I close my fingers around his small, warm hand, and we move closer. When he was born screaming, and I along with him, I promised myself I’d bring him here one day.
That day has come.
I have tissues in my pocketbook. I’ll need them, though he won’t. He’s still too young to understand, but he knows things are not as they should be. From his first birthday, with a single candle on his cupcake that I blew out as his eyes questioned mine, I think he knew. Those deep blue eyes continued to ask, with stares at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays, when two-parent families arrived.
His grandparents are here too, and they run their fingers along the monument’s chiseled edge, speaking in low tones. She pulls her own Kleenex from a worn purse. He turns away. His head drops and his shoulders shake.
That day was horrible, like a nightmare but real. Dressed in black, I sat in front of his flag-draped casket. Hot tears streamed down my face as my heart pounded at the thought of living without him. Of my son living without a father. My heart threatened to burst from my chest and some selfish part of me wished it would.
But only for a moment because of what was left behind, as true a blessing as I’ve ever known.
Now we’re here. We hold hands and I have to explain, but I pause as he points at the leaves on the old oak.
“The wind is talking, Momma. Could that be him? You said he might tell me … tell me things if I listen?”
I nod and smile and squeeze his hand. “You never know, sweetheart, it could be.” He releases my hand and steps to the tree, touches the course gray bark with tentative fingertips and looks up again. He steps closer, wraps his arms as far around the tree as they will go, and closes his eyes.
“Momma showed me your picture, but I wish you were here.”
He walks back to me. “Can we talk to him now?”
I can’t answer. I hold the third tissue to my eyes. Should have brought the box.
“Give me a minute, sweetheart, okay?”
He takes my free hand, tugs it to his cheek. “Okay, Momma.”
God, how hard this is. How hard the first years were. I’m—we’re better, and I’m grateful, but what I wouldn’t give to not be doing this, not because of how it makes me feel, but because of the reason we must.
Before coming here, I’d promised my reflection in the bathroom mirror I wouldn’t cry. I swipe at my eyes, the tears just enough to keep my cheeks damp, and shove the tattered knot into my pocket.
“Okay, Momma’s ready.”
We step forward and I put down the quilt. Its threadbare patchwork is full of memories, one of which is the night my son was conceived. With him standing in front of me, I kneel and hold out my hand.
“Give me your hand.” He puts his hand in mine, and I place it on the first letter carved into the cool stone. “What’s this letter?”
Those eyes … they’re his dad’s. My cheeks grow damp again, nearly to sobbing, and I swallow. Fighting. Screaming inside to stay strong, but the tears sting as alcohol on an old and open wound, one exactly five-and-a-half-years-old.
“S, Momma, it’s an S.”
“That’s right.” I move his finger. “And this one?”
He traces the letter. “G?”
“Right again. One more.”
He touches this one on his own. “T, and that’s a period.” His faint, blonde eyebrows rise. “What does it mean?”
“Your daddy was a Marine, and that means he was a Sergeant.”
“Like my toy soldiers? I named one Sergeant Smith.”
Nothing like that at all, I don’t say. “You’re right.”
He drops his head. “My soldiers never get hurt … not really.”
“No, and I wish your daddy never got hurt either. He would be so proud of the big boy you’ve become and how you’re taking care of me.”
He leans against me and pulls my hands around him. Though he’s not a baby any more, his hair is baby-soft, and it smells of the shampoo I used last night during his bath, when he played and splashed and when we laughed. His ears are pink, chilly against my face from the morning November breeze.
We stay there silently, until he glances back at me.
“Can I tell him something?”
I nod, and his single fingertip touches the white marble where my head had lain, where my tears had fallen, and finally, where I had kissed goodbye.
“I love you, Daddy.”