THE FLAG IS THE EMBLEM OF OUR UNITY, OUR POWER, OUR THOUGHT AND PURPOSE AS A NATION. IT HAS NO OTHER CHARACTER THAN THAT WHICH WE GIVE IT FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION. FOR MOST AMERICANS, THEIR SENTIMENTS ABOUT THE FLAG ARE NOT SOMETHING THEY CAN EASILY DEFINE. TO MOST OF US, THEY ARE AS INDIVIDUAL AS PERSONALITY, PRIVATE AS A FAMILY MATTER AND ALMOST AS PERSONAL AS RELIGION.” PRESIDENT WOODROW WILSON, 1917
For those of you who may have read the first “Letters & Leaves” blog called “FLAG,” perhaps you had wondered how I was explicitly dubious and uncertain “what to do” with my beloved husband’s well-earned American flag.
This extraordinary symbol of our nation was carefully handed to me by a decorated Marine respectful and kneeling with great dignity. The day was July 12, 2009 at Francis Joseph Toth’s Memorial Service at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery.
Up until the moment he passed in my trembling arms I had not cried. My tears were hardly withheld by courage or strength. In truth, I was screened by unsurpassed and frozen numbness. Unbeing.
As I received the Marines’s blessing, something serendipitous happened.
The second I touched the tuned meticulous folds of the flag’s cloth, my body bared my soul–unleashed my heart’s incursive, impalpable pain. Grief wailed without care of a widow’s unfair, precarious expectant dignity. My dearest father held me as if I were his child again. Yet I knew not who I was or why. I was weakened with this explosion of his loss.
I carried this holy piece to my chest and collected the shells left on the ground from the gun salute. His dog tag and medals clinked in my pocket, the only sounds in the air. Except for TAPS’ overture in my forever memory.
The funeral car was big black and empty. It seemed to drive slowly as a deliberate distraction across the stunning green grass speckled with white and silver stones from every age and war. My eyes fogged over. I did look up, however, in homage to the impending extraordinary architecture of the Veteran’s Memorial. I knew it was the first in the state of Pennsylvania for veterans from every era from the Revolutionary War until now. I felt humbled.
The hearse stopped abruptly. I was not sure why. Yet it took only a moment to know the reason. I did not have to ask at all because I recognized we were following the Avenue of Flags. I felt breathless.
In short time, my clouded vision flashed wide like a camera shutter opened to a far optimistic and less relentless reality. My eyes only widened, brightened. I was stupefied. I held my husband’s gift from my country closer to my breast. Tighter.
Along the meandering Avenue leading through the cemetery, immense flags flew tall as the enormous trees like red, white and blue colored angels. So many! So many! I turned this way and that way watching up and down to see the strong flap and hear the hearty snap of exactly what I was holding in my hands now. I swear I saw clouds open and my Francis saluting me. I swear he was there, my escort in arms with his palm to his head. My soldier. Your soldier.
Too soon, the black car continued homeward. Entering the door, I sat very quietly, stunned, exhausted, sagging. No fancy dinner or friends and drinks after. Only my lonely side of the cold bed. The darkest, moonless night. The flag next to me.
Forever months passed after the funeral, getting colder, turning to winter. I stared at my frame encased flag now and only saw the most loved and missing part of my life, my husband. This is the time I wrote my first blog, “FLAG,” distressed, depressed, confused who I was without him. Now the cherished memento seemed crushed in a a glass coffin forever, and then where would it go? I was confounded with its presence–but never ever its vigor, its full-blown significance to me. I cherished it. Though it haunted me.
Oddly, one day in the spring I discovered an email from Indiantown Gap National Cemetery. How hopeful its message was. In my own words: The once vigorous flags along the Avenue of graves and wooded passages were starting to disintegrate, tearing and wearing from their long forever parades and timeless stars and stripes of flight. Our placards with age were splintering, stringy and losing their well-recognized clarity and astounding breadth. Their hearty emblems were fading from the continual elements of this land of the free with its harsh seasonal elements. They too needed a place for a proper Stand Down and deserved rest.
The email from the cemetery requested the public to assist. To possibly gift their personal or private and sole family-bequeathed flags to replenish those tattering day after day in the hot sun and cold winters. With only so much financial assistance available these unwary days, what might have been a more worthy bequest? Where else but such a splendid and strategic placement to restore the ancient-old beacons and flares of our beloved families and veterans?
I thought and thought and thought.
On July 9, the observance day of Francis’ passing, I stopped thinking and drove to the Memorial Cemetery office. I tagged his name on the case and my new address and thanked them by written message with deep respect for their precious award to us.
But I dared not speak. I could not speak. Tears would not stop. What words would I have said anyway? I walked out crying even harder. Was this my dishonor? Did I now really lose him? Did I fail my rightful duty? I was still not fully sure.
Very slowly, another spring blossomed. I was feeling stronger now and more open to the changes in my life. My life without Francis followed with new insights, new confidence. New peace.
Memorial Day came with my customary red roses and grass-clearing on the inscribed gray plaque of Francis Joseph Toth. Vietnam Era. I knelt and prayed and I didn’t hide my tears. As always, I walked away backwards so as not to lose my certain reassurance of his safe resting place from the world and the flowers as symbols of my still strident love.
Driving away with reluctance as usual, I stopped again for another thoughtful unfolding moment. I looked high into May’s sunshine and huge white clouds. I then began smiling. I wondered with great joy which of the many and new flags topping the tall trees and stretching for the the heavens might have been mine and Francis’ flag furling–so bright, so lofty, so proud.
Donate to the Memorial
Tax-deductible donations can be made online or via the mail. To securely donate online with a credit card, visit https://donate.dmva.pa.gov To donate by mail, make checks or money orders payable to “Pennsylvania Veterans’ Memorial Trust Fund” and send them to: Office for Veterans Affairs, Bldg. 0-47, Fort Indiantown Gap, Annville, PA 17003-5002. For more information about the Memorial, visit www.dmva.pa.gov
“A Reminder of the Dedication, Sacrifice and Sense of the Purpose that Veterans Have Undertaken in Defense of Freedom.”