief systems... all together, as one unit, with one purpose.
I had many people from "my side" of the family attend; some relatives I hadn't seen in many, many years. Several were meeting Joel for the first time, through this service. A reminder that family is always there, and will show up when you need them most. My mother and step-father; my brother and his fiancee; my cousin, M., who is also my Sister-of-the-Heart.. they were all there. M. sat directly behind me. I could literally feel the support she was sending me to be strong.
Family-of-the-Heart attended. My daughter spent a good portion of her formative years in another state, and grew up among a tight-knit group of people we consider to be family... our tribe. J. attended as representative of this group. She'd only physically met Joel once, at last year's Halloween party, but she felt the loss of Joel as keenly as the rest of us. Her presence allowed my 14 year old son, who really looked up to Joel as both his brother-in-law and a hero, to finally grieve. She's always had a very special effect on people - allowing us to lower our guard, while she stands as a soft, welcoming sentry, protecting us during our vulnerable moments. Before she left for home, J. made new connections with my cousin, M., and some of the grieving soldiers. I'm thankful for that - those young men will genuinely benefit from knowing her.
Orion slept soundly until the bagpipes started. He was confused by the sound at first, but then taken in by their haunting beauty. I, on the other hand, began to lose it a little bit. Bagpipes have always been difficult for me to listen to, and on this occasion, much more than usual. The honor guard/pall-bearers brought Joel down the aisle. Once at the front, the soldiers gently unfolded our country's flag over his steel-blue casket, and then marched to the back of the church. Those poor boys... they did so well. Their expressions did not in any way mask their grief, but they held it together and showed great dignity.
I had appointed myself to be Orion's keeper for the services... partly to relieve the burden from my daughter, but mostly for selfish reasons. I needed Orion. He's on the verge of walking, and didn't grasp the importance of the words being spoken at the podium... words about his father. When he started fussing, I took him (and the darling duck Cousin M had brought for him) out of the service. At first, we sat in the foyer - where he posed for pictures. Orion is an utter and complete ham for a camera. I was still able to listen to the service, but without distracting the other guests.
Once he'd had his fill of the paparazzi, we went and played in the sunshine and the grass for a bit.
There was a beautiful slideshow highlighting events in Joel's life. It was like watching him grow up. I was fine until the pictures I'd taken over the last few years started to pop up. Like the one of his sister, Jessica, posing bunny ears over his head at Thanksgiving. The photo of Joel, Cass and Orion at the pumpkin patch (my favorite)... or the one at the Capital Lake in Olympia last summer. Joel was always so good about putting up with me and my ever present camera. I told him it was so I could supply pictures to his family in Alaska (which was true)... but mostly, my selfish nature was the real reason. I couldn't/can't get enough pictures of those I love.
I had to take Orion outside again near the end of the service. We went and found a few toys in the waiting room and then again, played in the sunshine. Orion and I had the privledge of viewing Joel's escort from the church - something the other guests didn't see. The bagpipers led the way, and then Joel was brought down the stairs and to the waiting car. I stood there, Orion clutched to my heart as we watched him pass. It is a moment I will never forget.
After the service, Orion played in the sunshine and grass some more. Soldiers and their companions, non-military friends and family from far and wide stopped by to introduce themselves and say hello to Joel's legacy. Orion looks so much like his father - I think it may have supplied at least a little comfort to those who saw him, that Joel is still with us.
Joel remains in our hearts and in our memories. Joel lives on, in the guise of his son, Orion. Joel may not be "with" us anymore, but he will never leave us.
We love you Joel.
"A part of us remains wherever we have been" - Chinese Proverb