Celebrating Thomas’s life This Memorial Day

It’s been eight and a half years since we lost Thomas in Iraq.  Every year is full of emotionally difficult dates:  the date of his death, November 11th, which is Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in other English-speaking countries, his birthday on July 6th, and national holidays like July the 4th and Memorial Day.  Memorial Day is publicly celebrated as the beginning of summer and an occasion for sales, but I think most Americans also remember, at least for a moment, that it is meant to be a solemn time as well.  People on my street break out the flags early in the morning and fly them until sunset (those with good porch lights leave them out longer).  I have to admit that I have no memory of what we did in the years before Thomas died, but since his death we’ve developed a routine to deal with the day and to celebrate his life and service.  Since he is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Montgomery County, as he requested, we go to mass there on the morning of Memorial Day, and then cross the cemetery to visit his grave.  As often as not, we find friends or flowers there, showing that others have been there before us.  In the afternoon, we have our own barbeque.  The first year after his death was filled with a number of public events, but we have mostly declined invitations since then.  Thomas was a private person and we think that he would have preferred us to keep it that way.

But this year has been a little different:  still quiet but allowing others to honor Thomas too.  Earlier in the year, my family finally decided that we wanted to have a portrait drawn by Michael Reagan, an artist who lives just outside Seattle.  Mr. Reagan (not related to the president) works from photographs of the fallen.  He takes no money for this.  We had debated literally for years which photo we wanted him to use but a news story earlier this year about his work finally convinced us that we just needed to send a picture and do it.  Unfortunately, we immediately ran into a problem of resolution in the photo.  We (and everyone else) were in the process of switching to digital photography in 2004 and the number of megapixels available then just did not lend itself to capturing fine details.  We sent several pictures by e-mail and finally I ended up sending the original prints, with Michael’s assurance that he would make it work.

It never occurred to me to ask how long it would take to get the drawing back and so I was surprised a couple of weeks ago when I came home from lunch with my younger son to find a large package on the front porch.  Matthew and I carried it in to the house and tried to figure out how to open it without damaging the contents.  Finally, we got through the tape using scissors and pulled out the picture encased in several layers of foam board.  We pulled off the top layer and found the pencil drawing was covered by a layer of translucent paper with notes at the bottom about the kind of glass needed for the frame and the fact that the picture had not been sprayed which left it vulnerable to smearing.  Nevertheless, we peeled the paper back to see the portrait.  I started to cry at the sight of my son’s face, his slightly pointed ears, the shirt collar that was folded up because he hadn’t straightened it, the slightly prominent teeth, his little smile, all so characteristic of him and all so dear.  Matthew held on to me as we looked on this beloved face, and then he took a picture with his phone and sent it to his sisters and father.  We reassembled the package and left for the craft store:  a coupon for framing at a national chain of craft stores was attached and we both felt that the best thing to do was to get that picture framed and under appropriate glass as soon as possible.

Thomas--memorial day

Half an hour later, we were explaining what we wanted to a bemused clerk at the framing counter and to the customer who had appeared right after us (in these situations, everyone has an opinion).  It took a while to select the frame and the matte but we overshot the value of the coupon by less than a hundred dollars.  As we again returned the picture to its packaging, I could feel myself starting to cry a little and the clerk patted me on the back.  “We’ll take good care of him,” she said.

I got a phone message a week later that the picture was ready.  Saturday afternoon, I drove back to the store to pick it up.  A new clerk took one look at my name and knew exactly why I was there.   She brought out the picture wrapped in cardboard.  Yet another clerk drifted up to look as she slit the tape and revealed the portrait.  We all stared at this remarkable drawing.  She knew, maybe everyone in the store knew, this bit of Thomas’s story.  They were very kind and there I was, crying one more time.

And so I was able to bring this little bit of Thomas home again.

My Mental Health Day Thanks:
Lee Ann Doerflinger
Mother of Army SPC Thomas Doerflinger, KIA 11/11/2004, Mosul, Iraq

2 Responses to “Celebrating Thomas’s life This Memorial Day”

  1. Marie Carpenter says:

    Dear Lee Ann,
    Thank you for sharing this story and picture of Thomas with us!
    May perpetual light shine upon him and may he rest in heavenly peace!
    May God bless you and grant you his peace!

  2. Laurie says:

    Wonderful post my friend! Handsome Thomas. I’m so glad he and Michael have met.
    hugs to you,
    Laurie, Chase’s mom

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