by CJ Heck
It was Memorial Day and, as she did every year, Sharon Cleary drove to the Eternity Gardens Cemetery with three of the prettiest spring bouquets she could find.
She took this day seriously. It was her private, personal time to honor family members who died in war. It was her way to show she cared.
One bouquet was always for Great-Grampa, "PJ" Mullerton, who died in a bunker during the first world war. Another bouquet was for Uncle Theo Tarns, who was killed when his bomber was shot down in the second world war.
She had never met Uncle Theo, but she was still fiercely proud of him and, as with great-grampa, forever indebted to him for his service. The last bouquet of flowers was always the most difficult for her. She always made sure this bouquet was the largest and most colorful of the three. This one had to be special. It was for Daddy.
Sharon was only six when she hugged Steven Cleary's neck tightly for the last time at the airport in Stewartsville. She remembered crying and pleading with him to stay. "Please, Daddy, don't go. I will miss you and so will Mommy. Please stay with us. We need you." She knew her father had been just as sad to leave them. She saw the tears he silently wiped from his cheek after he hugged her and then turned to hug and kiss her mother.
Steven had been killed in action in Vietnam six months later, a decorated soldier and a hero. Her mother, Sarah Cleary-Buddig, had eventually framed his medals and they still hung on the wall beside his picture over the fireplace. Sharon remembered what a sorrowful time that had been, after the family learned of his death. But as sad as she had been, she had never felt so completely helpless as she did, hearing her mother sobbing into her pillow at night and not knowing how to comfort her.
Sharon had been so lost in thought that she nearly missed Uncle Theo's grave. She had to turn and walk back two rows and she chided herself for not paying more attention. After she finished her prayers and was done talking to Uncle Theo, she took a deep breath -- it was time to find Daddy. Her heart always felt like it was in her throat as she walked the steep path to the upper section where her father rested in the Cleary family plot.
Just as she reached the top, she noticed an elderly woman bending over one of the older headstones on the left. Sharon watched in silence as the woman tenderly kissed a folded paper and then slipped it under a vase of roses on the flat marble headstone. Then she adjusted the small American flag that was stuck in the ground to the right of the marker.
As she stood, she suddenly turned and their eyes met. Sharon was stunned. She could almost feel the woman's thoughts through the look on her face and what was in her eyes. Then just as quickly, the moment was gone and the woman had turned away.
How amazing, Sharon thought, as she watched the woman walk slowly back down the path towards the entrance gate. The woman was crying -- I could see her tears, Sharon thought -- but she had the most beautiful smile on her face at the same time. Sharon felt compelled to go over to the headstone and read the letter the woman had so carefully tucked under the vase.
"To my husband, my lover, my friend:
I will always love you.
I hope you like the roses.
All my love forever,
She read the short note and, now crying herself, the words filled her with a beautiful new awareness. She could almost see the wheels of time turning the days and months to years, and then you realize that it's been a whole lifetime that a loved one has been gone. One day, like a bucket with a hole, you can see the sands of grief sifting slowly through, and instead of mourning their death, you begin to celebrate everything they meant to you in life.
Sharon closed her eyes and, as she replaced the letter under the vase of roses, she quietly thanked the elderly woman and walked back to her family plot. Then she placed her third bouquet on the engraved marble monument for her father.
And as Sharon thanked Steven Adam Cleary once more for being her father, she remembered the love and the good times they did have together. This time when Sharon cried, she could also smile -- and the tears were tears of joy.
"A writer soon learns that easy to read is hard to write." ~CJ Heck