We traveled familiar roads on a cool and overcast December morning.
Familiar turns and landmarks rolled past, but the mobile home parks and three-story mansions with blinking Christmas lights, the schools and bank branches displaying their vacation times or holiday hours, the farmland that gave way to even more sprawling farmland all seemed little more than a blur as we drove on, the memories close behind as we caught up to what we’d lost.
In the backseat, Grandma shared stories of people I’d never met and murmured recollections of the way things were. In the front, I shared glances and knowing smiles with Dad as we got lost in our own thoughts, our own reminiscence.
We pulled into the long driveway of Fort Indiantown Gap and drove past section after section of fallen soldiers and retired heroes, their resting places celebrated with wreaths and flowers and holiday bows.
“Are you ok?” I quietly asked Dad as our eyes scanned the section numbers for the one we all knew too well.
“Yeah,” he said in a way that I knew he was.
We parked on the side of the drive and stepped out into the cold that seemed to cling to the air; a group of bicyclists and other mourning families congregating near their own loved ones. We walked among the headstones claiming love and loss — World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea…Beloved Husband, father, brother, son.
May you rest in peace.
Grandpa’s was easy to spot. Two summers ago, I’d found peace in this spot, when peace seemed to only slip through my grasp as I tried to hold on tighter. I’d been lost then, the last time I had visited this place. I’d been lost and alone and searching for something I couldn’t name…
Self. Happiness. Love. Understanding.
It was a time when I’d wondered if I would ever believe in love again…To believe that love would matter, to believe that love was worthwhile when all the prayers were left unanswered, when hope seemed to waver, and when goodbyes seemed nothing but permanent, punctuated by a never-ending heartache and wishes for the impossible.
Once upon a time, I feared the inevitable and wished for the impossible. I thought that, somehow, if I held on, maybe it would hurt less. I thought, maybe, by keeping the memories alive, I would somehow still feel close to them. I didn’t want to forget them — I didn’t want to believe that a life could be so fragile and so fickle, that someone could be so easily forgotten.
Once upon a time, I had to say goodbye.
But it wasn’t until this December morning that I finally began to understand what that meant…
We stood in silence for a moment, trying to shake the cold as a few flurries fell from the sky; I put my arm around my dad and pressed my head against his shoulder, watching as Grandma placed a Christmas wreath against the headstone, this simple gesture saying, “you’re still remembered, you’re always loved.”
We hurried back to the warmth of the car, silent prayers in our hearts and smiles on our faces as we started the long drive back home, laughing and teasing each other as only family can and creating another memory to keep in the secret spaces of the heart.
* * * * *
Hours later, the windshield wipers on my friend’s car worked in steady rhythm to clear the soft snow that fell from the evening’s winter sky. As passing headlights and streetlamps illuminated the car, I couldn’t help but peak beneath the bandage on my left wrist, happiness bubbling into laughter as we joked and I leaned back against the headrest, almost in disbelief at the events of the night.
It had all been planned, but I didn’t realize how profound it all felt until this moment. As my eyes traced the symbol that was now a permanent fixture of who I am, I understood what a turning point this was.
It’s been the last piece in this journey as I get back to who I am, who I’m proud to be. It’s the reminder that time heals in so many forms, that to hold on, you have to let go, that life will be filled with hellos and goodbyes and nothing can keep the heart from hurting, but that just means the loving was strong.
It’s having faith in the knowledge that, in this life, there is love and there is loss, but in the end, love is what remains.
Love is what will always remain.