They say that the five most traumatic events in life are: (1) death of a loved one; (2) divorce; (3) job loss; (4) moving/buying a home; and (5) major illness. I experienced three within a twelve months. In the fall of 2003, I bought my first home before the age of 32. In February 2004, I was downsized from my job with a mortgage to pay. In May 2004, my dad seemed to have a bad case of the flu. Three weeks later he was gone at 54. I had older relatives die before, but my dad’s loss was sudden. I am a daddy’s girl. The grief nearly broke me. Then, just as I thought I was healing from the grieving process, in August 2005, my grandmother died. People call me strong. I know that is meant as a compliment, but I hate it. I am strong out of necessity. Everyone cannot breakdown at the same time, so I go on auto-pilot in times of crisis to manage the activities that must be handled in spite of. In February of this year, I declared that Superwoman left the building. Fate laughed at me and recently dealt a horrific blow.
It was a normal Saturday two weeks ago. I was on auntie duty. I took my youngest sister’s son to see Spider-Man Homecoming. Later, we went to the park so he could play baseball. After dinner, we returned home. A couple hours later, my older sister runs out of the room into the kitchen. “There has been an accident.” We immediately pray. I texted the other nieces to come home immediately. By the time everyone arrived home, my sister’s husband walked in the door, “He’s gone.” The house erupted into weeping and wailing. I watched as my sister fell limp in her husband’s arms screaming, “My son, my baby. My firstborn.” My nieces, his sisters, looked around in disbelief. “We just talked to him.” Then, like a Greek chorus, they started screaming in unison. My mother, “Are you sure it’s him? Maybe they made a mistake.” My mother lost her firstborn and only son, my brother, at age seven. She always said that there was nothing worse than a parent burying their child. Now, her daughter was experiencing the same pain she felt over 40 years ago. I went in the vestibule and cried.
Superwoman had to return because my sister and brother-in-law needed to board a plane to the Navy base in Virginia. I had to stay with my nieces and handle arrangements in Chicago. My mourning had to be delayed if I was to have the presence of mind to proceed. I felt guilty. The fourth of July weekend I was in NYC and thought I about extending my stay to go down to Virginia to check on him. I said next time. Now there would be no next time. Earlier in the day, I texted him chided him to be safe and careful. My last communication to him, being a worrisome aunt.
As family and friends came to the house late that night, I got on the phone with airlines to get my sister and brother-in-law out on the first flight. I assigned everyone an airline to call with instructions to ask for bereavement flights for an active duty military. My cousin went online and said that United had the cheapest flights out and non-stop at $313/per person. I called United explaining that it was bereavement for the family of the military. The United agent said two seats would be $930. That was $300 more than their website. I hung up! After speaking with a manager at Southwest, we booked my sister and her husband on a 6am flight. It was 2am and they had to be at the airport in two hours. I originally volunteered but thank goodness friends of the family insisted because I could not. When my sister and brother-in-law landed in Virginia, the USO and Navy met them at the gate and never left their side.
Sunday morning, my eyes were so swollen from crying in my pillow that I could not put in my contacts. Every time I tried, they popped out. I had to run errands for my sister and brother-in-law. As I was driving, I cried in the car. I did not want to cry at home because at night and earlier that morning, I heard my nieces sobbing. They were trying to be strong and I did not want to cause more anxiety for them. That evening I spoke with my sister. The Navy was looking after them. My nephew’s military and biker friends came to take them out and comfort them. The military would handle shipping the body and the Navy memorial. We still needed to make arrangements for Chicago. On my mind was my other nephew, a year younger than his brother, who happened to be in Virginia visiting him and had the horrendous job of identifying his brother’s body. He had just finished his enlistment and returned home for college. He spent his last two years in the Navy at the same base as his brother. How was he? My sister said that he was holding up and returning to Chicago the following day.
Monday morning, I tried to be normal. I went in the office for a half a day and apologized to my co-workers in advance if I started crying randomly. I was a robot staring at the computer screen through tears and contacting the funeral home. Fortunately, Gatling’s Chapel attendant Bridgette was an angel. I explained to her the situation and that my sister was in Virginia at the Navy base so I was arranging things. I gave her our Navy contact. Her words were comforting. She patiently listened as I spoke unintelligibly while sobbing. She assured me that they would take care of my family and that I should not worry.
When I returned home that afternoon, my nieces were not in good shape. My youngest niece wanted to fly to Virginia to be with her parents. “I don’t want to be here, I want to be with my mom.” Although they call me the “other mother,” in that moment I was not mother but auntie. I knew then that I could not go to work. They needed to be out of the house and otherwise occupied. Fortunately, their other brother returned from Virginia so they could be together. My nieces and nephews have a bond that is indescribable. They are each other’s best friends. They are their own fraternity. They talk to each other about everything. They would joke that I was not part of their exclusive fraternity, but occasionally extended me honorary rights to hang with their circle. The brothers and sisters were inseparable and distance did not disrupt that bond. They were a unit. They kept each other’s secrets, disciplined, and encouraged each other. When they were little, my nickname for them was “the coalition.” The coalition lost its leader and they rallied around each other like I have never seen. Their bond was envious.
As I continued to make funeral arrangements, my experience with the cemetery, Washington Memory Gardens, was the total opposite of the funeral home. My sister wanted to bury my nephew in this cemetery because our brother was buried there. I explained that I was calling on behalf of my sister and brother-in-law. Their son, a Navy sailor, just passed and they were at the naval base in Virginia. The body would ship to Chicago on Friday and that we wanted to have services on Monday. I wanted to get the process started so that when my sister and brother-in-law returned Friday all they needed to do was sign paperwork. The woman replied, “We can only work with the parents. I can’t speak with you. Even still, we probably couldn’t do it Monday because I need enough time to have my insurance adjuster make sure funds were ready.” I explained to her that the Navy was paying the bill and she still insisted that she could not speak with me. I called back and left several messages. No one returned my calls.
In the interim, my friends were texting. “Stupid question. How are you? We’re here. Let us know how to help.” I replied, “You know me. I’m on auto-pilot. When the service is over, I’ll crash and burn.” Later that evening, one called. “You’ve been here before with your dad and grandmother. You helped me get through it when my mother and sister passed. We will get through this together. I know you’re being strong but whatever you need, wherever, I will be there.”
As I was organizing arrangements, responding to texts and phone calls, I noticed several messages on social media from my nephew’s friends who were grieving. I had to reply to them. While consoling them, I found some solace. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and love for my nephew. Over 200 people met in Virginia for a candlelight vigil at the beach in his honor. At first when I received the news about my nephew, I was angry at God. All of my volunteer, youth mentoring and coaching was because of him. For auntie’s babies, there was nothing that I would not do. This nephew was my first baby, my most spoiled. He always brought other kids around. I would tell him that auntie time is just for you guys. He would say, “But they don’t have anybody.” After my dad passed, to fill the gap I did things he would do with them. That meant I had to watch sports and endure fart jokes and smelly socks. When he started high school, we had weekly outings. I told them that we would go bowling, just auntie and the nephews. He asked, “Can I bring some friends? There’s no youth group at the church and the parks don’t have afterschool stuff for us?” This boy had my heart. I relented, “Okay, bring some friends.” When Saturday bowling arrived, 20 teenagers showed up, mainly boys. “Hey Auntie Ronda!” The boys all called me Auntie Ronda because they knew it annoyed him. He did not mind sharing me, but only he and his siblings could call me Auntie Ronda.
By the end of bowling, the group approached me. “We don’t have any place. Maybe you can start a youth group at church for us? They have space.” And that is how I begun teen mentoring. My apartment, like my sister’s home, became a hangout. I accepted the fact that whenever my nephews came to visit, there would be at least four other teenagers and that my refrigerator would be empty. I had sleepovers and quickly learned that dairy and Mexican is not good with teen boys because it starts the “who can fart the loudest” contest. I responded any time someone said “Auntie” even if it wasn’t my babies’ voices. My nephew enlarged my capacity to share my heart. By his junior year, I was teaching ACT prep, job training, and having summer and winter retreats. All because this nephew could not bear to see other kids without. I told him that he could not save everyone. He would not listen to me. When he died, I said that I would not do any more volunteer, mentoring, or coaching. As I read messages from his friends, I could hear his voice. “Auntie, they don’t have anybody. They need you.” It would dishonor his memory if I did not reach out. His friends were now my new “auntie’s babies.”
Wednesday morning, I sat at the kitchen table while the girls were still sleeping and began drafting my nephew’s obituary. In 2004, I drafted my father’s obituary. In 2005, I drafted my grandmother’s obituary. Now, I was drafting my nephew’s. I quietly sobbed and proceeded with the task at hand. I did my morning check in with my sister. Bad news. Due to a crowded flight, the original airline could not ship the body on Friday. The body would not ship until Monday. We needed to delay the funeral. It was like starting the process again. I already told people that the funeral was for Monday. What if we could not get a date? The church already informed me that Tuesday was not available. I told my sister that I would handle it. I went to Gatling’s with the obituary and new information. Fortunately, the church and funeral home accommodated.
Thursday I informed family and friends of the new funeral dates. Someone asked, “Ronda, what about the repast and visitation? Some people took Monday off in anticipation of a Monday funeral and they can’t take off Wednesday but still want to pay their respects.” I forgot about a visitation and the repast. I called Gatling’s and they took care of a Tuesday evening visitation and repast accommodations. As far as organizing a repast, my energy was spent. I went to work for a few hours, but had to return home to get my nieces out and make sure they saw their other brother. I texted two friends who are super-efficient, detailed, and organization freaks. “I am at my end. I need help. Can you please handle/coordinate the repast (food, etc)?” They responded, “Tell us what you need. We have you.”
I texted my other friends. “I need you Tuesday night. It’s the visitation. My sister and the girls probably can’t do it. Her husband and son said they would but the family hasn’t been together since the death. They will need each other. Can you guys sit with me at the visitation as I represent the family? I don’t know if I will have the strength.” They replied, “We’re there.” Later that evening, the Navy chief called and asked who would be at the airport when my sister and brother-in-law arrived the next day. I told him that I would be there. He said that he would be there along with the USO. He said that he and other Navy personnel would be with the body and the family – at the visitation, funeral, and wherever else we needed them. I was not alone. My sister and brother-in-law were not alone.
Finally, on Thursday I spoke with someone at Washington Memory Gardens cemetery. I told her that I am an attorney and understand privacy concerns but I needed to get things started on behalf of my sister and that the Navy was paying and I had all the information necessary. I had to conference call my sister on the line who gave approval for me to handle arrangements on her behalf. The representative said that she still needed to contact their insurance adjuster because they needed a guarantee that the Navy – the U.S. government – would pay. I told her that I had the Navy contact information if she wanted to verify. I gave her the contact information and asked her not to call my sister because today they would view the body.
A few hours later, the woman calls me saying that she could not reach my sister. I reminded her that my sister was viewing the body and not to be disturbed since she gave me permission to handle the arrangements. Her reply, “Okay so I will contact you from now on.” I was indignant because I already told her this. I told her that due to an airline mix-up, the body would not arrive until Monday and funeral arrangements were switched from Monday to Wednesday. The woman was odious. Despite her offering of condolences and God bless you, she still insisted that they needed assurances on behalf of the Navy and that my sister and brother-in-law still needed to sign a contract. I told her that the earliest they could do so was Saturday because they were still in Virginia. “Oh, so they are not here?” If I could reach through the phone, I would have strangled her. How many times did I state that was why I was making the arrangements?! I called the Navy chief and he said that we would handle it.
Friday evening, my other nephew and I arrived to pick up his parents. They Navy chief and local USO representative met us as we waited. The USO wanted to perform military rights for my nephew’s body arrival at the airport Monday. The Illinois Patriot Guard Riders wanted to escort the body to the funeral home and the day of the burial. Would we give permission for a water salute upon the plane’s arrival and allow the Guard Riders to escort the body to the funeral home? My sister and brother-in-law said yes. The family could come to the airport and meet the body on the tarmac upon arrival. The Navy chief said that he was assigned to my sister and brother-in-law and would be here the entire time. He would drive them to the funeral home and cemetery to sign papers and attend to any other needs. That night, for the first time in days, I did not sleep with my phone on my pillow. We were all home. I slept without waking up to every sound afraid that it was the phone or a knock on the door.
On Monday, we awoke a bit heavy hearted knowing what the day held – the body’s arrival. That morning, Washington Memory Gardens called. “I’m sorry we can’t do it.” I was confused. I asked what did she mean. “We have never done a military funeral and we require payment the day before burial. The insurance adjuster said that we can’t do an assignment and there is no way that we can be guaranteed the Navy will pay.” In disbelief, I replied that it was the U.S. government and the Navy chief came in person with the forms. “I’m sorry. We must be paid in cashier’s check tomorrow or we can’t bury him on Wednesday.” I told my sister. She was livid. “Fine. Fine. We’ll get a cashier’s check but I don’t want to speak to them again.” I told the Navy chief and he called the cemetery. Their service was so disgraceful that even the Navy chief was appalled. He returned my call and said that if we had to pay out of pocket, the Navy would reimburse expenses. He volunteered to take the check so that we would not have to interact with the cemetery again. The most vexing part of this process was dealing with Washington Memory Gardens. They gave new meaning to the term “grave robbers” and reinforced my decision to be cremated.
Later that afternoon, my sister, her husband, their children, my younger sister and I went to the airport to receive my nephew’s body. The Navy honor guard was present. Navy chiefs from my nephew’s time at Great Lakes were present. The Illinois Patriot Guard Riders, motorcycle veterans, were present en masse. We arrived on the tarmac. The Chicago Fire Department was present to give my nephew’s plane a water salute. The pilots deplaned and lined up with the Navy officers to salute the body. As sailors removed his casket and put him in the hearse, a flood of tears. It was real. He was no longer with us. My nephew’s commanding officer requested the detail to escort him home. He did not leave his side. Even upon arrival at the airport, he refused to ride in the Navy car, instead in the hearse, refusing to leave “his brother’s side.” The Navy’s support and devotion to my family cannot be expressed in words.
The processional from the airport was solemn. The police led followed by the Illinois Patriot Guard Riders, the hearse, Navy vehicles, our vehicle, followed by more motorcycle Illinois Patriot Guard Riders. My younger nephew was so strong. He was only a year younger than his brother and they wereinseparable. When we arrived at the funeral home, he told the Commander that he wanted to assist the honor guard carrying his brother’s casket into the funeral home. In his brother’s death, he did not leave his side. It was then that more tears came. As I watched him carry his brother into the funeral home, it was evident that he not only lost his brother, but also his best friend. When the casket was placed in the chapel, he remained by its side. The Navy told us not to worry. They would attend the body and would be present at the visitation. The Navy chief that accompanied his body on the plane said that he would be there.
The visitation was the following afternoon. I was afraid that this would break me. After a week of non-stop funeral preparation, I would have to sit in his presence and knowing that I wouldn’t hear “Auntie” again. My sister decided that it was best for the girls to view the body the day before instead of the shock at the funeral. As we all entered the chapel, both Navy chiefs were already there at his side. I saw my baby, auntie’s first baby, and gasped. I stood by the casket. He looked peaceful. My sister came and put her arms around me. “I know you claimed him as your baby.” His brother stood at his side and remained there for three and a half hours. He was not leaving. Finally, my sister, his mother, insisted that he come home with the family. I told him not to worry. I would stand watch until visitation was over. Reluctantly, my nephew relinquished his post by his brother’s casket. Many people came to the visitation and remained in the chapel. The funeral director had to kick us out. It was past 9pm. Visitation was over.
None of my family went to bed early that night. Everyone moved in slow motion preparing for what the next day held – the funeral. Originally, we informed the church there would be no open remarks from mourners. However, there was a mix-up and the floor was open during the service for mourners to give remarks. What we thought would be painful ended up helping us. Navy officers from boot camp and my nephew’s base requested leave to attend his funeral and gave remarks. His fellow sailors pitched in and hand carved a wooden shadow box that included the flag that waved at the base for a week in my nephew’s honor along with his strips and honors. His former teachers talked about how my nephew was a leader. His shipmates, biker brothers, and former band members talked about how he took them in and told them if they did not have family that he would be their brother. Our motto on the obituary was “I am my brother’s keeper.” It was heartwarming that the child we raised lived that motto until death.
Even though the Navy honor guard was present to carry the casket, again my nephew insisted on carrying his brother’s casket out of the church. Upon entering the cemetery, there was a line of sailors in white uniform at attention. My nephew carried his brother’s casket with the honor guard to the burial site. He was being so strong that it made my heart hurt more that he had to experience this. The gun salute turned auto-pilot off and my tears flowed. This time I did not try to stop them. It was finally my time to grieve. I did not wipe them away. I watched the folding of the flag and listened to the bugle. Someone put a chair beneath me and a hand on my shoulder. I guess they realized that superwoman was gone and I was only a mere mortal, Auntie Ronda, frail and falling to pieces. When it was over, I accepted the shells from the rounds shot on behalf of my sister and brother-in-law. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” I repeated to myself.