The crisp air was the kind of cold that huddled in the shadows of a sunny winter’s day. The solemn rows of white markers stood attention over those who served and died. Their careful arrangement a reminder of the fleeting days of life and the legacy of honor. Upon the hill, the view opened to the Capitol building. The reflection of lawmakers holding in their hands the responsibility of lives. How effective would they be if they sat among the dead instead of in front of cameras?
We rang the bell to an inconspicuous door tucked into the side of the white stone walls of the amphitheater. The sputtering sound of the intercom hollowed out the voice of a soldier requesting our purpose. Upon stating our name and intention, he asked if we were dressed appropriately. My Dad stood beside me, his black wool overcoat surrounding a navy suit, stiff white shirt and royal blue tie, fit and tailored to honor himself and the soldier in the grave. A slate felt fedora covered the head of our family who was regretting stiff shoes on cold concrete. He had the distinguished look of a statesman.
A young soldier came to the door, stood in front of us and gave us the instructions of our part of the honor ceremony we would join. Upon the receipt of instructions, we climbed the stairs to stand and watch and wait. From our advantage, we looked down at the sacred ground of the large sarcophagus. The words Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God etched into the white marble seared my heart. Although a large assembly was gathered there were no voices, just the cadence of taps from the shining heels of the Sentinel. Twenty-one rolling steps. Click. About face. Click. Twenty-one seconds of reflection. Click. The precision of each movement a testimony to the importance of the soldier within the tomb. The dedicated achievement of excellence a reminder of why we were there.
In a voice that carried through the cold air, gruff, commanding and serious, our Host Sentinel addressed the crowd announcing the changing of the guard. He demanded solemnity from the crowd as he explained his tasks. Once the guard was in place, the Host Sentinel climbed the stairs to us.
My Dad stood centered on the top step. His four girls by his side. The Sentinel approached, his intimidating face serious until he reached the top, where a gentle grin broke across his face as he welcomed us. He asked why we were participating. We shared it was our father’s seventieth birthday. He wished Dad a Happy Birthday and shared it was also his birthday. He was celebrating his thirty-fourth. He gave us a few more instructions. I placed my arm through my Dad’s and with the command of step, we descended to the tomb. My sisters placed at different levels upon the stairs, we stood in honor of the fallen and our father.
We were approached by a second Sentinel holding the wreath created by our family. Upon the evergreen boughs were five deep blue hydrangea, my mother’s favorite flower, representing the five families which combine into one. Two large red roses, the representation of my parents, were encircled by eight smaller red roses for their children. Sixteen white paper roses posed as the grandchildren. There were sprigs of lavender for each veteran of our family from the Greatest generation to date. Filling out the wreath were red berries to symbolize the generations to come–a legacy only just beginning and baby’s breath reminding us that we are sustained by the Breath of God.
Dad and I joined the Sentinel in securing the wreath at the foot of the tomb. We backed to the side of our host and lay our hands across our hearts. Taps filled the air. We were escorted back to the top of the arena, where we enjoyed a final conversation with this Soldier who recognizes his inability to meet the perfection required of him, but never failing to push himself to the standard.
At the completion of the ceremony, with warm tears turning cold on my cheeks, I was reminded of the importance of dignity and honor. There is value in the occasional ceremony of pomp and circumstance to remind us that the days of leisure we enjoy were secured with a great sacrifice.
Our task complete, we rode the tram back through the winding paths lined by the stones of distinguished people. But as we reached the bottom of the hill, to our left were the stones marking slaves who worked and died on the ground they now rested beneath. Under each name, the word citizen. As I thought of the entirety of those grounds, my heart began to fill with Hallelujah . Beyond all sacrifices represented in the 600 acres of Arlington, I was reminded of the tomb of a King, which now stands empty giving the enslaved citizenship at the end of the road.
The privilege of honoring the fallen, while also extending honor to my Dad will be a treasured memory. The hope that comes from knowing the greatest sacrifice, a gift.