Calvin opened the dusty cardboard box marked "pictures" and sighed to himself. He wiped away beads of sweat as he sat down on the dirty attic floor. For a second, he envisioned his daughter cleaning the jumble of boxes and old clothes after he was gone and wondered if she would understand why he had kept all this stuff. He didn't know why he was doing this to himself. Looking at the old photographs was like opening a box of painful memories. It took great effort to get his old body up the rickety ladder and into the attic. He endured the various pains and climbed anyway. He knew his daughter would be mad at him for taking a chance of falling and was glad she had not dropped by during the 20-minute ordeal. He had not looked through the box in years, too many years to remember. Now as he grew older and weaker he thought perhaps it was time to look one last time.

Calvin reflected on his 85th birthday party from the night before. His daughter, Susan, had planned it and it had turned out wonderfully. Calvin thought of his grandson running around the house playing just like any other 6-year-old would do and smiled to himself. When they brought the cake out he was shocked by just how many candles were on top of it. "That's not really mine?" he said and everyone laughed. He heard them all whispering about his health and how good he looked for 85, but he pretended not to hear. He didn't mind too much that the way they talked to his grandson and the way they talked to him were so similar, but it made him a little sad. "That means I'm old, I guess,” he thought. He knew they were also saying that he shouldn't be living alone, but they were very careful not to let him hear that.

The whole night nobody had mentioned Dorothy, his beloved wife of 55 years, not a word. He thought back to the funeral and how people had whispered that it was probably for the best and how glad that her suffering was over. Didn't they know that his suffering had just begun? The cancer that had taken his loving wife had also taken his soul. The last year had been the worst of his life. The beautiful Sunday morning sunrises they used to watch together now looked bleak and hollow and he slept through them more and more often now. He remembered back to the restaurant that was her favorite and the smile that was always on her face when the waiter recognized them. He wondered what they saw when the two of them came in. Did they see an old man with his old wife? Or was it possible that they saw the beautiful angel that he did? They would never know how strong she was and how she had nursed his tortured mind when he returned home from the war. How could they ever know that this feeble little lady worked 60 hours a week in a factory to support the men who went off to fight? 

He thought about his return home and how she was there waving a flag, tears in her eyes and that smile he had been longing to see. In the years after he never smiled. “How strong she had to be," he thought to himself, “to have to love the shell of the man I was for all those years and to never just pack up and leave. If not for her, I'd have shriveled up and died long ago." A tear rolled down his weather-beaten face and suddenly he couldn't find the strength to wipe it away.  

His chance to return her selfless sacrifice did not come for many years after. When they learned of the cancer eating away at her it was too late to do anything except ease the pain of her death. He stayed up for hours after she fell asleep and just looked at her peaceful face and hoped that he could be as strong now as she was way back then. He did his best. When the end came, she smiled at him and told him how much she loved him and to be strong. When she passed on, so did a large piece of him. He felt it torn from his body as her life drifted away. 

Calvin reached down into the box and pulled out a picture of her from 1943. A photograph she placed in his hand as she kissed him goodbye when he left for the war. The photograph was yellowed and old and even a little faded at the edges. He flipped it over and read the writing on the back:

 Dear Calvin, 
This picture is for those moments when all seems lost,
 don't give up, I'm waiting here for you and I love you. 
 Love Dorothy

The tears rolled uncontrollably now. He looked at the picture again and clutched it to his chest as he lay down on the dusty attic floor. Years worth of held back tears poured down his face. His blurred vision began to blacken as peacefulness washed over his body. "I love you so much,” he choked out as he clutched the picture tighter to his chest. He could hear his daughter's voice downstairs, but it seemed so far away as the darkness crept closer. As the final seconds ticked by, he smiled and just faded away.

This story was written on September 12th 2009 after waking from a particularly vivid dream. I stumbled from bed knowing I had to write it down. It was 0545 when I wrote it and then went about my day. I forgot about it for a long time and when I came across it again, even though I liked it, I had no idea what to do with it. Now, with all the veterans coming home from Iraq and with a blog finally up, I thought I would share it. 

                                            GOODBYE SON

He put his hands on either side of his son’s face and began to speak: “I feared this day would come, the day when my son left for war, ever since you were a baby lying and smiling in the crib. When your mother first held you in her arms I asked the powers that be that we would learn to live without it and that we would have learned something from the loss that has come before. Now we stand here and you are leaving. But let me first tell you what I learned from my war.”

“Fight hard, be brave, and do what needs to be done but hold on to your humanity. Remember that those you fight against are not the ones who started this war; they are merely pawns, like you will be. Even now some of the men you will face are waking up and kissing their wives and children goodbye, some will not return to see them again and those that do…they will not be the same.”

“Act in accordance with your heart, no matter what you see or experience there because you will have to live with yourself when you return. Be prepared for the reality of killing, it is not quick and clean like you have seen in the movies, it is loud with the cries of men grasping desperately to hold on to the last sliver of life. Some of those who die will be innocent civilians, women and children, and you will have to carry their memories with you until your dying day.”

“You will learn fear, then you will learn hate, but know that they are one in the same and let go of both. If you come home with hate and fear, it will destroy you with such suffering that you will wish that a bullet had taken you. If you bring it home, then your wife, children and grandchildren will have to bear the weight of it also. So you must be strong for yourself and for them and let it go. See God in every man, even those you must kill and know that he is part of you as well, and you are brothers.” 

“I am old and if I am not here when you return, remember that nothing will be the same for you. For a while the green grass will seem withered and dry, food will be bland, society will seem alien and will have no place for you. You will see the lies we have accepted as truths and rage will threaten to fill your heart again, don’t allow this. It will be your duty, this time to yourself, to find your place.” 

“Understand that to do what had to be done, you shut down parts of yourself that will be needed when you return, so find them again. Do not drown the memories in vice, or pride, or ego; accept them and move forward in living your life for yourself. No more terrible toll will be than that which you put upon yourself. Expect no understanding. People who have not had your experience and can only pretend to understand it. Ignore them and let their opinions and ideas about war pass over you like the breeze, there are no words that will make them see the truth.” 

“Most of all learn from what you have done. Look into the faces of the dead and know that it is only the vessel that is gone. We are all one in the same and they will always be with you, both friend and foe. The separation is an illusion; take solace in that when you think of the things you have done. God is in you and your enemy and you cannot kill the man anymore than you can kill God. Think on this until you know it without thinking and sorrow will not find you.” 

“When you return, consider your duty to society fulfilled and live for yourself and the ones you love. Continue to see God in all people, nature and things and act in accordance with that principle. Do good works, show compassion and love and help others.” 

“When you feel the weight of the world crushing down on you, know that I will be here even if you cannot see me. You only need think of me.  When the thin veil of life here looks bleak and hollow, take refuge in your friends and family but ultimately, you must find it in yourself.”