Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saying Good-bye

Yesterday, I attended my son-in-law's memorial service.  It was in the Main Chapel at Fort Lewis - interesting, in and of itself, by it's diverse architectural features and decorative embellishments.  It's been a long time since I set foot in a church, so I found myself looking around and drinking it all in.

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


  1. Beautiful...thank you Doni.

  2. I so wish I could have been there in person, a friend of Joel's Alaska family, a fellow military wife, someone who first met Joel when he was nine or ten years old... someone who so enjoyed watching him grow up, fall madly in love with your daughter, and so head over heels for their son. I've enjoyed touching base and peeking in on Joel's, Cassie's, and Orion's life via, as it turns out, your photographs that Karen has shared.

    My sympathy Doni, and my thanks.


  3. I never had the pleasure of meeting Joel or your daughter Cassandra, but my husband served with Joel at 2/75. I know there are no words that truly bring comfort at times like these, only time and tears will help ease the pain Joel's tragic passing brought upon all of the people that knew and loved him. But my heart goes out to you and your family, and I would just like to extend my deepest condolences to all of you. I have no doubt that Cassandra is surrounded by so many people who are there to love and support her through this extremely difficult time, but if there is anything, anything at all, that I could do please let me know.
    “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.” -Abraham Lincoln ♥ Rangers Lead The Way ♥
    With deepest sympathy,
    Tia Shankey

  4. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/01/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  5. gulp.
    I am so sorry for the loss of your son-in-law. Thank you so much for sharing his story, and the legacy of your grandson with us.

  6. From one mother to another....What a beautiful tribute to your son-in-law. May you and your daughter find comfort in the arms of Joel's mini-me, Orion. Thank you for sharing and thank you for your son-in-law's ultimate sacrifice. Your grandson will know his father through your touching words and beautiful photographs.

  7. I am an Army mother-in-law from the East Coast who came across your blog through the Soldier's Angels site. I just want to let you know that your family is in our prayers. I remember the year our son-in-law was in Iraq, and the times when our daughter wouldn't hear from him for weeks at a time ... praying that car wouldn't drive up our driveway ...
    Your son-in-law is a hero. And so are your daughter and grandson. Soldiers are trained for their missions and all that entails. But wives do not have this training. And families do not have this training. I pray that the God of all comfort will comfort your family as only He can. Although we are strangers, you and I share a common bond as military moms. I'm following your blog, and will be praying for your family.

  8. I was lead to your site today and wanted to leave my posting as well. I once stood in the ranks during desert storm (as a female sergeant), I to send my regards along with more strengths for you to face the days ahead. Realizing that the day Mom stepped into church again was a chance for God to put his arms around both you, your family and your son-in-law. God Speed

  9. Donie, So sorry to hear of your famiy's loss, my heart is with you and yours, been a long time sance I have seen you.
    Aunt Barbara.
    ( your grandmother Bettie Ruzicka's Sister