Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Funerals, Weddings, and Birthdays

Joel Gentz's parents and widow stand by his casket as members of the Air Force Honor Guard remove and fold the American flag that draped his casket. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

I haven’t been drunk since I was in college. That’s a good thing, I suppose. I can’t say being drunk ever made me forget my troubles or feel any better, plus I never really liked the taste of beer or hard liquor anyway. Still, for some strange reason, I was truly hoping the bartender at my nephew’s wedding had some Mike’s Hard Lemonade on hand – that’s one drink I actually like. He didn’t, so I drank Coke and stayed sober.

Maybe I was looking for a little less clarity and having a few drinks seemed like a good way to cloud things up a bit. My brain tends to grind a little too much most times and it had been one hell of a week in what’s turning out to be one hell of a year.

It all started with a military funeral for Joel Gentz, a young Air Force Lieutenant who was killed in Afghanistan. I didn’t know Joel one lick, but I’ve become all too familiar with military funerals.

This one was my sixth in the last seven years, and it was no different than the rest - a young man ripped away in the prime of his life. But this funeral also fell the same week as the Fourth of July, which made it seem more patriotic, I guess. Certainly, the turnout for his funeral seemed as much like a parade as it did a loss of life. The citizens of Chelsea, MI., where Gentz was from, lined the streets holding little American flags as the hearse carrying his body slowly made its way from the funeral home to the church.

There were no bands or floats, but people still waved their flags as the procession rolled past them. If you were deaf, you may have thought it was the Fourth of July or Memorial Day, but, of course, it wasn’t. 

At the church Gentz’s parents and his widow stood, for the most part, emotionless as members of the Air Force Honor Guard lifted the flag off his casket, folded it, and then handed it to his mom. Who knows what was going through their heads. I’m pretty sure they must have thought it was all a dream - it certainly felt surreal to me.

But that was early in the week. I had bigger things to look forward to. My nephew Aaron was getting married on July 3rd – the first of my mother-in-law’s 21 grandchildren to wed. I have no nieces or nephews on my side of the family, but when I married my wife (the youngest in a family of eight) I immediately became an uncle several times over, thanks to her prolific sister and six brothers.

Not more than three months earlier, a bunch of us were sitting in my mother-in-law’s living room placing bets on which of her 21 grandchildren would be the first to get married. Now that that’s been settled, we’re all wondering who’ll be next.

Aaron and his new bride Randi. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Aaron picked a great day to get married. Not just because the weather was great, but because he’ll also have more to celebrate than just parades and fireworks every summer on the Fourth of July. The same can’t be said for Joel Gentz. Even though his death came in June, his funeral and the Fourth of July forever will be linked for his folks, his widow, and all his friends.

Joel and Aaron had a lot in common: both in their 20’s, both newly married, both with promising futures, but in the span of one week that all changed. Now one life will continue to try and fulfill the promise, the other is simply done.

As I watched kids scramble for candy tossed on the street by passing politicians at Ypsilanti’s Fourth of July Parade, I wondered if this was what Joel Gentz died for. As I watched fireworks erupt in the sky later that night, I wondered if my nephew’s marriage would last – newlyweds always seem so happy and invincible, but kids, time, and life in general, have a strange way of wearing down the euphoria. I also wondered if Joel Gentz’s widow would ever find love again.

I wonder a lot of things these days. But as I stood in front of the bartender the night of Aaron’s wedding, the only thing I wondered was why he didn’t have any Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

1 comment:

  1. Thought provoking story. I am wondering why there wasn't any Mike's around either.