YESTERDAY MORNING AS I WAS reading the Sunday papers at the neighborhood coffee shop, a woman sitting alone at the next table burst into tears. Three people immediately stopped eating breakfast, got up and rushed over to her table to comfort her.
We had all heard what she had just heard on the television news: the grandmother of a Navy pilot trying to describe her grandson, who was reported dead in the Persian Gulf war. She struggled for a moment but finally this elderly woman knew what she wanted to tell the world about her lost grandson.
"He was not a kid to shirk his duty," she said simply and with great dignity, refusing to let the gathering tears of grief overcome her sense of pride.
Grief and pride. We all felt it sitting in that coffee shop yesterday. And while none of us knew Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher -- shot down by a missile over Iraq -- we knew that a member of someone's family was gone. And the four of us -- total strangers -- also knew in ways too deep to verbalize that we needed each other at that moment.
The woman who had suddenly burst into tears, it was clear, was crying for us all.
And so, gathered at that table we tried to make sense of what was happening. We talked of Commander Speicher's family and our own families, of the sons and daughters, nieces and BTC nephews who were already in the gulf or on their way there.
And we talked about the Iraqi families who surely are going through the same emotions of grief and pride, of prayer and reflection, of rage and resignation as we in this country are.
We talked about the peace protests and those who doubt the wisdom of being at war; and about those who are giving blood and buying flags to show their support.
We talked about how difficult it is to go on with the day-to-day business of our lives: going to work, taking the kids to a dentist appointment, making plans for a party or a vacation.
And, finally, we talked about what haunts us all: the deep fear that there lies ahead a terrible and bloody confrontation between Allied and Iraqi ground forces.
We sat together for an hour or two and shared our feelings and fears. But when we left -- each to pick up the strands of his or her ordinary Sunday routine -- we had become something more than strangers: We had become a community, a small group that draws strength from discovering our connectedness to a larger society.
Community. It's an old-fashioned word, which has its roots in old-fashioned values. Community used to be the environment in which ordinary people lived out their daily lives; its roots were in such things as family, religion, school, social clubs, political clubs, bowling leagues, block parties.
But the strands of community, to a large extent, have unravelled. We are experiencing the death of community in this country. And as community declines, so does involvement with one another.
Of course, historic events -- particularly tragedies, like the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger -- have a way of temporarily restoring a sense of community.
History and psychology teach us that nothing binds a community closer together -- protesters notwithstanding -- than a nation's engagement in war.
But if war acts as a tourniquet of sorts, it also acts as an X-ray, exposing the anatomy inside the patient, inside the community. We see more clearly in wartime what's healthy and what isn't; what's present and what's missing.
And in an odd way, the presence of a community spirit during wartime -- the kind that allows strangers to connect without fear and distrust in a coffee shop -- makes its absence during peace time seem all the sadder.
And in that spirit, I went home, clipped out the newspaper photo of Commander Michael Speicher and placed it next to pictures of my two sons.
He is, after all, part of my family: the family of man.