The following is a feature story by Kim Reischling, public information officer, with the Fort Polk Public Affairs Office:
It feels like a dream. I am not really here. My son was killed in a war just two weeks ago today. Why am I not running around screaming? Why do I still think about the mundane? Am I really here? Did I eat? My baby died. My twenty-two-year-old sweet baby died. I just cannot wrap my head around it. He's really just down the street and will come home any minute. Oh, I miss him so. I want to hear him talk to me. I want to hold him just one more time and tell him how proud I am of him. God, help me with this.
Let me know he is with you and happy. Oh, I am so selfish, for I just want to kiss his forehead one more time." –– Journal entry, Kim B. Graham, Gold Star Mother and author of "A Song in the Night, March 21, 2007."
And as Graham related those words, silence echoed throughout the room, silence broken only by timorous coughing from tightened throats and halting breaths from those who openly cried.
Graham is the mother of a fallen service member –– a Gold Star Mother. She was the guest speaker at Fort Polk's Gold Star Mother's Day tribute held at the Family Readiness Center Sept. 28. Observed the last Sunday of September, Gold Star Mother's Day is set aside to honor the mothers of service members who have given their lives for this country. The organization, founded in 1928, includes nearly 150 chapters nationwide.
Fort Polk's event was hosted by Survivor Outreach Services, which offers support counseling, education on benefits and finances, and resource information on area agencies and how they can help families of fallen service members.
Graham, from Lafayette, spoke movingly, lovingly, yearningly about her fallen son, Pvt. Mark Graham, 22, who was deployed to Iraq in October, 2006, in what would later be called "the surge" …
"On March 2, 2007, Mark was on point. His vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb and all but Mark perished. He was scooped up by a brave medical helicopter unit and flown to Baghdad. He lost both legs, a kidney, and had third degree burns on more than 60 percent of his body. They told us if he made it that night, they'd send him to Germany, and if they stabilized him in Germany, they would send a team from Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio to go get him."
And so, for the Graham family, the unbearable wait began; Mark's life –– or death –– marked by his location in this world. Through these days, the family was sustained by their abiding faith and what they strongly feel were signs from God.
"Our family gathered to wait for word on Mark and in the morning while drinking our coffee, we heard a large thud against the window. We ran out front, the ladies still in their bathrobes, carrying coffee, to see a small bird laying on the ground that had flown into the window. The bird was yellow and black –– Mark's cav colors –– and he let us hold him, pet him and feed him. That little thing stayed with us for about five or six minutes before it flew off. We hoped, we prayed it was a sign from God that Mark would live.
Soon after, the Grahams received the phone call that their young son had made it home to America. The family traveled to San Antonio.
"Mark stayed with us long enough to tell him goodbye. It's still hard for me to understand, but this was the most spiritual time and the closest to God's hand as one can be. My husband, Neil, and I each held a hand, the only part of his precious body that was not injured, and as we prayed and mourned, God took his hands and walked him home. We had received that sweet baby 22 years before, welcomed him into our family and now we were letting him go."
In the midst of mind-numbing pain, Graham said she thought of the little bird that had struck the window. "I realized that though Mark had died, the bird was still an uplifting sign from God that he loved our child. 'Yes, God,' I'd say. 'I'll be brave. I'm not greedy. You let me have him for 22 years, and I would not have missed those 22 years for the world. I am grateful for those years. But, I am so selfish; I wanted more.'"
Grief is painful. Grief is raw, said Graham, but she felt protected by God's grace. "We received mountains of prayers –– cards, letters, beautifully sewn quilts were sent from across America. The avalanche of support was truly awesome and inspiring. Were these prayers what kept us from rolling around the ground, kicking and screaming? So huge was this comfort that I told my mother that I felt so sorry for this little family who lost their son, Mark, and then I'd remember it was mine."
Graham likened those early days after Mark's death to being in a bubble. "Every now and then a sliver of pain would break through that fatty cushion and pierce my heart. A song on the radio, a smell or a thought would slip through and get to me momentarily. Some days I'd have to pull my car to the side of the road and throw up, or I'd double over from the pain in my stomach.
"Some days it felt as though my heart was truly breaking in pieces. But I was protected and still am, and I am going to be okay," she said.
Several weeks after Mark's death, Graham and her husband were doing yardwork when she noticed the dragonflies.
"They would spin around me while I dug, and get in my way to the back door. I had never noticed dragonflies in my yard before, and certainly none had ever gotten so close to me. I didn't think much about it. In fact, I could barely hold a thought at all."
The dragonflies were insistent. "I thought they were funny little critters, and why was I getting the feeling they were from Mark?"
In the days and months that followed, Graham said, dragonflies surrounded her whenever she went out.
"Sometimes a powdery blue one would come. It would touch my hand, light on my shoulder and circle around me. It stayed right by my side until I went into the house. The following day it could be the same one, or one of another color, but they would always visit, doing the same antics, trying to get my attention."
Even away from the house, dragonflies became her constant companions. "I was in a parking lot one day, a place with no foliage, just blacktop. A dragonfly tried to fly into my car then teased me for several minutes. I laughed as I cried. I was missing my son so much at that moment, and the dragonfly visit was such a comfort.
"One afternoon, Neil met me in the yard with his shovel. A bright green dragonfly greeted us this time and made a figure eight around both Neil and me and landed on my shoulder. I told him it was Mark visiting and that seemed to give the insect more courage. Neil conceded to the point and we enjoyed our little friends even more."
Dragonflies still visit, said Graham, even out of season. "So if not Mark, or the spirit of Mark, then are they God's reminder that He is here, with us, always?"
And this is how Graham lives with a broken heart, a heart that will never heal …
As a Gold Star mother, Graham said she has found comfort with other mothers who have "borne this grief and endured this journey."
"We all ask, 'Am I always going to feel this way? How can I physically survive the grief? I know my body can't take this much pain. Will I always live in my own world?'"
Then, she said, guilt creeps in. "'I did not think of him this hour; am I a horrible mother? I laughed today, and he or she couldn't.' And the most crucial question, 'Will I forget him?'
The answer, Graham said, helps define the future and what these women will always be: