Gold Star

gold star flag           Soon after my brother’s death, I start working as a hospice chaplain, and meet Don, an old-fashioned gentleman with a deep Catholic faith. He’s hard of hearing, grouchy, forgetful at times, and sharp when he wants to be. It’s hard to tell what he’s taking in, and not. He’s so modest that he asks our home health aide to give him a shower with his underwear on.

I visit him at his senior residence, arriving as he finishes lunch so I won’t interrupt the afternoon nap that follows lunch. Asking his permission, I pull up a chair and sit at the table, keeping him company as he finishes eating the meat, potatoes and gray vegetable. “What did you have for lunch?” I ask him one day.

“L.O.K,” he tells me.

“L.O.K – what’s that?”

“Lord Only Knows.” I laugh out loud, which makes him smile. He always offers me dessert, which I decline, and coffee, which I drink to be sociable.

Don’s daughter Rose has award winning patience, and the same warm smile I see in pictures of her mother. The approaching loss of her father brings up other losses. “I was sitting on my couch in front of the fireplace, sipping a glass of wine, last Christmas Eve,” she tells me, “and there was a knock on my door.”

The newspaper stories about the war and roadside bombs come to brutal life as I listen to her tell about her son’s death in the war. The Christmas Eve knock on the door comes from two men in uniform, the sight every military family dreads. Her son Mike had been killed on Christmas Eve in Iraq. The family stumbles through a funeral mass here, and then a memorial service held by his unit, out of state. “I feel like we buried that child so many times,” she says. “At the end I was so tired.”

Her story of his sudden, violent death recalls my brother’s death, and I feel a silent connection with her story. My dad asks me one night, “Isn’t it hard to visit other people when David’s death is on your mind?” No. Yes. It’s all I know how to do, I tell him.   Once your heart cracks open, you have an unwanted kinship with every other broken-hearted person. Once grief makes you gasp for breath, you recognize the other air-starved people around you. It’s strangely relaxing to be with other broken people.

As the chaplain, it’s my job to hear their stories, not their job to listen to me. I’m careful not to share my own loss, not to chime in, not to shout excitedly “I know exactly what you mean.”   But we belong to the same club.

Don stays with us for two years, declining slowly and bouncing back, and then slipping again. Finally, the last descent begins. One day at lunch, he tells me that he has to get to the shop to finish some things. “Let’s go,” he says, urgently. “Can you take me?” he asks, and I know that the end is coming. Talk about finishing something, or traveling somewhere, signals the soul’s final work.

I come every afternoon to see him. When I walk up the driveway and see the car with the “Gold Star Family” license plate, the distinction given to families who lose someone in combat, I know that Rose is here, too. The afternoons become a sabbath, as we sit by his bed and talk about her dad. In the dim peace of the room, she tells me about his political career, his stubborn personality, his passion for coffee, which he drank day and night. The first household task she ever learned was making coffee.

And, again, she tells me again about her son. Sitting in the peace of the room, the story comes with different details this time. Mike was married briefly, and it didn’t work out. Because of the timing of the divorce, when Mike dies, the Army calls the young ex-wife first. Her dad, drunk, makes a rambling, expletive-filled call to Rose and her husband. Her husband picks up the phone and can’t understand anything except that Mike is dead. Rose runs upstairs to the computer and frantically, crazily hits the buttons, searching for the emergency number the Army gave them. She finds it and is screaming her questions into the phone when she looks out the window. A white sedan turns the corner onto their street and moves slowly up the block, as if looking for a house number. She watches the car driving through the snow until it stops in front of her house, and two men get out and come toward the porch.

Pausing in the story, she looks at me in the dark room and asks “Are you crying?”

“I am,” I admit.

“You’re sweet to cry at my story,” she tells me.

Oddly, I feel jealous. Her son’s death in the war seems more meaningful than my brother’s random death. And yet, grief is grief. Her story is my story, although I don’t tell her that. The death of her dad will eventually be the death of mine. The terrible absence of her son is also the aching absence of my brother.

I realize that the only meaning in someone’s death is the meaning we give it. How we live after the death, making a path forward. We mark the way with dates and ceremonies so no one is forgotten, when remembering is the only gift left to give.