I have returned home from burying my mom in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. For those readers outside the US, Arlington is our national cemetery for soldiers (and their spouses) who have died while on active duty or are fully retired from 20+ years of active service. It has been 6 months since her death, but things take awhile with Arlington. The last 6 months have been difficult for layers upon layers of reasons, with no time, energy, or emotional reserve to write. Our lives have been a swirl of emotions and change, for reasons in addition to my mother’s death. I’ll have to unpack all of it bit by bit, though I don’t know how much of it I will do publicly. The trick as a writer is to write from your heart without giving away too many pieces of yourself. Always a tricky balancing act.
What I can say now is that it has been years since I have been to Arlington, and I arrived with certain expectations. I expected Arlington to be full of sorrow, much as the US Military Cemetery of World War II was in Normandy, France, which we visited last year. I also expected my mom’s burial to be wrenching, because the anticipation of it had opened up fresh grief. What I found instead was that Arlington is actually a very comforting place. Perhaps that is because my grandparents are also buried there, as are some of my husband’s family. It feels familiar, even though much time has past since I last have been there.
Perhaps the difference also lies in the fact that that all the soldiers buried in Normandy were cut down in the prime of their lives. So many of them were 18, 19, 24 years old, with their whole lives ahead of them. In France one feels the death of dreams amidst the knowledge of the bravery and sacrifice. It is a place to be reverent, a place to be grateful. But it is also a place of regret and deep sorrow. And while Arlington does indeed have graves of soldiers who have died in war, the majority of the graves are of those who have lived full lives and have died after they have retired from active service. Most of those buried in Arlington lived to an age where they were able to look back on a long life and remember days fully lived. I know my mom was ready to let go of pain and the struggle of her failing body, and that also brings comfort. But make no mistake, grief is a long road, and is not easy, even when your loved one was ready to meet death.