As I type this we’re in the sky over Minneapolis. A riveted tube the size of a supine office tower has just heaved itself into the air with the usual difficulties, my fellow passengers and I staring grimly forward as the fool machine, obeying the laws of physics but little else, shakes and rattles like a gigantic Chevy Vega. A rear-mounted engine buzzes like an enormous electric razor just outside the paper-thin fuselage. Is it supposed to sound like that? etc. It’s all but certain the enormous winged rocket will come roaringly apart 6 miles above the earth, hurling vertical stabilizers, mach trim actuators, and other expensive union-built junk across the night sky in a moonlit flume of flightless debris. The first seconds of the disaster will offer a sudden pleasing sense of extra legroom to the passengers and some will stretch and sigh with gratitude even as they begin their descent to ground, the quaint cosmetic seat belts lashing them to plummeting fabric.
Yes, you see that I am in truth a nervous flyer. This is an idiotic way to travel. Period. I do not want to Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth, in the words of that flight-celebrating pilot of yore. I like the bonds of Earth, the surlier the better. But I’m traveling with my mother and it is as it should be. We’re headed east, to Washington D.C., to move her back in with Bob, from whom she’s been separated for some 20 years, since his passing. She carried on with mixed success without him, 14 of them under my care. Following a brief denouement of spirit-breaking difficulty, she passed in late May this year. Now we’re flying to Washington D.C., where Bob has a little home at Arlington National Cemetery, to which an addition is shortly to be made. And so the two lovebirds will be, in the immortal phrasing of Peaches and Herb, reunited. It feels so good.
Regular readers of these pages may remember my mom, Aloha Wing, she with the fiery spirit, ribald sense of humor, and tendency, in her Autumn years, to answer her apartment door with one foot bare and the other shoed and socked. She’d lived a smartass life. Following a mischief-driven childhood spent on army bases, she’d met my similarly smartass dad at an Air Force USO dance during wartime, they’d hitched in 1943 and hit the ground running. On an Air Force base in North Africa in 1968, as described in the aforementioned encomium, the timing was right for her to come to the smartass rescue of a neighbor on whom the Gaddafi regime was exerting pressure, and she and her smartass bff at the time, a fellow Air Force Wife named Stephanie, had thumbed their noses at Gaddafi in a daringly stupid smuggling scheme that could’ve gone very badly for both of them. From girlhood, when Aloha wasn’t actually in trouble she was looking for a way in. When her partner in laughter, Bob, passed in 1993, Aloha lost a bit of her mojo. Friends more or less stopped visiting, the weekend bridge meetings ground to a halt, the phone stopped ringing. Still, she maintained her acerbic sense of humor and continued to view each dawning day as an opportunity to seek the humor in things, however dark they might appear at a glance. Despite her continuing determined application of this lifelong positivity, after some years alone she began to drift. In 2000 my wife and I drove to Phoenix and loaded her belongings, a lifetime of accrued stuff, into the back of a rented moving truck.
In early May this year a couple of telling incidents, harbingers of a coming loss of bearing, obliged Aloha’s independent living apartment complex to issue her an eviction notice, lest their exposure to liability and litigation, the twin Horror L’s of contemporary culture, land them in court. Her obligatory move was the day I’d dreaded for all the 14 years she’d lived in Santa Barbara, having moved here from her longtime home in Phoenix. Aloha Wing, from the time of her girlhood an inventive and energetic troublemaker, would not, I’d guessed, survive a move to a ‘facility’ of the sort the eviction now commended. And I was right. Following an incredibly stressed three weeks of trying to ‘adapt’ to her new, necessarily more restrictive surroundings, roaming the property like a caged animal and waking in the night confused and yelling for rescue, mom was knocked mercifully senseless by a stroke, and passed two days later at Serenity House. My former non-stop live wire of a mom is now traveling with my wife and I as a quantity of ash and ground bone in a 4” x 6” x 8” plastic box. Our rituals ask of us certain things that we’re not able to capably explain. This crazy transfiguration, from beautiful mother and pal to this box of legally actionable powder – it’s a miracle more wondrous than that of the consecrated wafer which, when placed on the tongue, becomes the flesh of a brutalized carpenter. If this is my mother, if this stuff in the little plastic box is my Burt Bacharach-loving, toast-annihilating, blue-eyed mom, then the universe is an ash tray. She’s gone. Wow, is she ever gone. The quietude of the mute little plastic box proves it. She has never been so utterly quiet. Ever.
The gatekeepers of our great nation’s airline security apparatus are, at least on this day at LAX, a loopy throng of youngsters in ill-fitting uniforms; kids playing dress-up. The container bearing mom’s remains must be x-ray translucent because in today’s terror-war climate even the dead may be recruited to make more dead. Despite our fretting, our careful research and determination to have everything in order lest the authorities confiscate my mother, the louche TSA twenty-somethings in their ill-fitting uniforms at LAX do not seem overly concerned with the fragility of the occasion nor with the rigors of their own protocol. Their strange, over-elaborate badges look like they were bought with Frosted Flakes boxtops. It is strange, given what we are still told is the gravity of the threat, that the gatekeepers of our airline safety are these youngsters. The guy scanning our laboriously removed belts and shoes, our laptops and jackets and briefcases, is wearing large fake diamond ear studs and a close-cropped beard whose topiary exactitude draws interested stares from the passengers/terror suspects in their socks. Suddenly the stocky young lady in uniform to my right is yelling at me with real disdain. I’ve been distracted by her colleague’s beard. “LAPTOP IN ITS OWN BIN!! SIR? SIR? SIR! LAPTOP! IN! ITS! OWN! BIN!!”
When we’ve cleared the screening process and are putting on our shoes a tall overweight kid with slipping spectacles and a nervous grin picks up my mother and summons his supervisor. The young man who arrives assures us in murmuring tones that they want the keynote of the process to be respect. Aloha is hustled away and in the background I watch a group of the TSA curious gather in an interested clot and all look at the sealed plastic box, which is then run through another scanning machine of some kind. My understanding is that they may not open a container of crematory remains, and they do not. Following some chuckling, amused attempts to get the box back into the attractive canvas carrying bag the funeral home had provided for travel, my mom is returned to me. “We want to make sure that was respectful,” the well-meaning but haphazardly trained young guy says to me, somewhat nonsensically. “Thank you,” I reply. “We really appreciate it.”
My bohemian writer of a sister had come down from upstate New York some days before with her easy laugh and entertainingly elliptical viewpoint. She has spent her adult life experiencing and writing of the crazy moments that comprise the everyday, and here come a gang of such moments as one would capture in a treasure chest if that were possible. I know she is filing it all even as she lives it. My outwardly conservative and inwardly riotous brother and his similarly disguised wife Janet live about twenty minutes from Arlington National Cemetery in a forested neighborhood of brick houses and sloping lawns jeweled with morning dew this day. The area is rife with politicos and names from the headlines, those both above and below the fold. Dick Cheney lives nearby in a mansion with an actual turret. “I’ll bet it’s got a dungeon, too,” Judie astutely remarked one afternoon as we drove by it.
This morning we gather up mom’s red marbled urn and make for the car. She’d always loved red and we dismissed the various jars of stately gray slate and buffed metal, some of them looking like Track and Field trophies, or something you would store the Dead in. We wanted something less serious, something a little more festive; a polished stone party balloon. Something a future archaeologist would easily spot in the ruins and be happy to find. We’d inscribed the beautiful red jar with the single line of a tune mom had laughingly concocted over the kitchen sink in 1968, in Florida as we awaited our trip to dad’s final Air Force assignment at Wheelus AFB outside Tripoli. That single, deliberately corny line had long since been woven into family lore, and for 14 years my mom and I had often greeted each other by singing it together – our Masonic secret handshake.
In the omnipresent tense now, we leave my brother’s house and head for Arlington, piling into the car at 8am for a 10am interment, anticipating morning traffic. There is little to none and we arrive an hour or so early, make our way through Arlington’s gauntlet of uniformed guards and make for the admin building where our friends will gather to join us before we all convene graveside. Aloha passed on May 31 and it has taken the un-oiled and only fitfully tended machinery of government until October 10 to allow us to move her back in with my dad. As you approach Arlington via the George Washington Parkway, the Potomac and heavily wooded Roosevelt Island on your left, the Washington monument suddenly looms like a special effect, and there in the middle distance you glimpse the Lincoln Memorial, the distant Jefferson Memorial, the magisterial WWII Memorial and the still more distant Capitol Building, where overpaid do-nothings make daily mockery of the collective sacrifices of their forebears.
Arlington Cemetery’s 624 acre spread was established in 1864 as the Civil War was concluding, on land belonging to the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Arlington Estate was on a hill, so the threat of frequent rains to the dead in their boxes would not be a problem, and the notion that the establishment of what was initially a repository for Civil War dead would simultaneously deny General Lee a place to live also made the site an attractive choice for the federal government of war-torn 1864. There are about 400,000 people buried there, soon to be about 400,001.
At this writing the airplane is beginning to buck and there is a change in the pitch of the engines. The laissez-faire cabbies in the cockpit have not seen fit to switch on the Fasten Seat-Belt sign, and the airplane is a squall of clicking as jittery passengers nevertheless follow their instincts and buckle up of their own slightly panicked accord. Just making note in case this laptop is found, perfectly preserved, in the wreckage.
A bespoke gentle giant named Rafael had been assigned to our family and the quietly genuine hulk of a man offered his condolences to each of us with a steady eye, grasping our forearms, and walked off to read the riot act to a colleague. As dear friends of my brother’s family had begun to arrive in the lobby of the building, the life-celebrating laughter had dialed up to about a nine. How mom would have loved this! People leaning into each other and laughing through tears, sometimes simple tears of hilarity. She’d done plenty of that in her 90 years. But the laughter had compelled an Arlington representative to stop by and admonish our group. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask your party to tone it down a little,” she’d said, to which my brother had evenly replied, “That is not going to happen.” Rafael had then disappeared and returned some minutes later. “Sir,” he says to my brother on returning, smiling mildly, “the matter has been put to rest.” Rafael then instructs all of us on the manner in which we are to proceed, as a group, to the burial site. I hand him my mom’s party urn and he ceremonially proffers it before us as we all exit the building, make for our cars and convoy behind his black, American-flagged lead vehicle.
At Arlington Memorial Cemetery spouses are buried alongside each other and share tombstones, each taking a flip side of the white marble marker. When we have all parked by Bob’s section, a young, impeccably uniformed and much-beribboned Air Force serviceman appears, walks in reverent cadence to Rafael’s car, turns 90 degrees on his heel, and retrieves mom’s urn from the back seat. I feel my heart hammering and in a sudden, unexpected, and nearly uncontainable gush of emotion I love this country and my mom with the burning fever of a Gray Flannel Establishment Square. Would that my other brother Patrick were here! How he would have been moved by this clipped and respectful and ceremonial series of gestures, he whose wild heart conceals in its innermost chambers a love of country and tradition and a nostalgia for another, more honor-bound epoch. Love you, Pat.
We convene at the grave site under cloudy but politely withholding skies. Occasional commemorative gunfire can be heard at irregular intervals in the middle distance as other newly arrived guests take their places on the grounds and are seen off with honors.
My brother’s pastor speaks of the resurrection of the dead in casual and uplifting tones, and my nephew reads from a trembling sheet of paper of his love of his grandmother, his Tutu, with whom he shared the birthplace of Hawaii. Ryan paints in exacting, loving detail what his Tutu has meant to him, how his youthful swimming career and his regionally unbroken swimming records had been inspired by his Tutu’s late-in-life Senior Olympics epoch, during which time she blithely won 17 swimming gold medals against graying unfortunates in her age bracket. As Ryan speaks, struggling to avert a teary breakdown, my big brother, his dad, rises from his seat and joins him, placing a supporting arm across his shoulder and weeping too. What a sight. I’ll never ever forget it. Ryan soldiers on with difficulty, explaining how in her swim events Tutu never wanted to use the diving blocks in a swim event, opting to simply push off instead, and still managed to churn past the competition in the surrounding lanes despite having sauntered into a race into which her fellows had leapt with over-eager strength. Ryan’s keen observation is the perfect metaphor for mom! She conquered, like dad, quite casually and always in great humor, and always, always on her own terms. “In Hawaiian, Aloha means hello,” Ryan concludes with difficulty. “But it also means goodbye..”
It’s my turn and I stand before the assembled, give it a few seconds. I see in the corner of my eye the red party urn, my unmistakable mom; nevermore to swim or laugh or sneak into the Officers’ Club pool in the wee hours of a preteen morning, or later burn dinner to a foul-smelling crisp, or play a hand of bridge or strike a glamor pose for the camera. Where on Earth can all that largesse have gone? I count 5 and sing.
“One minute to Midnight, one minute to go – this moment must last us forever! Or will it be over? It’s all up to you!” I sing it with all my gladdened heart, my surprised brother and sister and dear Judie spontaneously joining in with broken voices from their seats, and in that screwy eternal moment I have it all. The delicious puzzled expressions in the back rows and in those standing behind them say What the hell is this? In the front row, though, my big brother and my big sister and my best pal Judie are grinning like wet-faced idiots.
Thank you for everything, Mom. Aloha.