Just Three Stops — but a World Away

Recently I went to Arlington National Cemetery to pay my respects at the grave of Geof Cayer, a Marine lance corporal who died in Iraq in July 2006. That year I had been on a US Airways flight that was escorting his body to Washington for burial. I've been visiting his grave ever since.

The Metro train I took to Arlington Cemetery was packed with people on their way to work, a few listening to music players and many reading the paper. I got on the train at 7:59 a.m. Three stops and six minutes later, I was there. It was a six-car train full of people, but no one else got off at Arlington Cemetery.

The last time I'd visited Geof's grave, it was located in the newest row of Section 60. Now three more rows are filled in front of his, and, of course, a seemingly infinite number of white headstones flow behind. Two Marines in their dress blues were standing by 10 chairs that had been placed at a freshly dug grave for one of the 28 funerals that would be taking place this day.

As I stood silently, a woman walked over from where she had parked her car. She must be a family member, I thought, as only relatives have driving privileges on the grounds.

She was dressed in dark clothing and held a light green straw hat in her left hand. She stopped and stood looking out at the graves and then started to move slowly toward one in particular. She had a slightly uneven walk, not a limp, but was a bit bent over almost as if moving one leg took some extra effort. Her face was pale and brittle in the glare of the early morning sun. She seemed to find the stone she was looking for and then reached down with her right hand to rub and gently pat the top of it.

I assumed this was her son's grave. But then she walked slowly down the row, never taking her eyes from the graves, even when she softly nodded “hello” as she passed me. After careful study she found another white stone where she stood with head bowed for a long time, a grimace contorting her mouth. She bent to touch it as well. About 10 minutes later, and two rows away, she did this again.

At one point she noticed that the stone marking the grave of a 23-year-old soldier killed in April 2007 had sunk down into the ground a few inches, and was lower than all of the others. She called one of the groundskeepers over, pointed to it, and asked that it be fixed. She spoke so softly that I could not hear her but she must have been insistent, because he immediately called his supervisor on the radio and said, “One of the stones in Section 60 has sunk and a family member has requested that it be raised. Today.” He assured her it would be. It was as if these were all her sons.

For the next hour she walked throughout Section 60, occasionally straightening a photo that had been left at the base of a stone, or leaning over to touch the white marble top of one. When she bent to pat them, she would stop and lean on the stone with the one hand that had been doing the patting, as if spent or exhausted by a weight that made it uncertain she would stand upright again. It seemed to take tremendous effort for her to walk from one row to another. It was the worst war wound I had ever seen.

If there is a kind of grief that does not subside with time, doesn't erode or ebb or ease, surely this was it, the nature of a grief borne alone.

Finally she walked back to her car, still holding the light green straw hat in her hand, and got in behind the wheel. But the car did not move. As I began the long walk back to the visitors center and the subway, I turned around and she was still sitting there.

At the Metro station, I got on another crowded six-car train, and again, no one got off.

The writer is the founder and executive director of the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength.

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