Every once in awhile a girl has to say something out loud.
Most little girls dream of “Prince Charming.” When we get a little older, our standards become more realistic – but we hold on to hope, that a really good man will come our way. Some settle for a piece of happiness, and grow accustomed to their partner. Many, many beautiful marriages are built on that strong, common purpose foundation. Others seek blistering passion, confuse it with love and are disappointed.
Some of us believe “The One” is out there. And when you find him or her, you know it. Life goes from black and white to technicolor, and IMAX 3D.
I would never pretend to have all the answers. Or understand the human psyche. But I will say this… the human heart can understand, see, feel and interpret an infinite number of emotional, intellectual and moral shadings. At our very core, we have that little voice… it guides us. We make professional calculations, temper our ambition, maintain lifelong friendships. develop political ideologies and alliances by listening to this compass we set for ourselves. Some also define their patriotism by this inner compass rose.
Love is just love. Pure and organic. Politics is murky, complicated and a bit like a heavy metal that settles in our organs. This evening, we watched Taking Chance on HBO. Quite a few tears were shed, as it was the first time my daughter realized what it was her deceased father’s friends, colleagues, and superior officers had done for him – and our family nearly eleven years ago.
Many of my regular readers are aware that I am a Gold Star Wife. Memorial Day has not been an occasion for a barbeque, or a “Blow-Out Sale” in many, many years. My late husband loved Memorial Day – he had friends to visit in Arlington National Cemetery. Buddies to call on, have over for a few beers and kick off the summer season. Not that they had much play time. They were all leaving their jobs in DC, where they all held Yankee White clearances – tended to protocol at the White House, the Pentagon, and with the President or other Heads of State. It was the place where we met, were married, and had our beautiful daughter. Before the tours in the MidEast started and other, tough lessons were learned.
I have occasionally written about my late husband but, not in quite so direct a way. Last fall I was interviewed by CNN about the relationship – just after news broke of John Edwards’ extramarital affair. It was a bit painful – but CNN did right by me over all.
Forgiveness is a lesson I learned the hard way but I was no longer tethered to the pain once I forgave him. It was not my burden to carry, but his. I know he was a good man, a great warrior, who struggled with fidelity. He was a tremendous father and without question loved having a family. His colleagues often called him “Headquarters” because he was so squared away. I laugh now, when I think of those days. Everyone was so young, full of promise and ambition. After his death, I had many responsibilities. To make sure his life and legacy were a part of the fabric of our daughter’s life was high on my list. To be a good mother was first.
Watching Taking Chance was – let’s put it this way: I am fairly certain we will never forget it. Lance Corporal Chance Phelps was a United States Marine. My late husband was a Senior Airman in the US Air Force. But they were both heroes. My heroes however, are the men and women who manage the careful tending to the body of our fallen warriors, America’s heroes. Their job is breathtakingly complex and respectful. They bathe and dress the body – no matter the condition. They wash the grit of war away, from the body and any personal possessions. The uniform is impeccably prepared. Every ribbon, every bronze leaf or Silver Star properly fastened. Every bit of brass polished. Creases are so crisp that even a Pharoah would be honored. All of this is done – even if they are to be cremated.
There is a faithfulness in our burial rituals. They are forged with the fire of a warrior’s heart, and conducted with the grace of a good man (and some women’s) souls. The flag is folded just so. I remember standing in Arlington National Cemetery, after participating in hundreds of funerals there, for the first time as Next of Kin. I remember the scratch, step, scratch, step of the Presidential Honor Guard as they marched three by nine to graveside at the intersection of York and Bradley in Section 65. I remember these friends, carrying out that beautiful ceremony – after our Remains Escort had so carefully tended my heart that year. I barely remember the words of the Priest. But I remember the crack in the crisp September air three times, for the Firing Party’s 21 gun salute. I remember the snap of the flag as the Body Bearers folded it perfectly. I remember his former Commanding Officer getting down on one knee, and offering the flag… I remember his kindness and the gratitude offered on behalf of a grateful nation. His voice cracked only once – for we were friends. No Commander wants to bury his troops.
Then, it was a sea of faces. Old friends and colleagues. His. Mine. So many others. I comforted them as much, and in some cases more, than they did for me. For the men that were going back to work – I could see they now realized how time is fleeting. That the immortality we all felt Once upon a time was now a fairy tale. When all the cars were gone, I was there alone – my parents escorting my daughter to the car and fastening the buckles on her car seat as the Remains Escort approached.
Chief Master Sargeant Timmothy Dickens is a good man. In fact, he is one of the best men I have ever known. He saw Raymyon to his resting place. He was there in California, he went to Texas and held my hand – keeping me grounded. He was as gentle as gentle could be. But he reminded me of a truth that until this year, I had long put out of mind. He told me that someday, I would fall in love. That a good man would come along.
He was right. Another friend, a former (as if, I know) US Marine told me to have faith. “The One” is out there. He believed too, he is a battle-tested, highly decorated for combat Marine… and he believed that real love was out there. Because he had it in his life – married to his high school sweetheart for many, many years… he reinforced a truth I had always known. Love is a miracle worth waiting for. After more than a decade as a Gold Star Wife, I fastened the small pin to velvet last September, slipped it in it’s case – and put it away for my daughter. Someday, she will also have the flag in its beautiful case. And the collection of letters from Generals and Admirals and elected officials offering insight into a man she lost when she was still a toddler.
More importantly, each man and woman wearing our nation’s uniform should know that as Americans, we stand with them. We believe in their competence, dedication, and judgment.
Fairy tales are not tangible. Happily Ever After is just the beginning of a life together. It is the shared values – that inner compass set to the same True North which gives our lives richness. The men and women who serve in our nation’s uniform, in the uniforms of our Allies, and who serve in a civilian capacity, or are those courageous covert operators in the field… and the most forgotten, the intelligence community men and women who serve silently – protecting us from untold dangers – these are the heroes of America’s story. We are so fortunate to live in a nation – where brothers and sisters in Arms ensure that when the last full measure of devotion has been given, it is repaid with Grace, Humility, and Respect. In perpetuity.
As a girl who is on the verge of being the Blue Star Wife again – I can only say that every day is Veteran’s Day in our home. Every day is Memorial Day. And Flag Day and Independence Day. Our nation – however stricken by the current financial crisis – is the greatest country. Miracles happen here. Every day is worthy of Thanksgiving.
Every. Single. Day. Our nation runs on Faith, Love, Hard Work and the US Constitution. (not necessarily in that order.) I am so humbled by the great gifts in my life. To have served myself, to be the wife of a man who served honorably, to be the daughter and granddaughter of men who loved this nation and served in her uniform — that is the true honor.
Love is the greatest gift of all. Discovering that “The One” really exists – that a brief encounter may indeed alter the course of our lives, well – it really is a miracle. Reminding ourselves of the moments when lightning struck, how our skin felt, how our heart raced – and we walk away… then regret it. Sometimes… or once upon a time in America – love walks back through the door. And happily ever after is just the beginning of a life enriched by wisdom, patience, faith, unbridled passion and shared values.
Heroes are not “Prince Charming” who rides in at the last moment to save us. Real heroes are men who give the last full measure of devotion - not only by giving their life in battle. But men who give a lifetime of love, fidelity, respect, and service to all the people in their lives. Real heroes are husbands, fathers, brothers, friends – that do the right thing. Not because they should but because, for them, there is no other way.