Monday, November 11, 2013

"Invisible Observance"

Written November 11th, 2013

I wanted to tell you the story of what happened today. I thought seeing how kindness, just what seems to be small or ordinary, can mean so much to others. Sometimes, we just have a chance to see people make a small difference. Sometimes, that touches me beyond belief. I wrote this about today's events....warning, it's kind of long and maybe won't mean anything to some. I tried to put into words what I saw, that was heartfelt; raw; unscripted. Life - and people's actions - can be beautifully presented.

Today I felt like a fly on the wall. Joe's bike group ( Hogs & Heroes Foundation ) has always been warm and welcoming, but there's a difference between being a member and displaying colors, and those who are "ride alongs". It's nothing derogatory, just that
there is a difference. It was a great day and I almost felt like I got to observe the events as someone invisible or on the outside. Maybe that doesn't work for everyone, but I love being on the fringe sometimes and appreciate just seeing life unfold.

We went to a veterans home today about an hour and a half away. There was to be a special service for the vets, family members, medals being given out, wreath-laying, etc. The motorcycle group takes this kind of mission very seriously, as their stated objectives are "to honor our heroes, support public safety and benefit the community". Many of the bikers are veterans themselves, but even those without military history, are all extremely patriotic and firmly believe in recognizing those who serve.  We left before 7am to head in another direction and meet with a small part of the group. From there we stopped at two additional areas to pick up more people and then gathered near the veterans home. There is a parking lot and that's where they "stage"; pull out their flags to display on bikes and vehicles, then form a parade line into the facility grounds.

As everyone was assembling, the director and assistant of the home came over to greet them. Apparently that is customary to review the plans, parking, who will assist, etc. The director looked somber and informed them she had sad news; one of the longtime residents had passed away during the night. The ceremony for today would need to be delayed or interrupted as they have protocol for such an event, and the hearse was on it's way. Apparently it's typical for the staff to come out to line the sidewalk, bringing any residents that wish to join, and all offer a silent goodbye as a flag draped body is ushered to the vehicle, followed by the family.

Instantly, without a second thought, many of the bikers said they wished to escort the hearse to the funeral home, if the family would allow it. Some of these folks had just stepped off bikes after 2-3 hours in 30-40 degree temperatures but all stated that "this is what they do" and that it would be an honor to participate, no matter how far away. The director said she would go ask the family for their wishes and left the parking lot.

When she returned she said the family literally broke down in tears hearing that strangers wished to escort their father, brother, grandfather and friend. When she stated that this was "one of the families that always visited", it underscored that many residents must not receive much in the way of visits; something that tugged at my heart. It was agreed we would form a flag line to line the sidewalk and then the bikes would fall in place as the hearse drove away. Everyone assembled as the funeral car and staff arrived; instructions were given. Former military would salute, the rest were to place hands over hearts, except for the flag bearers.

Taps were played, echoing through a silent facility. The staff - all except essential personnel - formed a procession and gathered outside the building. A call to attention sounded; those who have served snapped to salute; our flags were waving in the crisp air as the red, white and blue-draped veteran was wheeled out for the last time.

I expected all that. What I didn't expect was to see tears running down creased, grizzled faces, slipping free from underneath sunglasses. And then the family. Have you ever seen someone in tears, so touched by a simple act of respect they could barely speak? "Thank you", a few of them whispered as they went by; taking a second to scan faces and flags; clearly amazed. Their gratitude was genuine; complete; overwhelming. They never would have thought plans for today would come to a stop so all these strangers could say goodbye too.

I didn't go with the bikes. The ceremony was going to have to start as the residents had a schedule of events for today, and I decided to stay for that. I was able to walk down the driveway to get pictures of the procession as the bikes started and fell in behind the hearse. Slowly it pulled around the circle once more, paused at the top of the long winding driveway, then proceeded on it's journey.

I did not include the hearse in my video out of respect, only began shooting the bikes as they followed, winding gradually up the curving street. The video was horrible quality. Looking straight into the sun doesn't help you see what to adjust - but even if it was the best video I'd ever taken it never could have captured even a fragment of the emotion I saw. Even if it had been a beautiful tribute, none of the genuine caring of so many strangers and the raw gratitude of a family suffering could have been saved. It was truly, one of those things you would have to have seen for yourself.

In the few minutes of planning the logistics someone asked what they would do when arriving at the funeral home. I'm not sure what details were decided on, only that it didn't go as planned; and yet, it happened perfectly. The hearse pulled onto the funeral home grounds, into a waiting building, and the doors closed behind them. I'm told that the family saw the bikers when they arrived; I asked Joe if they got off the bikes to form a flag line and he said honestly, he didn't think any of them could manage to. Everyone had tears as they offered a final goodbye the best way they could; silently forming a ring of strength, honor and respect for a hero.

As it turned out, despite everyone - I mean every single biker there when the director gave them the news - being willing to ride an hour or two, this funeral home was located close by. When they returned to the facility, the words that echoed across the parking lot were that "timing is everything". I don't believe a single one of them felt they could have done anything more fitting today than that flag line and short trip down the road. It was what they believe they are here for.

The ceremony followed, wreath laying, medals handed out. But what all felt was the biggest honor of the day, was that simple act of paying tribute to a fallen soldier. I'm incredibly glad that the family was offered a chance to see what a group of strangers do and I hope it gave them a bit of comfort seeing the dignity and caring of so many. It was beyond amazing today, being almost an invisible person, to see all this. Simply breathtaking and something I don't believe I'll ever forget.