For Gene Lourey, the grief is as sharp and fresh now as it was when he learned almost a year ago that his son was dead.
KERRICK, MINN. -- It remains as idyllic a scene today as three decades ago, when Gene and Becky Lourey arrived at the farmhouse with 8-year-old Matt, the boy soldier, and four other youngsters.
Marshland rich with wildlife and thick stands of oak, maple, ash and pine fall away from the house to the Willow River, as unseen as country neighbors but just as reassuringly there. Scattered benches in sun and shade bid an easy welcome, and a three-legged dog named Buster, a cancer survivor, gamely hops to for a treat he knows is coming.
But at the front of the house, flags of the state and nation flap in a subdued late-winter breeze, the colors lowered still -- nine months later -- to mark the combat death in Iraq of Army helicopter pilot Matthew Lourey, 40.
"How long will the flags stay at half-staff?" a visitor asks, and a great choking sigh comes from Matt's father, who reaches impulsively for sunglasses. He keeps a pair of dark glasses in the house, another at his office, another in his truck. Unable to hide his eyes, he tries to compose himself enough to answer without crying.
But he can't.
'Good for each other'
Gene grew up on the Iron Range, Becky in Park Rapids and Little Falls, where they met and were married 43 years ago. Gene was 21, Becky 18.
"Becky is a cheery person, a happy person," he said. "I'm not like that at all. She was born to be a mother, and now she is the world's greatest grandmother. I'm not good at children's things -- I wasn't good at children's things when I was a child.
"But we're good for each other. Being around her makes me happier."
Becky had borne four children -- Matt was the second boy -- when they moved into the old farmhouse in 1974, and they planned to adopt four more. They adopted eight.
"We gravitated to hard-to-place kids," Gene said. "We went to the adoption meetings and there were all these parents there who had no kids at all, so we said we'd just take the kids nobody wanted. It turned out there were a lot of them. The adoption workers kept coming up here with cute pictures and sad stories."
The Loureys lost their first adopted child, 5-year-old Jay, who didn't survive heart surgery in 1973. And Fernando, adopted from Guatemala at the age of 3 or 4, died at 25 just six years ago in a diving accident.
While Becky, a DFL senator running for governor, attends to legislative business and her campaign, Gene spends much of his free time alone in their house. He alternates between two easy chairs, one in a small room lined with books, the other set in a sun-splashed bay window, where he passes hours with the history-tinged thrillers of Ken Follett and Nelson DeMille.
His office in Bruno is a 9-mile drive from the house, but there's an alternate route three times the distance. He drives it to think things through, and he carries pages torn from a desk calendar, each highlighting a book he'll try to find on a weekly visit to a Duluth bookstore. He also carries binoculars to scan for timberwolves, bobcats and bald eagles. He rarely sees other people, which is how he wants it.
"The more sorrowful I get, the more time I need to spend alone," he said. "I try not to do anything that calls attention to me. I've always been that way, but now I use it as a shield."
He is reluctant even to talk with the few score people who might best understand his grief and appreciate its still-jagged depths: the parents of 31 other Minnesota servicemen who have died in Iraq since the war started three years ago. Becky has found some solace in that, he said, but for him to talk is to ache and cry.
On precinct caucus night, Gene attended his DFL caucus, then drove two hours to St. Paul. At midnight, as they talked about how she'd done, Becky cut his hair and trimmed his beard. By dawn he was on his way home.
"I never stop," he said. "I don't eat in cafes. If you stop, you have to see people, and they'll ask about Matt. They mean well, but I ... "