Sunday, December 25, 2011

A New Kind of Christmas

The First Christmas Alone
Getting through the holidays without him
There’s a Marine, freshly graduated from bootcamp, behind me as I fly home for Christmas this year.  He sleeps so deeply that even the turbulence and the crying children all around don’t disturb him in the least bit.  He’s gone through so much and been so sleep deprived over the past three months, it must feel so good for him to finally be able to rest his eyes for real.  There is no way he can even imagine what things will be like from here on...
I remember flying home with Ian after he graduated from bootcamp...He was one of the few Marines from his class that refused to wear his uniform on the plane.  He claimed he was sick of it and was embarrassed any time my mom gushed on about how proud she was and how her son was now a Marine.  On the plane, I sat in the middle, my mom was in the window and my brother was in the aisle.  Like the Marine currently behind me, my brother quickly fell into a deep well-earned sleep.  I took a picture of him sleeping on the plane.  At the time, I took it because he was pretty much sleeping with his mouth wide open or his chin so deeply nestled in his chest that he looked ridiculous.  Now, that picture is such a cherished memory.  I can still remember how it felt to slip my arm around my brother’s (even though he tried to tighten up so I couldn’t slip it in there... he gave up eventually!) then rested my head against his shoulder and fell asleep myself.  I can still remember the feel of that fabric against my face.  My brother’s scent filling up my senses for the first time in three months. 
I now find myself thinking of other encounters with Ian.  I remember the day he graduated bootcamp.  I was snapping pictures left and right as they marched around.  I fell in love with California on that day with the bright sunshine and gorgeous weather.  However, it wasn’t the sunshine and the weather that really made me fall in love, it was the fact that I was there with my brother.  
The graduation seemed to take forever.  Ian’s squad first ran up in their short pt shorts and I couldn’t help but laugh.  My mom and I noticed Ian sneak a look our way and smile.  I remember that exact look and that exact boyish crack of a smile perfectly.  I was freaking out the entire run and throughout the entire graduation as they marched in perfect unison in front of us.  I cheered so loudly as my brother received his Eagle Globe and Anchor and when it was finally time for us to greet our Marines I SPRINTED down from the stands, ahead of my family and ran straight into Ian’s arms.  He’d remained dry-eyed until the moment we connected.  As I jumped into his arms and he hugged tightly I could feel his tears on my shoulders.  He hugged me so tightly and kept whispering over and over in my ear.  “I love you, sis.  I’ve missed you.  I love you, I’ve missed you... I love you.... I’ve missed you.”  Mom had to pry us apart in order to get her hug, but I can still feel my brothers tears when I close my eyes and feel his arms around me tight.  My brother was coming home with us... he was coming home.  (On a side note:  The next morning at home I woke up to him watching elmo’s world downstairs... that’s my brother!)
It’s difficult how, out of the many flights we’d flown together through our lives, I only remember two of them vividly.  His flight home from bootcamp, and his final flight. 
 It’s been so difficult these past few months as my life has been taking major turns and I don’t have my brother to tell about it all.  I want so badly to tell him about how I am now an EMT... I want to hear him say that he’s proud of me that he loves me... People keep saying that he is telling me that in my heart and that he knows, but it isn’t the same...  
Now, I’m flying over Colorado on my way home to Minnesota for the first time since the funeral.  It’s Christmas in two days and yet I refuse to believe that it’s the Holiday season.  There’s been no arguing over whose year it is to put the star on Christmas day on our ornament calendar nor arguments over which ornaments get to be hung by which one of us on the tree.  (Granted, the last time we had these arguments, they were purely for the fun of it and we were each trying to force the other to do all the work)  There will be no phone calls, no Christmas care packages, no presents for Ian this year.  It really is amazing how the greatest present every Christmas that he was deployed, the one we got the most excited over, was a phone call and the chance to hear his voice... to hear him say that he loves us.  There will be no snow balls thrown at my face every time we went outside, no being pushed in the snow bank, no cranking the heat in the Ranger together as we slip and slide around on our way to go see the family.  I miss the feeling I got simply from sitting in that truck next to him...I was home.  
People keep telling me that they don’t know who I am anymore.  That I seem to have lost myself... that I need to let go.  The thing is, I’m not holding on to anything that I’m ever going to let go of.  I will forever hold on to my brother because he will forever be a part of me.  As for me being lost... I am lost.  Not only am I lost, I’m homeless.  When I was with my brother is the only time I have ever felt at home.  Even the homeless have a home somewhere.  Your home is wherever you feel most relaxed, most like yourself... it is where you can open your heart and just trust.  Ian was my home... so with that description... yeah... I have lost myself.  I felt it shatter and fall away the day I opened that door. 
There’s no place like home for the Holidays.  I’m glad I’m flying back to MN this week.  I plan on spending the vast majority of the 25th with my home.  Freezing my butt off with him once more at the Fort Snelling Cemetery.  It will be nice to be close to my brother again... to wish him a Merry Christmas and tell him that I love him.
It’s a tear-drenched Christmas this year and as we move forward into the 2012 year, I brace myself for my first year without him... 2011 was difficult, but at least I had my brother for half of it.  2012, however, I’m on my own.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Saddest Happiness

Hours and hours of studying and stress.  Days and days of exhaustion and no social life.  Finally, the day has come where I have to take my EMT-B written exam.  My stomach was completely knotted and my hands were shaking as I approached the computer and carefully chose each answer.  One-Hundred and Fifty questions later, I've passed.  I'm able to relax and be happy with my classmates and practice our practical skills with ease now that the worst part is over.  I'm able to be happy and relieved that I passed.  Then class ends... I get in my car... and reality sets in once more.

I want to tell Ian...

I want more than anything in the world to call him right now and tell him that I passed my exam.  That I'm finally finishing the training he proudly watched me start a year ago.  That I'm finally moving forward with my life and really making something of myself.  I want to call him and tell him more than anyone in the world.  My heart is once again torn in half.  I don't want to move forward with life... not if Ian isn't here to tell me he's proud of me... It's as if so many of life's joys have been robbed out from under me because I don't have my best friend to share them with.  I want to tell Ian I passed my test... reality has hit me so hard once more.  It just doesn't make sense... this isn't how it's supposed to be... I am left, on one of the happiest and proudest days in my life, a broken down and crying mess on my floor... I just want my bruh bruh...

Friday, November 4, 2011

Four Months

Four Months....

I cannot believe how quickly the time has gone by and yet how fresh the pain still feels.  As I trudge through this rainy day, I find myself feeling oddly nostalgic for the funeral home room where Ian's casket had resided for the visitation. I wish I could go back to that dimly lit room, the smell of his decay floating in the air, complete silence all around me, and just sit with him and cry on the couch once again.  I wish I could feel the comfort of knowing that there was a Marine in the next room - a random stranger - that was watching over my brother and myself.  I wish I could feel Ian's physical presence right there with me again.  Even in death, his body still warmed the room.  On the day my brother's body was placed in the ground, I completely cracked.  That warmth, that feeling of him still being near me was lost in the ground.  It was in that moment that the full reality hit me.

He's left me here, alone.

I wish I could have stayed in the dark with him forever...

Instead, the light shines on me and I'm forced to keep stepping forward into reality.

One step at a time, 
I get through each day.  
One tear at a time, 
I cry myself to sleep each night.  
All I want is Ian. 
All I want is my big brother.

It's strange to me, that I keep wanting to be in that dimly lit room.  Although I do wish that I could have Ian back, this isn't even why I wish to be back in that room.  However, what I do want is for that feeling of warmth and comfort in my sorrow.  I want to feel that raw pain again.  I want to be in the same room as him again.  There was something almost warm about when I first found out he was gone.  I am not sure if it was the hope that he could possibly still be alive, or if it was all the support  we had from loved ones, or if it was simply the nice calming break from life - but it was warm despite the cold sorrow.  Now, I feel only icy cold jabbing into my heart.  It is a feeling of deep despair and exhaustion while feeling numb through and through.  I just want to break off from the rest of the world and sit with my brother.  I'd give anything to curl up with a sleeping bag by his grave and fall asleep right there for days on end. I just want to be near my brother once more.

Time and time again I reach for my phone to call and tell Ian about something going on in my life, or ask him if he wants to come over for Thanksgiving, or see if he plans on seeing the new Batman movie, or if he's heard about a new video game coming out.  Time and time again I'm left drowning in the sorrow of realization as I place my phone back into my pocket.

I have so much love and support around me and yet none of it feels like enough.  No one is my brother and no one could ever be my brother.  I'm so grateful for all that everyone has been trying to do, but it isn't the same.  I'm able to forget for a few hours while I hang out with friends or go dancing at In Cahoots, but, at the end of the day, I'm still left to deal with the pain.  No one understands it - no one can fully comprehend my pain.  All I want to do is curl up on that couch again, smell my brother's scent (decay or not... it was still Ian...) and sleep.

I miss you, Ian.  I miss you more than you or anyone else could possibly know.  We had a friendship closer than any I have ever seen.  Thank you for always being open with me and sharing the details of your life.  I love you so much.  You are my one and only forever.  Just like you can't be you without me, I cannot be me without you.  Instead I'm lost in this lump of sorrow.  I try to move forward, I try to let other people help pull me out, but, at the end of the day, I'm just stuck here without you.  I need my angel to come save me...

I love you always, best friend.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Moving Forward


That is the only word I can think of to describe how I have felt since the day my brother died.  I wish that God would literally move my body like a puppett so I don't have to think to move it myself.  Work, school, finances - even social life - I just want to quit it all and lay on the beach and cry.  I'm so exhausted and stressed.  Dealing with life and all of its crap, even the good things, is almost too much for me right now.

I sit at work - I do everything I can to smile and be extra awesome and friendly to patients as they come in and on the phone, but I feel myself just draining away and wanting to be anywhere else but here.

School - I study for hours on end - I do everything I can to retain all the information.  Being a good EMT and eventually an excellent Paramedic means everything to me.  However, no matter how hard I study, it is like nothing sticks any more.  My brain is fried.  I know all this information already and yet, when it comes time to take the tests online, I just cannot do it.

Social Life - I love spending time with my friends and I love being around them, but there are so many things I just do not want to deal with.  Regular friendships are awesome, but the idea of a relationship just completely overwhelms me.  It's almost like I don't ever want to be in a relationship ever again and yet I want to feel loved and be held...all the things that come with a relationship without the emotional side of it from me.  I want to take care of them, make them food etc, but emotionally... it's like I'm completely shut off.  I just cannot care.

I want so badly to be a completely caring person like I used to be.  I want to be like Ian, but no matter how hard I try it's like I just plain cannot care anymore.  I keep plugging forward, keep doing everything I need to do, but the motivation just isn't there.  It's like Ian took everything that made me... ME... with him.

I suppose it makes sense.  When Ian died my home went with him.  Ian was who raised me and he is everything that makes up who I am.  Now, I just don't know where to go.  I lost my idol, my life, my everything... and I no longer know how to be Meg, because Meg and Ian were the same person with only slight modification.  It's not that I've never been me all these years, it's that me was Ian.  (if that makes any sense...) 

I keep dreading the weirdest things.  The idea of getting married and not knowing who is going to walk me down the aisle.  After my dad and my relationship became slightly rocky, I always knew it would be Ian, but now who?  I dread my next birthday, because Ian will forever be stuck at the age of 24.  We will no longer be 3 years apart... the day I pass Ian in age... it's going to crush me. 

Christmas without Ian is going to be empty.  We were at least able to count on a phone call from him around that time.  Now, we can expect nothing.

I've also lost my ability to fly for free through my dad.  Delta is having an audit, so I can no longer get by as just an EMT student.  I have to be a full time bachelor degree pursuing student.  I feel completely marooned - separated from Ian, my mom, my friends in Michigan.  California is no longer an easy transition.  I'm completely lost in what I need and where I need to be. 

I'm clinging to God, still, with all that I am.  I put my entire being into my faith to survive, but my heart cannot even feel the familiar fire burning inside.  It really is as if everything inside of me as just died.

I'm sorry this has seemed to be nothing except a depressive rant, but welcome to life after death.  I know it will get better one day - or that is what people keep telling me, but, in the mean time, this is how I am.  :-\

McConnell Out

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I need you...

I want so badly to be with my brother - I want so badly to see him again.  I need to hear him tell me he loves me, that I'm beautiful and that he will never leave me, but he can't...

I'm so sick and tired of being strong.  Ian was always the strong one and he's the one who is gone - how the hell do people expect me to keep holding on when he's the one that was always so much stronger than me??  What does the world expect from me?  What the hell kind of future could possibly exist without my brother - I hate it.  I miss Ian so damn much.

I'm so tired of being strong... why did Ian leave me here to fight alone when he is supposed to be fighting through this messed up life with me?  Why isn't he here every time my heart is broken or I need advice?  Why isn't he here??

I need him so badly - I'm clinging to God with all that have left and still I've completely run out of strength.  I need my bruh bruh...

I love you Ian... come back... I need my home - my safe haven - my place to rejuvenate... please...

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.'

Thursday, August 25, 2011


The next few days at home were very much like the first.  We had a fridge that was overflowing with food from friends and many visitors thoughout the process of grief.  My mom's family came in town from all over the nation to be with us.  This was a bittersweet event, as it was so good to see them, but the circumstances were not what we had hoped would be the basis for our next family reunion.  Yet, there we were, together, as one depressed mob of people.

We ate, we drank, we talked, we went to church - all that lovely family stuff, but I won't go into detail with all of that,  because, to be honest, I really don't feel pulled to do so.

We had a lot of struggles with the funeral home at last minute.  The funeral home had failed to tell us that they did not have a fridge to put my still-decaying brother's body in and the beautiful wood coffin the Marine Corps had supplied us was not doing a good job of containing the stench.  They told us that we could purchase a copper coffin that would seal the scent if we wished.  We were furious at this!  Why would we buy a whole new coffin when they had failed to tell us that the particular branch we had Ian at did not have a fridge?  Mark had a few choice words with them and, after much convincing, they finally gave us not only a free copper coffin for Ian, but also made the entire funeral free. We accepted their offer (of course), but the damage had already been done... this is not the kind of thing that any family should have to deal with at their loved one's funeral... (this was only a small fraction of the difficulties we had with the funeral home too)

The day of the visitation came and I was still able to remain hidden in my own happy little world.  The extended family arrived at the funeral home early in order to have some alone time with Ian before everyone else arrived.  I was happy to see that Daniel Botty was once again on guard; his face as kind as ever, as well as a large group of patriot guard members - standing as a strong wall around the funeral home with flags firmly in hand.  They opened the doors for us and we stepped into the funeral home with our heads held high. 

The room was beautiful with flowers from various friends of Ian and mine growing up - our P.E.E.R listening group, our high school, our doctors - so many people had donated flowers!  The scent of decay had been sealed tightly within the coffin (much to my dismay...) and the fragant scent of flowers filled the room.  It broke my  heart watching my grandmother and grandfather cry as they touched Ian's coffin gingerly - their frail hands shaking.  My grandmother is one of the strongest women I know and seeing her cry took an extra strong stab at my heart.  Then there was papa, my dear sweet little papa who is never seen at a family event without a camera in his hand - funeral included.  However, the camera was not flashing every two seconds as it would be at any other family event.  Instead, it hung lifeless around his neck as he wrapped his arm around grammy, exhaustion and sadness covering their faces.

I looked at Ian's coffin, missing him once more, but determined to not let the reality of his death set in.  I looked at my mother with a mischevious grin on my face, then promptly walked right up to the copper box and gave it a swift kick.  A loud 'clunk!' filled the room as I stepped back from the coffin, satisfied.  My mom looked at me with a curious look on her face - as did my grandmother and grandfather.

"I had to give the idiot one last kick!"  I replied simply.

My mother laughed (it was so good to hear her laugh!) and my grandmother smiled and chuckled.

"Do it again," said grammy and that is exactly what I did.

I always seemed to get more hurt trying to beat him up, than he ever did - even when he just stood there and laughed at me, not fighting back at all, as I would baby my hurt appendage that had been chosen for the attack.  This time, it was my toes that were bruised, but I had a grin on my face and was proud of my chance to attempt to beat Ian up one last time.  (or at least his box...)

Guests began to arrive and I was able to stay hidden in my veiled reality by distracting myself with greeting everyone. Visitors came that I have not seen since I was five years old; as well as some that I had seen just days before when they'd come to our house to visit us.  We had visitors from Washington DC, CA, MI, Fl, Al - all had come to pay their respects to Ian.  I had a smile on my face as I skipped from group to group excitedly talking with everyone.  I think I confused Daniel and some of the other Marines by my strange happiness.  Everyone kept calling it strength - telling me I was being very strong through all of this.  This was only part truth.  It was true that I wanted to stay strong and not cry so that I could be their for my mom and my family while they grieved.  However, I was really only able to smile because I was still hiding in my own reality; the one where Ian wasn't dead and these were just a bunch of friends that had come together to visit.  Deep down, my theory did not add up.  Deep down, I knew the truth, but I was not about to admit it to myself.

The visitation came to a close and my sore ankles had been rubbed raw by my shoes.  I was very happy when I was finally able to take them off.  We said one last goodbye to Ian before heading home to rest up before the next day's events.

I need to stop my recollections here... the visitation is easy for me to write about, but I'm sure it is not so easy to read as it was not that interesting an event.  No tears, no drama, no crying... just one girl getting through the day by lying to herself.  I had planned on including the funeral in this entry, but I decided not to for two reasons:

1)  It feels like the funeral should have its on entry so that I can really focus on each and every detail.

2) I'm not ready yet...

McConell Out

"So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."  Isaiah 41:10

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.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

The First Day...

Breathe in, breathe out; stop, think.  How does one describe emotion?  How does one describe the feeling of having their heart torn out and their world shattered?  The pain and the emotion cannot be described, but I can at least tell you the story of that day and the days to follow and hope that you get some basic idea....

I'd been staying at Josh's house that night.  We had argued through most of the night and I already had to wake up early for work that day so, needless to say, I was a bit pissed when he woke me up at 0600; a whole hour before my alarm was supposed to go off.  He had this frantic look in his eyes and his voice was calm, but there was a slight sting of urgency behind it.

"Meg, you need to get up, you need to get dressed."
"But I don't have to get up for work for another hour!." I curtly replied and pulled the sheets over my head.
"No, I already called Dr Kanner; there are some people coming to see you, Meg, you need to get up and get dressed."

This confused me.  People were coming to see me?  Who the heck was coming to see me at six in the morning?  I tried to coax Josh into telling me what was going on, but he wouldn't.  That's when the nausea hit me.  It was like a full force tidal wave rushing over my entire body.  I shouldn't really call it nausea so much as it felt like someone had literally stuck their hands in my stomach and my heart and was squeezing both with all their might.  It HURT.  I knew something was wrong and my heart kept telling me it had to do with Ian, but that just didn't make sense to me.  Ian wasn't deployed - he was home!  I had moved out to CA so I could see him more!  There was no way anything could have happened to him, so what was I feeling?

I got dressed with shaking hands, located my bible, and clutched it tightly to myself.  Who could possibly be coming for me?  Is something wrong with me?  What is going on?  I was so scared I started to cry.

Finally, after what seemed like a life time, there was a knock at the door.  Josh led me over and I opened the door to see the 3 familiar faces of Benjamin Lepping (Gus), Roxanne, and Amber.  One look in Amber's eyes and I knew something was wrong with Ian.  She had this haunted look on her face and her eyes were large and puffy from tears.  Roxanne had this look on her face that was completely indescribable - it was as if she was off in a completely different place seeing a nightmare that I could not even dream of.  Why else would his 3 best friends be standing at my door right now?  Was he in a motorcycle accident? Was he okay?  No, Ian was not okay; I could tell this much just by looking at Amber's face.  Had my brother... died in a motorcycle accident?  The thoughts rushed through my head, but I held myself together.

"Can we come in?" Gus's voice broke the silence.

I nodded and Josh and I led the group to the dining room where I sat down with Gus on my left and Amber on my right.  I already knew Ian was dead, but it wasn't until Gus confirmed it that I broke down and cried.  I cried for maybe a minute before I took a deep breath, clutched my bible tighter, held Amber's hand, straightened my posture and looked Gus in the eye before asking the big question, "What happened?"

The answer that came was not at all what I was expecting.

"Your brother commited suicide, he shot himself."

Complete shock, my world was spinning, crashing, diving, I was falling down a black hole of despair.  He did what!?  Not Ian!  He had just been accepted to MARSOC, his little sis has just moved out to live closer to him, he lived in CALIFORNIA for heaven's sake!  Sure he and Amber had recently broken up, but that was not effecting him at all; he was fine with it and had even moved on!  I broke down again, this time for maybe two minutes before gathering myself again and putting my best business face on. 

"What now?" I asked. 

Gus went through to explain the whole process of how NCIS was doing an investigation and how the Marine Corps would be finding a place to keep my brother's body until it was time to go home as well as the whole process of what would happen after that.  Josh informed me that Pastor Matt was on his way over and, sure enough, Matt showed up at the door about 5 minutes later.  It was so good having Matt there to remind me of God's presence through all of this, but I still felt cold.  Being my typical self, I did not have a single care about how I was doing.  Instead, I busied myself with making sure someone was going to tell those close to Ian such as Zac and Kayti Hemmerling (I even took it upon myself to call certain individuals) and I called my mom to make sure she was okay.  We exchanged our 'I love you's' and promised each other we would get through this.

I received several phone calls from people from Barabbas Road Church.  (Matt had asked if he could pass along the word.)  After making sure I had solid support and would be okay, Gus and Roxanne left to go take care of some more stuff with this whole ordeal. 

I held tight to Amber's hand and talked with Matt, Josh, and Amber while excusing myself ocasionally to go outside and take a phone call or two.  A few conversations still stand out to me as they were the most difficult:

I texted Kayti at one point saying simply 'Call me when you find out...'
'Find out what?'
'love you.'
'Call me later, k?'
'Sure thing' 'What's going on?'
'love you.'

It was about 30 minutes later that I received another text from her.
'I just talked to St Dennis at Ian's shop.  I'm in shock.  I'll call you later.  Love you. Don't text Zac.  He needs to focus on the range.  I'll tell him when he gets home.'

I got a call from Zac about an hour later.  Kayti had told Zac once he got home from work.  Zac and I both broke down on the phone. Both of us expressing questions that the other couldn't answer.  I made sure Zac was okay and made him promise to check back soon.

I remember texting Michelle then having her call me.  It was a huge shock to her (as it was to everyone else..._
I remember calling Sarah Meissner.  I don't know who was more difficult to talk to, Sarah or Zac.  I did not have to tell the news to Zac, but I did have to break it to Sarah.  I had to literally choke the words out.  I could feel my heart breaking all over again as I heard hers breaking over the phone.  Sarah would later become one of my strongest supports through all of this.  (And not just for me, but for my family as well)

The rest of the afternoon was pretty much a blur.  I sat in silence for the most part; the only time I really talked was when my phone rang.  Amber eventually went over to her sister's place and Matt was replaced by Scott.  It was a huge comfort having Scott there, especially when he took out his guitar and started to play... it reminded me of all the times I needed comforting so I would go into Patrick's dorm room and lay on the floor and listen to him play guitar. 

I'd excuse myself on occasion to go cry.  Each time I felt like my entire heart was being wrenched out with my sobs.  I took a nap in the afternoon and a shower and felt a bit better.  I managed to pull myself together enough to go to my church's 'Core Group' with everyone.  It was difficult to keep from crying half the time, but people were so good and I felt their prayers all throughout the week.  It was a fun evening and I was able to smile and laugh through it all thanks to having an awesome chalking group (Libby, Matt and Scott) and an open air jeep with the stereo cranked and Scott sinking down in embarassment in his seat.  I was able to put aside the hell I was going through and pretend everything was normal again.  I would give almost anything to be able to stay like that, to continue to pretend that nothing had happened, but I wouldn't be able to pretend for long... The nightmare I'd dreamt for years was no longer just in my sleep; it had become my new reality.

To be continued...
McConnell out.

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Romans 8:38-39