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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.

Thank you, Granddad.

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.

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.

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.

A year ago, I was talking with Katie — this was not an unusual thing, in fact I would say we were talking more often then, cramming time into the last few weeks she and her husband were here before they disappeared into the west.  But this particular day, she seemed so sad.  Did you hear about Maddie, she asked me?  No.  I listened as her voice took on the overly brisk tone she gets when she’s talking about something that upsets her.  Maddie was this baby, she told me, and her mom blogged, and everyone thought she was going to be okay, but she died.  She died this morning.

Katie isn’t someone who lets other people see her get choked up easily, so I was surprised when I saw her tearing up.  I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something to the effect of, it’s amazing how someone can be here one day, and then you wake up the next day and they’re gone, a baby is gone out of this world.

I didn’t really get it, at the time.  I mean, of course I understood why it was upsetting to think about a baby dying, taking with her a full life of potential and breaking her parents’ hearts.  That part made perfect sense, but even though I had spent years in online communities, I failed to grasp why this particular loss was so wrenching for my friend.  Not only my friend, but as she told me then, for a widespread community of bloggers.  In the year that has passed, I have read more about Maddie, and I begin to understand.  Begin.  I lurk on the blog, I follow @mamaspohr on Twitter, and I watch how this tiny life has touched so many.

With the internet, people say the world is just that much smaller.  It’s not that the world is smaller, it’s that our grasp is so much bigger now. We can reach so much more than we ever could before.  It’s inevitable that horrible things happen, as they always have, but now a young woman in New Orleans weeps for the child lost in California.  Now, thousands of people talk about her and know her through her mother’s eyes, and both her life and her death are inspiring people to try and make the world better. It is amazing.

(If you do not know Maddie, I strongly encourage you to go over there and get to know her a little bit today.  She and her family are amazing people.)

I don’t have the cred to be writing this blog post, by the way.  I’m not a part of this amazing, intertwined blogosphere full of Friends of Maddie, I just watch it from over here in the corn field.  But that, really, is why I am writing it — even from over here in the corn field, I can see how powerful Maddie’s legacy is, and I am in awe.  If only we were all able to have that kind of impact in such a short period of time.  If only all of us could touch as many lives, and make as much of a difference as Maddie and her mother can.

If only it didn’t take a tragedy for us to realize that we all have that ability within us, every day.

I challenge all of us to think about how we can change the world.  Do it now, do it without having to have your life turned upside down with grief.  Do it because it is the right thing to do, and because you can even if you don’t think you can.  Touch someone’s life today.  For Maddie.

BWB’s grandmother passed away Tuesday night.

In medicine, they teach us not to say things like “passed away”.   We are told that euphemisms like “passed away” and “she’s gone” are not clear enough to sink in through the fog of shock a patient’s family is usually experiencing.  Just say dead, they tell us.  And yet I find that the past few days, I am faltering over that exact phrasing, pausing before I complete the sentence to throw a sidelong look at BWB and finishing up with the gentle euphemisms every time.  I suppose this only serves to prove the point our teachers are trying to convey, but in this moment I do not need every repetition to be a fog-penetrating slap.  I am protecting my husband, not delivering news.  So I choose the vague over the explicit, and our fog remains intact.

It is a strange feeling, this loss, because this was not a woman I was close to.  She was enormously important to my husband, of course, and I have been doing the best I can to support him through this.  I realized last night, though, that as grief slowly works its way into through my neatly constructed defense systems, it is not solely grief on his behalf, based in his pain.  Last night, as I examined these emerging feelings, I recognized some of this loss as my own.

In four months of being her granddaughter-in-law, I had not yet had time to come to equilibrium in my relationship with BWB’s grandmother.  As with all of my new family, she and I were still getting to know each other and to establish what our relationship would look like.  I am not sure if she believed I would be a good wife to her grandson or mother to her great-grandchildren.  I don’t know if she knew that I respected her.  She scared me senseless, to be honest, but I could imagine a time in the not-so-distant future where I felt I was on more solid footing.  I was coming to care for her, as I think she was coming to care for me, but that is where our story ends.  I mourn the loss of that future relationship, the one we will never have.

In the last few weeks, I’ve started looking into BWB’s genealogy.  My father has been working out ours for years, and I have always thought it was pretty amazing to know exactly where I came from. I think BWB’s family is a little bemused as to why the new daughter-in-law is interested in these things, but I think it is the best kind of puzzle — the mystery kind, with stories at the end.  Soon after starting up an profile, I tracked down the Ellis Island records from BWB’s great-grandfather’s arrival.  It’s amazing to me to look at a document which is over 100 years old and know that the loopy, delicate script was put down as a young boy stood there with his mother and brothers and sisters, anxiously waiting to be admitted into this country.  My overactive imagination plays out an elaborate scene of the young Russian mother with a half-dozen tired children; she tries to keep them orderly and polite as the bored clerk marks down names, ages, origin, and other pertinent information.  A hundred years later and two weeks ago, I found the digitized version of the record, including the line for BWB’s grandmother’s father in his 8-ish-year-old incarnation.  A few days later, we got the first phone call letting us know that Grandma was in the hospital.  I had been looking forward to showing her these and other documents I have found so far, and having her fill in the details that bored clerks will never record.  The thought of the stories she might have been able to tell us, all gone, makes me very sad.

I suppose what it comes down to is this: I am grieving the loss of potential.

The funeral is tomorrow, and I’m scrambling to read up on Jewish customs surrounding death, burial, mourning, and grief.  This weekend will be largely about making sure my husband is alright, which means handling logistics like clothing and schedules, distracting him when he needs it and encouraging him to experience his grief when he is able.  I cannot imagine how BWB’s mother and aunts must feel; God willing I will not have to understand that kind of loss any time soon.  Of those who will be there this weekend, I expect to be among those who knew her the least, and I see my role as comforter rather than comforted.  That said, I am glad to have recognized my own grief before the service, and I hope I will be able to find my own comfort as a result.

If you have a few moments tomorrow afternoon, spare a thought or prayer for my husband’s grandmother, the family she leaves behind, and the family she goes to meet.  I will be praying for all of us, remembering the woman I knew, and mourning the woman I will never remember.

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