I walk out of the store with two bouquets of flowers and, as I walk to the idling car where my husband and boys wait inside, I wonder if these will be enough for four sites. I think it will as I open the car door, and with windows down, we continue on our journey to Arlington beneath a gorgeous May sunshine.
We are flanked by motorcycles on our drive down 395 toward the National Cemetery. My three year old points out every single one, counting them as the pass. At one point he counts to ten and then decides “there’s too many to count!”, and indeed, there are. Rolling Thunder has hit DC full force in it’s 25th year, and as we drive below each overpass we see each one lined with people, firetrucks, and american flags, awaiting the informal motorcycle gangs that rally and ride together into the city before the formal noon ride.
The highway bends and we drive alongside the Pentagon parking lot; we tell our son to look out the window so he doesn’t miss what’s about to appear. One more overpass and then, a three year old’s dream: shiny chrome, leather jackets, loud engines. Motorcycles as far as the eye can see. Hundreds, maybe thousands of bikes, all waiting patiently in the Pentagon parking lots for their noon ride today, Memorial Day Weekend, to commemorate, to honor, to pay homage to and to thank our veterans who have passed. What began as a tribute to Vietnam vets has morphed into a pilgrimage of gratitude for all who serve. The sheer number of them is overwhelming, and as we pass, I feel a familiar lump in my throat, and I blink back my tears.
We drive onto Arlington and, with visitor pass in the windshield, drive toward our first stop: Section 60. The cemetery is busy today and tourists on foot are busy trying to see as many “attractions” as they can. But Section 60 is different. Here we find the headstones of those most recently lost: husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, grandchildren, friends. It’s more than a tourist destination; it’s a stark reality.
We unload the kids and then walk to the site. The cool breeze rustles the flowers in my arms and tousles the curls on my toddler’s little head. Beneath the crystal clear sky and bright sun, reality sets in. The harried departure from the house, the exit ramps closed off due to the Rolling Thunder tribute that made our commute 30 minutes longer–all of those distractions are now gone and we are face to face with a stone bearing the name of our friend, a father, a husband, a son, a brother. I show my son how to place the roses in the vase and he is an eager study. We place the flowers next to his name and then sit, pray, cry. Our sons, too little to understand, allow us a few moments before reminding us that they are hungry, that they want to play; they allow us a few moments before reminding us that life goes on–because it must.