With the caress of her hand, Alex’s mother enveloped her son’s face offering additional motivation for him to continue his race just a little bit longer. “Alex,” she called, “Wake up. Look who’s here.”

Alex opened his eyes to find his hospital bed surrounded by men in the dress white uniform of the United
Sates Coast Guard. The audience was comprised of his dad’s commander, a Coast Guard Chaplain, his parents, a few nurses and myself.

“Alex!” his mom said, calling him from sleep. “Your dad is being promoted. Today! Now!”

Realizing he was the private audience for this ceremony, Alex allowed a smile to post itself on his chapped lips.

In the call-up of reservists after 9/11, Alex’s dad had answered the call – and by the overwhelming presence of military paraphernalia in the room, Alex’s pride was well-stated.

The commander began the ceremony by announcing he had a promotion order which came from the President of the United States, and that the President was “acting upon the recommendation of the Secretary of the Navy.”

Furthermore, the commander told us that the President had “placed special trust and confidence” in Alex’s dad because he had shown “special qualities and demonstrated potential to serve in the higher grade.”

In a tradition allowing family members to pin the new rank on the shoulder of the military member, Dad knelt, leaning toward Alex to offer him his epaulet.

“Alex, can you unbutton he epaulet for me, Buddy?”

Confused by all his medications, Alex’s fumbled with his breathing tubes.

“No, no, Alex, not that,” his dad corrected. “My shirt – unbutton my shirt.”

“Oh,” Alex exhaled, with a sense of embarrassment and turned to unbutton the epaulet and slide on the new rank.

Everyone applauded.

After the ceremony, the commander pulled out a rather official-looking award and began a second – more personal – ceremony.

As military members stood to attention, the commander humbly read the words of the certificate that expressed the gratitude that he and the United States Coast Guard held for Alex’s support of his dad.

“Your father was required to do Coast Guard work that prevented him from spending more time with you. He would have preferred to be home to help you when you needed him, but his outstanding work in support of our country was also very important to your future. The United States Coast Guard thanks
you for your support.”

Everyone applauded and everyone cried.

As I listened to those words, I became aware that this was a gathering of all who had encouraged Alex to run a strong race for life – his parents, godparents, and spiritual advisors.

They were people who had encouraged him when he wavered and prayed for him when he was weak. They urged him to continue the fight and run the race.

Though Alex’s father was promoted to a higher rank on that day, it was on July 3, 2003 that we saw Alex promoted to a higher and more spiritual rank. It was on that day, we tearfully watched him cross the finish line.

As his breathing became labored, his mother placed her hand back on his face – they were connected again. Alex suddenly flashed us all a smile and he breathed his last breath.

Huddled around him – watching him – I was suddenly blessed with the image of him standing on the edge of heaven’s balcony watching us – and a scripture from Hebrews came to mind.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us.” (New Living Translation)

Though his body worked hard to run a valiant race, Alex’s spirit was stepping ever closer to God. When his spirit went over the horizon that is visible to us, we mourned. But on the other side, the angels – seeing him come into their sight, getting ever closer to the finish line they held ready for him – rejoiced. “He’s back. He did it! Welcome home!”