They played Taps at my father’s funeral. They played it beautifully.

They played Taps at my dad’s funeral. Two teenagers on trumpets. First, the girl, positioned to the back and left of the crowd. Ta-ta-dah, she starts boldly, without the unease of her youth. Each simple note pierces the dry winter air.

Yes, you have our attention. Not another sound. Not even a breath by gathered friends and family.

In time, the second musician’s reply from the front. Ta-da-dah. And a pause. Their six notes arc above us. A mixture of sorrow and respect suspending time to hold the decades of a man’s life, if just for a moment.  The spell changes and the players move on to the next passage. Ta-da-dah, ta-da-dah, ta-da-dah, reassuring us and carrying us ahead. Our tears fall freely.  The final notes arrive.  We have reached its end.  We have reached his end.

The spell is completed, and hushed sounds return. The drying of tears. The shifting of feet on carpet. A low sun shines through the church window.  Movement is solemn and purposeful. The flag that covers the casket is removed. Elderly men from the American Legion know the exact steps. They fold it just so, place it in my mother’s aged hands.  Honored family members wheel the casket out the door, never to be seen again by my eyes. In the spring, when the ground allows, there will be a proper burial. I will be far away by then and unable to attend.

The group exhales as we pull back into our separate selves. Our family moves with dignity, though unsure of the choreography, the next move. As if on cue in response to the respect paid to our father, we fall in line and make our way down the row of uniformed men standing to our side, men hunched with age, a neighbor I have known my entire life, my former classmate’s father, an old family friend. I find it strange to see a young man mixed into the bunch, middle aged like me. He smiles, and I soon recognize the boyish face of my dad’s godson, off work on a Tuesday morning to attend the funeral. One by one, I thank these men standing at attention. Choking back more tears, it is the first time I fully understand.

As a child, I knew few things: Dad was in the Army in Korea. It was a conflict, not a war. Dad never hurt anyone. He had a wooden leg, but we couldn’t ask to see it or touch it. When shrapnel worked its way out through his skin, he would turn it over in his hand and sit quietly for a long time.  In a box in the basement was a photo of him wearing an Army uniform. He was young, relaxed, smiling naturally for the camera.  I didn’t care about purple hearts and bronze stars. I cared that I was more important to my dad than what happened to him before I was born.

Misery clouded every aspect of my father’s post-combat life. Fourteen months in his youth changed his next sixty-two years. In response, I have a long list of things I hate about the military, a visceral and unsophisticated view I have not outgrown. Out of filial duty, I keep that list to myself. Now I can say this much: I hate that my dad suffered every day of his life; the physical pain and burden of his injuries, the  moral conflict of a tenderhearted farm boy being drafted and trained to kill. Even in a time when the enemy was certain and Americans had no choice but to do their patriotic duty, the heaviness of that guilt was inseparable from my father. I have no memory of him fully at peace. I hate how the stress of my dad’s military experience shaped the lives of our family, is carried in my children’s DNA.  I hate how every day we create more veterans, ruin more lives.

Today, for the first time, I hold a veteran’s hand and sincerely say thanks. I thank these veterans for paying respect to my father’s memory, for acknowledging publicly for the first time how terribly he suffered, how much he sacrificed, and how much hell my mother went through caring for a disabled veteran. I feel compassion for veterans for the first time. There are no words to explain what they carry, only the music at a neighbor’s funeral.  I wish I could have held my dad’s hand with such compassion, somehow absolving him of the crimes committed in his youth that haunted his every day.

They played Taps at my father’s funeral.  They played it beautifully.

Kathy Stepien is a pediatrician who blogs at the Institute for Physician Wellness.

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