Saturday, March 24, 2007

Michael Rivera laid to rest

Near the end of yesterday's funeral for the latest young man from Brooklyn to die in Iraq, Father Lew Maynard stepped up to the flag-draped coffin, holding a chalice.

The cup had been given to Maynard after his own brother was killed in Vietnam nearly four decades ago, and was first used at his brother's funeral in 1968.

"On my brother's chalice are engraved words taken from his last letter to us," Maynard told the mourners.

That long-ago letter from 21-year-old Marine Cpl. Gregory Maynard included a quotation from Kahlil Gibran, which his brother the priest now recited to the family and friends of 22-year-old Army Sgt. Michael Rivera.

"When you part from your friend, you grieve not, for that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence."

In an infant car seat set upon a pew not 3 feet from the coffin, Rivera's 6-month-old daughter lay in soft pink swaddling, suckling on a pacifier as an aunt made a toy Minnie Mouse dance in front of her.

Little Joycelyn Rivera had remained silent during the procession into the church, through the first prayers and the homily. The uniformed pallbearers included her dead father's older brother in Marine dress blues. The sight of Freddie Rivera in the front row prompted the priest to speak of his own brother.

"When I woke up this morning, the first thing I saw was a picture of my brother in his dress Marine uniform," Maynard said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, here we go again.'"

Maynard spoke of his own family's grief during another unpopular war, "at a time like this 40 years ago." He addressed Rivera's wife, Ruth, who had met her husband at a dance in Korea and now sat in the front row of St. Agatha's Church in Sunset Park beside his coffin.

"You and Michael have shared a young love that you could see going on and on and on, as you could see in your young daughter who is just so quiet right now," the 64-year-old priest said.

Maynard then stepped back to allow one of the two altar servers to speak. Katherine Leon, age 12, offered condolences on behalf of her classmates at St. Agatha School. She recited a definition she had found on the Internet.

"A hero is someone who has given his life to something bigger than oneself."

As if in response, the tiny figure in the car seat began to coo. The church went absolutely still until little Joycelyn was quiet again.

"Hero. And as Kathy said that, little Joycelyn started to make her own noises," Maynard then noted.

He spoke of that cooing as if it had been a perfect prayer.

"The sound of her voice is a voice that can fill this whole church and we need to hear that," he went on. "Amen."

A woman in the choir loft sang "America the Beautiful" as Maynard and three concelebrating priests prepared for the Eucharist using his brother's chalice.

It was bigger than most, and hammered silver rather than gold plated. It had been presented to Maynard by his brother's pals in Bay Ridge.

"It's a big cup because he was a big man," Maynard had noted earlier.

Maynard now intoned words that have long been spoken at every Mass everywhere, but must have assumed an added poignancy when he raised this chalice at his brother's funeral 39 years ago, that assumed this same poignancy as he raised it at Rivera's funeral yesterday.

"Take this, all of you, and drink: This is the cup of my blood. It will be shed for you and for all."

The altar server, Leon, rang the small Sanctus bells and the priest spoke some more words that are always said at this point, but not always so powerfully.

"Do this in memory of me."

After Communion, an Army general presented the family with the Purple Heart and Bronze Star that Rivera had been awarded posthumously along with a promotion to sergeant. Maynard then stepped down by the coffin with the now-empty chalice clutched in both hands as if he were offering a divine toast of pure spirit.

The baby remained quiet on the procession from the church. The impossibly young widow looked as if most of herself were also in the coffin that her dead husband's brother and the other pallbearers shouldered to the hearse. The woman in the choir loft was singing "God Bless America."

From the Daily News

Related Link:
Michael D. Rivera dies of injuries from I.E.D.