The event my husband and I attended last Sunday was not perfect, but pretty close. Mid-day, the sun was shining, almost too bright; I drove us over in my rusty old 1990 Miata, with the top down. Parked as close as I could, about a five minute walk. My husband got out of breath as we climbed the small slope, through the "Field of Hope", which contained 200 American flags fluttering in the slight breeze.
Each flag was 3x5 feet, mounted on a 6 foot pole, with a yellow ribbon attached with names of individuals or groups, and wars fought, rank, branch of military, and/or a message. I read a few and got teary-eyed. (This did not bode well for my attempt not to cry in public.) The flags will remain up until the day before Thanksgiving. The cost per flag is $30, which goes directly to Community Hope,Inc., a non-profit organization that helps homeless veterans in New Jersey and the tri-state area. You can either keep the flag or donate the flag back to the program, the second option being a great idea, in my opinion.
There was patriotic music playing, courtesy of a military brass quintet from Fort Lee, to greet us. Three high school students sang the national anthem. When I stated earlier the event was not perfect, my main complaint was there had obviously been no sound check. That was further apparent when a few politicians, CEO's, and the head of homeless services from our local VA hospital spoke, unaware that as they handed the microphone to the next person, they turned off a switch, making it almost impossible to hear their words, as the wind picked up and the flags flapped. A combination of bad design and poor planning. That being said, I took photographs to keep from crying.
My husband stood at the back of the crowd, not wanting to block anyone else's view, due to his height. I tried, to no avail, to get people wearing name tags at the front to do something about the sound, since many of the audience members were elderly. Even those who looked middle-aged confessed to not being able to hear. It wasn't my event, so I eventually let it go, went with the flow. The man in charge of calling out orders to the VFW color guard needed no mic. His voice was loud and clear. I took more photos, as I moved away from my husband, but kept looking back and waving to him. Between the military tribute and the distance from my husband, I was moving emotionally from sunny day to everything being tinged with unbearable sadness. Why did I come to this, with him?
When the music and speeches ended, one woman stood in grey, with a red shawl. She thanked us all for our support, then added a spoken tribute to one special soldier, listing his rank, his medals, what he had done at the Battle of the Bulge, ending with pent-up tears, an apology for asking him to come from out of state. The man was her father. He was seated directly in front of her, but could not stand. I don't know how much he heard or understood, but most of us were weeping, as she went into the audience and hugged him.
Someone else announced there were refreshments inside, coffee and Girl Scout Cookies. As people filed inside the historic building, also the site where many years ago I was a suicide hotline volunteer, I grabbed my husband's hand. His hand was cold and he was starting to get confused, saying, "I've never been here before in my life." I said, "You need some calories, my skinny love."
But first, I briefly stopped and shook hands with the old soldier, still seated in the front row, the father of the daughter. I held both of his beautiful old wrinkled hands and thanked him for his service to our country. He asked, "Do I know you?" Before I had a chance to answer, my husband copied what I did, holding the old soldier's hands. The man asked me, "Do I know him?" and I answered, "No, but I do. He's my husband." And with that, both of us helped the man to his feet; he assuming we were trustworthy; me realizing he was not only blind but probably had dementia on some level.
His daughter approached and we instinctively hugged. She wept because she had lured her father to the event on false pretenses. I told her to let it go; she was a good daughter. She thanked me and I said, "You were lucky to be able to do this while your Dad could still take some of it in. Don't feel guilty at all." Then the crowd moved into the refreshment area which contained way more than Girl Scout cookies and coffee. It was a feast. My husband was overwhelmed (and frankly, so was I), but I helped him make a plate of fruit and high calories, plus a cup of coffee. There was an armchair in the corner of the room, so I told him that was his place. He accepted all of this, then watched as I greeted people I knew from church, neighbors and strangers.
The saving grace of the event happened as I stood next to a disheveled man, who, as he perused the table, said in a distinctly British accent, "There is NO banana bread." I turned to him, and in my poor but immediate, uncontrollable slide into an imitation of a British accent, replied, " Did you just say 'NO banana bread'?" He put his tweed arm on my suede arm, and explained, " I've just come here on holiday for a month to visit my son. I had banana bread for the first time and it is delightful. But there is none here. Do you know my son?"
I did not know his son, but he was waved over. We shook hands and the son explained that his neighbor was the woman in grey with the red shawl. His grandfather had served in WWII and he wanted to dedicate a flag to him. His father and mother's visit was a coincidence, beautiful day to get out and all that. I asked both he and his father if they knew of Eddie Izzard and his banana skit. It was all too wacky not to, and THEY BOTH SAID, "Oh, we love that one." Ba-nan-as. I ended up hugging and kissing them both, especially the father who seemed to enjoy the combination of an American woman who respected the Allies, liked Eddie Izzard, AND I told him I had a secret recipe handed down, from my grandmother to my mother, for Banana Bread. The old man sighed, as if this was the secret to getting into Heaven itself.
My husband watched all of this, later commenting as we drove home, "You make sad people happy. I don't know how you do it." I replied to the wind, "It's a blessing and a curse." What I said to my husband was, " Look at how blue the sky still is; look at that maple tree, so yellow." But it was too late, he had fazed out, and besides he's color blind, so I never know if we see the same things. I slept uneasily that night, with light hopes and heavy dreams.