03 November 2007

3 NOV 2007 Lean on you

3 NOV 2007 Lean on you

Last night I called M. to talk. She had spoken with my Mom earlier in the day and gave me the bad news that my Grandma had died. I can't say it was a surprise. There is no gentler way I could have received the news than to have M.s soft, comforting voice reassure me that I was loved very much, even as she related such sad tidings. I could tell by the way my Mom had described her this week that she didn't have long to live. She was so uncomfortable near the end that it really was a mercy for her to die. Looking back, I think that losing my Grandpa this past year had a lot to do with why a woman who had been strong enough to live into her 90's had such a decline. They had so many wonderful years together. I remember them bickering and annoying each other but all they really needed in life was each other. When I saw my Grandma last, she told me "had such a wonderful man in your Grandpa, and now I've lost him." She told me that she didn't think she would live long and I told her she had to live long enough for me to come see her again. She said "Okay, and bring your boys to come see me!" I wish I had been able to get there in time.

I felt much better after talking to M. and my parents. We laughed about stories in the distant past and even about things that happened in the last week of her life. My parents told me not to feel bad about being so far away. I know that my family is fine back home, they have each other. My Grandma is also survived by my Uncle R.; He and my Mom live in the same town and will lean on each other. I would only want to be there for me. Somehow it seems like it would hurt a little less and be a little less sad if I was there. I feel like I should be there. It is my duty to my Grandmother to be there and it conflicts with my military duty.

I've shared my bad news with friends here at the hospital. My First Sergeant and Commander have been incredibly supportive. I know how lucky I am to have such great men leading me because their thoughts and words went immediately to asking me if I was okay and what help did I need. My First Sergeant is a clear communicator. His voice can reach the back of the drill pad and still be at full commanding volume. I have seen him cut through red tape and military obstacles with a frightening look of determination in his eyes. Yesterday I got to hear a much quieter yet equally inspiring voice from him. I don't think that it is too often that an officer has to go to the First Sergeant. He is mainly here for the enlisted to ensure that are getting what they need for their well-being, and doing what they must for the mission. But I am one of the troops in his care too and yesterday he let me know he was looking out for me.

My Commander is incredibly busy, but he took me into his office alone, shut the door and had me sit down. I have been impressed with this man from the first day I landed up on station because he always puts his crew at ease. Without ever having to be hard on us, he has this hospital achieving wonderful things for so many patients. He is the kind of guy you want to go the extra mile for to get the best results. He has the uncanny ability to make us feel like we are always doing a great job. At my level, his moves are nearly imperceptible so he makes us feel like we are doing it all ourselves. His leadership is nearly pure inspiration, with just a gentle nudge here or there to adjust the trajectory to highest apogee. After I spoke with him for just a few moments, and I don't know how he did it, he had me smiling and laughing as I told him stories about my grandmother from my youth.

This is yet another moment when I'm struck with the reality that my colleagues over here are my surrogate family. Perhaps because we are military or maybe that the environment of war brings a closeness, but it is our first instinct to look out for our comrades. My friends offered words of consolation. It was startling to learn again and again how many of my peers have also lost a grandparent or grandparents in the past year. I guess we are all just at that age. In fact it is an incredible blessing how long our elderly relatives are living. Every time a friend shared a story or a special relationship they had with their grandparent, it rekindled memories of the wonderful bond I had with my Grandma and Grandpa. As they told their story, I could see the same love reflected in them. You could just watch the glow of warmth and belonging cross their faces as they described cross-country visits, special meals together, or yearly rituals. It is a universal mote of the human condition that we feel something good and powerful in the unconditional love from our grandparents.

I spoke to Iraqi translator M. He and also I worked together in 2005. He immediately gave me a broad hug when he heard my bad news. He told me about his grandmother. He agreed with me that grandmothers have a magical way of making you feel like you are such a good person. He said that when his grandmother died he felt terrible that he could not get off the base to go visit his family and pay his respects. H and the other translators had received death threats and it was too dangerous to travel. It was a full year and a half before he was able to visit them. He said that his heart went out to me because he knew that I must feel that way too to be far from her. He reminded me that it was the times alive that mattered. It would be good closure for me to be with my family, but where I was it didn't change her death, make it any better or worse. He hoped I could visit soon. It was very moving to hear this from him. I told him that safe air travel made it seem to me that Connecticut was a whole lot closer to our base than his family home in Iraq. I know it would be easier to survive a visit back to the States than to drive to his family. Since I have known M. from before I met all but one of the troops with whom I have deployed, it is like he is the oldest friend I have with me. Email and the phone make friends and family back home seem close, but I can't give them a hug. Getting an encouraging hug from my oldest friend on the base made me realize how important it is to have unspoken reassurance from those dear to us when we have to pick up and move forward.

It has been a harsh twenty-four hours. Three troops in our Wing who were travelling outside the base were killed. There was no chance of saving them. Yesterday we received wave after wave of casualties in groups of three or four. Poor Colorectal surgeon J. was the SOD and didn't get a wink of rest last night. I think he has inherited the black flag from Vascular surgeon M. Both Americans and Iraqis were admitted. Not all of them survived. One died of unstoppable blood loss even though we kept him alive long enough to get to the operating room for a good try. Another arrived with the medics performing CPR as they rolled through the door. He had no signs life and hadn't for some time. We declared him dead on arrival and thanked the medics for their valiant attempt. One was in the operating room over 12 hours for a complicated repair of his shattered facial bones and eyes. I removed shrapnel, cleaned wounds, and splinted bones for three US troops injured by a mortar blast. All three will be able to return to full physical function once their bones and muscles knit back together again.

Even if my words here are never read, I'm a step better for having let it out. I will be fine, but I will only get though it with the help of friends. I knew my grandmother would die, we all do, but the blow knocked the wind out of me. I'm very lucky I have the love of my family back home. I'm very lucky I am comforted by the good people around me. I'm very lucky I get to lean on all of you. Like war buddies.



Anonymous said...

Bless your Granma's heart and her journey to be reunited with her husband of those many years. Like many of our elders, she seems to have lost the fire when he passed, and now she's in a far better place.

Bless you and yours in this time of sorrow, and thank you for what you do for our freedom and safety.

civilian paramedic instructor

Chris said...

Dear Patrick, you are so kind to write such encouraging words. I know that I'm not alone in this and I'm lucky to have known my grandparents so long.

Best wishes,


Holly said...

Chris, you have my sympathy and my prayers. I lost my Grandmother whenshe was 84. Telling you it will get better doesn't help the pain now, but I do know her passing leaves a hole in youe life and heart.
Remember to pass those wonderful stories along to your kiddoes so they have your memories as well as their own.

Anonymous said...

Lt Col Coppola,

I am so sorry for your loss. I know it is extremely hard to be away from your family during times like this. Thank you for all you do taking such great care of our military members and Iraqi citizens.
You are an excellent writer and I have become addicted to your blog. I have yet to deploy and feel your writing helps all of us back home begin to comprehend what deployment to Iraq must be like. I refer people who ask about military/deployment life to take a look at your blog.
Capt Danielle Deutschendorf, USAF, NC

Chris said...

Dear Holly and Capt. Deutschendorf,

Thank you so much for offering condolences. I know that there are better days ahead. I'll bet you miss your Grandmother now as much as the day you lost her.

I do feel that the Air Force is an extended family for me (complete with crazy relatives and people who drive me nuts!) and I'm thankful to have it. I don't know if you have a deployment in the future, but please tell me if I can do anything at all for you. Hopefully your business will keep you safe at home! I'm pleased that you have found a post or two worth reading, and I'm always eager to hear comments.

thank you so much to both of you,


lainy said...

It's very painful to lose a loved one and not be able to be there for the rest of your family.

I'll keep you and your family in my prayers.

Stay safe.

NICUTransportismylife said...

Thanks for sharing your life with us at home. Losing a grandparent doesn't get easier just because we are (supposedly) adult grandchildren. My grandma died two years ago and I still miss her. What neat ladies they grew back then. I enjoy your blog-- thanks for all you do.

emergencyemm said...

Sorry for your loss.

ChefSara said...

Big Hugs to you Chris! You can lean on us whenever you need to!

Chris said...

Lainy, NICUtransport, Emm, and Sara, Thanks for writing. If I've learned nothing else from this, it is that what I'm feeling after losing my Grandma is pretty much universal to everyone who has gone through the experience. Take care,