The following is the text of a speech I gave at a Remembrance Service at the chapel at the Yountville Veterans Home on May 10, 2018.
Good morning, my name is Ursula Stuter and I am the Acting Administrator here at the Home. I have been acting in this capacity for a year now, and it has been quite a year. I have gotten to know your loved ones in the two years since I have joined the Yountville family.
One of the veterans we are honoring today was the first Yountville Home Member I ever met, even before I was hired to work here. He had a compelling story which, in the few details he chose to share with me, intrigued and impressed me.
He took great photographs.
Wherever there was something going on, he would be there with his camera. He was out rolling on his scooter alongside parades; he would nonchalantly roll into big meetings here on campus, such as when the former federal VA Secretary came out to the Home. Where there was something happening, there was our veteran, snapping photos.
In June 2016, I was sworn in at the Home as Deputy Administrator. I had to take an oath, one that I take as seriously as my wedding vows and my oath of enlistment. In all that hubbub, this veteran captured a moment where my kids could say–just by looking at the great photo he captured–their Mama was a badass. Pardon my language, please, but it warmed my heart that he gave so generously of his talents and time.
He later provided me photos of me at various events.
I would joke with him about those extra Yountville pounds around the midriff and how the camera was merciless.
He’d tease me back and say, well, he couldn’t change reality.
In the last year, whenever he saw me, which was weekly if not every few days, he would greet me always with a warm “Hey Boss”.
I can hear his gravelly voice in my head, and I don’t think I will soon forget that voice.
And I don’t plan to forget.
This Home has withstood a lot of losses over the years, but especially in the last several months. We’ve had our safety challenge by a ring of fire, where our neighbors and our staff experienced personal tragedies. We have had people leave, we have had power losses and flooding. Many of the events I describe are what we would call routine, but there have been a few that are not.
Recently we experienced an unimaginable criminal act on campus, one that invaded our serenity and resulted in the untimely loss of life. There is nothing routine about that type of loss.
We are, as a community, as a family, already moving through grief. We adapt to these losses and sometimes we talk about tragedy and trauma as life before and life after.
The loss of our loved ones, our friends, our veteran family, is part of that grief. But grief is something we experience and move through.
As Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying:
If you are going through hell, keep going.Winston Churchill
That is how I view grief, a little piece of hell.
Many of our veterans have seen and lived through events that are, indeed, unimaginable. Indeed, a little piece of hell. But to compare the tragedies, to compare the losses, is not helpful. It may be that we are trying to connect by comparing what we have lost, but in doing so, we complicate things.
I recently read a meme on Facebook by Nanea Hoffman that I thought I’d share, because it is simple and it resonated for me:
Sometimes grief is a friend you wish you didn’t know— Nanea Hoffman
but that you have to spend time with
love brought them along to the party.
And the party was worth it.
Grief doesn’t seem to come without love or caring going before it. It doesn’t spring from nothing. And, although Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined the stages of grief in her written works on death and dying, she later disavowed those stages, because people were being held to those stages. Allowing ourselves to grieve as we see fit, as we need, this is the only “healthy” way.
Friends and family use the stages of grief, sometimes, as a battering ram – what stage are you in? They might ask. Are you over it? Are you grieving in a healthy way?
And sometimes they tell us: get over it.
I have heard that very phrase in the last two months since we lost our colleagues here on campus. A friend I have known for many years said, perhaps unintentionally– well you need to get over it.
Get over what? Losing human life, losing the potential projects, more laughs, gatherings, serving veterans in partnership?
How can you get over what might have been? How can you “get over” what was?
The answer is, you don’t. You don’t get over it.
You get through it.
See, I like to imagine grief is like the ocean. High tide, low tide. Moments of storm, moments of calm. Sometimes it will deposit a polished gem on your shores, but often it will deposit the barnacles, the messy squishy bits, right at your feet. It may seem predictable, but if you get too complacent and swim in it too long, you could get pulled under.
And I am sure all my Navy and Coast Guard veterans can appreciate that metaphor. Yes, Virginia, the Coast Guard are veterans too.
You see we often quote specific specific biblical verses when we talk about death, when we talk about loss. Ecclesiastes is a favorite. Most of us know Ecclesiastes quite well. To everything there is a season…
It ties in loss with seasons and timing.
When you think about it, loss and death, just like birth and beginnings, is cyclical. You don’t just have one season of grief or one season where you lose something or someone, and nothing else ever happens.
You have seasons. The seasons come and go.
And grief doesn’t follow a recipe or a Google map instruction. You can’t say, well I got to this milestone, so I am free and clear. Well, I no longer cry when I smell the cologne my grandfather used to wear – so I must be done grieving. I no longer look out the window looking for my friend on her morning walks, so I must be done grieving now.
No, it doesn’t simply stop like that. It might lessen with time or subside, and then suddenly a song or a scent or a poem will bring it all back.
Sometimes we see a floating feather or a particular type of bird or a butterfly, and we think of the person we have lost. And this is okay.
Who told you to get over it?
I can assure you, it wasn’t me. I would never tell you to get over it. However.
What I can tell you is what I have been thinking about loss. When I remember a friend or a life cut short too soon or at least a life that ended before I was ready (because really death happens on the schedule of a higher power than me or mine),
I am reminded that I have a gift that I may not be seeing or acknowledging.
My gift, in all of this, is that I am alive.
I am still able to reach out to tell someone I love them.
To say thank you.
To enjoy the celebrations and gatherings of family, and of friends.
To wish on a star.
To hug my children.
To argue about politics and whether people should stand when the national anthem is sung. (For the record, I like it when you stand, if you’re able.)
I am still able to share my hope and my heart with you and with others.
I am still able to do these things. I have the gift of life. I am still here.
And no matter how messy life is or how challenging or how frightening or how I should be eating more vegetables or brushing my teeth after every meal,
I am alive.
This is our gift here in this room. Right here, right now. If you are seated next to a friend, family member, or love one, isn’t that wonderful? You have time. You have right now. You can still participate in life and express your thanks, your love, your wonder.
And yes, we mourn our friends and family.
In no way would I diminish that loss by asking you to remember where you are right now and to forget what was. No way when I ask you to forget what you had.
You are here. You are here in love. You are here in respect. You are here to say goodbye and to adapt to the changes, to adapt to the loss you have experienced. The loss you will feel, for as long as you need to in the manner that you need to. This loss, I feel, is part of the incredible gift we have been given.
I pray that you remember this gift and that you don’t squander it.
Help me today to honor our Yountville family by continuing to do what we love, by continuing to laugh over photographs that show us “in the real”, by continuing to discuss things that excite us, with passion and freedom.
Help me, by continuing. By grasping every last bit out of the life you have been gifted.
Help me to remember. Our friends. Our family. Our loved ones. Their brave service. Their courageous spirits. Their survival of war and of peace and all that they live through.
Yesterday I heard a great statement made by one of Yountville’s most loved and respected businessmen, chef Bob Hurley. Bob, in describing his education and career, said “I lived a lot of life”. Our veterans and home members we are honoring here today did just that, they lived a lot of life. And I lift my thanks to them for touching my life. For touching your lives. I am grateful for this gift.
Thank you for giving me the honor of speaking before you today and for listening.
And thank you for taking the time to remember those we have lost, but who, by remembering, we honor and respect.
–Ursula Stuter, May, 2018