Saturday, August 6, 2011
Thursday marked the anniversary of the death of my son's best Air Force buddy. He was killed last August in a car crash while on leave visiting his parents. He was a beautiful, warm, friendly, likable young man. I think his death shook everyone to their cores.
When it happened, my son thought his colleagues and staff sergeant were trying to play some warped prank on him. He couldn't believe that Keith was dead. It didn't make any sense. He was home visiting his parents in Ohio. Mac had just talked to him. It was the middle of the day. It couldn't be true.
But it was.
Nearly the entire squadron travelled up to Ohio for the funeral, caravaning in cars with their dress blues encased in protective plastic. Mac's commanding officer was kind enough to let Mac come home and stay with us since we're all in Ohio. They knew Mac needed to be with his family. They probably had no idea how much I needed to be with Mac.
We sat at the kitchen table and had a family dinner. We talked about Keith. Mac called his best friend from high school and he came over, too. It was a time to cherish friendships. I refrained from completely latching onto Mac, but wanted to. More than ever before, I wanted to hold on tight.
Early the next morning, Mac and I headed out to the visitation. The services would be held in a small country chapel in eastern Ohio three hours away from our house. Mac talked about Keith the whole time, telling me story after story about him. I'd met Keith a few times and really liked him. He was a great kid. My heart went out to his parents and the closer we got to the church, the more nervous I got. I felt guilty that I could stand in front of Keith's parents offering my condolences; lucky me, with my son beside me.
Keith's parents were just as gracious and warm as he was. Still, I could not imagine their loss, and sat frozen in place as a slide show of Keith's childhood and teenage years played on a screen. I watched it four times. I felt I owed him that, and more.
In the back of the church, 25 young men and women in blue stood at attention. Keith's visitation lasted four hours. They stood through the whole thing, honoring Keith. The next morning at the funeral, they stood there again. Most of the mourners thanked them for their service. A handful of the airmen spoke at his funeral, Mac among them. I sat alone toward the back, feeling out of place as a stranger, and so guilty that I still had my son.
I cried during T.A.P.S. I started to feel hysterical during the 21-gun salute. A mantra played through my head, Don't ever let this happen to me. Don't ever let this happen to me. We were laying to rest a 24-year-old young man. Everything about it was wrong. Keith's death changed us.
Now a year has passed. Mac and I have made two more visits to Keith's grave this year. I always insist on driving him, partly because I have this irrational fear of letting him drive out on those same country roads where Keith died. Partly because I still feel like paying my respects to Keith and his family provides some talisman against the same tragedy happening to me. But mostly I drive Mac there because I can. We have such wonderful conversations in the car. It is six hours of talking about everything. It is time that I get to spend alone with my son. I always feel guilty that Keith's parents no longer have moments like that with Keith, but I feel incredibly grateful that I still do, and will never take them for granted again. I treasure our trips to see Keith. I just wish we were visiting him instead of his grave. We all do.