It's a perfect Oceanside day: wispy clouds moving across a blue gray sky and just enough wind to keep blowing over the plastic vases I've brought to put the red and white roses in. Eventually I give up and lay the flowers on the stone, framing his name. PATRICK RYAN MCCAFFREY. SGT US ARMY. MAY 26 1970. JUNE 22 2004. BRONZE STAR. PURPLE HEART. OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM. REDSKINS FOREVER.
Two summers ago I visited Patrick's grave at the Lawn of the Folded Flags with his son Patrick Junior, or PJ. Nearly 13, with smooth brown skin, dark eyes and a dimpled smile, he already looked like the photos I'd seen of his father. And four years after his dad's death he still spoke about him as if he were alive, saying things like, "My dad and me, our favorite movie is Black Hawk Down. We've watched it hundreds of times together."
I watched PJ walk around the stone where his dad was buried and then kneel down and run his fingers over its smooth cool surface. He took a piece of paper out of the pocket of his shorts, folded it tightly and buried it in the earth beside his father.
Later he told me what he'd written: Dad, this is Patrick. I promise I will stay out of trouble. I want to make you proud of me. I miss you.
There were little stickers all over the gravestone. PJ's younger sister Janessa who lives in Oceanside had pasted them there. Tiny hearts, glittery statues of liberty, American flags. Today the stickers have faded into blurry white shapes that I trace with my fingers.
I never met Patrick McCaffrey but I've met a lot of people who have and they all say what an unusually good man he was and how badly they miss him. After the United States terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, Patrick joined the 579th National Guard Engineers Alpha Company out of Petaluma, California. He thought he'd be serving at home but he was sent to Iraq. Two hours before Patrick was gunned down by the Iraqi soldiers he was training, someone took a photo of him helping a friend who'd collapsed from heat exhaustion in the 125 degree heat in Balad, Iraq. His flag-draped coffin was one of the few to be welcomed home and captured on film by the media at that time.
When I stayed with his mom Nadia at her home in Tracy, California, I slept in the room that Patrick put together for PJ and Janessa to stay in when they visit their grandma. I slept in their bunk bed, surrounded by Lion King pillows and a beady-eyed teddy bear wearing a knitted American flag vest and a poster of Nicholas Cage in Windtalkers.
The next morning Nadia made creamy scrambled eggs and told me, in that rich French accent of hers, about the time she and Patrick lived in Tahiti for a year-and-a-half before he became a teenager. They went barefoot and ate breadfruit cooked over an open fire. Patrick learned to kayak and windsurf and deep sea fish, charming the locals and the tourists. While I sipped my coffee and savored each bite of my eggs, she told me how Patrick learned the history of the island and how he'd team up with some of the taxi drivers and take tourists on tours of the island, showing them the waterfalls and sacrificial sites. Although he never charged for these tours he'd usually get tips that he'd bring home to his mom.
"I picture him in Tahiti I think, more often than anywhere else," Nadia said, a distant look in her eyes.
Now I sit on the lawn by Patrick's grave and notice how tall the nearby tree has grown and think of Patrick's mom. The last time we spoke I could hear the deep weariness in her voice. Weariness from her body and its continual large and small betrayals. And weariness from wanting to do more, always more, for the young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who reach out to her each day.
I take out the email I've printed from John Keith, a young veteran with PTSD who lives in Texas.
"Patrick, everyone says that you're the guy who was always there for them, who would do anything to help anyone. Well, listen to what your mom's been up to," I say. Then I read part of John's email out loud. The tiny American flags around the soldiers' graves flutter in the wind:
I am a disabled Iraq War Veteran. I was on an aircraft carrier during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After returning I suffered a 12 ft. fall, breaking my ankle in several places, breaking my back in three places and suffered a TBI (traumatic brain injury.) After getting medically retired my case was handed over to the Department of Veteran Affairs. I was awarded 60% disability compensation, which equates to $900 a month. After struggling with this situation for three years I became very suicidal and depressed. I wrote a letter asking for help, and sent it to every Veteran Organization, Senator, Congressman and anyone else I could think of that might listen. That is when I met Nadia McCaffrey. She was a very refreshing person to have in my life. She automatically made me feel at ease. She actually listened to me and was genuinely concerned about my situation. She became proactive in getting me to appointments with the VA, and that is when I stopped thinking about suicide every day... She's not only my friend, but I consider her a mother as well...
I fold up the email and put it back in my bag. I watch people in black clothes leave a distant gravesite and walk up the hill to their cars. I pour some water on Patrick's gravestone and scrub it with the small yellow towel I've brought for this purpose. I picture PJ the first time I met him, in his red and black football cleats, impatient to get out on the field.
Then I remember how he'd pointed to the raised REDSKINS FOREVER letters on his dad's stone the day we visited him together. "See here? Me and my dad are big Redskin fans. I'm going to keep playing football and I'm going to be really good at it, because I know that's what he wants." Then his eyes started to tear up and he looked away and started chewing on the inside of his cheek.
Before I leave Eternal Hills I call Nadia. I know how much it hurts her to be so far from where her only child is buried. She picks up after one ring and I tell her where I am. I hear her swallow.
"Is it raining there?" she asks.
I tell her the sun is shining. "It's peaceful here on the Lawn of the Folded Flags," I say. "And though Patrick's so far from you, he's surrounded by his band of brothers, by all the other warriors from all the different wars."
"Yes," she says, so softly I can barely hear her.