Yesterday, for the second time in as many years, I went to Arlington National Cemetery to watch Rolling Thunder XX. But this year, I had another mission: to visit the grave of a college classmate of mine who died in a car crash in December 2006 while serving in the Air Force.
I didn't know him very well--we knew each other's names and would exchange greetings when we passed on campus--but his death, for some reason, has touched me deeply. I've tried, over the past few months, to figure out exactly what I find so moving--after graduating, I didn't expect to see or talk to him again, unless we both attended a class reunion--and the best that I've been able to discern is that he is buried so close to where I live (a 10 minute walk from my apartment). Because, in my family, each successive generation seems to move away from home and stay there, there was no family tract at a local cemetery to visit. I have no idea where my mother's relatives are buried, and my father's relatives are buried in two separate parts of Pennsylvania; my brother and I will probably not be buried near either of them, as cemeteries are filling quickly. Having someone I know--even if I didn't know that person very well--buried so close came as a shock. I had to visit--it felt like my duty to do so.
Shortly after he was interred, I visited his gravesite, which was marked by a paper card, as it was too recent for a headstone. The freshly-dug earth had no grass growing on it, and the recent rains had made it muddy. Elsewhere in the Cemetery, Christmas wreaths lay on headstones. I reached the gravesite but found I didn't really know what to say--the most interaction I had with him was a meal with friends in our dining hall, and I felt guilty for visiting the grave of a person I didn't know all that well. I said a prayer, and I wept for the loss of my classmate.
Yesterday was much warmer than it was in January, the sky was bright blue, and tourists were swarming the Cemetery. As two friends from work and I made our way towards the section of the Cemetery in which he was buried, I again began worrying about my motivations in making this visit. As we got closer to the site, I began to scan headstones, looking first at date of death to calibrate how far down the row the grave is. My friends dropped back, and, suddenly, I saw his name: Jamin Buchanan Wilson. I stopped, stunned. I don't know why it surprised me so--perhaps because the first thing I saw was the name, not the date; perhaps it was the finality of seeing that name on the headstone; perhaps it was because I thought it was further down the row and its suddenness surprised me--but I stopped cold. I spent some time standing there, offering a prayer in what I hoped was a respectful way of honoring his life, and I cried. Still battling doubt (What is the respectful amount of time to stay? What are the respectful things to say?), I took a last look at his grave and walked back the way I came.
I don't know if anyone else came to visit his grave this weekend, and, though I haven't figured out why my classmate's death has impacted me as it has, I hope he took comfort in knowing that someone came to honor his life and his sacrifice on Memorial Day weekend. We owe so much to those who serve in our armed forces that it seems a bit sad that we only set aside two days a year to honor their sacrifices. To all of them, Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis
posted by AJM # 1:24 PM