I write about all kinds of things, trying to avoid writing about the most painful. It seems like I have a room in my heart where I deposited all the most painful memories of the week between our son’s death and burial, shut and locked the door, and hoped never to see or hear from them again. But, they just keep tapping on that door, asking for, then begging for, then demanding acknowledgement. Once I either talk about them or write about them I seem to be more at peace with them, rather than fighting them and trying to shove them into a room, slam the door and lock it, then run away. I’ve already written about several painful things that happened during the week between his death and his burial – actually, the whole week was excruciatingly painful – but there are a few more I need to share, not the least of which is the funeral itself. But, it feels like many of the most painful memories are the things we had to do leading up to the funeral, all the while living in shock and horror, trying to believe that a 25 yr. old member of our family was suddenly and tragically gone from our family forever.
If you are wondering why, after 15 months, I still need to talk about these things, let me just say that time sort of stopped for our family on that day in October 2014. It’s like we stopped breathing, then we realized we had to breathe, so we stopped moving, then we noticed we were kind of moving again, then we realized we sort of stopped living; we go through the paces of life, but we aren’t always really living. Examining those first few days and weeks and even months after our son was killed helps me to live in reality, and maybe pushes me to begin really living again.
Israel was a very young child, maybe 3 or 4 years old, when we began to realize that God had made this little guy a real patriot. He wanted to be a Blue Angels pilot from about the time he could talk; and as he began to study American History in school, his heart began to turn toward wanting to defend his country and its freedoms. I will never forget the day I realized the depth of the love he had for his country and the “calling” God had placed in his heart to defend it. Izzy was downstairs in our schoolroom reading his history lesson, and I was upstairs in the kitchen. I heard his footsteps coming up the stairs and knew something was up. I couldn’t tell if he was walking the way he was because he was upset or excited, but I knew it wasn’t his normal “I’m done with school, now what?” walk. I looked up to see his expression as he came toward me and knew something was either wrong or he had been deeply touched by something, as he almost had tears in his eyes. He said to me, “Mom, do you know who Nathan Hale was?”, and my heart dropped. I knew what was in his heart at that moment because I did know who Nathan Hale was, and I knew what he was famous for saying, and I could see on my young son’s face that that was what he wanted to be known for – To be able to say, like Nathan Hale, “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Because of his patriotic heart and the 4 years he served in the military, we knew we wanted a military funeral for our son. We were, and are, so proud of the 4 years he served in the US Navy; and he was proud of it also, in his own quiet, humble, unassuming way. It wasn’t even really discussed amongst my husband, our children and I; there was just an understanding that we would give him a military funeral. When we learned, from our first meeting with the funeral director, the things we needed to give him a military funeral, my children set about finding those things, which turned out to be a monumental task. Izzy was not the best housekeeper; and organization was not one of his gifts! We needed a form that proved he was honorably discharged and we needed his dress uniform, neither of which could be located in his tiny apartment, even after my kids searched through every nook and cranny they could trying to find them. So, they set about trying to contact the Navy to get the discharge papers, but weren’t sure what to do about the uniform. I grew up hearing the phrase, “Hurry up and wait” in regards to the US Navy. I would say we have experiential knowledge of the truth of that phrase after trying to get a copy of one very important paper from the Navy! We weren’t sure how to go about getting him a dress uniform, so my kids contacted a commanding officer who had befriended Izzy when he was stationed in Japan; I am friends with him on Facebook, so we had contact information readily available. This amazingly kind and generous man was befuddled by the idea that Izzy would leave his dress uniforms in Japan when he came home, but he set about getting us a uniform for him at his own expense. Which brings me to the first painful moment I’m choosing to remember and write down today: Izzy was a pretty slender guy, wearing a men’s size medium for all of his teen and adult years. I think we had told the funeral director that he was a size medium the first time we visited with her. She called one of my other children a few days after that meeting and after they had received his body at the funeral home, to tell us he definitely was not a size medium. His body was so swollen after his accident that he was a men’s size extra-large. When we saw him at the hospital the day he died, we thought there were tubes in his chest under the sheet, making him look so much larger than he normally did. There might’ve been, but we know now that it was mostly swelling. That is a hard fact to come to grips with – my son’s body broken so badly it would be that swollen.
Our oldest daughter, Kim, finally got the Navy to fax a copy of his discharge papers to the funeral home. I will never forget her tenacity that week; there was a task that needed to be completed, and she would not give up until it was accomplished! We were going somewhere together a few days before the visitation, with Kim in the backseat of our car on the phone with someone she was told to talk to for the umpteenth time about the form, saying, “What do I need to do to convince you he is dead? Do you want me to take a picture of his cold, dead body in the casket and send it to you?” It sounds awful now, but it was one of those moments that made all of us laugh heartily at our sweet little daughter talking to someone at the Department of the Navy like that! It is also a poignant example of the frustrations involved in dealing with the military. They don’t seem to care that you are preparing for a funeral in 3 or 4 days and you simply need one form faxed to the funeral home.
The funeral home needed his uniform by 4pm on Thursday, and it arrived at our house around 2pm Thursday. I remember feeling a moment of excitement quickly overshadowed by the horror of why we were receiving a dress uniform in the mail for our Navy son. I had a moment of excitement because #1, I didn’t remember for a second what the day held, and #2, I can’t even begin to describe to you the pride I felt every time I saw my precious son in his dress blues. I had a second of remembering that pride before the reality of why I was receiving a dress uniform in the mail for him hit. He was such a handsome young man, and my heart burst with pride to see him in a US Navy dress uniform. The first time we picked him up at the airport after he completed Basic Training and “A” school, he was in his dress blues. I remember waiting with him a few feet from the luggage carousel for his duffle bag; there were a couple of other men waiting for their bags when one of them noticed Izzy in his uniform. He backed away and motioned for Izzy to get in front of him in deference to my son’s service to his country. It was an amazing moment. He still looked like my little boy to me, but to another man he was clearly a man deserving of respect.
We not only needed his uniform, but as I was told by one of his sailor friends, “a uniform is not a uniform without it’s rocker”, so we also needed a rocker – a patch shaped like an upside down rocker on a rocking chair with his ship’s name on it that was to be sewn onto the sleeve of the uniform. One of his sailor friends put out a message on Facebook asking all of his fellow sailor friends to please donate a rocker for Izzy’s uniform ASAP. We received a small package at the same time we received a large box containing his uniform that Thursday in October. When I looked at the return address, it struck a bell in my memory, but I couldn’t place it, so I set it aside, wanting to open the uniform first. Even as I looked at the return address on the box containing his uniform I was deeply touched, again, that a commanding officer on Izzy’s ship would take it upon himself to do such a generous thing. As I opened the box I could smell the new wool, and I began to cry as I gathered it into my arms and hugged it to myself, knowing I was holding a uniform he had never worn before, but would be wearing, in a few short hours, in preparation for our first visit with him since the day we saw him at the hospital, and for his visitation, funeral and burial. I then picked up the smaller of the two packages, opened it and found a hand-written letter, which made me wonder why it was in a package and not an envelope, then I discovered a tiny, clear zippered bag with 2 rockers in it. I began to read the letter and quickly remembered why the name on the return address sounded familiar – it was Izzy’s only serious girlfriend while he was in the Navy. She had gotten the urgent message that a rocker was needed for her ex-boyfriend’s uniform and sent along 2 that belonged to her. More tears. The letter was precious, as it came from a girl I’d never met, but had heard so much about and knew my son loved.
It took me a few minutes to compose myself well enough to get to work sewing his rocker onto his uniform, and it turned out to be a difficult task, not just physically, but emotionally. In fact, looking back, I’d say it was one of the hardest moments of my life – I had to prepare a uniform for my son to be buried in. The commander had included, in the box with the uniform, specific instructions on how and where to sew the patch onto the sleeve, and I was determined to do it correctly and well, as I knew my son would want nothing less. But, I was so emotional I had a hard time comprehending the instructions, and my hand was shaking so badly I had a hard time holding the needle. I had to call my parents two or three times to ask for help with the instructions, the placement of the rocker, and the correct way to do the stitch. My Dad is a Navy veteran and I knew my Mom would know what to do. My husband was trying to help me by holding the uniform while I stitched, but he was so distressed over my obvious emotional state that he suggested I just glue it on. Never! I wouldn’t have it! The instructions said to stitch it on, so I stitched it on. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and probably one of the worst sewing jobs I’ve ever done. But, I did it. A labor of love equal to the labor of love I experienced 25 years before when I brought him into this world.