The steel gray clouds deepened in response to the waning December sun. Splats of icy rain fell on the 624 pale green acres of Arlington National Cemetery. Marble monuments stood, a silent foil for the prattle and posturing of Washington DC, just across the Potomac. On December 15, 2018, the supporters of a project called “Wreaths Across America” appeared at the edges of Arlington National Cemetery throughout the day to lay wreaths, to pay respects, to remember and remind that we are all related.
Many people, thousands of people, their numbers estimated between 44,000-57,000 came out in a cold rain to lay circles of Maine Balsam against the smooth cold marble of a quarter million head stones. There it is; the painful irony: the circle of life, in winter resistant evergreen, tied with a bright red bow leaning on the finality of death in carved marble.
Two young women had heard the request for volunteers to lay wreaths on all the graves at Arlington. The National Cemetery is part of their “hood,” an unexpected swath of green amidst shiny high rise buildings and the multi lanes of the 395 corridor. They had come in an UBER from the apartment just 6 miles away to a drop off point at the edge of the access road.
They and the thousands of others trudged in on foot, a fitting way to honor a soldier. They waited an hour or so to reach the back of the tractor trailers holding fresh green wreaths of Maine Balsam. As they waited, they watched, and they felt. The instructions given were simple: choose any stone, and say the name of the person engraved there out loud and lay the wreath. Looking out over the sea of white stones, more than 400,000, is it possible to understand the enormity of the loss?
But in communion with one stone, one name, the abstract became concrete, imagined heroes became flesh and blood, soul and spirit. They stood and watched as those around them completed this ritual. Life is never more real than when it is hedged by death.
The temporal imperatives of urban DC were rinsed away by the mid December rain. The heavy drops beat cadence on umbrellas and plastic ponchos. Rivulets of water ran in the faces of those focused on the task of acknowledging heartbreak and hardship. The women watched the others. Military men and women in uniform came to a fallen friend, an elderly Mother pushed her walker awkwardly down the row, children in their best Christmas outfits standing quietly beside bent elders; these were quilted together on this grey day by the far away wail of a bagpipe. The vignettes were endless.
Soon enough they had their wreaths and they found themselves standing amongst the graves of soldiers. In the dates and the names they found tiny pieces of story; those who died young, those who died in action, those that died of their injuries years later, and many that died after a lifetime of carrying traumatic memory that most of us will never experience, they were all there.
Spouses are here too, their names engraved on the back of the stone as if to “lean in” on each other when the going got hard. Entwined lives that began with crisp starched collars, sharp creases, pride and courage ending as all humanness does; ashes to ashes dust to dust. Marble is hard, cold and unforgiving. It’s chiseled meaning will hold strong in this place for a very long time.
So, what happens when you add a wreath? What happens when 44,000 or so living humans offer compassion and gratitude to hundreds of thousands of warriors?
The women told this story. She walked amongst the rows with the first wreath and came to him quickly. He had died very young in the 1970’s. Saying his name, she felt gratitude for his service and told him without words that he is remembered. She continued to walk, taking in the names, the people, feeling the strength of her own emotions. She walked until she found a family name engraved in marble. The name of her great great grandmother’s family of ten children who wandered across the US across 5 generations.
Knowing that he was of our tribe was enough. She said his name, offered gratitude and took a picture of his grave and that of his wife of many years. The picture that she sent me opened a door of beautiful possibility. His beloved wife was born on the birthdate of the woman’s great grandmother and died on the birthdate of her grandchild. His name was Evan, hers was Eva. Sounds like family to me
So, I ask again, “What happens when 44,000 or so living humans offer compassion and gratitude to those who have died?”
Some might say what’s the purpose in this kind of enquiry? What’s the purpose in imagining that we could even guess at that answer? The purpose is central to what propelled 44,000 people out of their armchairs and Christmas shopping frenzy to serve the needs of those that will never say thank you.
I think they hear us and I believe it helps us all.
May we seek peace.