Eleven years ago, I wrote how my wife was a woman of steel in dealing with the death of her father. As painful as it is, that’s the way of the world. A child burying a parent is the natural order of things.
The reverse, however, is not. One doesn’t expect that.
Three weeks ago, our son, Cheryl's and, by all the metrics which matter, mine, Master Sergeant Rick Garland Treadaway, United States Army, Retired, died.
He was forty-two years old and apparently in good health. There was no reason to expect his death.
I got the call at work. The voice at the other end was so close to hysterics I could barely make out it was Cheryl’s. This was from a woman who could give Margaret Thatcher a run for the “Iron Lady” title, so I knew it was bad. It took me a minute or so to piece together the words “Rick is dead”, and I was out the door. The drive home was the longest of my life---and it wasn’t long enough. I was already thinking of the things that needed to be done, yet as I pulled into our driveway, I dreaded the reality of what we would have to face.
For my own sake as much as yours, I’ll skip over those first anguished minutes. The details of the thing were few, but enough. Rick had been discovered lying in bed that morning, having passed away sometime during the night. Even though he had recently retired from the Army, he was still living on base, so the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division had jurisdiction. The responding agents found nothing that warranted further investigation, and the autopsy bore that conclusion out. Rick had died from an undiagnosed medical condition, probably an aneurysm, which had caused him to hæmorrhage in his sleep until there wasn’t enough blood left in his veins for his heart to pump. Exsanguination is the official term for it.
Then, a C.I.D. man called Cheryl.
Things needed to get started. I called the funeral home which had handled the arrangements for three generations of Cheryl’s family and set an appointment for the next day. Then, I made all of the notifications that Cheryl had not yet made.
Rick was not my son by blood. I never would have known him if I hadn’t have had the good sense, and the good fortune, to marry his mother. I never planned, expected, or desired to have children in my life. I wanted no part of fatherhood. So, I was a little at sea when, just before we moved into our first house, Cheryl told me that Rick would be coming to live with us.
I was lucky that he was twelve years old, then, and old enough to take direction. I didn’t know anything about being a father, but I knew how to lead sailors assigned to my command. I welcomed him to his new home and commiserated that this was a new experience for both of us, but that I was glad he was there. I also told him that he had responsibilities to himself and to our family. Nothing beyond his capabilities, I assured him. I also assured him that he would be held to them.
He quickly found out that life in our house wasn’t like how his friends lived in their homes. Ours wasn’t a television-sitcom family where the kids make smart-ass wisecracks and the parents negotiate with them. Once, when I stood my ground against something Rick wanted to do, he urged, “Let’s compromise.” I pointed out that his mother and I provided the roof over his head, the clothes on his back, and the food in his stomach. “I don’t have to compromise,” I told him.
He also learnt quickly that the rules were, indeed, the rules. At that, his mother and I were a united front. But I had it a little easier. Many parents want to be friends with their kids, and most fear alienating their affections. I didn’t care about any of that. It was our job to turn Rick into a contributing member of society. The best way to get him there was to instil that he was responsible for his own actions and that the consequences of those actions, good or ill, fell upon him. Where that put me on his personal hit parade wasn’t a consideration.
I have to admit, Rick bore up well. That’s because his mother and his grandfather had given him a good foundation before I got my hands on him. Oh, sure, he was as prone to careless thinking as any teen-ager, but he had a solid sense of decency.
The next day, at the funeral home, the real business of putting our son to rest began. I thrust as many of the details on Cheryl as I could. Not that I was unwilling to do them---I would’ve gladly done it all---but Cheryl needed it. I knew that if she was kept busy with the details of Rick’s death, then she would have less time to dwell on the fact of it.
Perhaps the real heroine of this piece is Rick’s ex-wife, Rebecca. I say “ex-wife” reluctantly because their divorce was reluctant. The love was still there on both sides, but things that Rick carried with him from his time in combat had caused stress fractures in their relationship. Until those could be healed, divorce was self-preservation. They both expected to get back together eventually.
Rebecca was just as devastated as Cheryl was, but she was a champ in taking care of what had to be done on the Army’s end. She notified his fellow soldiers, and that put quite a machine of help and support into motion.
I never attempted to steer Rick toward a career in the military. A young man should find his own way in life. So I didn’t know about his decision to join the Army after his high-school graduation until I got a call from his recruiter inviting Cheryl and me to meet with him. I didn’t have a problem with Rick joining the Army. We wear different uniforms, but we both defend the same flag.
I swore Rick into the Army at the induction centre. The expression on his face was one I’d never seen before. It was a look of gravitas, as if he knew he was undertaking something that would change his life forever. When his mother and I watched him join the other recruits boarding the bus that would take them to the airport, I told her, “Take a good look at him, darling. You’ll never see him like this, again.”
I knew the Army would change Rick, but even I wasn’t prepared for how much.
Much of the time, he and I were on opposite sides of the world. That made his transformation more obvious on the times we did get together. He spoke with confidence. His eyes were alert and knowing. The shelves in his living room held books on geo-politics and historical biography and leadership. He could discuss intelligently the state of the world and how the events of the day fit into it.
He had developed a moral compass, with an unshakeable sense of right and wrong, but tempered with compassion and understanding of the human condition. As he rose in rank, he held those under him to those standards, and at the same time, motivated and inspired them. And he was respected by the captains, majors, colonels, and generals above him.
This was the kid who, for the six years he lived with us, couldn’t remember to close the refrigerator door or pick his clothes up off the floor.
He was the kind of man every father hopes his son becomes.
Throughout the funeral preparations, Cheryl had been holding up reasonably well. But there would come moments, such as when she opened the garment bag containing the Army Blue Service Uniform in which he was to be buried. As soon as she saw it, the pain rushed back.
The Sunday we buried him was the worst. At the private viewing, Cheryl wept until there no more tears left in her. So did the immediate family. The air was thick with grief.
But I noticed an interesting thing happen. As more and more people arrived, the weight of the grief seemed to lessen. It was as if each visitor was taking some of it upon himself. The moment became easier to bear. Friends and family began to reminisce, and smiles peeked out as stories about Rick began to flow.
I began to understand the real purpose of a funeral. It’s not so we can say a bunch of nice things about a loved one that we should have said while he was still with us. And it’s not to close the book on a person’s life. No, not that. It’s to enable us to withstand the immeasurable sadness of death by coming together to share that grief, to distribute that weight upon many shoulders. It gets us all through it.
Something that many folks miss is that a funeral is not about closure. We did not put a period to the end of Rick’s life that day. Yes, we shut the lid and put his body in the ground. But, and I’ve said this before, a human being is more than just flesh and bone, the heart beating in his chest, and the blood coursing though his veins. Those are just the mechanics of life.
Those we love, and whom love us, live in their words, their expressions, their gestures.
The way they greet you in the morning. Their hearty laugh at a good joke. The scent of her perfume, the aroma of his pipe tobacco. That battered old cap that he wouldn’t trade for the crown of England. The string of pearls she wears for a fancy night out. The excited look on their face when they have good news, or the particular phrase they use when they screw up.
It’s the gift of a loved one’s presence. It’s the part of them that remains with us. And it’s especially strong in a man like Rick Treadaway. You could tell that by the stories remembered, the memories shared, the respects paid, far into the evening after the graveside service. As long as Rick’s presence lives in our memory, he will never be really gone.
Right now, because we’re human and the loss is still fresh, that presence, something as simple as hearing his favourite song on the radio, recalls the pain and we mourn.
If you were to ask me my most singular memory of Rick, that’s easy. Six years ago, Cheryl and I visited him and Rebecca, and they surprised us with the news that Rebecca was pregnant with twin boys. We went out to lunch. While the wives talked about the things that ladies talk about at a time like this, Rick confided to me that he was worried that he wouldn’t make a good parent.
I assured him, “When the time comes, you’ll know what to do.”
Rick replied, ”I just hope that I’m as good a father to them as you were to me.”
I know . . . a lot of you are reflecting sadly that, now, he’ll never get the chance.
He will. But it’s on us now, me and Cheryl and Rebecca, to make it so. To invest in those boys the qualities that Rick represented. To provide the lessons of manhood that Rick would have.
And when his sons are standing straight and tall, we won’t help but notice and remark, “You’re just like your father,” or “Your father would’ve been so proud of you.” And in that moment, we’ll feel Rick’s presence with us, again.
And then we’ll smile.