As Memorial Day Nears, a Single Image That Continues to Haunt
By LILY BURANA
Memorial Day. The unofficial kickoff to summer. Barbecues sizzling. Lawn sprinklers hissing. Local marching bands tooting out Sousa. Red, white, and blue bunting hanging from the porch railings, and on T.V., someone begins a recitation of Lt. Col. John McCrae’s classic poem: “In Flanders field, the poppies blow. Between the crosses row on row …”
In the run-up to every Memorial Day weekend, for the past several years, a certain photo takes top spot in those most circulated among my fellow military and veteran wives. On blogs, on social media sites, it is shared and “liked” over and over. Taken by the photographer Todd Heisler, from his 2005 award-winning series for the Rocky Mountain News, “Jim Comes Home,” which documents the return and burial of Marine Second Lt. Jim Cathey, who lost his life in Iraq, the photo shows his pregnant widow Katherine lying on an air mattress in front of his coffin. She’s staring at her laptop, listening to songs that remind her of Jim. Her expression is vacant, her grief almost palpable.
Associated Press/Rocky Mountain News, Todd HeislerThe photo, taken by The New York Times’s Todd Heisler, while he was a staff photographer at The Rocky Mountain News in 2005. The night before the burial of her husband’s body, Katherine Cathey refused to leave the coffin, asking to sleep next to his body for the last time. The Marines made a bed for her.
It is the one and only photo that makes me cry each time I see it. What brings the tears to my eyes is not just the bereaved young woman, but the Marine who stands behind her. In an earlier photo in the series, we see him building her a little nest of blankets on the air mattress. Sweet Lord, I cry just typing the words, the matter-of-fact tenderness is so overwhelming. So soldierly. But in this photo — the one that lives on and on online — he merely stands next to the coffin, watching over her. It is impossible to be unmoved by the juxtaposition of the eternal stone-faced warrior and the disheveled modern military wife-turned-widow, him rigid in his dress uniform, her on the floor in her blanket nest, wearing glasses and a baggy T-shirt, him nearly concealed by shadow while the pale blue light from the computer screen illuminates her like God’s own grace.
I believe this photo has had such a long viral life not just because it is so honest but also because it is so modern. During a spouse’s deployment, your laptop is your battle buddy. Your sense of connection and emotional well-being is sustained via e-mail, Facebook, Skype and Instagram. It appears, per Lieutenant Cathey’s widow, that the same is true even in a time of loss. This heartbreaking — and groundbreaking — photo showcases the intersection of technology and agony.
I’ll never forget trying to describe the photo to my friend Veronica, an Army wife. I was standing in her stately West Point living room, trying to detail what was so moving about the stalwart posture of the Marine, the listlessness of the grieving wife, my voice cracking, and before I was halfway through my description, tears started streaming down her face. It is testimonial to the image’s power that it even affects people who haven’t seen it.
The photo was later included in the book, “Final Salute,” which includes photographs by Mr. Heisler and is written by Jim Sheeler, a former Rocky Mountain News reporter. The book tells the story of United States Marines stationed in Colorado at Buckley Air Force Base whose duty was to notify families of deaths in Iraq and then escort the bodies home for burial. The book is based on a series that also won a Pulitzer Prize for Mr. Sheeler in 2006. (Mr. Heisler, who now works for The New York Times, also won a separate Pulitzer for his photographs.)
That photo has an equally poignant companion in the same series, a view from the civilian side, wherein Lieutenant Cathey’s coffin is being unloaded from the cargo hold of a commercial airplane in Reno as the passengers look on through the windows. You can practically read the thoughts on their solemn faces: “Who is that?” “What if that were my son or daughter?” “I can’t imagine what his family must be feeling.” “How sad” or “How noble.” I would bet you every penny I have that not one of them was thinking, “When the hell is this going to be over so we can get off this thing?” Two parents lost their son, a wife lost her husband, an unborn child lost his father, and a handful of average citizens saw just how seriously the military treats a fallen warrior’s final trip home.
Associated Press/Rocky Mountain News, Todd HeislerSecond Lt. James Cathey’s body arrived at the Reno Airport in 2005.
On one hand, you could view this as a perfect representation of how the majority of civilians are cosseted from the atrocities of war — they’re in the comfy, climate-controlled cabin, untouched by tragedy and free to move on, to gather their luggage, head on home, and forget about it. On the other hand, you could view it as I do: A stunning moment that makes clear our connectivity. They all took that journey together, and on that airport tarmac, the much-discussed gap between civilians and the military was closed, a bond forever fused by the passengers’ bearing witness to the final stage of a sacrifice that was both foreign to them and for them.
I believe that the civilian-military gap isn’t always born of indifference, but rather, at times, a sense of helplessness on the civilian side. What can I do? If you do nothing else, you can remember those who have given their lives for their country. Our country. Remembrance, which may seem a modest contribution in the moment, is a sacred act with long-term payoff — a singularly human gift that keeps on giving, year after, year after, war-fatigued year. I don’t need to remind you that America’s sons and daughters are still dying in combat. I don’t want to browbeat you into feeling guilty for not doing more. Instead, I want to tell you that as the wife of a veteran, it is tremendously meaningful to know that on this Memorial Day, civilians will be bearing witness and remembering in their own way — that those who are gone are not forgotten. I also want to say that as you remember them, we remember you.
Lily Burana is the author of “I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love War and Other Battles” (Weinstein Books). Her husband, a former soldier, is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
PS This article is from today’s New York Times —