Tuesday, August 15, 2006

8:20 p.m., EST - I am home

Hello everyone out there in the blogosphere... I have returned home. I know you've been wondering where I've been for the past 4 1/2 hours.... or maybe not. But I did mention that something special was going on this evening, and now that I'm home, I can somehow TRY to tell you about it... though I am at a loss of where to begin.

As you know, today at 6:20 p.m., approximately 2:20 a.m. Baghdad time, was the exact one-year anniversary of the exact moment when Sgt. Michael Stokely, our hometown hero, was killed in Iraq. Late last week, we got an email from Robert Stokely, inviting us to an informal memorial by Mike's graveside at 6:20 p.m. today. The only way I could attend was if I left work early and caught the 4:15 bus back home. Thankfully, my work agreed that I could leave early, as you already know.

All yesterday, I cried off & on thinking about today and what it meant. For the majority of the day today, I was pretty upbeat, but it was always in the back of my mind. As time steadily crept closer to 6:20, my thoughts turned more & more frequently to Mike. As I rode on the bus to my car and then later drove to the cemetary, the thought that kept running through my mind was, "At this time last year, Mike was alive. What was going on around him then? What was he thinking? What was he feeling?" I stopped by the Walnut Grove Florist and picked up a bouquet of three pale yellow roses & babysbreath. As they were assembling the roses, they asked what color I wanted; were they for a male or female at the cemetary? I told them they were for Sgt. Michael J. Stokely. That was all I told them.... the lady behind the counter said, "Wow, has it been a year already????" I had said nothing about it being the anniversary... but she somehow put two & two together real fast! And I said, "yes, ma'am, as of 6:20 this evening." I noticed after that, that the florist took extra special care to make sure that everything was exactly, perfectly right as she assembled the little bouquet.

I arrived at the cemetary at approximately 5:45. I was pleasantly surprised to see a very decent-sized crowd in attendance. Robert had said in his email this was going to be a very small, private, informal gathering for close friends/family/etc.. well, Mike had a LOT of close friends!!! He was a very well-loved guy. Word had gotten out and many, many people were there - it was absolutely GREAT. I was happy to see my good friend "Chtrbx" there with her son. We didn't plan it, but both Chtrbx and I both wore our Soldiers' Angels pins on our lapels!!! So we matched! I guess we were the unofficial "Soldiers' Angels" representatives there tonight... *smile* I was kind of relieved she was there because to the best of my knowledge, EVERYONE else there actually KNEW Mike, whereas I never knew him "in person," and neither did Chtrbx. We spent quite a while talking about Mike, as we've come to know him over this past year through the words of his father and the pictures he has shared with us throughout this year. I told Chtrbx how even though Mike had always been special to my heart as a local hometown hero, when I did that scrapbook project so many of you helped with so much, I got a very closeup look at his life from birth to the end. Robert told me many of the stories that went with the pictures I was using in the scrapbooks I made. And my adopted medic, Chuck, had also given to me many stories that friends of Mike had posted on his MySpace page, for inclusion in the scrapbooks. I told Chtrbx, that in doing those scrapbooks, I felt I got to KNOW Mike Stokely... and that doing that project had forever branded him deeply into my heart. He is a part of my heart now, and always will be. He is one of my much-beloved "soldier-babies" ~ I just kinda adopted him a bit late.

As Chtrbx and I were talking, I happened to glance at my cell phone. The time read: 6:21 p.m. I interrupted Chtrbx in mid-sentance, holding the phone in front of her.... she said, "What is it?" I choked out, "Look at the time." "Oh," she gasped. "All day I've been thinking aobut this exact minute and what it means...." she trailed off, and I said, "Yeah. Me too." For several moments, we stood there wordlessly, each lost in our own thoughts of the moment... looking around at the grave, looking at all the people - many of them Soldiers - who were there to honor Mike's memory. After a while we resumed talking.... though the impact of that moment is not one that will ever leave either of us.

As I said, many soldiers were there - including our medic, Chuck, and his wife, and his grandma. :) It was so good to see them again. Other soldiers I'd met either at the grave or in a parade or God knows how else were there... Chuck introduced me to many of the ones I did not know beforehand. Mike's widow, Niki, was there - she is so sweet, it was good to see her again. And of course, Mike's dad & stepmom were there as well.

After everyone had arrived, Robert called us all around the gravesite to share a few words with us. I made sure to stand by our medic for moral support (that "protective Momma Kat" thing, you know). I do not remember all Robert said, but I do remember him saying that Mike would want everyone to life happy, full lives... and not to stay bogged down in grief and despair. He said "Taps was played here one year ago at the funeral... now it's time to play "Revellie" and charge forward and live life to its fullest!" And it was really weird that he said that, because when we were planning the 4th of July parade, the parade chairman had a plan to have a riderless horse in the parade -- and a bugler to play "Taps" in honor of Mike, and then "Revellie" in honor of all the soldiers who remain to continue the mission. It didn't quite work out the way it was planned the day of the parade... but that was the intent...and when Robert said that, I got chills remembering that.

After he said a few words, Robert led us all in a brief prayer. Tears slid down my cheeks as I listened to him thank God for Mike's life and for all the blessings God has given their family. It occured to me then that this, in a sense, sort of "made up for" the fact that I was unable to attend Mike's funeral last year, because I didn't know when it was going to be, etc. After the prayer, Robert asked people to share stories of Mike... and many did. Let's see...there was the farting contest story...the "somewhat intoxicated frog-catching expedition" story (I knew that one already from Chuck and started laughing once I figured out what he was gonna tell about, haha), the "mooning his buddies in Iraq" story, the high school "Dad, I'm gonna be a cheerleader, OK?" story.... and so on and so forth. Needless to say, by the time the evening was over with, I had done enough laughing to counteract the crying, and left the cemetary with a considerably lighter heart -- which is EXACTLY as Mike would have wanted it.


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