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american flag

We buried my father on March 2. I returned to the city that day and tried to write about it the next day. But I would have to stop after just a few paragraphs. Those couple of days were harder on me than when he actually died.

Anyway, the funeral was in Modesto on March 1. I was in town and at my mother's, that day, but decided not to attend the funeral. Instead, I took my mother to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. Again, we went early and it was like a Twilight Zone restuarant--just the two of us eating in a big empty room. She gave me grief for ordering a beer with my dinner. I would have liked to have had a pitcher. There were messages from my sister when we returned to my mother's apartment. I am glad I did not go to the funeral. I would not have been in any shape to attend the interment ceremony, the following day.

My mother had suggested that she might want to attend the interment ceremony with me. Since I was planning to drive back to SF directly after the ceremony, that means she would've had to ride back to Modesto with one of my sisters. Sister S. doesn't live in Modesto, but sister C. (who flew out from Virginia) was staying at a motel in Modesto. But I didn't really like the idea of C. and my mother alone in a car together. Last September was the first time they had seen each other in over twenty years. They are both kind of lukewarm toward each other. Finally, my mother decided not to go to the burial. And I am so glad. It would have been awkward having her and my father's wife there.

So I drove alone to Santa Nella, that Friday morning. The National Cemetery--much like many of the VA hospitals--is way the fuck out in the middle of nowhere. The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 10:30 am. I had hoped to be out there by 10. But it was more like 10:20 by the time I got there and pulled into a parking space with no idea where I was supposed to go. My niece came out and met me and hugged me. I didn't recognize her, but she recognized me. I followed her into a waiting room. My nephew was there, both of my sisters, and my uncles who I hadn't seen in over twenty-five years.

(I was thinking that this whole military interment ceremony would be easier to deal with than the funeral, that it wouldn't be as emotionally intense. But I was about to learn that I was wrong. Way, way wrong.)

The hearse was parked outside. We all got into our cars and filed in behind the hearse and followed it up to the committal shelter--basically a covered patio with a bunch of chairs where the ceremony takes place before the hearse is taken to the gravesite. I was the last one in line and was still okay at this point. We all parked our cars behind the hearse near the committal shelter. It was a bright and windy day. I usually don't like much sunlight. But on that day, it seemed perfect. The cemetery was nestled in the foothills, very peaceful and beautiful. And the clear day afforded me the opportunity to look into great blue distance. Then they opened the back of the hearse. And I saw my father's flag-draped casket for the first time. And I realized this was going to be more difficult than I thought. At this point, I felt myself weaken. And everything after that seems like an uncomfortable in dream in retrospect.

Someone said that they wanted me to accept the flag during the ceremony. And I just kind of stood there and said nothing and felt myself weaken. And someone else asked if I wanted to be one of the pallbearers. But I just hung back and couldn't really give a definite answer. So someone else took my place. I think my niece put her arms around me and said, "It's okay, Harold. We love you." And then one of my sisters was hugging me. We all walked over to the committal shelter. I was hoping to sit in the back row. But since I reluctantly agreed to accept the flag, they sat me in the front row, between S. and my father's wife. The pallbearers wheeled the casket over and parked it in front of us. It was a silver casket, draped with an American flag. A pair of uniformed military personnel stood, facing each other, at either end of the casket. Six more soldiers, carrying rifles, stood solemn and silent beyond the shelter and across the lawn. The pastor from my father's church gave a brief talk.

At this point, a sudden and unexpected fury rose up inside me. J., my brother-in-law, stood over to one side. He had his camera with him. While the pastor was speaking, I kept hearing CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK. I stopped staring at the casket and now turned my head to glare at J.. Maybe he didn't notice me looking right at him, as I had my sunglasses on. I remembered when my sisters and I got together with my father for breakfast last september. And J. was there CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICKing pictures while we were eating and annoying the fuck out of me. He is a clod and a dilettante and has no business wielding a camera. I decided to ignore him. I listened to the pastor's talk and stared at the casket. That's when J. decided to move over into my line of view so he could take more photographs. I wasn't sure if he was just photographing the casket or all of us. For some odd reason, I didn't feel like being in any pictures with tears streaming down my face. I quietly hissed in S.'s ear, "I've had ENOUGH of the GODDAMN camera." She half-rose and signalled for her husband to get the fuck out of the way and to stop being such a clod and a dilettante. J. removed himself. I didn't hear any more clicks after that.

The pastor concluded his talk with a prayer. Everyone bowed their heads. I stared past the casket and out at the foothills curving into great blue distance.

We were all told to stand while a uniformed serviceman played "Taps" on a trumpet. I have heard that music played in a variety of contexts throughout my life--solemn, ironic, and sometimes mocking--but hearing it played while staring at my father's flag-draped casket on a bright Friday morning just crushed me. And then the servicemen with rifles fired off a salute. We were all instructed to take our seats again. Everything was very quiet as the the serviceman and servicewoman at either end of the casket removed the flag from the casket and slowly, carefully folded it. That seemed to go on for a long time--and there was no sound but the wind blowing through the bright day. I was so impressed with how they performed their job with so much dignity and respect. They folded the flag into a sort of three-cornered pillow. One of them approached my father's wife and, on bended knee, presented her with the flag. Soon, she turned to me and said that she wanted me to have it. I held it in my lap. I stared down at the stars and felt overwhelmed. I didn't feel like it was right for me to be in possession of something that special, that it would only be ruined in my "care." But I held it and tried to think of nothing but great blue distance. The shell casings from the rifle salute were collected and given to us, so I have some of those, too.

The pallbearers wheeled the casket back into the hearse. The hearse headed off to the grave site. The rest of us got into our cars and drove up to the flagpole at the top of the hill. The top of the hill afforded a beautiful panoramic view of the cemetery and the surrounding countryside. It was very windy up there. We could see where the hearse had parked way down below. And then I saw the silver casket being wheeled toward the grave site. They others started to move toward the flag pole join hands and say a prayer. But I was transfixed and continued to watch the casket, quietly saying goodbye to my father without any words in my head. I didn't want to turn away, because I felt someone should be watching over him in his final minutes above the ground and because I failed to watch over him so many times during his last days alive and i am so sorry im so sorry.

But finally I joined the others by the flag pole. My sister read a poem she had written. My uncle lead us in prayer. I stared into the foothills. Then there was a brief, off-key group singing of "Amazing Grace". I did not sing or say much of anything. Afterward, I did hug my father's wife and talk to her for a bit. Her son and his wife were really great. They are so much better at expressing theirselves and communicating with others. Most people seem pretty good at that. And I am and have always been horrible and quiet and keep everything inside me.

My father's wife and her family returned to the central valley. I followed my sisters and our uncles into Santa Nella for lunch at a restaurant by the freeway. I just had some coffee, as I had to return my rental car by 2 pm. I wanted to be back on the road by noon but stayed in the restaurant into 12:30 because I liked seeing and listening to everyone and I enjoyed the hot coffee. One of my uncles looks a lot like a younger version of my father but, unlike my father, was pretty quiet and reserved. The other uncle was more gregarious and totally had my father's sense of humor.

I decided it was time for me to hit the road. I felt kind of awkward as I rose and said goodbye to everyone. I hugged both of my sisters. My nephew asked me if it would be all right to give me a call if he visits the city. I said that that would be fine--but I hope he doesn't, as I am a horrible recluse and I'm terrible at hosting visitors. I think he would enjoy the city more without me.

And at 12:30 I was back in my car and hauling ass north up I-5, trying to find something good on the radio while continually wiping my nose and my eyes and just trying to focus on traffic and driving and avoidng looking at the perfectly folded flag on the passenger seat. Before all this, I thought I would feel so relieved to have it all over with and return to the city. But I arrived in SF and felt no relief at all. I refilled the gas tank and returned the rental car. The lady in the car rental office asked me about the flag. I explained in as few words as possible where I had just come from. She was very nice and offered her condolences. I thanked her and hurried outside as my eyes watered up.

All the cabs had passengers, so I took the bus across town. I was probably a pathetic sight, with my bags piled around me, the flag pillowed against my chest, and so so glad I had my sunglasses on.

And then I was walking fast up the hill to secret motel. And once I was in my apartment and closed the door there was a kind of relief as I now felt free to let everything pour out of me. And it kept coming and coming. Looking at the flag kept breaking my heart. I wrapped it in a plastic bag and set it in a corner of the room out of my view. I poured myself drinks and got into bed and listened to music and frequently got up to wipe my nose and eyes. I spent much of that weekend draining all the color from my eyes. And R. called me and talked with me a while. I also received a nice card she handmade and sent to me last week. I am so grateful to have someone like her somewhere in my life.

I have been trying to get back into my normal routines--at work and here at home. I've missed writing here. I've been sitting here for hours now, working on this dumb entry. Now that it's done, I hope I can get back to the brief, abstract bullshit i used to write about.

There are so many little chores that have piled up here. I need to pay bills and clean my apartment and do my taxes and do my mother's taxes. And I need to shop online for a display case for the flag. I feel very protective of it and don't want it collecting dust in this goddamn dust hole. I already performed a cursory search and was relieved to find a wide array of cases for sale.

It's late. I want to finish my drink and go to bed.

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