In June, 2005, we’d just received word that one of our own — U.S. Marine Cpl. Mario Castillo — had been killed in action in Iraq. Our community was awash with grief, a fresh, raw, disbelieving grief.
I hadn’t known Mario in life. He now has a place on my short list of heroes I will never forget.
As the community grieved in those days between the news of Mario’s death and his funeral, it seemed everyone I met had a fervent desire “to do something” and a similar degree of frustration that there was little that could be done. But while they were planning a community memorial, I had a chance conversation with Joyce Leidig and Debbie Morelock about what might be an appropriate reading. A poem, piece of prose, something that might speak universally to what we were pained with personally.
And I remembered a refrain from a piece of poetry that I’d memorized in high school. I suggested it might be appropriate. I didn’t remember but a couple of lines, and I think the title — “The Vacant Chair.”
“We shall meet, but we shall miss him, there will be one vacant chair; We shall linger to caress him when we breathe our evening prayer.”
In fact, the “poem” I remembered is a song. Henry S. Washburn wrote the lyrics, George F. Root composed the music, published first in 1862. There are a number of renditions available on the Internet — and if you’re of a mind to look them up, you might be soothed by the words and tune, appreciative and reflective of those who chose to fight for freedoms and causes we now enjoy.
As can be so often the case with good poetry, the words were as appropriate in 2005, as they surely were a century and a half before. The truth in the words of “The Vacant Chair” stumble across my consciousness at random, but with frequency. I don’t need the Memorial Day holiday to remember our fallen, though without fail I take the chance to do so especially then.
I consider it a defining part of my newspaper career to have stood witness as others from Brown County were brought home in flag-draped coffins and buried with all due respect and honor. In the ceremonial, full honor-guard processes I ached, but imagined it wasn’t real — that somehow they weren’t gone from our lives on earth. That their chairs wouldn’t sit vacant.
And then the gravesite service would be finished, and we’d go on with our days. Affected, certainly, but blessed and free. Those of us who came to honor the fallen would meet in so many inconsequential ways, but spoken or not, would miss those who died, forever denied the freedom they fought to defend.
I count my blessings, every day and there are many. Even with all its messiness and the frustration of our politics, I am grateful I get to be a citizen of this great country. I am glad and thankful for my privileges and comforts, security and freedom. I know none of it came without cost and sacrifice.
On Memorial Day, I will stand above ground at a cemetery where the fallen lie, and feel the bittersweet sense of gratefulness wash over me. I will listen as the wind flutters the flags “planted” at veterans’ headstones. I’ll allow myself the comfort and assurance I get listening to a uniformed officer’s speech; then hearing the refrains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless America”; the squeak of the chain as the flag is lowered to half-staff; and finally the mellow chords of “Taps.”
I will be mindful of those whose stories I know — Nelle and Sandra, whose brothers were killed in Vietnam, and who every day in the nearly 50 years since have missed them; Angie Castillo, Mario’s widow, who told me last year she would always grieve for him but learned to accept it was OK to be happy, to love again. I ask God each night for comfort for the mothers I met in their darkest hour of grief and for the little boys whose fathers were taken from them at such tender ages.
I hold the belief that if these men gone these many years could be asked, they would encourage any celebration we might hold this holiday. Enjoy every blessing we can of life and living in this country.
But please, for just for a bit, let’s pause and remember those whose chairs are vacant all the days of the year.
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton is a freelance writer, formerly of Brownwood, now living in San Angelo. Her weekly columns are published Sundays in the Brownwood Bulletin and Thursdays in the San Angelo Standard-Times and are unique for each paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.