Memories: A Memorial Day Story

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.”

 

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A few writing tips, thoughts, conjectures I have learned along the way.

You’ve no doubt heard variations, and some will be present, but if not, here you go.

A writer without imagination is like a musician without rhythm; it’s doubtful anyone will enjoy either.

MC needs to show someone a vital phone pic? Break the phone. Needs to get somewhere? Break his car. Don’t make goals easy.

Don’t tell your readers he smelled the coffee. Instead: With rich coffee aroma, steam rose in lazy swirls from the dark brew.

An important part of writing is in the details. Yes, your character may taste, touch, hear, see, and smell, but does the reader?

You know you’re writer if you love editing. Well, you might not be a sane writer. Polish that passion–make it pop.

Dialogue: Never boring. Constantly use tension, whether anger, humor, fear, or sexual. Unexpected is great too.

I love it when an unintended character pops into a scene, taking the plot in a different–better–direction than I’d intended.

Friends ask how I write. My answer? By knowing my character’s perspectives; their hearts, souls, & struggles.

Recently made three women cry. It’s okay…actually, it’s great. They were reading one of my short stories.

Let characters interrupt. Hey, did you see– Yeah, it’s– Don’t interrupt me when– When what? Arrgghhh! (You get the idea)

Clarity

I visited you today.

Wind moaned through the oaks while leaves blew through the markers. Clouds scuttled in the sky like oversized gray-toned crabs. The grass the men planted didn’t cover the red earth and I knelt to pick up a quartz stone at the foot of your plot.

No stone for you. Soon, I’m sure.

We grew up in the 60’s. Hide and seek and homemade ice cream. What a combination as families gathered to sit on the cinder-block wall that brought together my house and your grandparents’ house. We licked spoons. Vanilla. Banana. Strawberry. Chocolate. Laughed. Listened to stories with nostalgia’s comforting ring. Then we’d run away. Find somewhere to wait while the next kid searched.

Your life was like that. You couldn’t find yourself through the black curtain of addiction.

Sorry. I left out what came before that, which is more of what made us friends.

Hide and seek gave way to placing pennies on the railroad track to be picked up and admired after being squashed flat and shiny. The hikes through the woods led to fishing at the lake that led to bicycles downtown that led to dirt bikes on narrow paths.

Didn’t you break your collarbone that one time?

I do recall my bicycle spill at your house. Who’d have thought two boards placed on a red wagon on its side would spread when the front wheel hit them at speed? Or that a bike and a boy could flip so many times before landing? Or, for the most part, that dirt tastes like dirt? How nothing—except the bike—got broken I’ll never know. You took me in so your mom could check me out. If I didn’t thank you then …

We talked about all that. We tried to stay strong. Did you see?

As we neared our late teenage years I regret how we grew apart, though I doubt it would have made a difference. You were searching. I wish you had found it somewhere else.

I stopped by your parents’ house the day before. Thought if I were going to cry I’d do it then and get it out. I couldn’t because your dear sister held onto me for maybe five minutes. Said they had been talking about our boyhood escapades. She loved you. Loves you. We all do/did. Wanted so much more for you.

I think it likely she left the miniature cross at your site.

The next day they asked me to walk in with them. Said I was family. To simply say I was touched beyond compare does not compare.

I sat with them on the front row. Listened to the minister. The sadness hung over it all.

Regret.

Again, wishes for more than fifty-four years of life for you.

Once more I’m getting ahead of myself.

In line I waited. For my turn to say words that couldn’t convey the weight of grief upon hearts. That weight fell fully when I hugged your dad.

Later, outside, we stood around your casket. It was cold. The coats were many. The smiles of remembrance.

———————

The quartz rock sits on a book where I can see it. It’s stained red. So many wanted your life clean and perfect. Life’s not like that, is it? You came and you lived and you did the best you could. You got to see your grandson. I think I got enough of a look at him to see that your red hair crowns him. Your daughter looks like you. I’d never met her.

When I see your family we hug. When that happens I’m hurt and comforted. The grief clings, the want for more, the want for your happiness.

I like to think that’s the case now. How do Heavenly drums sound? Are the sticks pure gold or ethereal wonders of rhythm? Do you get to play with your rock idols who went before you? It’s a cool consideration, anyway.

The quartz is ice warm in my hand. Within its many imperfections is fleeting clarity. Glassy and glowing when held to lamplight.

Possibly, that’s how we all are. We wished clarity for you but addiction clouded it over. Clouds. Wind. Sun and rain. We fare the best we can. We love, create, tear asunder. Do it all over again and hope.

See you soon.

I Certainly Hope So.

We must live within them from time to time. Clouded mist and gray skies. But then emerges blue-sky dreams filled with hope. Hope tugs our hearts and souls on ghost threads tangible as steel and delicate as ether. Strong as any weapon while fragile as love’s fading kiss. How strong are your hopes? And how weak? And do you hope at all? I certainly hope so.

And so should you.

A Revisit. Weathering the Storm

I originally posted this back in the spring when the weather began to break, the days warmed, and thoughts of the ocean crept into my mind. Recently I took a look at this story and decided to spruce it up a tad and re-post.
Even though it was one of my earlier works, I enjoy it a great deal, and perhaps you, the reader, or the new reader, will enjoy it also.

Spring, 2015
I had a thought yesterday morning, and strange as it might be, it was what if a single grain of sand on a beach were a conscious being. Imagine all it would see, but also, all it would wish and hope for.
My own father died at fifty-eight from cancer and my mother in 2012 at seventy-seven. They dearly loved the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and that love also influences this story.
Then there is the sad influence of cancer and what it takes from those suffering from it and from those that lose friends and loved ones to it.
This is dedicated to all those touched in one way or another by this terrible disease.
J.

Weathering the Storm

Once, on a wide, windswept beach, there existed a single grain of sand. To see it lying there among all the rest you’d never know it was any different, or special in any way at all, but it was.
For eons it remained on this beach, rarely staying in the same location. Hurricanes, Nor’easters, the tides, and the wind kept it in constant motion, sometimes covering it and sometimes revealing it to sunrises and starry nights. And even though each sunrise promised a new day and new experiences, depending on the season, the stars were its preferred thing to see. It loved to watch the endless, winking, pinpoints of light as they rotated across the night sky, and it often wondered if their existence were anything like being a grain of sand.
Summer was its favorite season. Children came with small plastic shovels and pails to dig and to run and to laugh on and around the grain, and this was the closest it ever came to the simple joy of play or friendship. But soon they would leave, dragging their toys and memories along with them, and the grain of sand wished its existence was like theirs and nothing like being a spec of worn seashell on a lonely beach.
In fact, it had never met a spec similar to itself, just those that looked the same, but never bothering to ask questions or ponder their existence. They merely were, and were nothing else, never caring to know if they could be anything more.
One moonlit night, after a September tide resurrected the grain from its hurricane grave, a young woman walked out onto the beach, and she happened to sit beside the grain. She sat quietly, burying her feet in the sand, and a moment later she scooped the listening and watching grain up in her hands, along with hundreds of thousands of other grains that were sadly oblivious to being discovered and to discovering.
Looking into her hands, she smiled, then spoke. “Hello, there my friends, I have missed you. I hope the wind and tides have not been too harsh while I was away as life has been with me.”
The tiny grain wished at this moment, more than any other, that it could speak. Even though it had never seen this woman it wanted desperately to reply, I missed you also, and though the wind and tides move me about, it is no great bother. Please tell me how life has been with you?
Of course, it could not, but the hope remained.
The single special grain felt the warmth of the woman’s hands and it never knew such closeness with another being. She leaned close and sniffed, and the single grain among all the rest managed to catch her aroma.
“I love that sweet, salty smell,” she said, and then she whispered, “Would you believe something smaller than one of you could make something as large as me sick? And so sick that I could die? It’s the truth, but I wish it weren’t. That small thing is called cancer, and it took my mother and my father, and it’s trying to take me too.”
The grain blinked, and salty water squeezed from its tiny pores, its version of tears.
“But I’m not going to give in,” the woman said. “I’m entirely too young to leave this world, don’t you think?”
The grain nodded, the movement measurable only on a microscopic scale, and it began to believe that there were worse things to be than a grain of sand, such as this thing called cancer.
The woman raised her head to look at the moon and stars, the scarf around her head whipping in the wind. “Sometimes … sometimes I wish I were a grain of sand …”
Her gaze moved back to the sand in her hands. “So how is it? To be one of you? You never get sick or lose a loved one. You get to see every single sunrise and starry night. And you even get to live through hurricanes without a scratch. How I envy you …”
Even if at this very moment it was given the gift of speech, the tiny grain had no idea what it might offer. For so long all its hopes and wishes had been for itself, and now it found itself wishing and hoping this woman could have her own dreams come true.
Finally, she left, and the grain resumed its life on the beach, much of it spent pondering the woman and what her fate might have been.
###
One June evening, just as the sun was settling itself into the sound behind the barrier island, a group of people filed out between the dunes. One man carried a container resembling a beach pail, and two children walked to his left, hand in hand, one clutching the man’s hand.
The vacation season was in full swing and the grain had had a busy day. It was now ready for a quiet night of stargazing, but halted its thoughts as the group walked to where it lay among all the other specs and bits of shell and around it.
The man removed the lid from the container, reached in, then took a handful of something, and the children did the same. Suddenly they threw what was in their hands into the wind and fine particles mixed with the flowing tide of air and escaped to the heavens, and a very few drifted down to lay beside the grain of sand.
It recognized the aroma of his friend—the only friend it ever had—and salty tears squeezed from its pores as it realized she now knew what it was like to be a grain of sand, but not like him at all. Now she would be part of a larger whole, and she would see every sunrise and starry night, and she would never be bothered again with the weathering of any storm for all her existence to come.