I spotted them as I passed through the security clearance line at National Tuesday morning. Gaggles of teens swarmed the airport, all wearing the same t-shirts, the better for their chaperones to keep track of them. But this family stood out even against that crowded backdrop, and not simply because they were all four wearing red t-shirts.
It was because I knew what that TAPS emblem on their t-shirts stood for – Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Every Memorial Day, TAPS holds a camp for the surviving families of deceased military members. It’s a wonderful opportunity for kids whose parents have died to connect with other children who’ve suffered the same loss. Also for surviving spouses, moms, dads, brothers or sisters to connect as well.
There was no such thing as TAPS around when I was growing up grieving my father.
I watched as the family – a mom, two daughters and a son, loaded their backpacks and electronic gear into plastic bins. I did the same with my own carry-on in a line one row over from them. When I finished, the mom was standing against the wall, waiting for her kids to gather their belongings as I walked past. But you know I can’t just walk past a mother like that. I stopped, spoke to her.
“I’m a Gold Star daughter,” I said. “I was 9 when my father died. I just want you to know that I see you here. Your kids will be okay. They will have hard days but because of moms like you, they will be okay.”
Her dark eyes welled. She nodded her head. “Thank you,” she said. To say much more would have caused us both to weep at that moment, so I walked on and she turned back toward her children.
Moments like these make me miss my own mother. They make me wonder: Did I tell her enough how thankful I was for all her sacrifices? Can we ever communicate that to our mothers, any of us who had good mothers?
I picked up my morning coffee, answered some mail, took some phone calls. Did all that stuff a person who travels a lot usually does in airports when there are a couple of hours until boarding. The CNN channel playing in the background was yammering on about whether Trump would or would not support the Paris Climate agreement. Speculation has replaced fact-finding for most news shows these days. Television news has replaced the psychic’s crystal ball.
I thought about the first time I was at National and how my friend Terry McGregor helped me navigate it. It had all seemed so strange to me then. This land of chrome and scurrying people. Back then I was a newbie. The FNG. I might never have negotiated National and the Memorial Day events had McGregor not been at my side, encouraging me, advising me, just walking with me. I know I’m not the only one. Terry was a mentor to many. Airports would come to play a big role in our friendship. The bulk of our phone conversations took place in airports, him flying off to somewhere for his job and me doing the same.
Because of our shared landscape of loss, it has seemed like we’d known each others our entire lives. I suppose in some ways we did. But in reality, I was 47 before we met. I teased him that it was like meeting another green martian, meeting another Gold Star son. We often commiserated over how much better it would have been for all of us if we’d had the support of each other as kids.
If there had been TAPS for us.
I confided to Terry that I didn’t like being the first on the plane. A First-Class frequent flyer, he thought that was strange. Why would anyone wait to board last? But I often did and often still do. Those who are last shall be first, as they say. This trip was no different. I was one of the last three people to board the United flight out of National headed to San Francisco, where I would change planes and head on home.
The steward, a smiley, helpful man, offered to take my suitcase and find a spot for it. One of the reasons why people don’t like to board last. Sometimes they run out of overhead bin space. I handed him the bag and then continued looking for my window seat. I always take the window seat. Something about looking out on the expanse of creation. A reminder that the world is so much grander than any human can imagine.
It was the only window seat left.
Sitting next to me?
The young boy whose mother I had stopped and spoke to a few hours prior.
“I wondered if perhaps I wouldn’t see you again,” I said, as his mother popped up and smiling, hugged me.
Happens to me all the time.
You, too, I suppose, heh?
Over the next few hours, I learned that her husband had come home from a tour in Iraq, safely. But then he had been run down and killed while crossing the street in San Francisco during a business trip. You send your husband off to war, you worry that he might not make it home again. But then he does come home safely and you can breathe again, so you don’t worry about him making a routine business trip to San Francisco. Until, the fellows wearing the spit-shined shoes show up at your door with their Regret-to-Inform you letter.
We swapped pictures and stories.
Her husband had served with the 25th Infantry. My father’s own division. A native of Japan, she stayed in Hawaii after her husband died, per her children’s wishes. The girls helped her make that decision. Her husband’s parents, Ohio residents, had died a few short years after him. Her own parents resided in Japan. Oahu was a good compromise between her American-born children and her ancestral heritage.
Oahu was the last place I lived with my own father.
Sitting three rows up from us was a woman soldier, dressed in her Army Combat Uniform. My new friend informed me that the soldier’s fiance had recently been killed in yet another incident. Later, when she introduced us, the soldier reached her long arm past other passengers and said, “Can I shake your hand? I’ve never met a Gold Star before.”
We all gathered on the ground in San Francisco, to take a photo together, to remember the poetry of our meeting. A United employee asked if they could take our photos for us.
As soon as the photo session was over, up walked another TAPS family. Three teenage girls, their mother and father. They’d lost their brother, a soldier, eight months earlier in an accident in Italy.
I’d tell you how strange all these seems, all these encounters in such a short time frame, given than I fly often and have never had this experience before. But to tell you that might suggest that I don’t believe in a God who is always, every single day, about the business of redeeming the brokenhearted.
The God I honor and serve is a poet.
A poet who creates beauty from ashes.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the forthcoming CHRISTIAN BEND: A Novel (Mercer University Press). Sept. 2017.