Friday, November 09, 2007

For Zack

It was one of those warm, muggy October days that bring the tourists back to Cape Cod. None of us would be going to the beach, though. We were at Otis Air Force Base to meet Zack, my sister's first-born, who was coming home from Afghanistan. I had been living rather reclusively in California and hadn't seen him in six years, and never would again.

I finally understood why our leaders in Washington were so adamant about keeping images of returning coffins out of the news. It's too much to bear.

The plane had been delayed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for two hours. Zack's family and friends had plenty of time to sit around a ready room reacquainting, and acquainting, ourselves with each other. We told stories about Zack, a 31-year-old college graduate, filmmaker, rock musician, carpenter and movie-star handsome wit, who tried to find a new path in life by joining the Army in 2005. He became a sergeant and squad leader in two years and in April he was awarded the Bronze Star with a V for valor for rescuing two of his soldiers from a burning Humvee, badly burning his hands in the process, and still organizing a counterattack on the Taliban.

Afterwards, when he called my sister Pam, he didn't mention the Bronze Star. He said, ""Mom, I got a Purple Heart. I won't have to pay sales tax anymore."

That's the kind of young man he was, the kind of self-effacing hero he was. He stayed by the side of his more severely injured comrades in the hospital, and returned to duty in Pahktia Province near the Pakistan border. After he was killed in an ambush on Sept. 29, one of those scarred men, and others who had known Zack as a soldier, came to our sides on Cape Cod.

My sister said that Zack would have hated all the fuss, but we needed it. The family needed to meet those soldiers, and I think they liked meeting us. The extended, sometimes fractured family needed to talk to each other again, feel the hole in its fabric where Zack had been, and try to knit it together with memories and caring for each other.

Even those of us who might have doubted military ceremony needed the honor guard from the 82nd Airborne and the dozens of Cape Cod reservists, recently returned from Iraq, who lined up behind them. Sgt. Zachary D. Tellier deserved it.

We were all out on the tarmac when the plane touched down at Otis, the same base that had scrambled F-15s on afterburner in a vain attempt to stop the airliners heading for the World Trade Center. Now Afghanistan was coming back to haunt us again. We had been shedding tears, of course, trying to dry them with the occasional joke. Jokes failed.

The sadness and reality of it all clenched our hearts as we watched the plane taxi toward us. It was moving astonishingly slowly and evenly, like a funeral caisson with a steady turbine whine instead of a solitary drummer's beat.

When the aircraft came to a stop, it took a few minutes for its crew to organize the unloading of its cargo. We had time to collect ourselves - until the flag-draped coffin emerged and the honor guard slow-marched it to the hearse.

That was Zack in there. That was what it came down to. His widow Sara, an incredibly strong woman, collapsed to the tarmac as her sister tried to comfort her. I had heard sobbing in my life, but never as much as that day, and I never knew what the word "keening" meant before.

There was one photographer present, although not from the press. This was Joel, a young friend of Zack's who had lost a leg in an earlier action in Afghanistan. As the honor guard carried the coffin, Joel kept rolling his wheelchair for better angles on the homecoming of his friend. Not many people noticed but the reservists at attention behind him.

They, too, will always remember this day. Unbearable.


Dagny said...

Zach sounds like a wonderful person from your description. I am sorry that your family, and the rest of the world, had to lose such a wonderful person.

Zoomie said...

Your experience reads like the Everyman experience for this terrible time. You're right, we need the ceremony and the memories and even the lame jokes to make such a monumental loss bearable. Thank you for a touching portrait of loss and living on.

Bonnichiwa said...

I keep typing jokes, then erasing them, then staring here wordless -- I think all I can say is, you've put a face on the inchoate anger and sadness so many of us feel about this path. Thank you for introducing Zach to your friends and even acquaintances like me.

You are a beautiful writer, I can't help but admire the economy and subtlety of this tribute.

Matthew said...

Thanks for the great image - you still have the knack. As a once upon a time step-father of Zack’s I appreciate your focus on Zack’s character. He was a terrific young man with deep convictions. He knew what his were and that was good enough for me. It was an honor to have known him. Thank you for sharing Zack’s homecoming – I wish I could have been there with you and your family but after reading your piece I feel like was.

cranky said...

Thank you, my friends, especially you, Matthew. It's really nice to hear from you again. We always loved and admired you. Hope all is well.

NH Knitting Mama said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. Zack was such an amazing person - the best of the best. I miss him so much, and just today heard from an old friend of ours that just got the news about Zack being gone. He said, "I don't think I'll sleep a wink tonight."

My heart is still so empty. It helps to read/talk to others who knew Zack. It helps to knit up that hole in the fabric. You said that beautifully.

Sorry for my fragmented thoughts... that is how life has been for me since Sept. 29th.

cranky said...

Thanks, NH Nitting Mama. My life has been in disarray, too. It took me almost a month to get to the state where I could write anything about Zack and his homecoming. I will write more.

Anita said...

I keep marking this post "unread" in my RSS reader so I remember to come back and leave a comment. But then I visit and words fail me. I can't think of anything to say other than that I'm terribly sorry for your (and your family's) loss, and that I really enjoyed reading your tribute to Zach.

Anonymous said...

My dear uncle... It's been nearly a year since you wrote this beautiful description of what I know refer to as "the worst moment of my life." Today I was reminiscing about Zack and found myself suddenly searching for this blog so I could read it, hiding behind my computer monitor at my desk, crying. Sometimes I just need to cry about Zack. Today was one of those days. You flawlessly put into words what I never could articulate. It's perfect. I will cherish it always.

Love to you from Chicago...
xo Julia