This was an assignment for my English class during my senior year in high school (2008-09). A few of us called it "Stalker Notes." We had to observe someone and write about them. Almost everyone wrote silly things about people they had seen, making up little stories about what they thought the people were doing. I, on the other hand, observed and wrote something more serious.
Small flags and yellow ribbons fluttered at the base of several headstones in the military cemetery. Some flower bouquets were bright and vibrant, but others were withered and dying, leaving behind a shower of crumbling, scattered petals. Aside from a bird perched in a nearby tree, I was the only living thing among the neat rows of white granite grave markers, a fact that I was grateful for. When I come here to visit the friends who I have lost, I prefer to share my thoughts with them alone.
As I walked among the markers, following a path that I had walked many times before, I noticed a bare mound of earth that marked the site of a recent burial. A temporary cardboard marker had been pressed into the dirt until a permanent headstone could be placed. Beneath a tiny photo of the deceased soldier in his formal dress uniform, the marker read simply, "SGT. (name removed to protect family privacy). May 9, 1987 - March 30, 2009."
A car door slammed nearby, and then I saw a young woman walking slowly through the neat rows of headstones. Her auburn hair was pulled into a messy ponytail, and I knew that her dark sunglasses concealed eyes that were red-rimmed and swollen with shed tears. I recognized that look well; I have worn it myself and have seen it here too many times to count. It is the look of someone whose world has been shaken to the core, and who is now trying desperately to hold themselves together.
Death in war is ugly, brutal, and sudden, and it tears a jagged hole in the lives of unsuspecting families and friends. We come to the cemetery in search of a silent, solitary place to sit and reflect, trying to think of adequate words to say goodbye.
I quietly ducked my head as I knelt in front of Michelle's grave, trying to give this young woman privacy. Seemingly oblivious to my presence, she half-knelt and half-collapsed in the grass next to the new burial site.
She bore a striking resemblance to the fallen soldier, and I realized that she was most likely his sister.
Her right hand slowly curved into a shape. Thumb out, first and last finger pointed up, and two middle fingers tucked against her palm: American Sign Language for, "I love you."
She tenderly stroked the cardboard marker with her three outstretched fingers. I knew that that touch wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the desperate need to hold loved ones again. Stiff and unresponsive cardboard and granite are poor substitutes for those who they represent, but for now we have no other choice.
She curled into a tight ball, pressing herself firmly against the damp ground. Her fingers dug into the grass, clutching at it as though she were trying to reach beneath the layers of soil and hold her fallen brother.
The tears began to fall down her cheeks, slowly at first, and then faster and harder. Her quiet sniffles turned to great heaving sobs that wracked her slender frame with violent tremors.
She lifted her gaze to the sky, and a keening wail of utter grief and anguish poured forth from somewhere deep in her body. "Why?! Why couldn't I have one more day? God, please!"
She was choking on her tears now, choking and coughing and gasping as she cried. "Dear God, why was I so stupid?I'm sorry, Will. I'm so, so sorry!"
The words were punctuated with gasps, whimpers, and coughs: the sounds made by someone who is crying so hard that they are breathless and frantic.
I realized that this young woman was one of the people who waited. They put off a confession or an apology, waiting for another time, another day, another chance that now would never come.
Now she, like so many others, was left to speak those important words in front of a mound of earth and a grave marker instead of the person who needed to hear them.
I carefully removed the wilted stems and crumbling leaves and petals from the base of the gravestone before me. Then I walked away, leaving the woman alone with her tears, regrets, and unspoken words.