Those words, uttered by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the final scene of Star Trek Generations, have rung through my mind more times than I can count over the last two weeks. They were the words I uttered shortly after 9 p.m. on the Tuesday before last, to only three other people in the room, just before I did the hardest thing I've ever had to do -- which is saying something, given that I said something very similar less than eighteen months ago. This is a story that has, to some extent, already been told in the media. Let me tell it from my end.
Friday morning, December 5. Refueling today. Fun topic... we'll learn how we get old fuel out and new fuel in, something you don't really do in the Navy. The lecture starts like any other, seemingly, until about 8:15. The site training director enters, and pulls me out. Highly irregular. My first thought is, come on! Last exam was only an 84! An off day, but I still passed! He asks me to dial one of the senior managers. That senior manager gives me a number with a 631 area code. Without dialing, I knew then that serious shit was going going down back home. I call the number, I speak to my brother, I hang up the phone. I open the door to the office, and the training director asks me, "Everything all right?" And I can only respond truthfully... "no, it is not."
I relay what I've been told over the phone. There's been a fire back home in New York. The house is destroyed. And Mom's gone.
Within two and a half hours, I've told my classmates, been walked up the hill back to my car, thrown some clothes into a sea bag, held my mail (instinctive from going underway on the submarine), and pointed the Focus toward what was left of the Ancestral Palace. I reached Northport shortly after two, picked up my brother, and drove out to Crab Meadow. I turned the corner, and there was a giant truck. At first, I thought it was a news crew, but when I recognized the crest as that of the Suffolk County Police, I was relieved that it was their mobile command unit. I briefly talked with them, left, and an hour and a half later, came back and stepped foot into what was, for all I knew in that moment, the eighth circle of Hell. The house I'd stood in less than a week before, fully intact, was a mess of blackened debris. And yet somehow, my brother's wallet had been sufficiently shielded from the flames. One small sign of hope.
As all this is going down, I fielded the first of what have been innumerable messages of condolence. One of them was from a couple of friends from the Big Red Marching Band back in the day, who live in nearby Huntington. I didn't want to smother my brother, and wanted to ensure he has space to grieve as he wished to, so I asked them if I could crash at their place. They graciously offered their guest room, and for the next seven days, that was home base for me. It was also a welcome distraction; they've got a three-year-old daughter, so I got to play blocks and Legos and watch Cinderella in between everything else I had to deal with. That said, I briefly questioned the little one's movie choice at the time; I had to summon a bit of self-control to keep from losing it at the mention of Cinderella losing both her parents, so that I would not have to disclose to her the true reason for my visit.
There are many events that bring long-lost friends and family out of the woodwork. Winning the lottery, or getting drafted into the pros and signing your first contract, can bring them out and showing you their worst. On the other hand, when something like this happens, they come out and show you their absolute best. One of my friends from high school appeared with basic clothing for John. His friends rallied behind him, not only on Long Island, but coming in from around the country to help us grieve. It's unfortunate that it takes an event where we lose so much to remind us of just how much we still have.
Saturday was spent in a holding pattern. I'll say here what I've said to many others - I hope and pray that nobody has to hear the words "forensic dentist" outside of dramatic fiction. Finally, on Sunday, the body was released, and we were able to make arrangements. Monday was another day without forward progress, strictly speaking, but it was still filled with warm experiences, despite the cold weather. I spent an hour and a half walking in the woods near the house with my friend who brought the clothes for John, and we caught up on a whole lot of things; among the topics covered were international bureaucracy and long-lost high school classmates. Later that evening, I processed with Ryan over dinner and drinks downtown.
Tuesday was the wake. It ran the gamut, to say the least. There were the highs of remembering all the great things Mom did with so many of the people she touched so deeply. There were the deeper lows of just how senseless and raw this is. As the crowd dwindled and it was getting to be that time of the hour, I felt the urge to share the thought I shared here at the top, which had lodged in my head so soon, particularly because it was a fire that claimed the lives of Captain Picard's brother and nephew earlier in the movie. I recall saying "let's not sugarcoat this - there isn't much left behind. But how Mom lived is beyond question."
We tied up some loose ends over the next couple of days. I spent much of both those days researching things like estate taxes and the finer points of the Estates, Powers, and Trusts Law of New York State. We met with the lawyer who had drafted a will for Mom. We also met with a representative from Fidelity, who manages Dad's retirement account. But by Friday, I knew there wasn't much more I could do there. I had one last dinner with John, and pointed my car southwesterly, at least for the time being.
I reported back into work on Monday morning, and set about the task of catching up on what the class had done in my absence. In particular, they'd taken two exams, and a third this past Wednesday while I was studying for the other ones. I took the first one on Thursday, and came out relatively unscathed. The remaining two will be taken next week, the aim being to get me all caught up by the time the class reconvenes for the second year of initial license training on January 5.
Those two exams won't be easy. Nor will be the process of picking up the pieces from what happened. But my brother and I have incredible strength behind us to get through the challenge - not only from the people around us, but from the values instilled in us by our parents. And we take further strength from the knowledge that though neither of them remains with us here on Earth, they watch over us from somewhere - and wherever that may be, their souls are healed simply by being reunited with one another.