First published in The Record, July 12, 2017
Finding peace, 50 years after a brother's death
This is the moment that split Anne Loving’s life in two. It was a Sunday. Her parents’ home was surrounded by green shrubs. She looked outside through the bushes to see a Volkswagen Beetle stop at the curb. The car was white. The door opened, and inside she saw a flash of polyester uniform colored Air Force blue.
That’s how she knew her brother was dead.
“I knew. I was only 14, but I knew,” Loving said. “That was the moment when everything changed.”
Arnold LaGrange’s death altered the people he loved forever. He was a redheaded boy, skinny as a twig, unpopular with the girls at Pelham Memorial High School but adored by Anne, five years his junior and his only sister.
He enlisted in the Air Force at age 17, and after training was stationed on Mactan Island in the Philippines. One night he was riding a motorcycle when he swerved to avoid pedestrians on a busy dirt road. His helmet flew off. His head hit the ground. He was taken to a military hospital near Manila, where he underwent surgery, and fell into a coma.
On June 4, 1967, he died.
The LaGranges had been close-knit and happy, Loving said. Arnold’s death divided them, and dropped a darkness over the family.
“We became a sadder family. My parents became extremely depressed,” said Loving, 64, who lives in Ridgewood. “I felt inadequate. I had the impression that he was the golden child.”
Those feelings of sadness and striving clung to Anne LaGrange long after she left for college, became a microbiologist, married a man named Boyd Loving (a photographer who contributes to The Record), raised a family, and retired.
Then, with no warning, her sad feelings disappeared. It happened last month, 50 years to the day after Arnold’s death, during Loving’s only visit to the island her brother loved.
It happened as if by magic.
“I just wanted to go,” Loving said. “I really do believe that if his spirit is floating anywhere, it’s on those breezes over there, because that’s where he was so happy.”
'He took care of me'
In Anne Loving’s earliest memories, Arnold is there. He was 5 when she was born. When they biked around their home in Pelham, N.Y., he propped her on his handlebars and made sure she didn’t fall. When they flew together to visit family in Texas, he held her hand.
“He took care of me,” she said. “I really did adore him.”
Arnold LaGrange was not a popular boy. In high school he had only a few friends, never dated, and didn’t attend prom. He stood just under 6 feet tall when he joined the Air Force, and weighed just 125 pounds. Poor eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot, but his assignment as a radio mechanic meant he still got to fly.
Off-duty, LaGrange had even more fun. In letters home he described swimming at gorgeous beaches, enjoying the local food, and dating beautiful Filipino women who were taken with his pale skin and bright red hair.
“He was like a walking god,” Loving said. “He was thoroughly enjoying life.”
The motorcycle crash happened on May 25, 1967. His parents wanted to fly to Manila to see him in the hospital, but military policy barred them.
“I have always had a sense of abiding sadness that he died alone, halfway around the world, without any of us there,” Loving said.
LaGrange was cremated and buried in the cemetery behind Christ Episcopal Church in Pelham. His parents grieved at home. Loving grieved at his grave, which she visited every day.
“I contemplated suicide,” Loving said. “Everybody missed him. I thought it should have been me.”
Loving’s depression eased as she left for Goucher College in Maryland and began her career as a scientist and professor. In its place grew a belief that she had to strive to deserve her parents’ love and protect them from disappointment.
“I like to think I would have excelled anyway," she said. “I had a good career. But I did feel pressure to do well.”
Finding comfort in chaos
Almost from the day her brother died, Loving wanted to see Mactan. Years later, she met some of Arnold’s friends from the Air Force, and she collected old photos of the base. This February, she finally decided to go. Friends of friends put her in touch with Jose Javier, a lieutenant commander in the Philippine Air Force who was stationed at Mactan and offered to drive her around.
After months of planning, she flew to the Philippines on May 31. Loving felt overwhelmed during the final approach, realizing she was about to land on the same runway her brother used dozens of times.
It was the first in a series of coincidences that seemed to erase the 50-year and 8,600-mile separation.
“I had this sense of magical thinking,” she said. “Maybe he’ll be there. If I can do this, maybe I can reverse what happened.”
The Air Force never pinpointed the exact spot where LaGrange died, but Loving wanted to see the road. Javier took her there first. It has been paved since her brother rode it, she said, but it remains a gantlet of rickshaws, goats and motorbikes.
To her surprise, Loving found the chaos comforting.
“I saw how a split-second error of judgment could lead to this,” she said. “I didn’t know that I needed to forgive him until I saw how easily it could happen.”
At the far end of the road, Loving looked back to see a rainbow. It was the end of the dry season, and the island had not seen rain — or rainbows — for months.
“This rainbow — nobody will ever convince me otherwise,” Loving said. “That was him just singing with joy, saying, ‘She’s here! It took her 50 years, but she’s here!’ ”
Loving’s last day in Mactan was a Sunday. She wanted to attend church, maybe in town. Javier insisted she come to his church on base instead.
Loving knew the building was the same church her brother had attended. She was so excited she'd get to visit it, she texted Jeff Flenner, one of Arnold's friends from the Air Force with whom she has stayed in touch over the years. From his home in Florida, Flenner responded that he and Arnold had a favorite spot to sit in the church: to the right, about three rows from the altar.
“I found that so comforting to know that not only did he go” to church, Loving said, “but he went often enough that he had a regular seat.”
Loving didn’t mention her brother’s seating preference to her guide. But as Javier entered he walked to his own regular spot, on the right side, three rows behind her brother’s.
It was June 4, 2017, 50 years to the day after Arnold LaGrange died. It was also Pentecost, a transliteration of pentekostos, the Greek word for “fifty.” The holy day arrives 50 days after Easter, marking the day when Christians believe the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to live in the hearts of believers.
Loving is a retired scientist who spent $4,000 and two full days of flying to spend 72 hours on a remote island in the Philippines. Before she left on her pilgrimage, she couldn’t explain why she felt so compelled.
Now she can. Now she believes.
“I do feel lighter. I feel like I made something right for the family,” she said. “In the scope of eternity, 50 years is nothing. I feel like I stepped across 50 years. And I feel like he didn’t die alone that day.”