Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In Honor of Christopher

Life is so fragile. Last Friday, Charlie's little friend, Christopher passed away. He was just 7 years old.
Loved baseball, the color red, reading, rules, hunting and camping. He wanted to be a firefighter, just like his dad. He was a great big brother and wonderful son. Christopher was at a pool party for his baseball team...and in a terrible instant, he drowned.

Our lives are forever and irrevocably changed. Nothing is as it was. Our hearts are broken. And our pain, as great as it is, is nothing compared to what his parents, grandparents, sister and extended family are going through. Their pain is immeasurable...unfathomable...the greatest loss there is...

I could write about Hank today...I have so much to catch up on...but all I can think about is Christopher and his family. So in honor of Christopher Walters, I am dedicating this blog to him.

Yesterday, I took the kids to Christopher's funeral. I had a lot of misgivings about it. The kids are so young and we haven't talked a lot about death. Well, that's not quite true. My Dad passed away when Hank was almost two. So we talk about Grandpa being in heaven. About how much I miss him and how he watches over us. But we haven't been faced with someone close to them dying, let alone a child. I can barely come to terms with it...how could I expect them to?

Charlie insisted he go. Lucy, ever the champion of her brother, insisted she be at his side. But Hank...Hank who understands the finality of death, did not want to go. I struggled with what was the best thing to do. Would they be traumatized? Would they be scared? Would they understand? I knew that I would go, no matter what. I knew that Christopher's family needed all the support they could get and I needed to say goodbye. Earlier in the week, I spoke with Christopher's mother, Amy, on the phone. She asked if we would be there. How could I let her down?

The night before the funeral, I knew what we would do. I sat all three kids down and told them that we would be attending Christopher's funeral as a family...(without Jeff, as he had to go to work) Death is a part of living and as Catholics, comforting the sorrowful is one of the "spiritual works of mercy"... Not only that, but Charlie needed to go to support his friend, Christopher and say goodbye. Lucy and Hank needed to support their brother in his time of sorrow. And Hank in particular needed to take all the kindness and support that has been shown to him each time he undergoes surgery, and pay it forward. With big eyes, they nodded in agreement.

Christopher's favorite color was red. The family asked that every child wear the uniform in which they knew Christopher or wear the color red...some would wear baseball uniforms, some would be cub scouts...our kids would wear their school uniforms and in honor of Christopher, would wear their red polo shirts. Lucy wore a red dress and I wore the red shirt I purchased the night before.

The services were an hour and a half away...in the beautiful foothills of Amador County. Another classmate of Christopher's and his family met us at 9:00 am and together we formed a caravan. It seemed like a long trip to me, as I anticipated the enormity of the day. I said a prayer for Christopher and his family. And another one for all the families on their way. Please Lord...get us through this day.

Christopher's dad is a firefighter and a military man, who served two tours in Afghanistan. I knew that they would have a lot of support from both communities, but I never imagined just how much. The parking lot had firetrucks, motorcycles, and highway patrol cars. As we walked up to the church, we were greeted with the sight of about 20 veterans holding American flags, it was an honor guard and it set the tone for this little boy's memorial.

The lobby held tables filled with Christopher's beloved toys and treasures. Star Wars toys, stuffed animals, baseball things and pictures he drew. Everything a 7 year old boy loves...seeing things sucked the breath right out of me and I could not contain my grief. I heard the heartfelt gasps of the other mothers standing with me and we hung on to each other in disbelief and sorrow

Inside, was a sea of red shirts. At the front of the church was an open casket where dear little Christopher was laid out for people to pay their last respects. Christopher's parents, Rob and Amy stood next to their son and greeted those who came up. The line to see them was long and Charlie insisted we go up. I was worried...this was an open casket. I hadn't anticipated this. But Charlie said he was OK and got in line. As we got up to the front, I tried to shield Charlie from the casket, but he pushed his way next to me and said, "Hi Christopher. I miss you." He then turned to Amy and hugged her, telling her, "I am so sorry about Christopher." As I hugged Amy, Charlie hugged Rob. I have only seen Rob at school a few times and although I don't know him like I know Amy, I hugged him and we held on tight through the tears. I have never experienced a father's sorrow like that.

We found some seats and the other parents, children, our school's principal, administrators and teachers sat all around us. It was a huge showing of support and love from Christopher's school...all in red...all in tears...so much grief. Christopher's funeral was amazing...beautiful and gut-wrenching. I have never shed so many tears and have never seen such an outpouring of grief. Over 600 mourners attended...there were hundreds of firefighters, military personnel, Highway patrol officers, medical people...etc, all wearing their dress uniforms. The seats were taken up by the 500 in attendance and the men and women in uniform lined the walls. Standing in support of their brother, Rob and his dear family. You could see that they shared in his anguish, as the tears flowed down the faces of these strong and brave men and women.

Halfway through the service, Hank and Charlie went out to the lobby to use the bathroom. "Dad is here," said Charlie upon his return. I was so surprised and grateful! Jeff was at work when we left. But he finished up his meetings and made the trip up. We happened to have an empty seat next to us so I told Charlie to go out and bring his Dad back. I looked up to see Jeff, wearing a red polo shirt that I had never seen before, walking across the church. I later found out he stopped at a Kmart and purchased the shirt on his way to the funeral.

Jeff sat down and Charlie nestled into his side, comforted by the presence of his Dad...at a time when he really needed him. Charlie seemed to be doing OK....even when Christopher's parents got up to talk about their son. They laughed as they told stories and sobbed when the talked of their loss. I looked at Jeff who had tears in his eyes. I glanced at the Dad behind him who looked the same. These fathers, who were feeling Rob's grief as their own. Understanding with empathy, what Rob was feeling...and realizing that they could not fathom his loss.

As the services came to a close, they played a video of Christopher's life. Charlie crawled into my lap as he sobbed at the images of his friend. Looking at the places they went together on field trips, seeing Christopher in Halloween costumes and a video of him playing and singing in the bathtub with his little sister, the night before he died. So many memories and such tragedy at the realization that his friend was gone from this life. There was not a dry eye in that room. The sounds of laughter through tears at funny pictures, and the sharp intake of breath at heart wrenching photos. I could hear the sounds of my friends' sorrow as they sat behind me...Sobs and sniffles...this boy touched so many.

As we left the church, we were ushered by Christopher's casket, for a last goodbye and a hug for the family. All three of our kids sadly went up say farewell. I think this part hit Hank the hardest...seeing someone in a casket can be scary...and Hank is at the age where he over thinks a lot. But he was stoic and compassionate as he hugged Amy and Rob.

Outside, the preparations were made to transport Christopher to the cemetery. All of the uniformed men and women were lined up on either side of the stairs, leading up to the church. The honor guard was standing in a line with their flags, facing the church. The boy scouts in their uniforms were lined up next to them and a bright, shiny red fire truck acted as the hearse, to give Christopher one last ride. Above our heads, the medivac helicopter that transported Christopher to the hospital last week, kept vigil in the air.

As we stood in the hot sun, waiting for them to bring the casket out, I looked around at all the mourners. Red rimmed eyes, red shirts, people of all ages...I realized that Christopher had affected more people in his short 7 years than most people do in a lifetime. What an amazing little boy and we are so much better for knowing him.

The haunting notes of bagpipes snapped me back to reality as the bagpipers marched out of the church. Behind them came the pallbearers carrying a small red casket, draped with an American Flag. Christopher was being carried by his father, his grandfathers and three other uniformed men. The officers at the bottom of the stairs snapped their white-gloved hands into a salute and kept their hands at the brim of their caps as the casket was carried by. They lifted the casket up and into the back of the fire engine and secured it in place as the motorcycles got in position to lead the procession.

The kids and I got in the car to join the procession, as Jeff made his way back to his car, to return to work. Hundreds of cars got in line as we went the nine miles to the cemetery. All traffic was stopped as we traversed the winding roads. Each intersection was blocked by police, highway patrol, fire or ambulance. All with lights flashing and the officers and attendants standing at attention and saluting as we passed. The medical helicopter was joined by a military helicopter and together they led the way. My heart leaped into my throat each time we passed an intersection...this was the most beautiful and heart-rendering procession we had ever seen.

At the cemetery, we were handed red balloons. We stood in the shade of the huge oak trees as the rest of the mourners arrived. There was an awning set up with chairs for the family and the platform for the casket was set up, all waiting for Christopher's arrival. The uniformed men and women lined up, making an aisle for Christopher. The bagpipes led the way followed by the pallbearers and then the family...all in red. It reminded me of the police funerals you see on TV.

As we gathered for the service to start, we could hear the far off beating of a helicopter's rotors. The sound grew closer and louder... everyone looked up just as a large military helicopter roared into view over the tops of the trees. It was low and as it reached us, it soared upwards, right over where we were standing. One last tribute for Christopher...the boy who's dream was to ride in a Blackhawk helicopter, just like his Daddy. As the helicopter disappeared from view the minister asked us to join him in singing "Amazing Grace". Then he read some scripture and said a prayer. Afterwards, they asked us all to move into the open area and release the red balloons. Hundreds of red balloons took to the sky, making their way to the heavens for Christopher. Some balloons got caught up in giant oak tree...eventually breaking free and joining the rest.
They thanked everyone for coming and said we could make our way back to the church for the reception.

Charlie found his school pal, Colby and together they sat on a bench under the oak tree. Colby's mom and I talked and before we knew it, everyone had left...but the family. We stood away from them...to give them some privacy. The kids played in the dirt around the oak tree...and Colby's mom, Hank and I sat on the bench, watching in silence as they opened the casket for one final goodbye. The love of these parents...to say goodbye...it's the greatest anguish I have ever witnessed. Their hearts are broken...they will never get over this...And yet they must go on for their little 4 year old daughter.

We stayed as they closed the casket and lowered it into the ground. We stayed while they brought in the concrete slab that covers the crypt. We stayed while they brought in the backhoe and all the dirt. We stayed while they shoveled the dirt on the crypt and filled up the hole. We stayed while they rolled the sod back into place. And we stayed while little Alexis in her red dress and red headband, stooped down and placed flowers on her big brother's grave. We couldn't say goodbye...we didn't want to...but finally we tore ourselves away...

The ride home was difficult. I felt exhausted and drained. But I knew that what I felt was nothing compared to Christopher's family. This was the start of their new reality...a reality that no one wanted nor deserved. I heard from quite a few people when I got home. Other parents who attended the services, wanting to talk about the experience we just shared. Others who couldn't make it, but joined us in prayer, knowing how difficult the day would be. And still others who didn't even know Christopher, but who's hearts ached with sympathy for his family and friends.

Today has been rainy and cold. The kids and I stayed home, huddled in our pajamas. Throughout the day, Lucy has mentioned Christopher and Charlie is worried about Amy and Rob. Hank has been quiet and thoughtful, spending much of his time alone. We are still mourning...and will be for a long, long time.

Christopher, thank you for allowing us to share in your life. You're an old soul, who had wisdom beyond his years. The love that you had for your mom and dad was so obvious as was the joy you brought to them and your sister. Our lives have been blessed to know you and our hearts are broken because you are gone. Heaven is so lucky to have you. We will miss you...always.

To find out how you can honor Christopher's memory or how you can help the Walters family, please visit http://www.christophersmemorial.org/