Monday, August 03, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Witness

The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. 
Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. 
What then shall we choose? 
Weight or lightness?

 ―Milan Kundera, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Last Sunday morning, when I returned home from my 60 mile solo bike tour of Marietta, Roswell and Mountain Park, Ryan asked if I wanted to go with him to watch the funeral procession of Skip Wells. The kids were not home-- Carmella was at lacrosse camp  in Florida and Beau, probably still asleep, was at his best friend's house. We had some planned errands, would grab some lunch and then Ryan would go to his Old Guy Lacrosse game. Later, we would all have dinner together that evening. It was "Sunday Funday," and everyone one of us would have a day doing something we liked and at our leisure: me a long bike and shopping, Ryan sleep in and play lacrosse, Beau with his best friend and Carmella with her best friend at camp. We certainly had the time to spare and stand witness to a funeral procession.

Neither Ryan nor myself, personally or even tangentially, knew Lance Cpl. Squire Skip Wells, the  youngest of the group of five military servicemen gunned down on July 16, 2015 at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center in Chattanooga, TN. We did not know his family either. However, Skip Wells  attended the high school in the district next to ours and his memorial service was held at the First Baptist Church of Woodstock that is only a few miles from our house. And Chattanooga, a city that we dearly love and visit several times a year, is less than a 2 hour drive from our home. The Chattanooga shooting rampage on unarmed US servicemen, the most recent homeland terrorist tragedy to evoke the nation, had taken one from our community. It touched our home.

 Ryan wanted to go to show support. I felt slightly uncomfortable about it. I thought we would be acting as paparazzi on someone else's tragedy. I have never seen a military funeral procession and I admit, I was curious. Generally, I  prefer to personally experience the world as much as I can rather than watch it on TV or read about it second hand. Certainly, I have seen, and even been a member of, many funeral processions. I have noted that in small towns versus larger urban areas, that there are distinct differences in the community response to a funeral procession. In a small town, people will stop and wait for the funeral to pass by, take off their hats and bow their heads. In some cases, the whole town actually goes to the funeral and brings fried chicken, green beans and cobblers in tinfoil covered  Pyrex dishes just because their Mama played bridge with the cousin of  his sister.  But here, in the sprawling Atlanta area, people can be oblivious and will get tangled up in a funeral procession and never even realize the reason they made all the lights in Buckhead was because someone had died.

Ultimately, I thought it would not be polite. Ryan advised me we would be showing support for Skip's family, solidarity for our country and that this is what the community should do for a fallen solider. It was impolite to not go and stand witness was the implication. Even still, I had my doubts that it was the right thing to do. But I agreed to go with him.

The First Baptist Church of Woodstock, where the funeral service for Skip was held, is around the corner from our house. The funeral procession traveled from 575 down Highway 92 to the Baptist Church that is located at Neese Road and Highway 92. Ryan and I drove to the corner of Hames Road and Highway 92, the intersection that is down and across the street from Baptist Church.

I was very surprised, when we turned on Hames Road from Jamerson Road by the amount of traffic on the typically empty, residential street. Already parking was at a premium.  As we made our way to the intersection of Hames Rd and Highway 92, I could see that in both directions the 4 lane divided median highway was already lined with people of all ages and stages of life holding American Flags. It was strange to see the traffic  slowed to an intermittent tickle of cars at this time of day. And the cars that did pass, donned American Flags.

It was a strange pageant for certain. It had all the fixing of a parade- a gathered crowd lining closed roads waving American flags--but the mood was not festive. It was respectful. And the crowd, while there was a spirit of palpable excitement in the air, it wasn't of the contagious type, rather it was contained, reigned in.

And, it was hot, Of course it was. Midday at the end of July in Georgia is always sunny and 90 something degrees.The heat radiated in waves and ripples off the asphalt. Of course it was humid too, as midday (and morning and night) always is in the summer. And I was really thirsty. Dehydrated and hungry from my bike ride, I was deeply regretting not going in the gas station near where we parked to buy a fountain coke. I would just suffer, I decided. And I pushed the vision of a 20 oz icy coke out of my head, because I knew as soon as walked back over to the gas station the motorcade would come by and I would miss the whole thing. I knew it would pass by in a fast moment, like everything else does.

Though hot, it was a beautiful afternoon--a blue sky and fluffy clouds kind of afternoon. And the crowd that was still gathering was quiet. As people would approach the edges of the street their voice would drop to an inaudible whisper. Eavesdropping was impossible. Only the youngest of the children there were not using their library voices. Instead, they were like puppies, rolling in the grass and running back and forth excited about everything in the world. Their energy provided a reprieve as their laughter sprinkled over the somber crowd. I would still myself, craning and also wanting to know, each time one of them asked their parents,"When is he coming? When will he be here?"

Finally, an adult in the crowd politely asked the lone police officer directing traffic, "is he close?"

The officer advised, "Yes. Soon."

As we waited, I took some pictures.

It is hard for me to process moments and their meaning as they happen. Photos provide visual aids for my memory. There is little time for reflection any more. Lately, my life, and the precious moments and experiences that cushion it,  have been spinning madly past me. I have been in losing negotiations with the universe to slow it all down. I suspect like many, I have realized my mistake too late. I know, I was warned. I clearly remember hearing it ad nauseum when the children were babies,  but I admit it, I blinked. And it is like I have been in a blinking spree. I am trying to stop, prop open and fix my eyeballs on the world in a frozen stare but honestly, I cannot hold my eyes open long enough or stayed focused to take in this rich feast of amazing moments--never mind have time to have a thought and process an understanding or a perspective, or sadly, sometimes just have an emotion. So I take pictures. I need the photographs to capture all these blinking moments, so later, in a suspended second, I can linger on the experience, hold it in my hand and look at it. And yes, realize all that I have missed.

  I will admit that I was uncomfortable taking pictures with my cell phone, feeling disrespectful and impolite in the brevity of the moment. But I was not alone. Nearly everyone had their phone out- either snapping pictures or recording the scene. One woman had situated herself on the grass median in the middle of the highway with her tripod and had a giant high powered lens on her camera. She had the whole median to herself and was not at all discreet about her tripod and her giant lens camera. A woman, standing next me and jockeying for a better spot, openly admired the tripod woman's fortitude for her choice of spots. She tried, in a series of whispered suggestions to encourage her husband to relocate to the median but he wouldn't go. After a few moments they moved a bit up the hill. As I stood there, I regretted, along with my missed opportunity for a coke, being short and wished I had worn shoes with a wedge so I could see better. For a moment, I also admired the tripod woman's  spot on the median but I was not feeling bold enough to cross the highway and stand so out in the open.

And right now, as I look back and think about standing on the sidewalk waiting for the car carrying the body of Skip Wells and the other cars that carried his heart broken family to drive past me, I wish I had taken more pictures. I have too few pictures for all the seconds I was standing there.  The ones I did take though have jarred a response in me that I wanted to chronicle. So here I sit. Stealing corners of my day, during lunch, while driving to work, while I run, bike, or swim,  trying to find that suspended second in time where I can work out in my mind what I saw.
What happened.
What changed.
What I felt.

After awhile we heard a roar and then saw the Patriot Guard  pass us. It was a bit of a ruckus, their passing, but as the rattle of their mufflers faded eastward in the direction of the Baptist Church it grew silent and the crowd again turned to face the west, waiting more patiently than any crowd I have ever been a part of.

Several minutes passed and cars were no long going by on either side of the highway.

As I looked down the  hill of Highway 92 towards Woodstock I saw a river of blue and white lights edging over the horizon line and quietly rolling towards us.

I will admit to a flutter of nervous excitement as the motorcade blinked and rolled towards me.

It is weird to think that is what I felt since the occasion of this was a funeral procession. A significant tragedy.

I don't know what  the right word is, or rather the correct emotion to have is. But it was there, this feeling of anticipation that something was going to happen.

I knew that the cars would roll past me. I knew that I would see a hearse that would carry the body of Skip Wells. I knew I would see the long dark cars that carried the bereft family. But I didn't know what else would happen. I didn't know what the reaction of the crowd would be. I didn't know what my reaction would be.

It was a long procession that stretched a mile. First the police from  Cobb County, Marietta, Holy Springs and Woodstock on motorcycles rolled past and I wondered if  behind those mirrored sunglasses their eyes belied the stoicism set in their mouths.  I wondered what they saw as they rode past the gathered crowds on the side of road after road that they slowly traveled  in the hot July sun, guiding the Wells family to say a last farewell to Skip and then finally, bringing Skip to his resting place at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton, GA.

 And then I saw the dark cars and I stopped taking pictures and held my phone down. The first car passed quickly and I turned my eyes to the side. When I looked back to the procession,  my mind took a picture of that second long, black car that I have been seeing in my brain ever since.

 The windows  of the car behind the hearse were not tinted and a woman in dark dress was framed by the car door window. I could see her face so clearly. Her expression was tangible.  I presumed this woman was Skip's mother and in an instant I felt her grief. I connected with her, knowing how I would feel sitting in a car behind the car that carried my son who died far too young. My son, who had signed up to protect his country and had made, as is so often said, "the ultimate sacrifice." My son, who had been stationed just 2 hours north, that I thought was safe. My son, gone.

I watched as the procession disappeared east and over the hill out of sight. The crowd began to disperse and Ryan and I walked back to our car to carry on with our Sunday plans. As we drove away, I thought of the face of the woman who I presumed was Skip's mother's and I felt a heavy weight on my heart, a mixture of pain, sadness and guilt that was physically hard to swallow.

I recalled another time I felt this emotion and it had caught me off guard then too. It was Easter Sunday, many years ago. I don't remember which church but the sermon was, of course, on the Resurrection-- a story I have heard millions of times. But that Easter Sunday, I heard the story differently. The pastor was telling the part of the story where he would have said, in some way or another, that God gave up his only son so that we would be saved. I can't even begin to say how many times I have heard that sentence said, in one way or another, at dozens of Easter Sermons. It has never once resonated with me other than this is what one says when one tells the story of the Resurrection. But as I sat there that day, listening again to the story of the Resurrection, I wasn't focused on Jesus. That Easter when I heard the word "son" I identified with God as a fellow parent. I understood the magnitude of the sacrifice and wondered, for the first time, how God had done that. I knew, as I thought about God the parent offering up his only son to save the human lot, that I could not, nor would I ever willing give up my child to anyone or anything for any reason.  I would, I thought, possibly offer myself up but of that, I am not entirely certain.

This empathy, it has weight. It tethers us to each other in compassion, knowing that as witnesses we shoulder but do not and cannot carry the heavy burden of grief. 

It is an unbearable lightness.

And  I do, I feel guilty for it.