My mother calls at 10.30 pm on December 10, 2006, crying in that way that only mothers do when something truly unexpected and tragic has happened. But, instead, through a kind of hysteria that I have never heard my mother exude—high-pitched and garbled, like an animal, and uncoordinated and electric, like a fluish dream—I am told that my nephew, Sean Matthew, has been killed in Iraq. I tear up because I can hear the pain in her voice, the sickness in her gut. I can feel the shake in her hands as the receiver brushes her cheek. She says, “I don’t know what to do.” She asks, “How can this happen?” As her youngest son, having never dealt with nearby death, having never been to a funeral, I have nothing to offer. I simply listen, and cry at her cries and screams, shrieks of a mother whose daughter has lost her son. She tells me to call my sister.
Tania answers the phone with a slim voice. I tell her I am sorry for what has happened. She says, thank you. Her throat catches a bit but she doesn’t cry. She tells me the funeral will be in Butte, Montana, our hometown, my nephew’s birthplace. She tells me it will be soon, perhaps three days before Christmas. I offer myself in any way needed. She is wonderful and gracious, and says that he loved me, my nephew, that I was his favorite uncle, (something I cannot confess to knowing), then tells me he was happy and had a beautiful life. I cry a bit to myself, my hand cupped over the receiver. That is it.
When I hang up I am left with my some difficult remains. A broken mother. A broken sister. And a nephew who I can only remember as a brat I used to baby sit, a boy I have not had contact with for 12 years.
It strikes me that my sadness seems misplaced. People die every day. Thousands of them and in some way, his death rings the same to me. My sadness is, then, for my mother and sister. What keeps me up tonight is the thought of a 77 year old woman on the couch, in her bed, in the bathroom, on her knees, coming undone, mourning the loss of a grandchild and overwhelmed by the pain her daughter must face. What keeps me up tonight is the thought of a 42 year old woman, a mother of six, staring at photographs, going through stuffed animals, rubbing trophies, smelling old shirts, and clutching her chest, trying to understand the empty space which now lives inside her.
As the days pass and the phone calls continue I am told the story of my nephew’s death. A Hum-V of medical supplies was scheduled to be taken to Baghdad. While in route their vehicle was hit by an IED, a roadside bomb, and the crew was killed. My sister was notified but the remains could not immediately leave Iraq. They had to be quarantined and evaluated. After leaving the Middle East they were held again in Deleware, before being shipped to Butte. Within the week, I am on I-84 through the high-mountain desert of Idaho to the Rockies of Big Sky country.
Winters in Butte are harsh. The cold is dry and forceful, working its way to the core of all things. The funeral came three days before Christmas and there was an added thickness to the air—a quietness that strained the nerves. Services were at the Mormon church. Words were spoken while children whined and ran about in oblivion. A young woman was there from Alaska, Sean Matthew’s best friend. Someone tried to make a small joke, but the moment passed in silent awkwardness. They passed out tokens to my sister: a purple heart, a bronze star. The governor came.
Later we all learned was Sean’s young, best friend was his wife. They had married over the phone weeks before. Tania embraced her as a decades old daughter-in-law. Most of the family was in shock, but not me. It was just one more thing I didn’t know about him. When I was alone with the wife, I asked her who he was, this nephew of mine. She told me he was well-liked, kind, giving and hopeful of all things. He was a trickster. He was a bodybuilder. He liked karate. She told me he had a MySpace account and that if I wanted to get to know him better, maybe I should look him up.
Christmas came and went, and we all slowly made our ways back to our other homes. I found myself mad at the war, mad at death, flushed by the notion of my nephew’s choice and the absolute timing of all things that brought about his demise. But mostly, I found myself sick that I hadn’t really known him as a man at all. So, I looked him up. His handle is crazyhotguy. And he is hot. He’s ripped. His favorite books are the Bible and anything by Shakespeare. He likes everything from rap to country. He doesn’t want kids. He refers to his job with the Army as a Contract Killer. He has 116 friends.
As I closed my laptop and listened for the crickets out my bedroom window, the last drizzles of twilight pinking the horizon, I was humbled by one notion. Take time to know people, This I Believe.
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