Funerals, Pride and Dignity
I've been to so many wakes in my life, more than I care to count. There is always an air of sadness, a sense of solemnity. But here, there was something more....The numbness and disbelief of the past few days melted away as I kneeled in front of Pete's casket, his Fire Department uniform hanging next to it. There were pictures on a table to the right. To the left, his golf club leaned on a table. The flowers, so many flowers: Beloved uncle, friend, father, brother. And I kneeled there and looked at all these things, and looked at the closed casket and touched it, ever so briefly, and looked at Justin next to me and cried. That was my second personal experience with solemnity of death. After I finished my bout of crying that night, I was able to look back at the wake and feel a sense of pride. Pride for Pete's family, for his life, for his service to the city of New York and its people and pride that I could say I knew this man. It was the the dignified, stately aura that surrounded the affair that gave me that sense of pride. Even those who didn't know Pete could sense it and feel it. Something like that overwhelms you and lends to the swell of emotions that are brought to the surface. There was one more after that. Not a funeral, per se, but a memorial service for Claude Richards, a member of the New York City bomb squad who died on 9/11. bq. There were dogs. Bomb sniffing, loyal dogs, sporting red, white and blue bandanas around their necks and they stood color guard as if they were born to do that. There were policemen. Thousands of them, literally. They lined the street 10 deep and hundreds across. There were army men, Airborne men, decked out in dress gear, reassuring and scary at the same time. And in the middle of this, there were people. Regular, everyday people who aren't heros of the life saving kind. Friends, relatives, neighbors who had come to say a few words, to pat someone on the back, to tell them it will be alright.
There were other things today. The motorcycles with their quiet roar parading up the street, flanking the limousines that held the family. The three men standing on top of a Special Services truck, playing taps on their bugles while NYPD helicopters circled overhead and someone in the church belted out Ave Maria, all at the same moment, causing me to ask my mother, "Is this real?" because in my world just a month ago, this would be a movie. Not my life.
There was the woman who wrenched the heart of everyone in the place as she sang a soulful, mourning Danny Boy. The bagpipes. The standing ovation the mourners spontaneously gave to the members of the police department as they made their way out of the church. The men and women of that department streaming out with tears in the eyes of each and every one. I've never been and never will be to anything as solemn and sober as the service for Claude Richards. I did not know Mr. Richards, only his family. I knew of him. I knew the things he did and I knew how much his family admired him, how everyone he touched admired and loved him. It was the somber, stoic appearance of his brother and the solemn reverence paid to him by his friends and colleagues that made me cry as if I had known him like they did. And so it was watching Ronald Reagan's flag-draped coffin being hoisted by men in uniform yesterday. So it was, as I watched Nancy Reagan, seeming so small and slight, run her hands along the coffin. Of course I did not know Ronald Reagan. Most of us have never met the man. Yes, he was our president and we knew much about him from the years he served us. Yet there is so much we did not know and in order to see what kind of man Reagan was one only need to look at his wife as she mouthed the words "I can't believe it." You need only to look at the citizens who lined the streets yesterday to watch as Reagan's coffin passed by them. You need only to have seen the long line of people who waited ten hours for a chance to pay their respects for only ten seconds or so. From the soldier who accompanied Nancy yesterday, to the honor guards, to the riderless horse, the 21 gun salutes, the missing man formation, the solemnity of the uniformed soldiers, to the words spoken by so many, it would be hard not to get choked up watching the ceremony unfold. I felt a pride of country yesterday, in the sense that we are showing the world our dignity, the kind of dignity that comes with solemnity. I found myself standing in front of the television yesterday. Standing. What I was seeing both demanded my respect and brought out a fierce sense of pride. Perhaps if you did not like Reagan's policies or his legacy you will not have felt that same pride I did, the very same pride I felt at my grandfather's funeral, the same pride I felt for having known Pete Ganci, the same overwhelming pride I vicariously felt for Claude Richards's family.