Don't Fear The Reaper
Love doesn’t always wear a welcoming smile, dress in soft colors, and reach out to embrace you. Sometimes, it prefers to go unnoticed and doesn’t look toward you at first, though it knows you are there. It wears multicam, looks you in the eye and answers softly when you say hello, and shakes your hand with a reserve of strength that makes you glad it’s on your side. And it doesn’t let you buy it things at the motorcycle repair shop.
With a weary feel and vanishing lines on their faces, the tires of my bike informed me that their time had come. After five thousand miles so far on a Journeys to Love road, it was time to get both our steeds checked out anyway before turning our faces and wheels west from Pennsylvania to begin the long, beautiful miles and days homeward. Computer glow reflected off our reading glasses as we worked and waited in the little lounge area of Lehigh Valley’s Keystone Harley. In the retail area, I discreetly watched a soldier perusing the sale racks, occasionally picking up a ladies’ garment and holding it out, moving it around the way men do when sizing clothes for a lover they know well. His was a lady somewhat like my own, it seemed, as every item he considered was purple, sparkly, or both. Clearing it with the boss, even though I knew she’d be on the same page, I took our debit card to the counter with instructions that we’d be paying for the soldier’s selections when he was ready...unless it was a new motorcycle, Toni added. Even gratitude for service must sometimes be aware of living within its means.
Returning from the counter, I took a break from my writing, rubbing computer-weary eyes as a History Channel show played on the lounge TV - The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. A WWII history buff, my attention was drawn to the program until a voice at my shoulder announced, “Excuse me, I think this is yours.” The implied discretion we’d expected had been lost on the girl behind the counter, as the soldier held our debit card out to me, saying, “Thanks for the offer, but I’ve got it. It sure was nice of you, though.” Shaking his hand, and following a hug from Toni, who told him, “I only shake if I’m having a seizure,” Kyle Delpais smiled at our thanks for the sacrifices he and his family have made for all of us. Explaining what we do, reuniting folks across the country through their stories of love and devotion, we mentioned that those are often couple's stories, but also include loves of place and purpose. That’s why we visit so many veteran’s memorials and parades and that we are always honored to interview military and law enforcement heroes and their families. A little mistier than he usually gets in front of strangers, Kyle shared, “It’s funny you guys are here right now and said that because this is the anniversary of a really hard part of the story for me and my unit. Six years ago, today, we lost three good men in Afghanistan.” (Godspeed to you SSg VanGiesen, Sgt. Mowery, and Sgt. Koehler.)
The love that abides in the heart of a warrior is a difficult thing to describe. When we’ve asked people across America to define love, to complete the thought, “Love is…”, we’ve heard that love is hope, hard work, selfless action, making sacrifices in someone else’s interest, and more. Our recent visit to Woodstock, New York’s Buddhist temple rendered a particularly profound definition from a monk that has stayed with me since, “Love is seeking to ease the suffering of others.” For a soldier, all these are true as well. But while the best soldier or police officer hopes for peace, they are compelled to ease that suffering by putting themselves in harm’s way to defend the peace and well-being of others. Counterintuitively, their love manifests in action that must sometimes be violent, though most are not violent by nature. The sacrifices they make for others include leaving their own lives, families, and futures behind to serve people they love but have never met. The depth of how much is owed to the righteous warrior’s heart was manifest before us, as Kyle stood with his back to the lounge television sharing the loss of friends who’d given their last full measure for this ideal. Unbeknownst to him, images played over his shoulder of the liberations of the death camps at Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, and Sobibor, the essence of the darkness Kyle and so many like him stand ready to oppose and the spirits they have vowed to defend, then and now. It is a profound love for your fellow human beings to say that you will stand yourself before any such evil to protect other’s peace, other lives before your own, to ease their suffering at any personal cost.
To Kyle, the cost of this devotion has been profound. He and his best friend from childhood in small-town Pennsylvania had served together, making plans to build a construction engineering business together and continue their lifelong partnership. Returning home from a motorcycle ride while on leave the day their business loan was approved, his friend was struck and killed on the highway near their homes. Later the same year, his toddler son suffered a stroke, the effects of which challenge him still today, though his father’s love is powerful, palpable and healing. Just as is that of Kyle’s wife, Megan, who came into his life four years ago just before he shipped out for his fourth combat tour. As gracious as they were humble, Kyle and Megan shared pictures of their lives with us, as well as showing off their prized custom Harley, named “Love Never Dies.” The bike was beautifully airbrushed with images of their many tattoos, references to their lives together, and their shared affinity for a playful dark side - with Megan painted as a gothic beauty amidst a background of storms and Kyle as his favorite fantasy image, The Reaper. Little wonder they were wed on Halloween.
The challenges and travails of Kyle’s spirit would have quailed anyone’s even without his service - meaning that he had “seen some stuff,” in the parlance that many veterans use to say, “enough said.” The sum of it all has left his heart not numb, but guarded against itself - an inner armor that we’ve encountered with many combat survivors around the country. Easing one’s own suffering after such experiences as Kyle has known becomes complicated. One way is to limit how much one feels, to restrict how deeply you delve into what is there, or at least spread those explorations out over time. The other is to find someone willing to take on a part of that load with patience and to understand that there are corners behind which they cannot go at will. For Megan and those like her, it means becoming a different kind of fighter - abiding in a love that is sometimes silent, often lonely, but forever steadfast. It takes an extraordinary heart to understand the first part of that bargain and to bear the second. Yet Megan and so many other wives, husbands, parents, lovers, and others stand guard on the warrior’s heart, holding it while it beats, trusted to be the ones sometimes allowed to see it vulnerable, and to offer a loving ear and a healing touch. They are warriors in their own ways, easing a kind of suffering few of us will ever have to know, thanks to those who have.
The reward for all of them all should be that each of us continues to love, to give meaning to the lives the warrior’s heart defends, to build a home worthy of their sacrifice, until the day when their duty is fulfilled, peace triumphs...
...and the Reaper’s heart rests.