I walk out of the store with two bouquets of flowers and, as I walk to the idling car where my husband and boys wait inside, I wonder if these will be enough for four sites. I think it will as I open the car door and, with windows down, we continue on our journey to Arlington beneath a gorgeous May sunshine.
We are flanked by motorcycles on our drive down 395 toward the National Cemetery. My three year old points out every single one, counting them as they pass. At one point he counts to ten and then decides “there’s too many to count!”, and indeed, there are. Rolling Thunder has hit DC full force, and as we drive below each overpass we see each one lined with people, firetrucks, and american flags, awaiting the informal motorcycle gangs that rally and ride together into the city before the formal noon ride.
The highway bends and we drive alongside the Pentagon parking lot; we tell our son to look out the window so he doesn’t miss what’s about to appear.
One more overpass and then a three year old’s dream: shiny chrome, leather jackets, loud engines. Motorcycles as far as the eye can see. Hundreds, maybe thousands of bikes, all waiting patiently in the Pentagon parking lots for their noon ride today, Memorial Day Weekend, to commemorate, to honor, to pay homage to and to thank our veterans. What began as a tribute to Vietnam vets has morphed into a pilgrimage of gratitude for all who serve. The sheer number of them is overwhelming, and as we pass, I feel a familiar lump in my throat and I blink back my tears.
We drive onto Arlington and, with visitor pass in the windshield, drive toward our first stop: Section 60. The cemetery is crowded today and tourists on foot are busy trying to see as many “attractions” as they can. But Section 60 is different. Here we find the headstones of those most recently lost: husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, grandchildren, friends. It’s more than a tourist destination; it’s a stark reality.
We unload the kids and then walk to the site. The cool breeze rustles the flowers in my arms and tousles the curls on my toddler’s little head. Beneath the crystal clear sky and bright sun, reality sets in. The harried departure from the house, the traffic from the Rolling Thunder tribute that made our commute 30 minutes longer–all of those distractions are now gone and we are face to face with a stone bearing the name of our friend; a father, a husband, a son, a brother. I show my son how to place the roses in the vase and he is an eager study. We place the flowers next to his name and then sit, pray, cry. Our sons, too little to understand, allow us just a few moments before reminding us that they are hungry, that they want to play; they allow us a few moments before reminding us that life goes on–because it must.
We visit three more sites–two other friends and one relative; the relative is my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. Killed during WWII, just a boy at 22. My grandfather, also just a boy of 20, was notified by chaplain of his brother’s death while in the infantry in Europe. His older brother, his best friend, his protector, the head of their fatherless house, gone. Much like his brothers and sisters in arms who lay in eternal rest by his side, he was not given the chance to say goodbye. My two boys romp around my great uncle’s headstone, playing peekaboo and chase. I cut the flowers and place them in the holder, first placing it on the left side of the stone and then moving it to the right. I stay seated for a moment, watching this scene before me: my two small boys, playing on the grave of my grandfather’s brother and best friend. And I wonder, will they ever understand the sacrifices made for them? Can they? Can anyone, really, until they live it, see it, feel it?
I stand, and my husband pulls me in. With our two boys, there isn’t much time to steep in all that this day, that this place, really means. But he holds me close and whispers in my ear “thank you”. And I whisper back “thank you“, and then louder, “and thank them” as I gesture to the aged headstones, the young soldiers lost during WWII, their names faded, their shape wearing. Those without wives, children, or stories to tell. Suddenly our boys are off, running down the hill, indicating that our time is done. We scoop them up and as we walk between graves of those who fought decades ago, my three year old shouts “Thank you everyone!” as he waves to Section 12. I start to cry. And then I smile. He understands, at least a little. “Yes, thank you everyone!” I say back to him, to everyone. I whisper a silent prayer to our friend, to my husband’s friends, to my family. And then, hand in hand in silence, we walk back to the car.
The motorcycles are still amassing as we drive past the Pentagon on our way home. Again, I am overcome. The sheer number of bikers is overwhelming–all of these Americans rallying together, the camaraderie–it moves me. I notice that in the parking lots there is little more than bikes and people. These riders have come, some from hundreds of miles away, to do nothing more than ride. They ride for our veterans, they ride for fallen comrades, they ride to honor. But mostly, they ride in gratitude. And as we wave to the bikers, my heart swells.
Each in our own way, we say thank you.
Originally published May 27, 2013