The Final Goodbye
He stood alone. As he gazed out at the white crosses that covered the beautifully manicured lawn he felt the weight of his 48 years drag his shoulders down in a way he never had before. It had been a long time since he’d been back to this place, and he’d hoped to never return.
“A parent should never outlive his child.” Grief scratching at his throat.
He blinked back tears that stubbornly refused to fall. Part of him clung to the image he had in his mind’s eye. Full of laughter and vitality, that precious dark head bent over to kiss his young wife’s distended belly, before he turned around to say goodbye. David promised to come home soon.
He shook his head as the pain threatened to suffocate him. Not like this. This had to be a bad dream. He just needed to wake up and everything would be okay again. Unfortunately, the folded triangle of fabric pressed tightly to his chest told him everything was all too real.
His bowed his head, fingers digging into the precious flag. Alone with his grief he dropped to his knees and cried out to the only person who could hear him.
“God, if you’re listening…this is too much. Almost more pain than I can bear! My boy was a good son, a great husband. He was going to be a great father. He loved you. Loved this country. He wanted so badly to follow in his grandpa’s footsteps. Did you really have to take him, too?”
The hand on his shoulder felt familiar. It had been decades since he’d experienced that touch. He looked up to find his father standing beside him. He wore the same dress blues he’d been buried in 40 years ago and he hadn’t aged a day.
“Dad…” he choked out, blinking, sure this was some sort of hallucination.
There was a wealth of understanding and regret in his father’s eyes. “Hello, son.”
“I’m finally losing it, right? Hallucinating? A psychotic break caused by grief and stress?”
“No, son. You’re not. God heard you…. So did I. We’ve never been far away. When you called out, I asked him to let me go to you.”
Although none of this seemed real, he decided to go with it. Maybe he was dreaming. What harm could it do?
“It’s all so damned unfair, Dad!” he railed. “First you, then my son? Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of him. Proud of you… But did the price have to be so high?”
His father wrapped strong arms around him, something he’d missed most of his life. He soaked in the comfort, gaining some strength before he let go. With a bolstering breath, he straightened his spine, threw his shoulders back and raised his head.
“I’m proud of you, you know.” His father looked at him with the same piercing blue eyes as his son. “I’ve watched you grow into a strong, honorable man. I know it wasn’t easy for you to let David join the service. After the way you lost me, it would have been all too easy to encourage him to go a different direction.”
“It wouldn’t have been right. Being a soldier was all he ever wanted.” He shrugged, his smile, bittersweet. “To be a hero, just like his Grandpa.”
“It may have served you better not to paint me with such a heroic brush,” his father laughed. “I appreciate that, by the way. The way you kept me alive in your heart. The way you shared me with your family. It meant everything to me.”
The man shook his head. “I didn’t do anything all that special.”
“Yes you did,” his father smiled. “It may seem like nothing to you, but it’s what gave your son the courage to chase his dream. He knew the danger, but he also saw your gift. When his number was called, he didn’t worry. His son and wife are in good hands with you. He knows you’ll keep his memory alive, just like you did for me.”
“You’ve seen my David?” Tears finally flowed, unchecked.
His father nodded. “Of course. You didn’t think I’d let your son get to heaven without a welcome party, did you?”
“He’s okay? My boy. You’ll look out for him, Dad?”
“Of course.” His father nodded his head. “He’ll be loved. Surrounded by family, both military and kin.”
With one more shuddering breath, he clasped his father’s hand and squeezed.
“Tell him, Dad.” He bit his lip as his voice broke. “Tell him I’ll watch over his family down here. I know he’ll be watching out for them with you. And please, tell him I’m so proud of him.”
“I will.” His father smiled one last time before fading away.
As he stood, gazing out at all the soldiers that came before, he could have sworn he heard David’s voice on the gentle breeze.
“I love you, Dad.”
Squeezing the flag to his chest, he nodded.
“I love you, too, son. I’m proud of you.”