Hours after telling friends and family “Happy New Year!” the countdown for me truly begins. January 1st is meant to be a day of renewal and refreshment as a new year is rung in and we +1 the year we sign with, but for me and my family January 1st starts the countdown to January 7th and the anniversary of the day we lost a truly great man.
2017 marks the 3rd anniversary of the crash that took the life of not only my cousin Captain Sean Michael Ruane, but of three other airmen that chose the dangerous career of pararescue. It was on the night of January 7th, 2014 that the HH60-G PaveHawk designated Jolly 2-2 took its final flight as it crashed in a nature preserve on the coast of England while performing a low-level nighttime rescue training mission.
I’d like to say that I talked to Sean often and saw him every chance I got, but that’s just not the case. For a few years I had a running fight with my father and chose to put off seeing much of my family to avoid seeing him. That meant I willingly missed Sean’s wedding and didn’t see him when he cam back for those holidays. Sean and I did email from time to time, but it was more often than not an email from him to our entire family, which I rarely responded to.
Sean, in his infinitely forgiving character chose to never hold that against me, which is something I will never forget. While I put off seeing and talking to people for years, he kept sending me emails and letting me know that it was ok that I was having issues with my dad, and that he hoped we worked them out.
On January 1, 2014 I made a simple beer joke on Facebook that Sean chose to click the Like button for. I saw that and thought to myself “Brian, this has gone on too long, you need to reach out and talk to Sean.” As is the case with many such thoughts, it faded away into the “do it later” part of the brain, and it was forgotten.
Six days later while working in the evening I received multiple calls from my sister. When I finally answered one to see what was wrong, I was greeted with sobs and words I couldn’t understand. When I got her to calm down a little, she told me that Sean was dead. The floor fell out from under me and I chose to finish that night’s work because I simply couldn’t handle the thought of dealing with those emotions. After work I came home and told Dana what happened, and made the call I should have made many years sooner, and talked to my dad.
Time dragged on throughout the month of January as we waited for Sean to be released to come home, and when he was, Dana was there beside me as I reconnected with my family in Dover, Delaware while we waited for Sean and his fellow fallen airmen to depart the C-17 they came home on and partake in the Dignified Transfer. In attendance here was the Secretary of the Air Force, Chief Master Sergeant for the Air Force, and the Air Force Chief of Staff.
To this day the fact that these important, very busy people chose to stand with us on a sub-freezing, windy runway at nearly 1 in the morning to welcome our fallen heroes home one last time.
A few hours before sitting down to write this I had my yearly drink with Sean and shared a Guinness and a shot of Ardbeg Scotch Whisky with him to try and make up for all the ones he and I missed because I was stubborn and lazy. It’s a tradition I’m not alone in, as there were quite a few footprints and a few drinks of varying sources already there as his friends and family did their own yearly tradition with him.
This year I chose to stand there and sip my Ardbeg while looking out over the fields and runways that Sean’s gravesite overlooks. It’s a view he would have loved to see, and I’m so glad it’s one we get to see every time I go to his grave. Do I think Sean’s up there looking down at me or that he can hear me when I talk to him there? No, I don’t. But that doesn’t stop me from doing it. There’s a little bit of Sean that lives in me now, and tries to make me a better person that’s friendlier, more compassionate, and smiles more.
We always speak well of the dead, and people tend to forget the bad once that final pint gets poured, but with Sean that’s simply not the case. He had no enemies that I knew of, and had a group of friends so dedicated to him that they still talk about him and raise money in his name.
I doubt I’ve impacted anyone’s life enough to get a single event thrown in my name, let alone an entire charity and yearly blowout 3 years and counting. I’ve just never been that good of a person. Thanks to Sean and the legacy he’s left behind, I’m trying to be that better person today, and while I rarely succeed, I try, and I guess in the end that’s all that matters.
With my yearly countdown to January 7th done, the waiting for the anniversary of the DT, funeral, and burial are next. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over this, and a part of me hopes I never do.
What I do know is that I really fucking miss Sean, and I wish I hadn’t squandered the short time I had with him. The world truly is a little bit worse without him in it.
Having my friends tell me how sorry they are, and offer to help in any way they can is great, and I’m so thankful for that, but if you’re reading this, what you can do is decide to make today the day you stop putting off that phone call to the person you know you should talk to. While you’re at it, tell them why. Let them know that this guy you know lost his chance, and you don’t want to have the same thing happen to you. If you were waiting for a sign to reach out, this is it.
Honor Sean’s name and his amazing spirit of goodwill, family, and friendship by closing that gap today.