In 1953, when my then-three-year-old sister died of leukemia, my mother and father buried her at Arlington National Cemetery, promising to join her after the two of them had seen their lives through.
Sixty years later, my family and I have now fulfilled that wish.
I don’t know quite how to explain the power of the past two days. It’s 1:15 in the morning, here in the nation’s capital, but I can’t sleep. Not yet. Not without telling a little bit of this story.
On Thursday, we gathered in the family greeting area in the Administration building at Arlington and were met by two representatives of the Marines, part of my parents’ honor burial. “Your father was a national treasure,” Colonel Steve Neary told us. He went on to recognize not only my father’s service, but my mother’s sacrifice as well.
The beautiful companion urn crafted by my brother Scott gleamed in the sunlight that cascaded through the windows, the grain dancing when you looked at it from different angles. The plaque read, “In our hearts and minds always, Scott, Bruce, Midge, Dean, Betsy.”
Arlington’s representative, Mr. Dixon, led us to the transfer point where a company of Marines, a contingent from the USMC Band, and a caisson awaited, drawn by six horses.
Two Marines moved toward the cemetery vehicle in such slow motion that time felt suspended. Fluid step by fluid step, they approached the drawer in the flag-draped coffin, and gently placed the urn inside. Because we created a companion urn for them, Mom joined Dad on the stately march to to grave site.
Drums led the way, followed by a company of Marines in lock step. Then the caisson, and then those family members who chose to follow the caisson on foot. We sat within view of Midge’s grave stone while the urn was placed on the pedestal. To our left, Col. Cabaniss, Commanding Officer of Marine Barracks, commanded the Marines.
The Chaplain’s remarks reflected his understanding of my parents’ story. He spoke of Dad’s valor in Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. He acknowledged Mom’s sacrifices, and the value of their service to their country. In his prayers, he spoke of them being joined with Midge for eternity.
Seven rifles fired three shots each, a 21 gun salute. Taps played. I lost it.
Agonizingly slowly in the glaring mid-day sun, the Marines folded the flag, and presented it to my brother, who passed it to me. I held the perfectly folded triangle against my stomach, like a child.
One by one, the officers dropped a knee and extended their condolences to we four siblings, we adult children who carried through the wishes of our parents.
That night, the family gathered at Siroc Restaurant on McPherson Square. Food, family and wine: all the ingredients we needed to honor my parents’ legacy.
If yesterday was the fulfillment of a wish, then tonight was the fulfillment of a dream – a chance to viscerally demonstrate my parent’s legacy of love and service by attending the Marine Baracks’ evening parade as guests of its executive officer, LtC. Tom Garnett.
“It’s not a Disney parade,” I told the grandchildren and great grandchildren in attendance. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
Two hours of riveting ritual, unfolding at a stately pace, performed perfectly under the watch of Major Sarah Armstrong, Parade Commander, and directed by Sgt. Major Angie Maness. Dad and Mom, I’m sure, were smiling, to see two such accomplished women in these roles.
The graciousness of the Barracks, in inviting us – all of us – to attend the parade as their guests, moves me beyond words.
And if that weren’t enough, we happened to attend the annual parade hosted by the Commandant and honoring the chiefs of all of the armed forces, and were introduced by Col. Cabaniss to the Commandant, Gen. James Amos.
Though I would do anything to change the reality of losing Mom and Dad, I know that celebrating their lives has brought us together. Some branches of the family had never met before this week. We experienced something rare, together. A dream fulfilled.