An attempt, with fiction that is surely fact-based, to honor the men and women, including the parents and children left behind, who war touches. And who we most assuredly owe a sincere debt of gratitude.
The small hand is warm in mine, and the fingers tighten as we walk closer. When he was born screaming, and I along with him for more reasons than were obvious, I promised myself I’d bring him here one day.
And that day has come.
I have tissues in my pocketbook. I’ll need them though he won’t as 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. And those deep blue eyes continued to ask, with stares at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other family holidays.
His grandparents are here too, and they run their fingers along the chiseled edge of eternity. They glance at each other and she pulls her own Kleenex from a worn purse, veteran as it was of that time.
That day … it was horrible … like a nightmare but real. An old cliché I’m sure, but what better way to describe it? Is it necessary to tell about the hot tears that streamed down my face? Is it necessary to tell how my heart pounded, how I thought it would burst from my chest, how I wished it would?
But only for a moment, because of what was left behind, which was a blessing.
Now we’re here, now we hold hands, and now I have to explain. But I pause because he is pointing at the leaves on the old oak.
“The wind, Momma … it’s talking. 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.” Letting go of my hand and stepping to the tree, he touches the coarse gray bark with tentative fingertips, looking up again. Then he steps closer and 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 couldn’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 and holds 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. We have people we can count on, and that has helped. 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.
I swipe at my eyes one last time, I hope, and shove the tattered knot into my pocket.
“Okay, Momma’s ready.”
Or am I?
We step forward and I put down the quilt, which 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. I want to cry again and I fight the urge, but the tears sting as alcohol on an old and open wound, one never fully healed, one exactly five-and-a-half-years-old.
“S, Momma, it’s an S.”
“That’s right. Can you tell me what the other two are?”
He traces each letter. “That’s a G … that’s a T … and that’s a period.” He looks at me, asking if he’s right with nothing more than his inquisitive glance, faint blonde eyebrows rising.
“Right again. Your daddy would be so proud of you. Of the big boy you’ve become and how you’re taking care of me.”
He leans against me, taking my hands, pulling them together, wanting me—with his familiar gesture—to hold him. And I do.
Though he’s not a baby any longer, 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, which is crisp with winter’s coming.
We stay there silently. Until he glances back at me.
“Can I tell him something?”
I nod and his 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.”