Inside the split-level ranch, Randy, the retired Air Force General, was spending his last summer. The family patriarch was probably watching TV, the fireworks from the Capitol, although he was even less interested in the tube than he had been. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand what was going on because of dementia, it was that he was getting so much closer to being gone. Another July 4th, a movie’s plot, who did it and why? It did not matter.
I love these pictures because they capture the three people I love most in the world, grainy, summer. It’s as if the photos imprint the humidity and how beautiful a warm Southern night can be, how they feel infinite. I love the way the sparklers register on Lizzie’s iPhone. Even my husband, Ranald, allowed us to take a snapshot of him, and that put him in the picture. I have always loved sparklers, the fire and crackle and the way they bring people together — lighting them, watching them, the little disappointment as they sizzle out. Get another one. And another. Until the box is empty.
A few days later, in the Subaru on the long drive to Upstate New York, I must have told the kids that Grandpa wasn’t going to last long. They did not like hearing this. I was such a downer. Why should they? I thought I was preparing them for the inevitable, but what can prepare them for that loss? We all loved him so much.
I’d been married over 25 years by then. My feelings had altered from the awe and a little fear when Randy first picked Ranald and me up at Union Station before we were engaged, to love and need and a peacefulness together I wouldn’t have thought possible when we first met.
I came of age among lefty Jews during the Vietnam War. My parents taught me everything military was bad at the same time they told me to finish my milk. It took a long while for that conditioning to dissipate. In the end, if anybody would ever have my back, the General would. If there was a blackout, or an invasion, or a zombie apocalypse, or a night with a bottle of Macallan on the table, I wanted him there.
Looking at these pictures, you see a happy family, a boy, a girl, a husband, a wife somewhere not wanting to be in the picture, but having purchased the artillery and marched us outside and away from the television. I see them, too. But I also see the lights in the windows, the house by the Potomac that I returned to for over a quarter of a century, from a young naiver-than-I-knew woman overly attached to her parents, to a wife and mother of a son and daughter with a strong marriage built brick by brick in joy and tragedy.
I see the last Independence Day we spent at that house in what was nearly an annual event. We went South again at Christmas and Randy was already in the hospital. We saw him once more: we waited outside his room on Christmas Day while he argued with the nurse. She came out, a little Filipino, flustered but still in charge, and we apologized for him, then filed in.
Randy was wearing those awful hospital gowns that defy dignity — that last uniform he would ever wear while alive. His eyes were unfocused without his glasses, his hearing iffy without his aids. But he was still commanding for a little man, still tied us together. We stood in a row at the foot of his bed like the Von Trapps. The little grandchildren now grown into adolescence. Randy was lucid but this was one ridiculous battle he just didn’t want to fight anymore. He died before the New Year.
And while we are all still in mourning, the beauty of having had him as part of my life is how much he came to mean to me, despite my upbringing, and to those around him. He was a man in full, not a guy in flip flops and cargo shorts. I still see Randy in my husband’s smile, in his square head, in the way Ranald is so firmly rooted in reality.
Randy exemplified the best in the American military man, the fighter pilot, the West Point grad, that had fought for our independence. He missed WWII but flew missions in Korea and Vietnam.
Tonight, when it’s dark and bursts of fireworks flash above the tops of the trees, I will raise my shot glass to the sky, and remember our fun times on the Fourth, with you Randy, when we were a little lit, like sparklers.