Five days after the funeral, his coffee cup still sat on the dining room table, adorned with photos of his two grandsons. His plaid shirt was draped on the back of a chair at the table. In the living room of the home he shared with his mother Mary Cooper in Questa, stands a white-flocked Christmas tree decorated with red and purple ornaments. “He wanted me to put it up,” said Mary.
It is these little things, these mundane symbols and moments of daily routines in a life, that are hard to let go.
She touched the shirt. Sometimes she forgets her middle son, Alfred Leon Valdez, won’t be putting it on again.
Alfred was buried Thursday (Nov. 30) at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Placed alongside his remains in the simple grey coffin were the ashes of her youngest son, Rudy Valdez. He died in 2011; Mary had kept his ashes in an urn. “He and Alfred always said they wanted to fly together,” said Mary. “Alfred said he didn’t want to be kept in a box on my shelf.”
Her granddaughter asked her why she didn’t put the ashes of her only other son, her eldest, Pete Valdez, in the coffin with his brothers. He died in March. “I told her I just couldn’t let them all go yet,” Mary said, looking at the urn with Peter’s remains that sits on the dresser in her bedroom.
One day, soon she hopes, Pete’s ashes will be placed in a coffin with her remains and they’ll be buried next to her other two sons at the National Cemetery. “They told me we could all be together,” she said.
The Marines and the U.S. Army both sent representatives to honor Alfred and Rudy at the burial.
Men in Mary Chacón Valdez Cooper’s family had a long history of service. Her sons all volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Rudy and Pete served in the Marines. Alfred was in the Army. Pete and Alfred, the older two brothers were sent to the battlefields. Mary doesn’t know where. “They didn’t talk about it,” she said.
Rudy, the youngest of her sons, was stationed in Hawaii, part of a military policy then to not send all the sons of a family into combat.
Six of her nephews and a brother also served in the military. One of her cousin’s was a Bataan Death March survivor.
Mary has a box full of framed photos of all of them, and a living room wall painted blue where she plans to hang all of the pictures.
She didn’t expect her three sons to sign up for the military decades ago. “I went with what they wanted to do. I didn’t want to stand in their way,” Mary said, looking through the photos.
All three came back safely from the war, but not the same. She wasn’t sure or couldn’t say what demons might have haunted them.
Rudy, after a marriage and divorce, was a loner, said Mary. He was the son who did things his way, Mary said. He became a long-haul trucker and saw the United States from coast to coast. He lived two blocks from his mom’s house along a tree-lined road near the river in Questa. He died of an aneuryism shortly before Christmas in 2011, Mary said. “We had invited him to join us for Christmas dinner,” Mary said, “but then he was gone.”
Pete ended up in Farmington and worked for an oil company for decades. Mary said he took care of his kids, his second wife’s children and a grandchild. He was building a handicap accessible ramp into his home for when Mary visited. He was always taking care of those around him.
She thought one day Pete would be taking care of her. But that ended in March. Sent home from the hospital after knee surgery, a blood clot loosened and went straight to his brain, she said.
Then there was Alfred. “I guess he was a mama’s boy,” Mary said with a laugh.
Alfred drank after the war, a lot, but he gave up alcohol and cigarettes years before he died, Mary said. After he showed up dripping wet at her front door one night from a drunken fall in the river, she told him to never show up that way again or she would disown him. “He stopped the next day,” she said.
He was married, but his wife passed away. His daughter and her children were the joys of his life, Mary said.
Mary spent years caring for Alfred after doctors found a tumor on his liver. “That’s the chair where he sat,” she said. “That’s where I put the heating pads on him.”
Everywhere she looks there are reminders – of her sons, of happier times together, of the heart-breaking, back-breaking task of caring full-time for one of them.
She doesn’t know if Alfred’s cancer was related to his time in Vietnam. “He didn’t want me to know. He told his friends,” Mary said.
Alfred died of cancer at home Nov. 24 in his small bedroom surrounded by photos of his family, symbols of Christian faith and pictures of Native American warriors.
“I need to clean his room,” she said, looking around at it, a little at a loss. “I don’t know what to do.”
She isn’t entirely alone. A wave of friends have come by since the funeral.
A young man and former Red River Lodge colleague, Chris Shauf, lives near Mary and checks on her every day. He makes sure her doors are locked and she eats dinner. She calls him her adopted son. “I catch myself buying things still for Alfred,” Mary said. “I bought three steaks the other day. One for me, one for Chris and one for Alfred.”
“It’s going to take me a long time to get over that.”
She looks forward to the sounds of her great-grandsons Trey and Maddix, her granddaughter Dana Cloud and son-in-law Brandon Cloud filling the house when they visit.
But for the first time in years, Pete won’t be in the kitchen cooking up a storm for Christmas dinner. Rudy won’t be joining them for the meal or for her 87th birthday Dec. 9. Alfred won’t be sitting at the dining room table with his favorite coffee cup.
“So now they’re all gone,” Mary said, her voice catching. “Now I have my blue wall I can work on.”
“My blue wall.”