The next few days were a jumble—bright, poignant images intersticed with gray timelessness. Everything slid. The confusion of half-dreamed phone calls, the dreaded final comprehension of accepted necessity and plans that always seemed in the process and never final—even when I actually was on the plane heading toward Cincinnati. In many ways, the layover in Atlanta was the terminus. It was there that I heard, by phone, that my father, Colonel Harold ____________, Army of the United States, Retired, had died—had died, actually, before I made it to Palm Beach International Airport. Why was it I hadn't sensed his sudden absence? This man was my paradigm, my first experience in strength and reason and in love. He was gone.
My hometown lies in the Ohio River Valley, halfway between Louisville and Cincinnati. It’s a small town whose cultural heritage is German and Irish with the softly blurred edges made inevitable by decades of river traffic. The hills rise steeply on both sides of the river bank and hold lots of wonderful treasures for kids to hunt for and find: geodes, agate, trilobites, and Indian relics. The night sky there is a field of stars. It is the spot that gave me ground.
There, autumn is like liquid fire. Everything goes up in flames. The hills, covered in early spring with red bud and dogwood, are encompassed with the fiery limbs of maples, oaks, sycamores, and elms in the fall. The sky in October is azure glass: Thin, brittle and bright—almost beyond the range of vision in its clarity. The air has an edge to it, unbreathable at times in its sharpness.
On a perfect autumn day, my father was buried. The cemetery is as old as the town and almost full now. His grave lies among those of the multiple generations.
We had a military funeral service and burial. A chaplain, pallbearers, bugler, and honor guard drove down from Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis for the services. At the cemetery, the local American Legion post, members dressed in red blazers—the color blending with the autumn hills, stood in neat formation a hundred yards from the grave. They had not come to conduct a ceremony, the commander assured us, they just wanted to be present and show their respect as a unit.
The honorary pallbearers were all men Daddy had commanded in the Battle of the Bulge. Some had driven many hours to be with him this last time. At the end, the honor guard fired a twenty-one gun salute. While Taps was played, the flag from his coffin was folded and three spent rounds from the salute were placed within its creases. Then, the flag was presented to my mother. These final ceremonies were dignified, in keeping with his life and what was important to him.
This was the trauma of the week before departure. The death was so sudden. I felt as if I were a ghost—present, but somehow not a part of what was occurring. I moved like an automaton, doing what was expected and doing it in a rational, well-delineated manner.
I’m always good in a crisis because I am removed. I become an observer. I’m not even certain it catches up with me afterwards. All I know is I have to remain functional—that becomes almost my sole priority. All during the preparations and the funeral, I managed to plan, orchestrate, and accomplish all that needed to be taken care of—whether it involved people or logistics. I accomplished a lot, but I felt very little—whether as a result of shock or intentional removal I don’t know. The effect is the same.
Somewhere in the debris of that week, I realized this would probably preclude the trip to Haiti. I wasn’t happy about this but I didn’t say much. Oddly enough, the decision was made without me being consulted and made by an unexpected source: my mother. She announced that I was still going and that the flights would be arranged to get me back to Florida in time to meet up with my group in Miami for the departure on Sunday. She said she thought this was what my father must have wanted—that he almost seemed to arrange his death to allow for it. Also, it was what she wanted as well. Sometimes, you don’t argue with your parents.
So at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, Aaron, Vickie, Katherine and I drove the rental car back to Cincinnati and caught a flight back to West Palm Beach. Nothing was changed; everything was changed. And, in a strange way, with his death, my father granted me independence. I was free to pursue this venture in my own way. I knew he would have approved. Somewhere along the line, I had received his blessing.