March 14th, 2004.
It had only been about 24 hours since I found out from the ship’s chaplain that my little brother died. I had to return to Rhode Island, a place where so much of my childhood memories were formed. Up until this point, it had been almost four years since I was last there.
Back while I was still aboard the ship, after calling my wife, I called my uncle – one of my dad’s older brothers.
I told him about the sad news and that I was heading back to Rhode Island for the funeral.
My uncle was ready and willing to help in any way he could. As soon as I got back to Rhode Island, I went to Nanny’s house where my uncle was staying. I told him everything, to the best of my knowledge, about what had happened to Ben. My uncle and I stayed up for a few hours, catching up because I had been stationed overseas; far away for such a long period of time.
The last time I was there was back in the spring of 2001, prior to my family and I being stationed in Guam. That was also the last time I saw my little brother Ben, alive.
Going back to Rhode Island was hard. My wife Erica, our little girl Elizabeth and I flew from Japan, back to my home state, so I could say a final goodbye to my little brother and bury him.
It was early March; snow was still on the ground and the bitter New England wind was unforgiving. The cold, damp, gray weather seemed to echo the somber and mournful tone of my pain. Everything about that event took place so fast. Ben died on March 12thand he was going to be buried in only a couple of days. This didn’t give me much time to make preparations.
I was going to wear my dress blues to my brother’s funeral, but because I left the ship in such a hurry, I forgot some of my most basic yet most important uniform items; my shoes, my medals, and my cover.
I grew up only a few miles from Naval Station Newport. The day of my brother’s burial, my uncle, wife, and daughter stayed at the house to get ready for the funeral. My uncle let me borrow his car so I could drive to the base, run into the uniform shop and buy the items I had forgotten back aboard the ship I had been serving on.
After I picked up my uniform items, I had to head to the funeral home where my little brother’s body was laying prepared for a burial which would take place within a matter of hours.
I drove across the Newport Bridge, the Jamestown Bridge, and then headed to the funeral home located in Wakefield; a small little town where I had spent much of my childhood.
My heart was racing, and palms were sweaty; my knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel too hard. I was nervous, anxious and heartbroken. Slowly I turned the corner into the empty parking lot of the funeral home, the snow crunching under the tires of the car as I pulled in.
I slid the gearshift lever into park and paused for a moment; the noise of the engine hummed in the background. I didn’t want to get out of the car and walk into the funeral home; I was afraid of what I was going to see. By this point, the burial was going to take place within about two hours…that didn’t give me much time to go back to Nanny’s house, meet up with my family, change into my uniform and go to the cemetery.
Finally, after a few minutes, I mustered enough courage to turn off the ignition. As I opened the door the frosty wind-whipped snow and freezing rain in my face; the slush and ice crunching beneath my feet as I took the long walk up to the back door of the funeral home.
I opened the screen door and knocked on the door behind it…KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK!
The sound of my bare knuckles against the cold metal door echoed with a snap against the wind and winter precipitation.
Within a few seconds, one of the funeral directors greeted me and said he was expecting my visit. As he opened the door and I stepped inside, the faint yet pungent smell of embalming fluid offended my nostrils. There was an atmosphere of finality and farewell in the place.
He led me down a hall, gestured to a room around the corner and quietly said, “Your little brother is in here…I’ll give you two some time alone together.”
The funeral director walked away, and I stood for a moment outside the room where Ben’s body was laying. With my head down, I slowly turned the corner and walked in. There was no one else there; just a couple rows of chairs facing a wall. Against the wall were three tables…a long one with two smaller tables on each end…one with a lamp and the other with a Bible.
As I looked up and focused my attention to the center table, I saw my brother Ben lying motionless in a gray casket. I drew in a deep breath and hesitantly walked closer until I was right in front of him.
After not seeing him in over three years, he had grown so much. His hair was cut short and his signature sideburns were trimmed.
I remember just standing there, looking at him…up and down; marveling at how much he had changed and grown.
Ben wasn’t wearing anything fancy; no suit and tie and dress slacks, not even a sport coat or jacket. All he had on was a simple sweater and jeans.
Slowly I reached out and touched his hand; it was so cold and stiff. His face looked calm and serene as if he was sleeping. I reached up and rubbed his short brown hair, through which the cold chill of his physical state permeated.
I put my hand on his chest, baffled and confused by the cold stiffness of death which had taken over my little brother’s body. In my shock, I remember touching the outside of the casket, feeling the cloth material which covered the lid and outside. The coffin was thin and flimsy as if it was made of plywood or particle board.
Seeing my brother in that state was a complete sensory overload; both mortifying and surreal. I couldn’t believe that such a close part of me was gone. It was almost as if I was seeing myself lying there. For years my mind would have a hard time processing such raw and morbid information. I would end up wrestling with nightmares and flashbacks caused by the images and impressions which haunted me.
I stood over Ben’s body for a few more minutes all the while, telling him how much I missed him and that I couldn’t believe he was gone. I reached into my pants pocket and took out my wallet. Inside was a picture of our father Michael, who Ben had never met. I took the picture out of the small plastic sleeve, looked at it and looked back at Ben. The family resemblance of our dad and us, his sons, was striking. Looking at the picture, then looking back at Ben, I could see our dad’s strong profile and jawline in my little brother
My eyes started to tear up. The irony and magnitude of such a loss were starting to become real, but the weight of it was too heavy for me to allow myself to fully carry it.
I slipped the picture into my little brother’s jeans pocket, along with a couple of Japanese yen which I was also carrying. I’m not really sure why I slipped in the foreign money, other than to perhaps share with my little brother something of my travels and experiences…something that he would never get to know.
After a few minutes, our mother walked into the room. I knew she was going to be visiting shortly after I arrived, so that may have played a big part as to why I didn’t allow myself to become emotional. Knowing her propensity for strong emotional outbursts and meltdowns, I felt that I needed to be strong.
I pushed, deep down, every wave of pain and surge of agony in order to lend a sense of solidarity and calm.
I greeted my mother and awkwardly gave her a hug. Considering that she just lost her youngest son, her grief was understandable. But during my childhood, so much emotional and mental damage had been caused by her dysfunctional behavior, that it was hard for me to be sensitive at that moment.
After about an hour of visiting with my mom, it was time for me to head back to Nanny’s house and get ready for the burial.
Awkwardly saying goodbye to my mother, I told her that I’d see her in a little while; she reluctantly agreed.
I drove back to Nanny’s house and changed into my dress blues. My uncle Frank drove Erica, Elizabeth and I to the cemetery which was only a mere eight miles away. As we pulled into the graveyard, I could see the rest of my family there; close cousins, my other uncles, my mom, a few of her friends and a former family pastor that I knew growing up.
Hugs and greetings were exchanged, a few memorializing words were spoken, and a final prayer was offered.
At the foot of my brother’s grave, I stood at attention as the gray casket was slowly lowered into the ground. With Erica and our little girl Elizabeth standing to my left and hugging me, I sharply brought my right hand up and rendered as crisp a military salute as I could. Grief overwhelmed me as tears poured from my eyes. All the emotions I had held captive up until this point became like a river unleashed by a dam. I was saying farewell to a friend, a companion and brother; my last direct connection to our father. Benjamin was the only living person who had shared in the struggle of our childhood.
Ben was born only a few short months after our dad had taken his own life.
I helped raise Ben.
I helped teach Ben.
He was my brother.
And now he was gone.
There in that cemetery, we laid my brother Benjamin to his earthly rest; only a few short yards away from where our father had been buried. Over the course of the next several years, the ground in that sacred place would have to be broken again…and again…and again.
Monologue: There’s a small cemetery near my hometown wherein lies a special few who share the common bond of blood and name. They are the mortal remains of ones who are so dearly loved, reverently remembered and desperately missed.
Little did I know; my little girl, who was standing next to me the day I buried my brother, would also be buried just a few feet away, eleven years later.