That remarkable day.
I drove toward town through pre-dawn darkness, eyes fixed on a beginning-to-blush horizon lined with shadowed silhouettes of mountains and pine trees.
I was on a mission. Journey from east coast to west, drive from Seattle to McMinnville, celebrate my Uncle Joe’s life with the West Coasters who loved him. Collect his belongings. Bring him home.
The sun was setting beyond the mountains as I drove out of town - sky bursting with an otherworldly explosion of color and light that demanded I get out of the car. Trucks, cars and cyclists rushed by as I watched the Northwest heavens bid a spectacular farewell to a favorite son. Wind blew, tears fell, sky darkened.
A profound sense of peace and pride was giving way to exhaustion as I pulled my suitcase into an airport restaurant and settled for supper at a table for four. My dinner companions included a flag - expertly folded, tucked into a triangle and secured in plastic, a myrtlewood box, three roses, a tarnished Timex watch, and a glass of Oregon pinot noir.
“Are you waiting for others?” The waiter had finally returned.
“No,” I said, closing the menu. “Here all alone.”
“Should those things be on the table?” he asked, gesturing at the things on the table.
The few patrons in the restaurant were suddenly paying attention. “Yes,” I answered. “Would you care to see the letter I was given by …?”
“No.” He cut me off. “Would you care for another glass of wine?”
No, actually. I cared for another bottle of wine. I had been on the road for two sleepless days. Little did I know how many rules and regulations must be followed so I could carry a loved one’s ashes from memorial out west to burial back east.
The funeral parlor director had warned me hours earlier. Handing me the myrtlewood box, he’d said, “These ashes must stay on your person at all times. Don’t let them out of your sight. They can’t go through security, on a bathroom sink, under a table, or in an overhead bin.” He then gave me the flag honoring my uncle’s military service, and tucked a paper between my fingers - a permission slip, of sorts, stamped and signed at the funeral home. “Give this to anyone who questions you.”
I was trying to remember all the instructions as I left the restaurant carrying the paper, a suitcase, a backpack, a giant green bag filled with Uncle Joe’s stuff, the flag, and Uncle Joe. I was a spectacle, surely. Only a few moments into the trek from restaurant to security to gate, I realized that people were not looking at me because I was a harried, overloaded mess. They were noticing the flag tucked beneath my elbow, and the myrtlewood box in my arms.
A woman nervously looked away. A guy in a suit stared down at his phone and picked up his pace. A gaggle of sorority girls, pointing and giggling, began whispering to each other as I returned their stares. A mom shushed her teenager.
A security guard suddenly stood at attention, raising fingertips to forehead in a perfect salute.
Other passengers took note and stepped out of the way to let me pass.
An elderly man whispered, “My condolences, miss.”
A pilot hurrying beside me reached out to help. “May I carry something for you?”
“No, thanks,” I muttered with a half-smile. “Rules and regulations.”
It dawned on me after many additional, excruciating moments in the spotlight that some who looked my way and saw the flag undoubtedly thought I’d lost a spouse or child to war. Dismayed, I wished I could shout, ”My 92 year old uncle, a WWII veteran, has died. He was an amazing man who lived an extraordinary life. I’m bringing him home. It’s all good!” But I remained silent, deeply humbled as I imagined a similar walk of pain for a grieving military wife or mother.
The flag, and all its power, wasn’t finished with me on that journey.
As I settled into my seat on the plane, a flight attendant walked through the aisle. “That box can’t be on your lap,” she said. “Put it in the bin above.”
Puzzled, the little girl seated to my right looked up from her tablet as I hesitated.
Flight attendant returned, irritated. “That box needs to be stored in the overhead bin.”
“This explains why I have to hold it,” I said, handing her the funeral director’s note while refraining from snapping out too many details in front of the child.
“We’re ready to pull away from the gate, and cannot move until you put that box in the overhead compartment!” The flight attendant admonished me so sharply and loudly that passengers looked up from newspapers, phones, sleep.
A gentleman behind me spoke out. “Don’t you see the flag on her lap? She has to hold the box,” he chided.
The attendant looked from flag to box to me. “You’d better not drop it,” she said.
The gentle man behind me squeezed my shoulder. ”Thank you for your loved one’s service.”
That walk through the airport on my uncle’s final journey was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I’ve thought about it often; the emotion and commotion, the purpose, grief, and discomfort, the tightness in my fingers as I gripped that myrtlewood box all the way home.
That walk changed me. It opened my eyes to the power of symbols. It deepened my sympathy and empathy for those who lose loved ones in war. It made me see, acknowledge, and try to understand the stunning differences in how we mortals react to each other.
On that remarkable day, almost four years ago, I carried a flag and a myrtlewood box through a great hall filled with mortals. Some snickered. Others saluted. Some were dismissive. Others offered condolences. Some chastised. Others leapt to my defense.
It felt a lot like this past week when a myriad of emotions and judgments erupted as Americans debated the significance, impact, and relevance of our national anthem - the current symbol in the spotlight.
Had I called my uncle, the soldier, to tell him the positive and negative reactions and comments I received as I walked through an airport carrying a flag that spotlighted both his death and his service to our country, he’d have said, “That’s how freedom speaks.”
Had I called my uncle, the navigator, to ask his opinion of players who kneeled to peacefully protest an anthem that represents a government which increasingly challenges its declaration that all people are created equal, and defies many of the ideals, laws, and freedoms protected in its constitution, he’d have said, “Democracy sometimes gets knocked to its knees. We need to lift it back to its feet.”
Had I called my uncle, the patriot, to help me try to understand the stunning differences in how we mortals react to each other, he’d say, “Americans often lose sight of the fact that all of us are ‘We The People’. Together we rise, because ‘Divided we Fall’ is unthinkable.”
The impact of symbols like a flag or an anthem is stunning. Wrapped in emotion and perception, symbols can inspire, unite, enrage, divide.
It’s increasingly difficult for We the People to choose inspire and unite, as our Commander in Chief disparages and divides. Yet I keep reminding myself that beyond the symbols and rhetoric, we are all citizens, neighbors, friends. If we can walk through the discomfort of our collective emotions and experience, listening and lifting, we’ll rise.
'Divided, we Fall’ is unthinkable.