Tuesday, June 21, 2011

My Friend's Funeral and Burial at Arlington National Cemetery

Vitals:  Our good friends Bruce and Maryann West moved away while we were in Ukraine.  Bruce was a chaplain on a Marine Corp. Base in Iwakuni, Japan.  Bruce died in a biking accident in Japan last month.  The funeral was Saturday and his burial was yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Details:  So Saturday was Bruce’s funeral, certainly the most difficult two hours of my life up until that point.  It was a beautiful service.  They did a great job capturing Bruce’s legacy; his heart for God, his love for his family and his skill in ministry.  His brother-in-law read statements from each of his siblings about how much fun Bruce was growing up.  There were also a few slide shows, video testimonies about his life and friendships, stories from his college friends, ministry co-workers and other chaplains in the military.  Maryann (his wife) spoke about Bruce’s relationship with God and how we can know Him because of Jesus.  She was amazing and Bruce was a great friend.  We will miss him dreadfully. 

Maryann, for her part, handled the whole thing with supernatural grace and beauty.  Unfortunately, I had not seen her since their We’re-Leaving-for-Japan-Yard-Sale last summer.  So when I saw her after the service, I burst into tears.  That was pretty much the way it was all weekend.  I realized later on that this was Bill’s fault.  He kept being nice to me.  What I really needed was for him to hit me in the shoulder and tell me to buck up, but he failed miserably in his role. 

So, I cried through the service, I cried through the greetings afterward, I cried through the family dinner and I cried all the way home.  I kept trying to change God’s mind about the whole thing and thinking, “Surely Not.  Surely, You would not do this to us.  Surely, You would not take Maryann’s husband away.  Surely, You do not expect us to go home, walk in the front door, shut it behind us, greet the children and talk and laugh and breath and live as we did before.  Surely, You do not intend for the world to CONTINUE as it did before after You have done this to us.”  

I don’t know what I was thinking, but it just seemed as though, since we were enduring such a great loss, the sky would turn red or there would be an earthquake or falling brimstone or something.  But, apparently, the world will go on as it did before because Sunday was a regular day.  The sky was consistently blue and there were no natural disasters.  I went to the store and was painfully aware that it was life-as-usual for the people around me, even though my world was falling apart. 

I thought that funeral was the hardest thing I would ever be called upon to endure, but that was only because I had never been to a burial.  Bruce was buried yesterday morning at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.   The service was at 9am.  We all met in an administrative building at the front of the cemetery about 8:30am.  I meant to hang back this time.  Maryann and I are dear friends, but we are only friends.  I am not family.  My intention to hang back and let the family endure this together lasted about two minutes.  She looked so small standing alone and greeting person after person in that room, I just couldn’t stand it.  I left Bill and stood behind her for the rest of the morning.    

I told her at one point, when she started crying, “we will get through this.” And she said, “But, I don’t want to get through this.  I want it to last and last, because once it is over, then that is the end and I have to move on.”  This just made us both cry all the more, but after that, I was consciously grateful for every step in the service, grateful for each new event, thinking, “Ok, one more thing,” to make it last longer and dreading the moment it was over for her.

Then Maryann told me that she asked God for a sign.  She said, “I asked God that if He was real and if Bruce was with Him in heaven that He would make it stop raining.”  Mind you, it had been raining steadily all morning, starting about 5am and it was raining when we walked into the building.  Everyone in the room was holding a wet umbrella.  It wasn’t just sprinkling, it was raining.  Maryann planned to walk behind the casket to the burial site and there was no way everyone could fit under the awning during the service.  It needed to stop raining, but it was highly unlikely.  At any other time I would have thrown all the logic in my arsenal her way, but all I could do was stammer out, “OK then. There you have it. It will just have to stop raining,” and then I spent the next few minutes trying to remember what the radar showed earlier that morning and wondering what I would say to her if it didn’t stop.

About 9am a representative from the cemetery came to have Maryann sign some papers.  He had her verify the information on Bruce’s tombstone and then asked her if she wanted to add anything.  He suggested, “Beloved husband and father,” but Maryann asked that they put, “But to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” Phil 1:21 (which I thought was absolutely perfect).  The representative balked at this.  First he worried that it might be too long and then he mentioned that it was more common to put “personal remembrances” and suggested something else benign.  They talked a little more until I finally lost patience and asked, “Is this forbidden?”  He said, “no.”  So I said, “then do it.”  That was pretty much the end of the conversation and hopefully, it will be the end of the issue as well. 

After that we were told to walk back to our cars and line up behind the hearse.  Thank God, it had stopped raining and it didn’t rain for the rest of the day.  I should have known that God would do this for her.  As soon as I saw that it stopped raining, I remembered that Jesus stopped a storm for the disciples on a fishing boat in Mark 4.  Afterward He asked, “How is it, that you have no faith?” 

The cemetery is so big that we drove in a line about half way to the site.  Then we got out and stood while they transferred Bruce’s casket to a horse drawn carriage.  There were two separate military guards there and a horse escort.  They played a song and covered the casket with a flag.  We all walked behind the casket and I cried the whole time.  They took the casket to a covered pavilion and Maryann and the kids sat down in the front row.  I was holding back, thinking that the rest of Bruce’s family would sit down, but when they didn’t, one of the officers told me to sit down behind Maryann.  I think they thought I was family since I was crying so pitifully. 

So, there I was in the second row, holding Maryann’s sister’s hand and crying my eyes out.  I finally looked up and that’s when I saw the Veteran Angels.  There had been some talk about the Westboro Baptist freaks protesting Bruce’s funeral.  Since they have been making such a pain of themselves, there are veterans who volunteer to attend military funerals to block the protestors.  Thankfully, there were no protestors, and I thought the veterans might leave once they realized we were safe, but they stayed for the whole service.  They were tattooed and pierced, with varying hair lengths and wearing leather and denim and T-shirts and a whole myriad of patches and pins.  There were eight of them and they stood in a line about half a block away, really in the background, but still there.  They stood at attention the whole time.  Every time I looked over they were still there, solid, unmoving, shielding.  They were beautiful. 

So then the service began.  One of the chaplains read 1 Corinthians 13 and said a few words about Bruce.  Then some soldiers a few rows over did a three shot volley. They did a great job, the soldiers were crisp and uniform, but it felt like each bullet went straight to my heart.  Afterward they played taps, which was heartbreaking.  As the last note died,  they began folding the flag on Bruce’s coffin.  They gave it to Maryann, “On behalf of the president of the United States, a grateful nation and a proud Navy.”  They also gave a flag to each child and one to his mom.  Then a whole row of officers and enlisted came over to thank Maryann and the kids, one by one, for Bruce’s service.  It was a huge number of people, but each time another one came forward, all I could think was, “Good. One more thing to make the service last longer.”   Every minute was becoming more and more precious, but there is no stopping time.

After the last soldier said, thank you, they announced that the service was over and asked everyone to leave so the family could say goodbye to Bruce.  I went over to say something, but all I could do was put my hand on his dog tags, which were attached to the end of the coffin.  I couldn't get any words out.  

They whisked Maryann away.  There was no way I could get to her.  So, I nodded at Bill and made straight for the line of veterans who had been so quietly guarding the service the whole time.  They were so comforting, standing at attention every time I looked over, that I wanted to thank them for coming and protecting us. 

I felt stupid walking over in my upper middle class wrinkle free suit with coordinating purse and flat black shoes, but I couldn’t let them go without talking to them.  It meant so much to me to see them there during that service.  I appreciated the rest of the military, but this was paid duty for them.  These veterans were volunteers.  I meant to just shake each of their hands and say, “thank you,” but I started crying again on the walk over.  When I got to the first one I looked up and saw that he was also crying.  His eyes were so full of anguish that as soon as our eyes met, I knew he understood.  I meant to merely shake his hand but once I saw his eyes, I’m afraid and I sort of fell into him sobbing.  Oddly enough, it’s his eyes that I keep finding in front of me, constantly.

Actually there are three thoughts that I can’t get out of my mind.  The first is the moment they gave Maryann the flag.  That one hurt.  It was such a glaringly inadequate exchange.  But, what else could be done?  The second was when Bruce’s father went up to his coffin to say goodbye.  He had been so quiet and composed during the whole service, but at the very end, he put his hand on Bruce’s coffin and just as he turned away, he let out a single sob that was so full of torment and grief that I can barely get the sound out of my head.  And then the third thing is that veteran soldier’s tear filled eyes. 

Bill came behind me to say, “Thank you” to the veterans and by the time we walked back, most of the group had dispersed.  It was clearly time to go, and we might have made it out then, but I looked over and saw Bruce’s casket alone under the pavilion and I just couldn’t leave.  Bruce was always so fun, full of life and talkative, he hated to be alone.  Bill told me again that it was time to go, but it was like my feet were rooted to the ground.  I just couldn’t leave Bruce to go into the ground surrounded by strangers-in-coveralls, with no one there who knew him and loved him nearby.   So, we stood in the field for about 45 minutes while a worker came with a gas powered lift and put Bruce’s coffin in a cement vault.  He secured the top and wrote something on it with spray paint, and then he wheeled it over to the grave site.   Meanwhile, a backhoe dug out the grave.  It was about 2x6x8 feet deep, so it took a while. Then the workers lowered my friend’s body into the ground and covered him over with dirt and all was still.  For some reason, after that I could finally say, "Goodbye Bruce. I will miss you," and walk away. 

Bill drove the truck over and got the GPS coordinates for the grave site.   Then I called Maryann.  She wanted to see the grave site before she left, so we drove to her hotel and picked up her and her escort, Chaplain Baker.  We showed her how to find the site and took some pictures there and at the tomb of the unknown soldier.  Then it was time to go and we had to leave and take Maryann back to her hotel.   I had to say goodbye to Maryann and leave her, looking so very small and alone in front of that hotel, and leave Bruce alone at that grave site, while I drove home with my husband.  

We got home about 4:00 and I spent the rest of the day wandering in a daze.  I wandered upstairs, downstairs, through the basement, outside.  I spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out what to make the kids for dinner until I finally remembered, 'this is why God created Chinese take out."  I was crying so much that Bill coaxed me into going for a run.  Nothing really helps. I know God was not surprised by Bruce's death.  I know He loves us and He can bring beauty from ashes.  I know He can stop rain for doubting mourners, and He collects our tears in a bottle.  I know He is sovereign over all things and I know He has a plan, but I must tell you, I don't like this.  I want my friend back.  I want Maryann's husband back. 

I feel as though it is no longer possible for everything to seem right.   I used to lay in bed and remind myself; “the kids are healthy, the bills are paid, all the people that I love are healthy and well cared for—(or at least it was POSSIBLE for them to be healthy and well cared for, if they would just listen to me). But, from this point on, something will always be missing in my little world.  We have been condemned to live with an open wound.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How You Can Help

A few months ago, I wrote about Sasha, who has a ministry to orphans in Vorzel, where Ruslan lived before we adopted him.   You may remember that Ruslan had surgery on his legs, but he was not given any pain killer afterward.  He was in such pain that one of the caregivers called Sasha, who brought the medicine Ruslan needed.  The March 29 post tells the whole story. 

Anyway, Sasha brings teams of volunteers to Ukraine every year to help update the orphanage facilities.  The conditions are pretty grim.  For example, the bathroom in Ruslan’s house didn’t have a toilet seat.  It was just a cold (very cold) ceramic bowl with no top on the tank and you had to lift the plunger chain to flush.  The flushing wasn’t a problem, but the lack of a toilet seat was bewildering.  I kept thinking it must be broken and would certainly be replaced soon.   I didn’t clue in until the very end that this was their permanent toileting situation.  There's just NO money in that country for things like toilet seats for orphanages.  Sasha writes in his latest newsletter about one bathroom with a water leak underneath the floor.  The staff take turns every hour to soak up the water.

The volunteer teams are in Ukraine RIGHT NOW and Sasha just posted about their first ten days.  It’s really amazing, the conditions they are facing, so I thought I would post a link so everyone can see for themselves.  

Here is their latest newsletter:  http://almaz.mailerlite.com/b5r2z4/2140246.  Be sure to check out the story about Remodeling 70 Year Old Restrooms, and their effort to get a humidifier in some of the children's bedrooms.

Here is a link to their ministries homepage: http://almazgo.com/

A few people have been asking about how to give to his ministry.  Sasha works closely with a few churches/ministries here in the states.  If you want to give directly to the facility renovations, scroll down to the bottom of that first link and there is a church coordinating the donations.   

There is also a ministry here called Father’s Heart that is hoping to hire a full time representative in Vorzel.  According to IRS rules, they can’t raise funds for a specific person’s salary, but they CAN raise funds for the POSITION, so if you are looking to give MONTHLY to help finance the positions salary, this is the place to go.  They are also taking a team of volunteers to Ukraine in June—late June, so you can give toward their upcoming missions trip or sign up to join them! 
Their home page is here:  http://www.fathersheartinc.com/home and details about their mission trip are here: http://www.fathersheartinc.com/upcoming_events_and_mission_trips

Feel free to e-mail me: marnie@afo.net if you have any questions about Sasha or these ministries. Even if you can't adopt, you can make a HUGE difference in the lives of these children by volunteering to go for a week or donating funds to help update their facilities.  Believe me.  They need your help.