Monday, February 23, 2009

Another Hero...Lost

Death Be Not Proud
by John Donne(1572-1631)
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

A little over two weeks ago, I was eating dinner when my phone rang. It was my mother calling to tell me that she had just heard a friend of mine from high school, a guy I played baseball with for three incredible seasons, a guy whose wife was in my graduating class and an even closer friend to me, a guy whose brother had served with me in the National Guard for about five years in both Bulgaria and Iraq, a guy with four small children and a legacy of always doing his best to help those around him had died. Now, I had not really kept in touch with this guy very much after high school. We had both gone our separate ways, meeting occasionally here and there and catching up as best we could. He married his high school sweetheart, and I had immediately gone off to conquer the world. Nonetheless, the news of his death in Afghanistan rocked me. I didn't know what to say or how to respond. I only knew that it was tragic, and that it would stick with me forever.

I remember clearly the last two times I ran into Jared Southworth. The first was at the armory in Mattoon shortly before I left for Iraq. I was working there full-time getting ready for our deployment, and Jared had just entered the Guard as a cadet with the Eastern Illinois University ROTC program. It seemed fitting to me, seeing Jared in his uniform, showing off all the high-speed equipment he had bought to compliment his basic issue. He had always seemed destined to be a soldier. There was always just something about the way he talked about the military when we were playing ball together. I remember thinking, when his brother enlisted, that it was weird seeing Michael in uniform but not Jared. Little did I know that he was slowly making his way. He just had a little different plan in mind. From hearing the stories of those who served with him after he was commissioned as an officer, I know that Jared's path was the one most suited for him. While he would have made a tremendous enlisted soldier, he was an even better officer. I regret that I never served under his command. It would have truly been an honor.

The second, and last, time I saw Jared was some months after I had returned from Iraq. I was eating lunch with my grandmother in Charleston, and he came in with his wife and kids. Jared was a crazy guy in high school, always cracking jokes, and seldom seeming to take anything seriously, but seeing him as an amazingly loving and attentive father showed me an entirely different side of the man. I guess that was just it; he was no longer the teenage boy I had known, but a man who earned the respect of someone the minute he met them. While I am saddened that I did not keep in touch with he and his wife after we all left high school, I am eternally thankful that I was able to see him like this, because it is an image that will forever be etched in my memory.

In the weeks since I received the news of his untimely death, I have been at a loss for words to express my feelings about it. At the visitation, when I hugged his widow, the girl I had known so well nearly a decade ago, who had since become as strong a woman as any of us would have imagined back then, all I could manage to say was, "I'm so sorry." There was nothing else I could say, nothing else seemed adequate or appropriate, because I felt nothing else; only sorrow that she should have to endure this tremendous loss at such a young age.

It wasn't until I found myself sitting in the packed gym at Oakland High School during the funeral that I began to find words for what I was feeling in my heart. Yet, even then, the words were not my own. The words were from the opening line of a poem by John Donne, which I had read in some literature class in college. I couldn't remember the entire poem, only those first four words: "Death be not proud". I am not sure why, out of the vaulted recesses of my often scrambled memory, this poem sprang to my consciousness like a lightning bolt. I began thinking of all the circumstances and events that can lead to a person's death, and it seemed to me that in this case, death was indeed proud. What more noble or purposeful death could one offer than to die for one's country in service of his countrymen and those in faraway lands hoping desperately for freedom from violence and oppression? I remembered sitting at a training range in basic training, listening to my drill sergeant read the citation for the Medal of Honor awarded to the man whose name had been given to the range as a sign of honor. I no longer remember the heroic deeds of that long-dead soldier, but I clearly remember my drill sergeant looking at us with the most serious expression I had ever seen and saying, "That's how I want to go... in battle." Jared was just that kind of warrior. As much as I know he loved his family, I can't help but think that had he known what was going to happen, he wouldn't have changed a thing. I can't help but think that to Jared, death could be proud. Maybe I am just thinking all of this as a way of softening the blow, but maybe that doesn't matter.

Since the funeral, I have kept running those four words over and over in mind. Today, when I came home from work, I found the poem and began to read it once, twice, three times. I found that there is more in it for me than what I had first thought. It reminded me that death will eventually come to all of us; it will not be avoided, ignored, or forgotten. It will always be present, possibly waiting around the next corner. The last lines of the poem, however, leave a smile on my face because I learned at the funeral that Jared had become strong in his faith. I learned that he regularly attended church, read his bible every day, and even sang church songs to his children before bed. In the last lines, Donne says, "wee wake eternally,/ And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die." I am confident that Jared has awoken to an eternity of life without death. He will look down and see his children grow, learning of the hero that is their father, and he will smile.