A truck horn blew in the back alley 8 stories below the room we were staying in for the weekend. My eyes opened and I immediately felt miserable. Yes, we had been drinking the night before but it wasn’t a hangover. I hadn’t slept very well, crammed into a king size bed with my wife and 13 year-old son (nearly 6 feet tall, mind you) but that wasn’t it either. In several other hotel rooms around lower Manhattan, more than a dozen of us were waking up to the prospect of saying good-bye to a good friend, mentor and colleague. As I would learn later, none of us were feeling very good about it. I was weighed down by the added burden of being the master of ceremonies for his retirement. There was nothing I wanted to do more than do right by him and his family, while at the same time, personally, there were few things I wanted to do less than orchestrate his official departure.
Hence, I was miserable and feeling the weight of these conflicting emotions. I felt angry – angry I didn’t do more, afraid my feelings might keep me from doing what I needed to do and sad that it didn’t really matter because, regardless, he was hanging it up and leaving us behind.
My wife, always empathetic and wonderfully supportive, rather than reel at my nasty disposition, recognized what was happening and began to think about what she could do to help … not for me but for Brandon. She knew what this meant to me and wanted to be sure I would make it right for him. Ten minutes and a shower later, there was an iced coffee in my hand and her smiling face asking me if I was feeling better. I was.
As I said, there were a lot of people getting their uniforms ready for the ceremony who were not sure how they were feeling about the day and what would transpire … they all were sad but they all wanted it to be special for him, and that responsibility largely fell to me. As the MC I would set the tone, my energy would lay the foundation for how the ceremony and the day would proceed … ‘keep it professional but keep it light, keep it warm, keep it welcoming but most of all keep it about Brandon and his family’ … that was my task. It would be the last thing I could do by way of paying respect to an officer and a friend who meant so much to us during his time in the service.
I also knew what a self effacing man he was and I wanted to be sure he understood he was great at what he did and that there was no doubt in the mind of any Coast Guardsmen in attendance that the Coast Guard would not have been the same if he hadn’t served, that none of our careers would have been the same, that none of us would have been the same. That’s why we were hurting. In the service you get used to people coming and going but every once in a rare while someone leaves and it’s hard to imagine serving without them.
As the post ceremony festivities continued into the late evening and we mingled with old friends and new, so many of our shipmates asked the other, what now? What happens when the next big spill happens or another hurricane hits and he’s not around or waiting in the wings to jump in … when there’s no one as experienced, no one who possess the calming presence, the quiet confidence or the ability to find the humor necessary to keep going during the more tense moments of a disaster?
It will be different. It’ll be felt. It’s going to suck a little.
For my part, though, I knew I had done what I came for when his mother came forward at the reception clearly overwhelmed by what had just taken place and said to everyone, “We’ve learned so much today that we never knew about Brandon’s career … Thank you all …”
I immediately began to relax.
That’s the moment the day stopped being so much about Brandon and his family and started to be about us who had traveled so far to share the day with him and worked together to make it so special. Saying good-bye to one of our own – one we all care about – is bitter but the gathering to bid adieu to such a person is so sweet … It affords us an opportunity to celebrate how amazing our profession is and the camaraderie only our uniquely shared experiences can create. It’s a precious gathering of shipmates who are at the same time brothers, sisters, friends, family; drinking, eating, laughing and sharing stories only those who’ve donned the camera and quill, past and present, can tell and appreciate.
More than 24-hours later, I am emotionally drained and still a little sad.
I’m also feeling pretty fortunate.