Friday, August 26, 2011

The Harsh Reality of Saying Goodbye

There is a small voice in the back of my mind that is absolutely screaming,

“No! Don’t do it! Please, don’t make me remember!”

There is a desperate clawing inside my heart, telling me to turn back now before I am forced to feel the pain and agony once more, but Ian's story needs to get out!  My fingers plunge forward into the story with my heart attached, as I continue to tell about the week my world was shattered and the day my heart was buried six feet under the earth.

On the day of the funeral, I knew it would be difficult when I woke up in Ian's bed and immediately started to cry. I pulled the sheets back over my head and curled up in a small ball, trying to hide from the pain. Perhaps, I could sleep through the funeral. Perhaps, I could skip out on the horrors of that day.  No, Ian cannot be gone.  I was grasping desperately for my fake reality as I felt it slipping away.  Please, dear God, no! I held onto myself tighter, afraid that, if I let go, I would lose myself completely.

After a few more tears, curiosity, and a deeply buried need, were what drove me to get out of bed. I was curious to see how the day would go.  I needed the chance to say goodbye. Getting ready for the funeral took longer than it would have taken me on a normal day. I had to reapply my make up about four times before I was finally able to stop crying long enough to allow the mascara to stick. At times, I would put down my make up, place my hands on the bathroom counter and just look at myself in the mirror. As I did, I would watch my image blur and my face become contorted as a new wave of strength-depleting grief swept over me and the counter became all that kept me standing.

Dressed in black, makeup applied, and a new black summer hat placed gently on my head, I took a deep breath and walked downstairs to face the day.  The doorbell rang its earily happy chime and, at the door, stood our CACO dressed in his blues and ready to go. I felt myself fill with fear as I continued to feel reality breaking through my defenses.

It was time

The extended family drove in separate cars while Mom, Mark, and I all joined our CACO in his black SUV. I sat in front so that my mom could be next to Mark in back and use him as support. We drove the block to the funeral home where the two lines of three Marines were already carrying the casket, still flag-draped, to the hearse.  As they shut the door, I prayed with all the pieces of my aching heart for some small sliver of comfort. It was then that I noticed Daniel Botty climbing in the front seat of the hearse. Daniel Botty would be the one guarding Ian in the hearse on the way to the church.  He looked at me with those kind eyes, once again, and I knew Ian was safe; this brought me great comfort.

With our police escort, we drove the 40 minutes to the church. I took advantage of the long ride to gather myself. I felt weak and tired, as if I had just ran a marathon. None of my muscles wanted to move and my mind did not want to think. I sat in the silent prison of my empty thoughts as I waited for my burial.

We arrived at the front of the church to find it lined with the proud members of the Patriot Guard just as they had lined the funeral home. The sun was shining brightly and the air was thick with humidity, yet they still stood tall and strong without a single complaint about the heat. A single thought crossed my mind.

Ian would have been so proud.

Once again, two rows of three Marines gathered at the back of the hearse. With sharp movements, they lifted the casket and carried it up the steps to the church. I wiped a tear away before the rest of me would notice that I was hurting - that I had a reason to hurt, but, inside, I knew I would not be able to keep lying to myself for much longer. Soon, I would have to accept the truth.

The reverend stood at the doors of the church and a white cloth was placed over the flag on top of the casket. The reverend then had the entire immediate family gather around Ian as he said a prayer of blessing and strength. I felt something inside me crack. It did not break, but it cracked and I spent the entirety of the prayer in tears.

After the prayer, I sat in the pews and prepared for what I would say at the reception by 'translating' a bit that Ian had written and I had found in his journal. I say translating because, as anyone who has ever received a letter from Ian can tell you, it is worse than a doctor's handwriting. I even had to ask my cousins to help me decipher a few of the words.  Eventually we were able to put his words in my own, readable, handwriting and the service was ready to begin.

To be honest, I don't remember much of the funeral service. I remember the church was packed full of people to the point of being standing room only. I remember how good it felt to hug Father Jerry, the reverend Ian and I grew up with, for the first time in years. I remember his sermon... how he talked about how God is our parent and how, like most parents, when His children cry out to him for something He is moved. He painted a picture of Ian crying 'Abba, Father' as Christ did - which is the same as saying 'Please, Daddy.' As Ian might have cried, 'please, Daddy, take away these nightmares! Please, take away this pain! Please, Daddy, please." The image of Ian crying this out pains me so much. Whether Ian shot himself because of a PTSD nightmare or because of suicide, it still kills me to think about how much pain my brother must have been in.

The service ended and we recessed out. Sarah Meissner's family was kind enough to have over 300 bottles of water waiting for everyone to take with them to the burial. The water was greatly appreciated by the Marines, especially, who all stood tall and proud in their Dress Blues, but you could tell they were dying of heat. We spoke, briefly, with people outside before hopping back in the black SUV and following the police on the long drive to Fort Snelling Cemetery.

I no longer get angry at traffic. You never know what the cause of the traffic really is and, if you assume it is always for a funeral, you might find that traffic no longer frustrates you either. Our procession line was a mile long traffic-stopper. I still remember looking behind us and being in complete awe at how many cars there were. Even on the longest straight-away I could not see the end of it and our poor police escort was playing leap frog the entire time, as he blocked traffic from crossing into our line. With blinkers on and police lights flashing we were Ian's last and quietest caravan. No IED's would bother our Marine on this journey.

Forcing myself to move onward to the next part in the story is almost impossible... for it is here that my veil was taken away and my defenses were shattered.  It was here, and the days to follow that, to me, my brother actually was dead.  It was here, that I buried my heart.

We pulled up to the gazebo where Ian's casket was unloaded and placed, the flag still proudly draped over its smooth surface.  My feet felt heavier and heavier with each step I took towards the shaded bench.  My mom tried to make me sit on the bench next to her, but I gave my spot to Mark and remained standing.  I could not force myself to sit down.  All I could do was stand there numbly as the funeral party began to gather around us.  Something did not feel right.  Something was wrong.  Something hurt.  Where was Ian?  A prayer was said, and "Taps" floated over the crowd from a lone bugle.  Beautiful, clear, and sad with each note held to perfection - the song melted away any defenses I had left to shield me from the truth.

With the sound of gunfire, my world was shattered.

The shots rang out loudly as they echoed through the cemetery; each one breaking my heart more and more.  I bent over as grief took me over and sobs rattled my chest.  I felt arms wrap around me and hold me and I felt the cold sting of another's tears on my neck as we stood there and cried together.  Kati Moore, my dear sister in Christ and my best friend for over 19 years, cried with me as we had done so many times before over skinned knees when we were little.  This time, however, it was more than just skinned knees: it was hearts shattered into a thousand pieces.

We watched, with tear stung eyes, as the flag that had been draped over Ian's casket this entire journey was carefully folded and placed into the arms of my mother.  She clutched the flag close to her heart as if it were her baby boy and he once more needed his mommy to comfort him.  Then, the Marines unfolded a second flag, ceremoniously draped it over the coffin, then folded it and presented it to my dad.  Bless my dad's  heart, he stood there, tall and strong- a proud veteran, with tears in his eyes as he gently took the flag and brought it close to his heart.

Somehow, I managed to pull myself together and I gave Kati one last hug.  The funeral party was asked to proceed to the reception area while the immediate family witnessed the burial.  My dad excused himself for this part and he and Candace went away with everyone else to the officer's club.  I gave some quick hugs and then we headed towards the grave site.

We waited in the car while the copper casket was loaded into a big stone box by a giant crane and brought over to where we were.  I had asked my mom if I'd be able to touch the casket one last time before it was put in the ground.  She had said I would be able to, but I never was as the crane immediately positioned itself over the hole in the ground.  This was the first of many events that finally destroyed me.

Slowly, carefully, hesitantly, I got out of the car and began to walk towards the hole.  The giant stone crate containing my brother hovered in the air over the grave - waiting to be placed in the ground.  One step, two steps, I somehow managed to find myself standing at the edge of the hole's end.  I watched with horror as the giant stone crate was lowered into the ground and came to a stop six feet down.  There, on the top of the stone read my worst fear:

Sgt Ian Williams McConnell

We were burying my brother.  Ian was being placed in the ground.  He was going to be covered in dirt and I would never be able to see him again.  I would never be able to catch a hint of his scent even among the stench of decay.  I would never again to be able to be in his presence.  I would never again be able to see his face nor come to him for advice.  He would never again comfort me as I cried or tell me when I was being stupid.  I would never hear his voice again.  I couldn't do it - I couldn't bury my brother.  Who in their right mind would want to?  How the hell was I going to get through this?  I wanted so badly to jump in that hole and wrap my arms around the cold stone and just lay there forever.   I did not care if they buried me alive - I wanted to be with Ian.

I could feel my knees get weak as I burst into tears.  No longer able to hold myself up I allowed my cousins to do it for me, one on either side.  I cried harder than I have ever cried in my life as my head screamed, "no, please! please don't bury my brother!."  I watched as various family members ceremoniously threw dirt on top of him and it only made matters worse.  They were throwing dirt on top of Ian - they were burying him!  Any hope of him coming back to life was being thrown in with the dirt.  I was asked if I wanted to throw dirt in as well.  This, I flat out refused to do.  I was not going to partake in burying my brother.

We began to walk back to the car, my cousins still holding me up as I cried.  My entire world felt cold and black.  I felt sick to my stomach.  The funeral director called out to us asking if we wanted to take some of the roses from the flower donations home with us.  I looked at the roses then at her - sorrow still in complete control of my heart.

"Can I give one to Ian?"  I asked, meekly.

I was not about to bury my brother, but if I could give him some life - that seemed okay.  I took a single red rose from the director and slowly walked back to the grave; this time carrying my own weight.  I kissed the rose and tossed it in on top of the stone.  It landed perfectly below his name - a bit of life surrounded by death. It is a mental picture that still warms my heart to this day.

I love you Ian

With those last words, I turned around and walked towards my cousins and, once again, allowed them to support me back to the car.  I climbed into the front seat and looked back at the grave as I pressed my face up against the window.  To my horror, I watched as the groundsman signaled for the dump truck full of dirt to back up towards my brother.

"Mommy, please, make them stop." was all I could say before horror completely took me over.  "They are going to bury my brother in front of me!" I cried out, eyes wide.

I could hear my mom crying out, "No!!! Lord!  What are they doing!?" over and over again.  Our CACO heard us and rushed over to the groundsman who made the dump truck stop just before it was about to empty it's load and bury my brother in front of my eyes.

The damage, however, was already done.  Like someone who had just had not only their heart, but also their mind and all their senses completely ripped from their body I covered my ears with my hands and buried my face in my knees as I rocked back and forth and cried.  Stuck in my head, was the image of the truck full of dirt backing up towards where my brother lay.  It is an image that still haunts me today.  I continuously have nightmares of dump trucks preparing to bury both me and Ian as we cry out for them to stop.  Ian pushes me out of the grave and the last thing I see are his marble-colored eyes, the same unique color as mine, looking sadly at me before he is crushed by pounds and pounds of dirt - his cries filling my ears.  Then, I wake up... and the nightmare is still real.  Ian was not buried alive, but he is still gone.

I rode with my head between my knees, crying with all my might, the entire way to the reception.  I had to sit and breathe in the car before walking inside and, even then, once I got inside and Sarah and Brandon each gave me a hug I burst out crying again.  I hid in the bathroom for a good amount of time before finally joining the reception.

The stories from the reception and the bar that evening are for another entry all together.  I'll use that entry to share some of my favorite memories of Ian and I'll go more into depth of just how amazing a person he was and just how many lives he was able to touch in the short amount of time he lived.  I will also go into the emotional and faith struggle that followed the funeral service.  The nightmares, the late nights crying, the mental break downs.  I felt like an empty shell for so long.

It's over... the hardest part to write, is over.

I hope I was able to get across the weight of these events so that you, dear reader, can understand them.  I still have nightmares, I still feel empty and cold, and I still miss my brother.  Most of these things, I fear, will never change - I will simply get used to them.  In the mean time, I cling to God with all that I have left and pray that He might restore to me a new heart as I have lost the one He gave me at birth.

My heart lays buried six feet deep with the Marine who I call 'home.'


James said...

A beautifully written post. It is a shame that you and your family, along with too many more, have had to feel what you have described so well.

Megan said...

So beautiful, so touching, and so heartbreaking. You did, indeed, convey the depth and weight of what you must be experience. Your family and Ian are in my prayers. My husband lost his twin brother to suicide 5 years ago, and the strength and courage your family is showing by telling his story and yours touches more hearts than I think you can imagine. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. And one day, maybe not today, or tomorrow, there will be hope, and the nightmares will start to fade, I promise (we had those, too). In their stead will be the precious memories and love you have for your brother, untarnished.