Cedar Springs, South Dakota
I already long for the normalcy of a typical Tuesday morning. The afternoon sun filters through wisps of clouds hanging low in the April sky. The wind and early morning chill have evaporated. The same is true of the future I imagined for myself and my children, vanished like smoke through a chimney. The bright spring sun creates the deceptive appearance of a lovely day, the kind those who have been barricaded against the winter crave.
We gather around the deep rectangular hole, the freshly dug earth beside it in a small mountain of rich brown soil. The sun dips behind a cropping of dense clouds, perhaps realizing its error and apologizing for its appearance and warmth on a day such as this. I watch, my body numb, as grief dictates the crowd’s movements. With a bowed head and tear-filled eyes, I scan those gathered, all of whom seem to appreciate the view of their shoes more than that of the casket in front of us.
We were married just short of three years. I shake my head in disbelief. “It wasn’t enough,” I whisper to nobody in particular. I might never have had enough time with her to be satisfied. But having her life cut devastatingly short, without warning, is too much for my broken heart to handle. Mere days ago, I watched in slow motion as our happiness was blown away like dust in the wind. My heart sinks further as my thoughts turn to Calla and Jarred.
Children deserve a mother. Violet is, or rather was, an exceptional mother. A rogue sob escapes my closed lips at the thought of our loss. After less than a week without their mother, Calla and Jarred moved to my parents’ home at the edge of town. We made the decision out of necessity rather than emotion. My mother, well versed in raising children, took charge when the news of Violet’s death reached my family. Caring for her grandchildren is a joyous privilege my mother has adored since Calla entered our world. Given the situation, I can’t help but wonder if my mother’s own grief spurred her into action, driving her to busy her otherwise idle hands. When I found myself with a premature infant who needed care and a two-year-old girl devastated by the disappearance of her mother from her life, my parents opened my childhood home without hesitation, embracing Calla and Jarred with warm, loving arms.
To my left, Reverend Campbell stands with his back straight and his shoulders wide, at the head of Violet’s final resting place. His white robes billow gently near his feet as he opens his Bible to a marked page. I brace myself to hear his booming voice—the same voice that baptized every child in my family, prayed for me and many more during the war, and celebrated my marriage to Violet with great enthusiasm.
As his words ring out, reaching as high as heaven itself, Violet’s mother startles and a few solemn shadows to my right waver. Her slight and fragile body is flanked by Violet’s father on one side and my own mother on the other. Childhood friends themselves, the two mothers cling to each other for support. They both know the feeling that a mother experiences when the life of her child is snuffed out, in contradiction with the natural progression of life.
I stare at the casket, stained deep brown, and attempt to recall a time when Violet wasn’t in my life. I realize after several moments of deep concentration that no such time exists. Being slightly younger than Vi, I am slapped with the reality that I have never known a world without Violet. I certainly have no desire to know one now. The tears pool at the edges of my eyes and spill freely to the ground.
The tug-of-war inside my heart is real. Part of me can’t wait to escape this dreadful day. The thought of entertaining others at the reception is unimaginable. I am not certain I can resign myself to the obligation of listening to others speak of my Vi, with solemn faces and clasped hands. The desire to hide under the covers and forget this nightmare is both intoxicating and unrealistic. The other part of me doesn’t want to rush this final goodbye. This is my last time to be near her, to be of this same earth with her. I stiffen my resolve and straighten my posture. I am unable to let her go just yet, and I pray for Reverend Campbell to continue speaking, to draw out the service all afternoon.
My guilt over wasted time and lost moments creeps in and stands beside me, keeping me company like a schoolyard bully. The guilt’s overbearing presence is heavy, and I am compelled to swivel my head, snatching a glance to my right, ensuring that my guilt is not physically present.
Though, over time, Violet came to understand my decision to join the war effort, I regret that I was the cause of such heartache and worry for her. I wish I could take back the lost years, the pain, the fear, her worry. I know now that, once begun, a war never truly ends. The casualties of war are far too great, and they haunt both the living and the dead long after the battlefield has been abandoned.
Once overseas, it didn’t take long for my preconceived illusions of war to tarnish. We felt neither gallant nor heroic as we trudged through mud, snow, and rain with the constant threat of enemy fire. The daily battle against our own fears and the necessity to fight to the end, no matter the cost to our souls, left me battle weary and with an instinct to flee at the first sign of trouble.
I was far from a violent man when I left Cedar Springs for basic training. I always chose to take the high road in potentially inflammatory situations. I had never been in a schoolyard scuffle and always practiced patience during disagreements. Any fight I might have possessed upon enlisting vanished when I learned of the kind of evil humans are capable of committing.
The war taught me that fighting disengages a man from his true self faster than anything I had witnessed. The lesson stuck, and when I laid down my weapon for the final time, I vowed to avoid battles, big and small, for the rest of my life. They simply are not worth the harm they cause.
I am abruptly wrenched from my thoughts as Reverend Campbell touches my shoulder and says my name. His compassionate brown eyes house understanding mixed with his own grief. His love for Violet is written on his face, while his concern for me creases his forehead. Those gathered are singing one of Violet’s favorite hymns, swaying slightly as one, mournful and sedated in their grief-stricken states.
“John,” Reverend Campbell says again. “It is time.” He motions with his Bible-holding hand toward the casket that has somehow made its way into the ground. “It is time, John.”
A fresh shudder of tears invades my being. Duty bound to fulfill the task, I take one step toward the lowered casket. I say a silent goodbye and release the single white rose from my grip.
After a moment, I reluctantly find my place among my family and close my eyes. A shiver runs through me at the repeated sound of a white rose being dropped onto Violet’s casket. Each person in attendance steps forward in turn to say farewell to my beloved Vi.