I had the most wonderful and unexpected event happen this last week. I arrived at Denver International Airport to board a flight to NYC and when I arrived at the gate, I noticed a large group of individuals together, some wearing blue and some wearing red.
Despite my best intentions, curiosity got the best of me and I inquired of the woman sitting next to me what the fuss was all about. She informed me that this was a group from Honor Flight, an organization who sponsors Veterans to take them to see the various memorials around Washington DC. I was very touched and felt blessed to be a part of this wonderful flight. I boarded my flight and was positioned between two “old timers”, both WWII Veterans. To my left was Bernie, 88 years old. To my left sat Homer, 86 years old. During the flight, between periods where they would doze off, we would chat. I learned that Bernie has been married for 69 years, had 3 kids and lost his oldest boy in Vietnam. As he told me this, he got choked up and I felt my eyes well with tears. Bernie’s wife has had Alzheimer’s for 10 years and he took care of her as long as he could but recently had to call in home hospice. His voice shook as he spoke of his family.
Homer was also married to the bride of his youth. He had 6 children, 4 boys and 2 girls that he raised on a farm in KS. He was a flight engineer in WWII and talked about many of the near-misses he had while flying. He laughed often and reminisced about the good times. His eyes grew distant as he remembered being young and his hand shook trying to open a pouch of cream cheese. After many failed attempts, I offered to help him and he laughingly said “these old hands aren’t good for much anymore”.
When we landed in Baltimore, there was a fire engine at the end of the runway that began dousing our plane. Both men looked confused so I explained that it was the city of Baltimore greeting the Honor Flight. They smiled and we shook hands, said our goodbyes and I got off the plane. When I stepped inside the airport, there were a group of people waiting, waving flags. There were Navy, Army, Coast Guard, Marine and National Guard lined up on the right wall, waiting for the Honor Flight to de-plane. We were invited to stay and welcome them to Baltimore so I stayed behind. A crowd quickly gathered. As the first men came off the plane, they were greeted with shouting and cheering from more than 50 people. They were first shocked, then pleased. People lined up to shake their hands and many were crying. I watched a man who was at least 85 toss his shoulders back as he briskly saluted the servicemen and women greeting him. The spark in his eyes and the pride in his step was apparent and it was enough to reduce me to tears.
Notable psychologist Irvin Yalom states that ““Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has even known me. That’s when I will be truly dead – when I exist in no one’s memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies,too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?”
This memory will be one I carry with me until I take my last breath; one very treasured day with a group of amazing men. Homer & Bernie, you will always be alive in my heart.