Saturday, March 8, 2014

Saying Good-bye Once Again

On January 21st, the light on the Earth shone a little less brightly. Thomas William Beard, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, father-in-in-law, and friend to many, passed away of natural causes. I was once married to his middle daughter and though the marriage didn't last forever, my relationship with Tom endured. Today I'd like to talk a little about him.

Tom was one of the most intelligent men I have ever known. He was self educated - a man who read anything and everything he could get his hands on. He had no college degree but if I had questions about something I would often go to Tom. He knew a lot about a lot of things.

Tom spent a career in the Air Force, working in motion picture development. He was a part of the production of many Air Force films, including missile launches, etc., that we have seen on TV. He had some great pictures, that he shared with me, of missiles, aircraft, and even the space shuttle.

Tom was so good at what he did that when he retired he worked at the photolab at Point Mugu Naval Air Station and was eventually hired back (as a civilian) as the head of the motion picture development department on Vandenburg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California. he worked there until he retired, again.

When he was just a young airman stationed at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, he met and married Patricia (Pat) Harris. Pat became an Air Force wife and mom and gave Tom three daughters; Kathy, Patricia (also called Pat) and Theresa.

Tom was a good natured man. He kept that good nature even as he grew ill in his later years. Like my own father, Tom always had a smile for you no matter how sick he was. He had developed Alzheimer's in the last few years and the last time I saw him alive, in February of 2013, he had no idea who I was. When I told him I had been married to his middle daughter his reaction was "What happened?" We sat and talked for a couple of hours that morning. Had I known I wouldn't see him alive again I would have stayed longer.

I have been divorced from the Beard family for 24 years but have stayed in touch with them as often as I could. The night Tom died I received a message from my sister-in-law to call her. My brother-in-law gave me the bad news. I waited a while then called "Mom" just to see how she was handling things. She was still Mom to me. When my own mother died in 1993, I was still a part of the Beard family. Mom called me the next day and said "I'll be your mom now." It was a simple promise from a woman who loved me. She never took that promise back - even after the divorce.

Being the strong matriarch of the family, Mom was pressing on, already making plans and preparing to move forward. Her grief certainly didn't appear in her voice, although I have no doubt she cried her tears when she was alone. They had, after all, been married for 59 years.

The funeral was to be on Sunday. I made my plans to go up on Saturday. I wasn't going to be there as long as I would have liked but would get to spend some time with the family. My two sisters-in-law were staying at a local hotel with their families. Mom would be at the house by herself and she invited me to stay there. That was good since I didn't really want her to be alone. (Her other daughter, my ex, passed away in 2010.) It gave us time to talk and do some things for her, such as prepare her a meal or two. I have always felt comfortable in that home and that hasn't changed regardless of how many years had passed.

The girls and their families were there most of the time when we weren't all sleeping. Even during this sad time it was nice to be back with these people that I care so much about. Pat and Tom's best friend, Norma, was there with her daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I have known that family since I first met the Beards. Their grandchildren grew up with my son and I love them like they are my own flesh and blood. It was a painful but happy reunion.

The viewing and funeral were on Sunday, the 26th. The viewing was private, just the family (including Norma's), followed by a catered lunch for all of us in a room right there in the funeral home. The viewing was difficult, as you can imagine. Tom was greatly loved by his children, grandchildren and his extended family. There were a lot of tears. The one good point was that we all knew Tom was finally free of his illnesses and infirmities. He was no longer suffering.

Mom was solid throughout the day. Even though she would miss her life partner, his death at the same time was a release for her. She no longer had to worry about him constantly and no longer needed the live-in help that was draining on her finances.

The service began at 2pm and really just consisted of a Catholic mass. Tom was always active in his church and he would have been pleased. An honor guard from Tinker Air Force Base attended and, at the end of the service, produced an American flag. They unfolded it and opened it up then re-folded it with precision. We followed them outside for a traditional rifle salute followed by one of them playing "Taps" on the bugle. I was OK until the bugler began. Being former Air Force myself I have always loved listening to "Taps" being played on a bugle. I couldn't stop the tears that rolled down my face at that point. I looked at my sisters-in-law and they were both crying as well. I was standing right behind Mom and couldn't see her face but I'm pretty sure she was in the same condition.

When the bugler was finished the leader of the honor guard brought the folded flag over and presented it to Mom in honor of Tom's dedicated service to the Air Force and our country. One of them also picked up the brass from the rifle shots and gave them to her as a small souvenir of the funeral.

Mom greeted friends who had come to the mass as we gathered up the flowers and extra food to be transported to the house. My little car was packed to the roof with food containers and flower arrangements. We barely had room for me and Mom. But we made it.

Within half an hour the family and extended family began arriving. The food from the funeral home was actually very good. They had served brisket that was excellent and there was a lot of it. My brother-in-law brought the fixings to make a chili-cheese dip and allowed me to make it for him. Everyone ate and drank and visited and enjoyed the evening, regardless of the circumstances that brought us together.

The next morning many of us had to leave. I stayed at the house until both of my sisters-in-law arrived so I could see everyone before I headed home. I knew I'd be back to Oklahoma City but I don't know when the next time will be that I get to see them.

I headed home feeling drained but happy, content but sad. I miss Tom and have missed him since he no longer recognized me. Tom was a good man and a good friend. He never offered to be my father but soon after I met him he offered to be my friend. And he never took that back either.

I was privileged to know Tom Beard and to be a part of his family. I still am. I miss you, Tom. Thank you for all of the things you taught me with your wisdom and humor. And thanks for being my friend.

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