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Nearly six years ago, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Today, I said a similar oath, except instead of second lieutenant, I said captain.

He was supposed to be here.

Last year, my husband and I went to visit my grandfather and his wife of five years in Florida. BWB was terrified of The General, but we were both delighted to discover we had an amazing time. My grandfather took me out to the driving range to the first time, and I can only wish that I had let him do so many years earlier. It was so much fun, and such a bond with him. Over the weekend, he told me how they’d found a tiny little spot on an MRI, nothing to worry about, and that he promised he’d be here this year when I had my promotion ceremony.

He was supposed to be here.

Last summer, when I was on active duty for a month, I could not for the life of me figure out what the etiquette should be at the gate coming on and off base. I mean, there I was in a sundress and pigtails, headed out to meet my friends, and the young airman checking my ID wanted to salute me. Should I salute him back, despite not being in uniform? Not return the salute? Either option seemed disrespectful. My father said I should call my grandfather and ask his advice — he’d like that, my dad said. I called The General, and he reveled in it.

As summer faded to fall, an irresponsible oncologist and my grandfather’s naive fighter’s soul conspired to end his life.

Last fall, as I filled out the pages and pages of applications and forms required by the military for the match and graduation process, I agonized. How do I do this? How do I balance my family, my career, and the needs of the military? How can I possibly be fair to everyone and to myself? I needed him, I needed to speak to him, I needed his advice, but he was beyond my reach.

Last December, we buried him next to my grandmother on a hill at Arlington.

Today, I had to say that oath without him. Today, the Lt. Commander from the Navy base across the river read my words off to me, after making sure he knew my name by checking it in the program. He was articulate and heartfelt, clearly honored to be there with us, with wise words of advice for his fellow military physicians, but he wasn’t my grandfather. Today I felt his absence more keenly than I have felt any loss before.

I can almost hear him, the cadence of the words he would have said, the look in his eyes, the expression on his face. I can imagine the way he would have pointed, gestured with his index finger at me and at my husband. I can picture the way he would have looked, reading off an oath he took himself decades before I did, bursting with pride at his grandchild

It would have been our moment, his and mine. It was our connection, our shared history, our Air Force.

He was supposed to be here.

I:
My father called me to tell me that my grandfather was very sick.  He’d been in the hospital, but it seemed to be worse than previously anticipated, so I piled into my car with the dog and drove to Florida.  When I got there, I was able to talk in doctor-speak to the doctors and translate for the non-doctors.  My grandfather was so happy to see me, and I was happy to be there when he was transitioned to a rehab facility.  In May, he came to my promotion ceremony and administered my oath — his face was full of pride as I stood there next to him in my uniform, a symbol of our shared commitment and service.

II:
My father called to tell me that my grandfather was very sick, in fact even worse off than we had feared, and was being put into hospice right away.  I piled into my car with the dog and drove to Florida.  I got there in time to see him one last time and tell him I love him, I’m proud of him, and that I hope he’s proud of me, too.  I brought with me a copy of the captain’s oath, and with the help of a relative, he was able to go through it with me right there in his hospital room.  It’s not official, but it means so much to me that he was able to do it before we had to say goodbye. I was there when we all told him it was okay, that he could go and be with my grandmother now, and I was there when he finally did so, peacefully and surrounded by love.

III:
My father called to tell me that my grandfather was gravely ill and being moved into hospice as we spoke.  I piled into the car, but before I even left home, my father called me again to let me know he was gone.  I still took the dog, and we are still going to Florida.  I’m a little less clear on how this story ends, but I keep saying I’ll figure it out when I get there.

My grandfather died Saturday night, and as my sister said, the grief comes in waves.  These are the stories I have been telling myself since the first phone call on Friday — only one of them reflects the actual course of events, but I like to think that in some way, all of them are true.

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