Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Last Flight Home

The days following July 7th were strangely normal for me. I was able to pretend that my brother was not dead – that it was all just a bad nightmare. I only had difficulty when my dad and Candace visited, as it was a moment where I almost had to admit that Ian was gone. Whenever I was hanging out with Scott, or out with friends from church, I was able to just ignore the fact that Ian was gone. It was so easy! Even when I received Ian’s dog tags from Gus and Roxanne I was able to convince myself that they were a gift from an Ian that was alive. – that he had asked them to give me the dog tags while he was gone because I had pestered him to give me a set – that he would be taking them back as soon as he arrived home.
When Dad and Candace visited, it was as if everything in me was revolted by the sight of them. Not because I had anything against them, but because I did not want to admit anything to myself and seeing them seemed to force me to do just that. However, I went with Amber to see them, oh, how I clung to her!

Dinner went smoothly and talk was easy, but we went funeral dress shopping after dinner and that was where things became difficult. The idea of shopping for a black dress for my BROTHER’s funeral seemed preposterous. Why was I shopping for a dress for my brother’s funeral? He wasn’t dead! This was silly! I wandered around, completely lost in my thoughts, hating absolutely every dress I saw – no matter how cute it actually was.

Any details dealing with Ian’s funeral, or me coming home I did not want to deal with. When my Mom and Mark had me calling Delta trying to figure out flight details my head was spinning. I was too tired to deal with this crap and there was a whole mix up with buying a ticket vs. getting one from Dad. I was supposed to be flying home the next day and I did NOT want to deal with this! The entire thing sent me into my deep hole of depression instantly. Luckily, I was hanging out with Scott that day so, once I got off the phone everything, was okay again. I was able to set it all aside, eat an awesome chicken dinner, and go back to my veiled reality.

Then it happened… the first day that my veil was taken away from me:

The general experience for the trip home was fine and, had it not been for the circumstances, I would have to say it was one of my most comfortable flights. We were allowed to board the plane before everyone else, Gus and Roxanne were bumped up to first class, and the entire crew took really good care of all of us. After we boarded the plane Candace, Roxanne and I waited on the plane, peering through whatever windows we could find, while my Dad and Gus went planeside. I looked at the baggage cart and saw what seemed to be a giant refrigerator box. (The kind your fridge is literally delivered in) I was clinging to my veiled reality with all I had as I watched, through tear-blurred eyes, while all those who were planeside saluted this strange box before it disappeared into the storage area. My eyes shifted to my Dad-  He stood there strong and proud holding his salute even as his eyes overflowed with tears and sobs shook his entire body. Why was my dad crying? This was a new experience to me; I had never seen my dad cry before. It was just a strange box! Why did my stomach feel sick? Why did it hurt so much to watch this box be loaded onto the plane?


I broke down as the real reality managed to squeeze through a crack in my veil. It was a jabbing pain that shot straight through my heart leaving a searing hole where it had birthed. I cried, pressing up as close to the window as I could get – desperate to get closer to Ian – desperate to feel his warmth once again, but knowing, deep down, that the warmth was not there. Even if there was not a plane wall and a box separating us, I was able to tell that much. I allowed myself to feel the pain for just a few moments before I carefully closed up the crack in my veil and retreated back from this nightmare to the reality I had created in my mind: the false one.

I spent the plane ride in silence; curled up in a tight ball under a blanket and trying desperately to sleep, but to no avail. My heart ached as I watched my dad writing in his journal. He would break down for but a single moment before gathering himself back together and returning to his strong emotionless facade. The entire situation seemed entirely surreal to me. Reality seemed more like a nightmare than actual reality and the dream world I was trying to exist in felt more like it should be real.

Before the flight, the pilot had asked my dad if there was anything at all that he could do. My dad’s reply: “Set him down gently.” This wish was granted by what my dad says is one of the smoothest landings he has ever experienced in his many years of flying. As we taxied the long distance to our gate I saw flashing lights of a police car and immediately recognized it as the escort bringing Mom and Mark to meet us. The plane came to a stop and the pilot’s voice came over the intercom giving the usual speech about how luggage may have shifted during flight etc., but the ending to this speech was not the usual script.

“We ask that you all, please, remain seated as the family of one of our fallen heroes exits the plane to escort their Marine home.”

Even now, I cannot believe all these events actually occurred to me. Even now, I cannot believe Ian is gone. Even now, I feel as if I am recalling some other person’s story. Even now, it hurts me to tears to remember.

We had to have been quite a sight as we walked to the front of the plane. My dad, a warm bear, silent and strong in his pilot’s uniform; Gus, a solid rock with well-earned pride in his dress blues; then there was me – a small child, meek and defeated, desperately clutching at the dog tags around my neck; all walking with sorrow-weighed shoulders. The passengers applauded as we reached the front of the plane – a thank you for the sacrifice we had made.

Did they know the conditions of my brother’s death? Would they still applaud if they knew? 

I went down the steps and ran into the arms of my mother, holding her as she cried. I was awed by her strength as she quickly composed herself then took my hand and walked with me back towards the plane. Hand in hand we stood on one side of the ramp leading up to the baggage holding area, while my dad, Gus, and a few other men stood on the other side.

Two lines of six Marines marched up to the plane as the flag covered casket appeared in the doorway and began to move down the ramp. My dad and the men on his side of the ramp gave a slow salute and tears once again filled my father’s eyes.  As the line of Marines took hold of the casket it was clear that they carried a burden heavier than the casket and it's contents as they carefully carried Ian over to the waiting hearse. My mom and dad embraced and cried. For a moment the ugly divorce that had shattered their ties years before was outweighed by the common sorrow of losing a son. After they released their embrace, my mom and I walked over to the hearse and gingerly touched Ian’s casket before the Marines closed the door and we were instructed to join our CACO in the SUV that would drive us to the funeral home.

** I would like to make one side note. This entire process was not completely miserable for poor Ian. Apparently he and Gus had quite a ride in the hearse from the funeral home in San Diego to the airport – going about 100 mph down the freeway. We all laughed at the mental image of Ian laughing his ass off and chanting for the driver to go faster! Ah, what a glorious ride it must have been for him!

The ride to the funeral home took the same 30 minutes as it has always taken for Ian and me to drive to from the airport since we were little. (Wulff funeral home is literally JUST up the street from the house we grew up in.) The smell of decay was almost overwhelming as Ian’s casket was unloaded from the hearse and placed in a small room in the center of the funeral home. It had been 2 days before Ian’s body had been found and his body had remained in the coroner’s office for 5 days before it was finally brought to a funeral home to be embalmed. (Ian always was a stinker…) The smell was imminent, but you stopped noticing it after a period of being in it, or, perhaps, that was just me, as I did not so much get used to it as I started to welcome it. It sounds weird, but having some sort of smell coming from that box reminded me that Ian was in there. There was a strange hint of Ian behind the smell of decay and I welcomed it with everything in me. I’m sure it sounds grotesque, but I would have given anything for even the smallest hint of the brother I love.

My mom and I waited in the next room as Gus, being Ian’s escort, made certain Ian’s uniform had everything it needed and was presentable. This concept seemed a little weird to me as it would be a closed casket funeral, but I most certainly do honor the Marines and their traditions and it gave me a sense of relief knowing that Ian was being taken care of.

I wanted so badly to see Ian – to see his body. Apparently half of his head was missing, but I did not care – I wanted to see proof, but no one would let me. I suppose that is for the better, but all the same… I wanted to kiss my brother’s cheek one last time – look at his face and tell him that I love him. I wanted to hug him, have him hold me, have him tell me everything was going to be okay – that I have grown up so much, that he is proud of me… but the corpse in that box would not help rid me of any of those desires and so, the way my brother looked in death remains a bittersweet mystery to me.

Once Gus had made sure all was well, we left the funeral home and drove down the street to my mom’s house; leaving behind one of four Marines that would be taking turns guarding my brother’s body until the funeral.

Walking into my mom’s house was the next big step I had to take and, luckily, I had my ever-cheerful little shitzhu, Zoe, and my wonderful step-niece to greet me. Their innocent presence helped clear the air a little and delayed my eventual collapse on my brother’s bed, but not for long. Once Heather and Marley (step sister in law and step niece) left, I wandered up to Ian’s room. Every time my brother would deploy I would wander into his room, look at all the pictures, cuddle with his stuffed animal ‘puppy’ and cry. I had gone through these motions numerous times before, but this time it was different. I felt the same cold emptiness as I always had when he was gone, except now I was missing the one thing that pulled me through each and every time that my brother had left:

Hope that he would return…

When I was finally able to make my empty shell move I wandered downstairs to complete chaos. My Aunt Sue, Mom, and Mark were having one hell of a time with the funeral home and making a whole bunch of decisions that I did not want to be included in. I quickly became sick of hearing all the discussion and excused myself to wander back up the street to the funeral home; bible clutched close to my heart once again.

As instructed earlier in the day, I knocked on the back door of the funeral home. My knock was answered by the kind-eyed Marine on guard.

“Is it okay if I hang out with my brother for a little bit?” I asked, timidly, feeling rather small.

The Marine smiled a comforting smile at me and led me to the dimly lit casket before leaving me alone with Ian. I stood there, dumbly, for a while, unsure of what to do before I finally decided to take a seat on the couch in front of Ian. The entire room was dim except for two soft spotlights shinning right on the flag-draped casket. It was tragically beautiful as I took in the scent of decay, once again, with a sorrow-filled heart. I felt a strange comfort, sitting there in complete silence in that dark room. It was me and Ian hanging out like we always did. I read the bible to him (I wish I remember what book…) then told him how much he hurt me and how much I loved him. I kept asking him what the hell he expected me to do now – I’d always told him that home was where he was – what was I supposed to do now? Not hearing an answer, I felt grief take over my entire being and I finally allowed myself to break down.

I cried for what felt like forever before I finally stood up and walked over to the casket. I wrapped my arms as much as I could over the top and side of the large casket – hugging it close to myself and placing my cheek against the proud colors of the flag. I stayed just like that for a while – giving my brother one last hug, not wanting to let go – afraid that when I did let go I’d never be able to hug him again – yet also knowing that I’d given my brother a final hug six weeks previous – the last time I saw him alive. I wish, more than anything, that I could have given him one more hug or seen him more recently than six weeks. It wasn’t fair!  I wanted so badly to fall sleep, standing, just like that by my brother's side. My tears dropped onto the flag and, as I finally let go, I knew I needed a distraction before I completely lost myself. I looked at the Marine in the room next door and found myself automatically moving in that direction.

“Are you allowed to talk, or do you have to be a silent guard?” I asked him quietly.

The kindly Marine smiled that warm smile at me, once again, and replied simply, “I can do whatever you need me to do.”

I sat in that waiting room with Ssgt. Daniel Botty for about an hour – asking him hundred of questions. I asked about his family, where he was from, how he met his wife, how many of these funerals he does on average – anything and everything I could focus on to distract me from the cliff I had almost fallen off of in the previous room. Daniel offered up any information openly and was such a blessing to me.

By the time I left that night, I’d made a new friend and I felt a little bit better. Little did I know, that Daniel would be not only Ian’s, but my guardian angel as well throughout the next few days; He always happened to be the Marine on guard when I visited Ian, or when I needed some strength as we took some new step in the funeral process. I don’t think I could have made it without his comforting looks – they gave me so much strength. To this day, I still wish there were some way I could thank him. I even sent his wife a message, thanking her for lending me her angel to guard my brother for a little while. I took so much comfort knowing that Ian was guarded by this purple-hearted angel.

Telling this much of the story has worn me out both emotionally and physically and I’m sorry if the story seems jumbled at all…I’m afraid I did not do a very good job of telling it and the most difficult parts of the story are next…I will have to wait and write those when I have more strength again…

McConnell Out.

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him.”


John Watts said...

Dear Margaret, I read your blog today nearly a year after you wrote it. Thank you for putting so much of your brother and yourself into this. I am retired from active duty and now ride with the Patriot Guard protecting military funerals. You graciously reminded me why I continue to attend so many funerals. We are there to honor the fallen and the family. I hope the warmth of the Lord's embrace has brought you comfort in this past year. Remember Ian with fondness and love. I know that's what he'd want. Sincerely, John Watts