September 30th was a day I had looked forward to for quite a while. It had been nine months since I had seen my son, which is longer than we usually go without a visit. Colorado and Atlanta seemed to be getting farther apart. It was way past time to see my boy.
Delta Flight 1817 was on time, leaving Atlanta on this beautiful, warm, almost-October afternoon. It felt good to sit down for a moment and unwind. I had packed a notepad, my crossword puzzles, my iPad, and a few other things to keep me entertained on my flight across the country.
I love to hear the roar of the engines and see the mountains looming up to touch the clouds. I enjoy the quilted pattern of the earth below and playing my silent guessing game of “Exactly, where am I?”
Flight 1817 was free from turbulent air and turbulent fliers. It was Friday, and folks were on their way home from a week on business or leaving home to visit the scenic beauty of Colorado or visit a sister, or a dad, or a son.
Finally, the jet engines started to slow down, and I knew we were preparing for our descent into Denver. I was looking forward to seeing those crazy-looking Cirque du Soleil tents of the Denver International Airport, rising on the flat plains outside of the city. The white fiberglass peaks are supposed to emulate the Rocky Mountains, but I have yet to get that visual.
It doesn’t matter; they are a welcome sight for this old mama who just wants to see her 41-year-old baby boy.
The plane landed smoothly, 10 minutes ahead of schedule, when an announcement interrupted the sounds of unbuckling seat belts,
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Today we have a fallen soldier who has traveled home with us. I will ask you to remain seated until we have returned him safely to his family. He is escorted today by a Marine captain. Please stay seated until we tell you it is the appropriate time to de-board.”
The Marine captain stood in front of the plane with his back to all of us. When he saluted the pilot, 200-plus fliers loudly applauded. He then descended to the ground below.
Directly to my right, I could see the activity on the tarmac. Black SUVs slowly drove toward the plane. Once stopped, Marines in full dress uniforms filed out and stood in formation. Then a hearse and a Honda pulled up to the side of the aircraft.
While the passengers looked out the windows, complete and utter silence enveloped the interior as well as the exterior of Delta Flight 1817.
A tall young man accompanied the fallen Marine’s father out of the Honda, holding him as he stood. The mother was being held by a friend or family member.
I could see every emotion in their bodies and faces. As the cargo hold door opened, the father started to crumble. His arms folded around his head as if to block out what his brain was not prepared to see. The mother grasped her friend tighter, as she too began to collapse.
The military honor guard in perfect splendor and cadence lifted the flag-draped silver coffin from the plane and marched it toward the hearse. A pristine red, white, and blue American flag covered the fallen Marine. This same flag would never fly above our land but, instead, be folded and given to the family now watching their son departing from his final flight.
A soldier who fought for us to be able to fly anywhere we desire came home to Colorado on an almost-October day. He fought and died for us to have the freedom to sit down when his country’s flag rises or to respectfully stand. A soldier whose bravery keeps us having the freedom to make choices and share differing beliefs. A soldier who enabled us to fight our political battles and vote for our chosen leaders.
A young soldier took his last flight for us to fly free.
He was a brave son whose parents didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye or have a chance to revisit their baby boy.
Finally, the hearse drove away, along with the Honda and the Marines in their black SUVs.
What remained were passengers with tears in their eyes, some even sobbing. When we left the plane, there was not a word spoken by a single passenger as we walked back to our individual lives.
I spent five blissful days with my son. I went for walks with him daily. I watched him run in front of me to play with his dog in the park near a school. He threw the ball as Miner chased it into the field. I witnessed my son’s legs move as his arms flew into the air. I watched his mouth form into laughter, and his voice boom as he called his dog’s name.
I absorbed every moment of this picture of living while knowing another mother would never see another new image of her son.
I silently prayed, and as I did, I saw the American flag waving atop a flagpole in the schoolyard.
Thanks to the fallen Marine, the red, white, and blue was still flying high against the cloudless, sundrenched Colorado sky.