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The Perfume of Plumerias

Death Doesn't Always Smell the Way You'd Expect

February 15, 2004|Fred Leonard | Fred Leonard is a freelance writer based in Tucson.

The reports of soldiers killed in Iraq aren't always the lead story on the news anymore. It's too common, too familiar. But the dead and wounded are not the only casualties of this war. There are others--the families who will receive a visit from a stranger in a dress uniform, and all of the families who live each day knowing that this uniformed stranger might visit them.

I once was that unannounced visitor. Nearly 15 years ago, during a more peaceful time, I was a flight surgeon at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. On one of my many evenings on call, the base command post contacted me. I was told to put on my service dress uniform and report for a casualty notification. An airman stationed in Japan had committed suicide, and I was to accompany a casualty notification officer and a chaplain to visit his parents that night.

According to regulations, the casualty notification officer was to inform the parents of their son's death and of its general circumstances. The chaplain was to provide support and comfort to the family. I was to handle any untoward medical events that might result from the shock of our visit.

This was not my first death notification. As a physician, I had all too frequently informed families of the death of a parent, spouse or child. When I was involved in a resuscitation where death appeared imminent, I made sure that someone let the family know that Dad or Grandma was gravely ill, and that we were doing everything we could to try to save his or her life. This helped to soften the blow when we later sat down to break the ultimate bad news. I also had spoken to new widows during aircraft accident investigations. When a plane crashed and a crew member was killed, it usually was the squadron commander, a chaplain, and possibly a close friend, who told his wife. Often she would already know about the crash, and maybe that her husband was involved. She could only hope that the official blue car would not pull up in front of her house, but if it did, she would be expecting the worst. By then, friends would be by her side, and the news would be delivered by someone she knew, someone who was her husband's friend, someone who felt the pain of his death.

I knew that night in Hawaii would be different. This family did not know us, we did not know their son, and there would be no way to soften the blow. Just three weeks before, I had been on my first formal Air Force casualty notification. I could still see the terror on the face of the mother who had opened her front door and saw us in our service dress blues. "No! No!" she'd cried as the chaplain tried to console her. We never had to tell her that her son was dead. Our presence was notification enough. The chaplain just repeated "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and held her while she wept.

I wasn't looking forward to putting another mother through that ordeal as I rode in the back seat of our blue sedan with "U.S. Air Force" stenciled on the doors. We were heading to the windward side of the island, where the dead man's parents lived. We got there easily enough, but as we entered their neighborhood, we became hopelessly lost. We saw no street signs, the street grid bore little resemblance to the one in our atlas, and there did not seem to be numbers on the houses. If the numbers were there, they were hidden behind the papaya and banana trees and the lush tropical foliage that grew wild against the house walls.

We drove around searching for a street sign, an address or any recognizable landmark. The neighborhood was alive with the barking of dogs and the sweet perfume of plumeria flowers. The plumeria, so popular now in tourist leis, had at one time been shunned by lei makers. It was planted so frequently in cemeteries that Hawaiians associated it with death, and it became known as the graveyard flower. That night its fragrance was particularly strong.

We circled and backtracked, finally spotting a man in front of a house we previously had passed. He stood alone at the side of the road, head slightly bowed, shoulders slumped, but watching us as we approached. Tense, he did not move and just stared through us as we pulled over to ask for directions.

"Excuse us," the chaplain said, sticking his balding head out the passenger window. "Sorry to bother you, but we're trying to find ... " He gave the man the address of the dead man's family.

The man's tension ebbed as he took a slow breath. "Thank God," he said, almost sighing. "I look out my window and see you guys cruisin' around the neighborhood. I thought you must be looking for our house. We got a son in the Air Force. I didn't want my wife to answer the door and see you guys, so I thought I'd come out and talk to you first. I thought better she should hear that kind of news from me. But that's not us. That's not our address."

"I'm truly sorry," the chaplain replied. "Didn't mean to worry you."

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