I finally understand -- in a visceral way -- why the Bush administration has been so intent on preventing the public from seeing any military funerals. I just attended my first one, and though it was brief, it was easily one of the most moving ceremonies I have ever witnessed.
We bade farewell to my father-in-law the other day and, as a veteran, he was entitled to a committal ceremony and internment at a military site. Two non-coms and an officer officiated, Army Rangers all.
We watched as they moved in the precise, small steps of this respectful ritual to whispered orders they have uttered and obeyed hundreds of times, as they saluted the remains for what seemed an eternity, then slowly unfurled a US flag, presented it and just as slowly folded it into a tight isosceles triangle; as they rotated it three times to methodically crease its vertical edge with white-gloved hands; as they smoothed the surface of six framed white stars on blue; as seven rifles fired three times overhead, each volley followed by the clink of brass on pavement; as a sergeant-major knelt before my mother-in-law to offer the condolences of the President of the United States and the thanks of a grateful nation to a soldier who served his country 63 years earlier; as they saluted the widow and her family when the ceremony was over and we walked back to our cars.
It would be easy to ascribe the behavior of these people who didn't know Jack Didion to their profession: they are trained to be disciplined, or to die. I'm sure this plays a part. But training and demeanor cannot always overcome a human frailty, as I was reminded earlier on this same day by someone who was called to grace.
Before the military ceremony, Jack's wish to be included in a Roman Catholic mass upon his passing was realized. He had not been a regular church goer in his later years; poor health prevented much of anything for him. So since he was of no parish his daughter found a church near the military facility where he was to be interred, and whose priest was happy to oblige.
Trouble was, he got Jack's name wrong. About 15 times. "Norm" or "Norman" is what he said. Jack's given name was "Nolan," and since so many of the arrangements were done on the phone and through third parties this is an understandable mistake.
But it was a mistake, magnified by the circumstances, and many members of the grieving family were very upset: Jack's one and final mass was for some guy named Norm.
When told, through tears, that he had made this mistake, the priest became immediately annoyed and defensive. Nothing was his mistake, and it didn't matter anyway because we had prayed for everybody. Who is Norm anyway, he asked us (?). We don't use nicknames (Jack) in mass. You aren't of this parish anyway.
Nancy couldn't take it anymore and when she looked to me I said "We should leave now" and as we did he said "Oy!" "Oy!" "Oy!"
I returned to fetch my mother-in-law and other members who were, in my view, pointlessly conversing with this flawed mortal who seemed incapable of taking any personal responsibility. As I ignored him and directed the rest of my in-laws to their cars he said something defensive again -- I do not recall what -- to which I replied: "Thank you for that, and for the apology that I am sure was in there somewhere," to which he replied: "Don't be an ass," three times (something about saying something three times must be significant.) After the third "don't be an ass" I repeated to my relatives that we should leave, especially since we had been reminded "we are not of this parish."
I mention this to kvetch, of course, but also to contrast. This shepherd was incapable of seeing the rectifiable error of his ways and resorted immediately to bullying. No apology to the widow, no self-deprecation, no sense of personal responsibility. I wonder how long he would have lasted in the unit that officiated over my father's military ceremony later that morning?
Postscript: The priest, as pre-arranged, also made brief remarks at the military cemetery. His words and sentiments were, in the main, correct -- though he did allow as he wasn't sure Jack was going to heaven (none among the faithful can know this, I guess, but mentioning that "fact" seemed odd) and that he wasn't sure his sermon earlier in the day had resonated with everyone (true enough for the atheists in my posse). And in a bit of overcompensating overkill he used both "Nolan" and "Jack" several times, and a few times referred to him as "Nolan Jack."
As they say, when a pig flies, you don't blame him for not staying up too long.
Of course, we now have a new family joke. What would Norm think, we ask? And we also know that Jack would have dined out on the story of the priest who called him Norm for years, loudly and again and again to anyone who would listen, no matter how many times you have already heard it.
God bless him.
When it was over I went out of my way to thank the priest for his "lovely" words and to shake his hand. He offered me his condolences, and said he "would pray for me."
Heaven help me.