Well, hello there stranger.
It’s been some time since I last wrote, and I apologize. I suppose I could lie and say that I was terribly, terribly busy. I could lie and say that I was off doing fabulous things with the most interesting people. I could lie and say that I had remarkable adventures that taught me things about myself in the process. That seems like something a writer would do, no?
I have a feeling you’d be able to call my bluff, so let me be honest and save myself some embarrassment. The family reunion was fun; it really was, even though I acted like a fool by drinking too much, throwing up and passing out. I awoke the next morning, sweaty beneath a heavy blanket on a hammock with unfamiliar faces casting sideways glances. I was embarrassed and took it easy the remainder of the party by sleeping. I kicked myself for being so lame when I had been so excited for a break in the monotony.
The week after the reunion, my nephew Jimmy came to stay with us. I turned down a teaching job in favor of another closer to home and though I believe I did what was best, I shed a lot of tears and twisted and turned my stomach into all sorts of knots about the whole thing. I am a people pleaser; I like to make everyone happy, or at least I like to try to make everyone happy because in my short time upon this earth, I realize that it truly is impossible to please everyone. I let people down and I am truly sorry.
Missy, my oldest sister, came to pick up Jimmy and brought Jack with her. She had to take care of some legal documents, so she stayed through until Tuesday.
And that brings us to today. Dad and I visited the veterans’ cemetery to pay our respects to Grandpa, Nick and Ron. Nick and Ron were classmates of mine. The trip inspired me to write a short story which I plan on submitting for publication to at least two magazines. It is very rough – still needs to be edited and re-worked, but I thought I’d share it here with you. I hope you enjoy it, and I’d like to dedicate the effort to Grandpa, Nick and Ron; heroes I was blessed to know.
MAKING THE TRIP BACK HOME
It was hot, but not unseasonably so because after all, it was August. The sun for sorrow would not show its head, or so the romantic in me liked to believe, and spent the majority of its time behind large, stationary, ominous-looking clouds. It was warm, but not sunny and the contradiction carried itself through the day’s activity; it seemed I only visited the cemetery in the summer, and only on the hottest days. I don’t know why I did this and even now, I can’t say for sure what it is about the warmth and the light and the life of summer that makes me travel to the painful nostalgia and ever present grief of a haven for the dead. I have been to visit my grandpa’s grave three times in the twelve years since his passing, and each time it has been so warm that my fingertips burn against the metal marker, and I can smell the pine needles baking on the outskirts of the trees, lying in the rays and simply simmering. Every time I visit, I cry so that the mascara runs down my cheeks and every time, I forget to bring tissues so that, as embarrassing as it is to admit, my fingers and forearms become snotty messes. I used to only kneel and say a prayer and kiss the corner of my grandpa’s marker, but unfortunately, in the past two years, I’ve added two more stops to my tour of grief.
That day, I convinced my dad to come with me. He’s a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and we had been talking about making the trip out to the cemetery for a while. It’s hard to say for certain what finally got us moving. Maybe it was the fact that Dad had attended Nathan’s funeral with me and had a vague understanding of how his passing had affected me. Maybe it was because he missed Grandpa as much as Mom did, as Grandpa was the only father Dad ever knew; his own had been absent and his stepfather had been abusive, so when Dad met Mom, he was adopted into the family readily. Grandpa helped Dad earn a job on the waterfront and had taken him under his wing. Maybe it was because the night before, we had watched a particularly moving and patriotic documentary about a band that toured military bases and performed in support of the USO and veterans. Whatever the reason, Dad and I were going on a random Wednesday in August and we were taking his car, as mine did not have working air conditioning and it was hot as hell.
During the thirty-minute drive, conversation was easy between Dad and me, but sporadic and usually superficial. Dad was the kind of father who loved fiercely and blindly and did so through fun times and crazy antics. He took us kids canoeing in icy cold water down the river that ran through the neighborhood and when the canoe flipped, he scrambled to get us on shore to safety and then dove back in for his keys. He’d run after the school bus after my twin sister and I boarded it. He would wave his arms wildly in the air and run for about a block and all the other kids would laugh and point and whisper. My sister and I would feign embarrassment and rolls our eyes in commiseration about the insane guy running down a school bus but in all honesty, it meant everything to us. He would tell us to say “shit” after we got hurt to stop the tears and start the smiles. He would give us money to go out with friends even if Mom said no, and would always play chauffeur when asked. He was a great father, so when he went to serve his country overseas for a year, the family was apprehensive and terrified. The greatest fear was that he wouldn’t come home. The second greatest fear was that he would come home, but would no longer resemble the loving, traditional Southern boy who left his children in stitches when he showed us the “Flea Circus” and unwittingly killed the performers when he gave appreciative applause, or who would offer to tell us a dirty joke and then say, “A white horse fell in the mud.”
When Dad did come home, he was different but the change was slight. He was more reserved. While he’d still be the first guy to offer you the shirt off his back, he wasn’t as forthcoming, I guess you could say. One night, shortly after he returned, he was out in his shed. It was light and moths were thudding against the floodlight Dad had attached himself over the entrance. Music was playing softly and he had been out there for hours. It made me nervous, seeing him so removed and with tears in my eyes, I begged my mother to check on him, convincing myself he was going to commit suicide. Mom told me I was being silly, and I was; Dad did no such thing and never would. As a writer, I have a flair for the dramatic and it can be bothersome at times. I wanted Dad to be as dramatic as I was, to cry and spill his guts and then move on. I wanted to talk about Iraq and everything he had seen and everything he had done and then I wanted to lock it all up in an iron chest and sink it somewhere far away and blue. I didn’t want to watch him cry silently during war movies, or look for him in a crowd to realize he was already back at the car because it was too much for him to handle.
It wasn’t until some five years after his return that Dad started to open up. Before, there was no way in hell he’d come with me to the cemetery. Now, here he was beside me, where I always wanted and always needed him. It was an improvement and it was progress, but he was still haunted by the memories and doing his best to cope. Every once in a while, a vivid image would come through and he would share it to stunned silence. Like the time we were eating dinner and in the middle of a laugh, he described how he’d been doing the same in Iraq, when a bullet struck a man to his right. Dad remembered the man had been drinking Coca Cola from a glass bottle and the bullet had travelled up through the bottom of the bottle and exploded the glass and the man’s mouth. He was dead instantly. Mom didn’t know what to say or what to do and neither did I or any of my siblings. As much as I wanted Dad to release his emotions and heal, I didn’t want to witness it. It made the war real in a disturbing kind of way. But my father had returned home safe and, in contrast, that kept the reality of the horrors of war at bay. Dad had to live through near tangible recollections, but I did not. Like Dad, Grandpa had been unscathed by war. He served during the Korean War but only for a brief time. Grandpa passed because of congestive heart failure, not because an unfriendly face on foreign soil had ensured his demise. When I thought of Grandpa, I thought of his perfect pancakes and so-delicious-it-should-be-illegal spaghetti sauce. I thought of his lack of fashion sense and the typewriters he’d buy, only to let me break them a short time later. I had relatives who had been to war, sure, but they had made it home safe and sound.
We visited Grandpa’s grave first and in retrospect, I think we visited Charles Louis Thogode first because subconsciously, it was easiest to deal with. Twelve years had passed; the grief was aged and manageable. Dad knelt to clear it off grassy debris; the groundskeepers were mowing and weed whacking nearby. I planted a small kiss on my fingertips and transplanted it onto the corner. Dad breathed easy, smiled and whispered, “Hey Charlie.” That was it; there were no heaving sobs, no collapsed bodies, no desperate minds begging for answers. Dad and I, we were okay. We walked back to the car, ready to continue onward, when a middle-aged man called to us. He asked, “Find what you were looking for?” He must have seen the pair of us meandering through the rows. He must have heard us calling out plot numbers and reading out names. He had a full, gray beard and a rather rotund belly. Stretched over the pronounced stomach was a tee-shirt that read, “Property of Grandkids.” He had a ball cap on and sunglasses. His unremarkable shorts ended at his knobby knees, knees which were nearly swallowed up by tall socks. The man certainly looked the part of the doting yet incorrigible grandpa.
Dad would talk to anyone and everyone. Walking over, he smiled and said, “Yeah, but we got two more to see.”
“Tell you what,” the old man began, “counting this one, I’ve got –“ he paused to count upon stubby fingers – “ten in all. This one was my colleague. I was his ‘boss,’ but I never pulled rank on him not once. Every time I come, I make sure to visit him first. Next is my daughter-in-law; today is her forty-fifth birthday and she’s buried next to my son.” The old man then proceeded to list seven other relatives who had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and were now resting beneath the grass around us. Dad offered his condolences, as did I, and we parted. I was trying to hurry away, hiding the tears of sympathy I couldn’t stop from the poor man who was smiling, sharing memories and looking for a connection. Dad was there, ready to be a compassionate ear but I wasn’t as strong as all that. I could only show pity and buckle beneath the emotional weight hanging all about the place, waiting to drop when it was least expected.
Across the way was the burial site for Ryan Klein, the first of my classmates to become a casualty of war. We weren’t close and hadn’t spoken in some time before his death. The last time I saw him had been at the local mall. He was just passing through, hurriedly walking, and I was with friends, friends who were not his friends. That’s not to say there was animosity of any kind, only different social groups. But Ryan had always been kind and I remember he hugged me, told me about his band and what else he had been up to and wished me well. That was the last time I ever saw him. He moved and went to a different high school and I was ignorant of what path led him to Afghanistan and the military. When I learned of his death, I did not immediately recall that last encounter, but instead, I remembered fifth grade. We were having a Valentine’s Day party in class and Ryan thought I was cool because I watched wrestling and knew who KISS was. No one had ever thought I was cool before, and few have used that adjective to describe me since. I remembered bonding with him during that party and though it was a brief connection, passing as quickly as childhood itself, I am grateful for it. Standing at his grave, looking at the cold, stone numbers and performing mathematical equations like some kind of masochist to remind myself we were the same age and I was there and he was not, the tears came freely. Dad bent to clear the grave of the debris, telling me absent-mindedly that “The guys do the best they can,” reassuring me no disrespect was meant, that it was just a side effect of lawn maintenance. I nodded and slipped my sunglasses down from atop my head to over my leaking eyes, trying to make Dad more comfortable. He tried to do the same for me, and thought it’d be best to keep me moving, so we went to visit Nathan O’Sullivan.
Nathan and I had gone to school together from kindergarten to graduation. Up until the fifth grade, I was enamored of Nathan. Having an older sister, I was exposed to cinematic notions of romance at a young age and thought such escapades were easily attainable at ten years old. Other girls in my grade had boyfriends, and I was too young to realize what a farce it all was. I wanted Nathan to be my boyfriend and I asked him to be my Valentine every year. Nathan said no because to say yes would have been social suicide, even at such a young age. I was weird; I read too much and didn’t play any sports. I was overweight and didn’t care much about how I looked. What I lacked in beauty, I made up in persistence and it paid off. Close to the end of fifth grade, there was a school dance. Nathan promised to save the last song for me. Dressed in one of my mom’s shirts and my mom’s pants because I was too fat to wear anything like the other girls, I waited anxiously in the middle of the gym for Nathan. He showed up, and I was elated. We stood next to one another and silently rocked to Selena’s “Dreaming of You.” Later that night, back in the bedroom I shared with my twin sister, I couldn’t stop smiling and thought that was the beginning of everything. It wasn’t, but that’s okay.
I saw Nathan every now and again through middle school and high school. Occasionally, we’d have the same class and we would reminisce together about our elementary school years. It was nice. I had nothing but fond memories and nice things to say. So when I received a text message during work about his passing, it hit me hard. I was working at the Navy Exchange at the local naval base; I was in a tiny, little room with small, covered windows, counting money. I was trapped in there with the sudden news and onslaught of emotion and I didn’t know what to do. Ryan had died a year earlier and now Nathan was gone. Two little boys that I had known, one of which I had even fawned over, had become men and had become heroes but were gone. We weren’t the invincible students that we once were. We were young adults, making hard and fast decisions and living with the consequences. It was a dose of reality I didn’t want and railed against, but failed. Nothing was promised, nothing was guaranteed, and it truly was a blessing that Dad had made it home. Not everyone did, and now I knew that. That knowledge was awful, and it was enough to knock the wind from me. I knelt before Nathan’s grave and just cried. I told him I was sorry, and I thanked him. I was that fat kid again, with swollen, stubby fists scrawling “Nathan and Mandi” in an untidy scrawl across a notebook. How could he be gone?
How could Ryan be gone? With chocolate smeared across our bright, innocent faces, we had discussed the finer points of The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. He had taught me about Generation X and how to perform the “Suck It” move that would completely infuriate my parents. He had invited me to his birthday party. How could he be gone?
And how could I still be here? I felt guilty. Dad had made it home and I had been so unappreciative of that fact. All of the grief, the guilt, the despair, the mortality, and the uncertainty were purged in liquid form. Dad thought it’d be best to leave me by myself and said he’d be at the car, but that I should take my time. I wanted to thank him, to throw my arms around him, to keep him safe and close for forever and always, but I only nodded. I sat and sobbed and felt stupid and small for a few minutes more before I returned to the car.
On the way home, Dad stopped at a roadside produce stand. The sky was cloudier than before and was threatening rain, but Dad didn’t seem to care as he pulled in the gravel drive. He put the car in park and told me I could stay where I was, that he’d just be a couple of minutes. I watched him climb out of the car and shut the door. He trotted over to the cart, heading straight to the watermelons. He made small talk with the woman running the stand, asked about an antique car under a blue tarp, kept secure with heavy-looking rocks. He bought a watermelon and more tomatoes that was practical, breathlessly explaining to me that he had made out like a bandit, that it had been a real deal.
On the way home, Dad showed me houses he had looked at with Mom before deciding on the unassuming, one-story ranch. He showed me two, both painted white with finished basements.
On the way home, Dad made the radio louder and sang along to the country songs he knew and loved.
On the way home, I smiled at Dad and was thankful – incredibly grateful – for all of the trips home he had made, and for all of the trips home he would make, and for the trips home we got to make together.