Kurtis Gwaltney, son of my dear sweet cousin Sabine, was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident at the much-too-young age of 26.
I didn't know Kurtis well. I'd see him briefly at family gatherings, but rarely talked to him. Mostly I kept up with Kurtis's life through my visits with Sabine.
After graduating from high school, Kurtis enlisted in the US Marine Corps, instantly gaining newfound respect and admiration in my eyes, Dad and my brother Mark both serving in the Marines. I don't know a lot about Kurtis's service, but I do know he lived through many things that a 20-year-old should never have to experience. While on his tour of duty in Afghanistan, Kurtis witnessed the killing of his comrade and suffered serious injuries himself when an IED exploded near his company, leaving permanent and painful physical and emotional scars. It's safe to say that Kurtis left for the Marines as a boy but returned home a man.
A Jarhead. A Leatherneck. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
And I've never been so grateful for that Marine Corps brotherhood than I was February 17, 2015. The most dreadful day of my life.
After months of steady decline suffering in the latter stages of Alzheimers, my late Daddy had finally reached the point where Mama could no longer keep him at home. February 17, 2015 was the day that Mama and I loaded Dad in my vehicle for the very last time, knowing he would never come home again, and took him, as we had been directed, to Ball Memorial Hospital for evaluation in the psych ward there.
Dad was confused, combative, and agitated. He tried to get up and leave many times, only restrained when we reminded him he was wearing a hospital gown and not adequately covered. That seemed to bother him enough to sit him back down...for a few minutes before he'd get up again. The ER was busy that night and it felt like forever Dad was trapped in that room and us trying to calm him.
Mama and I were nearly at our wits' end when a huge, totally unexpected blessing appeared in the person of Kurtis. A police officer, Kurtis was working as a security officer for the hospital. Somehow he'd heard that Dad was in ER (I'm assuming his grandpa/my Uncle Jerry told him...) and came by to see us. What a welcome distraction for Dad and relief for Mama and me, as Kurtis engaged Dad in conversation and stayed with us for awhile until the doctors finally got around to seeing him (I wonder perhaps if Kurtis's presence mercifully hurried them along too...).
That whole evening Kurtis was in and out, continually checking on Dad and us. I doubt if Dad understood exactly who Kurtis was (since by that point he had trouble realizing anyone's identity....), but the Marine connection seems to transcend all other connections. Dad knew without a doubt that Kurtis was a fellow Marine, and I've never been so grateful for that brotherhood...it sustained us and rescued us several times that night.
When it was time to move Dad up to the psych ward and get him situated there, Kurtis escorted us all the way and stayed there talking with Dad while Mama and I filled out all the mountains of paperwork and consulted with the nurses. Kurtis was tough and gentle and strong and kind all rolled up into one sweet soul (those same attributes possessed by Dad), and we will be forever indebted to him for his kindness toward Dad and us.
After 8 hours in the hospital, it was time for us to tearfully leave Dad around midnight. Kurtis was there, escorting us downstairs. About 5 inches of fresh fluffy snow covered everything, and it was still snowing hard. Kurtis pulled his police vehicle up to the door for Mama and me, drove us into the snow-covered parking lot to our vehicle, started the engine for us and brushed the snow off the windows, helped us into the vehicle, and made sure we were safely on our way before he drove off himself.
Thinking back now, it was a surreal moment in an unbelievable night...it almost seems like a bad dream. And Kurtis appeared out of nowhere, truly an angel of the Lord in disguise. He could have easily gone his own way and ignored the fact that we were there since he barely knew us, but that's not what he did.
One Marine cared for another Marine.
Semper Fi. "Always faithful."
And I have to smile thinking that perhaps Dad was there in Heaven to greet Kurtis when he arrived. What a glorious, comforting picture in my mind!
One Marine caring for another Marine.