The day of the funeral, it fails to rain. It would be easier to bear if the sky wept with us. Instead, sunlight and warmth touch every corner of our mountains, flicker on every tree leaf, fill each breeze. A world painfully alive.
May 1968 is the bloodiest single month of the Vietnam War, but we don’t know this yet. We simply know it as the month when James Hardy was taken from us. Like thousands of other Americans, we stand in a cemetery on an unrelentingly beautiful day and watch a mother weep as she accepts a folded flag.
I stand at the edge of the crowd in a black dress and heels that pinch my toes, and I spin his class ring round and round the fourth finger of my left hand. The graveside service stretches for hours. There were so many who loved him. Parents and grandparents, three sisters and at least a dozen cousins. Classmates and teachers. His pastor, his football coach, even his dentist — they all show up to pay their respects.
They talk about his integrity and faith. His honorable service. A volunteer, no less, making the ultimate sacrifice. They remember him as an all-star athlete and a scholar. The prize of Dunbar, West Virginia, who made everyone proud with his easy smile and kind words and perfect spiral throw.
All those things are true, but they hardly crack the cover of him — the complexities and dreams that make him a hero and not just another dead twenty-three-year-old.
Ours was a whirlwind romance, beginning just three weeks before his deployment. We’d been friends since childhood. Spent years wading in creeks and riding bikes. But coming home from separate colleges, it was like seeing each other for the first time.
The first and the last. Strange to realize now how close those moments were. It feels as if we lived a lifetime in those 21 days. As that final hour ticked to an end, he cupped my face in his hands.
“Wait for me?” he asked and kissed me before I could say a word, because he already knew my answer. I would wait for him forever.
The casket goes down and the crowd drifts away. Mr. Hardy is a strong and proud man, a veteran of the second World War. Today he wraps an arm around his wife’s shoulders and carries her to the car as if by holding her he holds himself together. I feel as if I know each of these family members intimately. A hundred letters have tied us together, me and James. I know things I wish I didn’t.
As is customary around these parts, mourners descend on the Hardy house with crock pots and pie pans and jugs of sweet tea. Guests spill over from the living room and porch onto a yard dappled with shadow beneath towering oak trees.
“Did you know him well?” a woman with puffy eyes asks me and I find I can’t answer.
I feel like a ghost, something less substantial than breath, as I linger in the doorway of his bedroom, the class ring spinning round and round. Perhaps I stand there for a long time because the house is quieter and darker when I return to the living room.
I find Mr. Hardy alone in a rocking chair on the back porch, elbows on his knees, anguish in his face. He looks up at me, and I sit beside him. The sun is nearly gone. Lightning bugs appear at the edge of the woods, flickering between the branches.
“James loved you,” I say and my throat closes over completely. I shouldn’t cry here and stand to leave.
“He didn’t volunteer,” Mr. Hardy says, voice raw. “His draft number was called. He could’ve gotten out of it. Student deferment. He was accepted to medical school. Hadn’t told anybody yet.”
Mr. Hardy’s lower lip trembles, and I realize that he has likely forgotten how to cry. Medals from Okinawa line his hallways, but it’s not until today that he breaks.
“But I told him no son of this family would run from duty. That I would be…” his face contorts, “ashamed of him if he didn’t go.”
He finally weeps, silent sobs that wrack his shoulders. His face disappears into his hands.
“Did he know?” he barely gets out. “Did my boy know I love him?”
I hesitate, because a lie like this is one I’ll have to carry for the rest of my life.
“Yes,” I whisper.
He cries harder, entire body shaking. “What was it for? What was it all for?”
I stare at this man, torn between hating him and pitying him, and I place the class ring in his palm.
“He only ever wanted to make you proud,” I say, which is the truth.
Mr. Hardy stares at the ring. He needs it more than I do, this talisman, this reminder of his son’s love. Because tonight and every night, and in the morning and every morning after that, I’ll remember.
I’ll remember the way he held me in his arms, his face pressed against my hair. The way he whispered, “Always. I love you.”
That’s the truth.
Elizabeth Lyvers grew up in the hills of West Virginia, molded by books, trees, and basketball. She recently published a novel called The Honest Lies and writes for her blog, Dear Life. She lives happily in Texas with her husband and infant son, writing during nap times.