For some reason this year's observance of Memorial Day hit me harder than usual. Probably because over the past couple of years I’ve experienced fresh losses. While these losses are nothing like the friend I’ve lost many years ago as they fought and served this great country, they’re still losses – often the death of a dream, the crushing of a hope. Though no one died in these recent instances, it still feels just as painful.
In feeling that familiar pain of loss, the memory of the one who lost their life in service has laid heavy on my heart these past few days. I’ve come to realize something that I hadn’t realized before… I understand why I’m so passionate about superheroes and men who serve, or have served in the armed forces, particularly the Army. Because I once had a hero who wore that uniform and paid the ultimate price. I’ve never openly grieved for him because I didn’t feel I had the right… I wasn’t married to him, and he wasn’t even officially my boyfriend (I’ll tell that story in a moment), but he had my heart and I don’t think I ever really got it back.
I suppose I should start at the beginning. I first met James when I was 16 in 1987. My family had recently moved to a new school from a new state and I was young, pretty and quite popular. Of course at 16 I was also quite stupid, especially when it came to choosing whom to give my heart. I was also dealing with a lot of really horrible things at home, and many of the choices I made were not very good ones. At that particular time I found myself crazy over a bad boy named Herbie (I’m leaving out last names to protect the guilty). I thought he was beautiful… and dangerous. I was very angry and so bogged down with responsibilities that no 16 should ever have to carry, that I think there was a part of me that just wanted to touch fire… in hopes that it would consume me and destroy me.
During this season, there was a very sweet boy named James who would wait for me every morning when I drove into the parking lot in my MGB and carry my things, help me with the homework I couldn’t do the night before in the cafeteria before the first bell rang. My friend, Vicki, had a big crush on him, but he didn’t seem to be interested in anyone, at least that’s what I thought. He was quiet, shy (except when he was around me) and very tall. I loved him being around, because he always made me feel safe, especially after my father was arrested and my family hounded by the news crews and part of my family’s shame became public fodder. Kids can be cruel, especially when you’re in high school. But, James was there, even though that whole time period is a bit fuzzy for me because so many big things happened.
One of those big things that happened was the fact I caught Herbie cheating on me and he broke my heart. James was a senior at the time and about to turn 18. He come from a poor family, but he was smart and had dreams of going to college. That’s how we bonded… declaring how we would rise from the hovel of our unfortunate circumstances and take over the world and become brave, strong, and good people. He’s the one that instilled the value in me that I was more than what I was born into… that I didn’t have to accept my family’s legacy, racism, prejudice, and values - but rise above it and be anything I wanted. My family thought me a snob for believing those things … but James didn’t.
I’d like to tell you I was a smart girl and recognize the GREAT guy that James was and we fell in love, but that’s not what happened. My world turned upside down. My father was in jail, and my family lost our home, our possessions, our livelihood. My mother had MS and needed constant care. My brothers were young and needed a mother. I just wanted to be a kid, but wasn’t given the option. I became even more angry – and quite cruel. When Herbie cheated on me, instead of licking my wounds, learning from my mistakes, I decided revenge was the better solution… so I started dating his brother, Hoyt.
In the meantime, James graduated and joined the Army. He stopped by my house on his way to boot camp, stood outside my window in the middle of the night, and proclaimed his love for me. He wanted me to be ‘his girl’ before he shipped off. I was sad I was losing my friend, but I didn’t see him the way he wanted me to see him. I told him I was with someone else and couldn’t do that to him, but to look me up when he come home and we’d talk about it then. He told me he had loved me since the first moment he saw me my first day at school, and that he would love me until the day he died. I thought the sentiment sweet, but sent him off to the Army with no promises.
Needless to say, time went by, my life became even more chaotic and the next time I saw James I was pregnant with my second child, putting myself through college, and living with my finance, Mitchell, at the time. I was working at the Wal-Mart in Cedartown. He’d found me through a mutual friend, because I had moved away from Lindale (the town where he’d last seen me). He showed up at the Wal-Mart dressed in his military uniform and I thought he was one of the most handsome men I’d ever seen.
James and I had lunch together, laughed, and talked about what had been going on in our lives since we last saw each other. I remember his green eyes just glowing with excitement. He told me he loved being in the Army and about all the places he’d been and the classes he’d been able to take while he was enlisted… as well as his plans to make the Army his career. He talked about being able to help his sister go to college by sending money home to his family. I was so proud of him and so jealous at the same time. At one time I thought of going into the Military to escape my family and get an education, but then I got pregnant and I couldn’t do it. He asked me if I was happy in my relationship, and before he allowed me to answer, blurted out that he doesn’t mind I have kids… that he would raise and love them as his own because he loves me and they were part of me, and that he just wanted to protect me, take care of me, and make me happy. I had to break his heart - again - and send him on his way refusing his offer to be ‘his girl’. I was in love… with my fiancé, who later turned out to be in love with several other women and even with another guy.
The next time I saw James it was 1992, I was a single mom and within a few days about to board a commercial fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico to make the money I needed to relocate me and my kids closer to Atlanta. I had finally got my degree, but I was broke and stuck in a town I couldn’t get out. I was also angry at the world… angry at my father, angry at the men that hurt me in my life. I was 22, tired, exhausted from working several jobs and trying (very poorly) to take care of my kids, and dealing with all my family’s drama. I had a huge chip on my shoulder (I still have that particular chip) that I didn’t trust the people that promised to take care of me. I’d vowed to NEVER depend on anyone …ever. I still have this problem today not letting people take care of me. It drives my friends crazy.
I was eating dinner alone at this seafood restaurant just a half mile from the dumpy little trailer I lived in across from the beach. I was celebrating the adventure I was about to embark… and finally saying goodbye to Panacea. I’m sitting there having dinner, reading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and I feel a shadow standing in front of me. I look up and meet a pair of bright green eyes and a huge smile shining down on me. I was in shock. He was the last person I expected to ever see. I had lost his parents phone and address, though his sister refused to ever tell me where he was or what he was doing every time I had contacted her. I moved around so much, James could never keep up with me. So, I was shocked. He had found me, again. I jumped up from that table and wrapped my arms around him so tight. Just feeling his arms around me righted my world. I felt safe. I felt loved.
This time I truly saw him and he was beautiful. He took me out to the beach and we walked for miles along the shore and talked about everything. We made love under the moonlight and slept beneath the stars among the warm sand and the sound of crashing waves. Sometimes just hearing the sound of waves, I think of that night. I think that’s why I hate the beach and Florida, because I don’t want to remember that night and do everything I can to forget it. But, getting back to the story… the next morning my insanity kicked in… and this time when he asked me to be his girl… I had the dumbass, lame excuse of not going to make promises I might not be able to keep… or trusting that he’d keep his promise. So, I told him instead that I was going on my boat trip, which was for 8 months to get the money I needed to move, and he had a tour he was leaving for in two days’ time to Africa for 9 months, and that when he comes home to find me in Atlanta… and then we’d discuss me being ‘his girl’. He was over the moon. When I left him at the bus station the next day, he kissed me so hard and promised that he’d be back real soon and that no matter what I was going to be ‘his girl’.
There was just something sweet about knowing somewhere out there in the world was a brave hero who loved me and would one day fly back to me. I faced some really, really big hurdles throughout the following 10 months, but in spite of them all, I made my way to West Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. I had no way to contact James or his family, just a promise that’d I be in the area for him to find me. He was really good at finding me.
I’d like to tell you that I waited for him and then he showed up and we lived happily ever after. But, he never showed up, it was right at almost a year when his sister showed up instead. I was working as a waitress and just struggling to make ends, taking care of my babies, trying to look for a good job. I didn’t recognize her at first, sitting at one of my tables. I took her order, feeling she seemed familiar but couldn’t place her. She was angry at me. I thought maybe her boyfriend or husband might have flirted with me before and she was taking her aggression out on me. But I realized who she was when I went to take her check to cash her out… and she placed a set of dog tags on the ticket. I don’t remember much after that… just the words she shouted at me, “You were never good enough for him, yet he always loved you, always looked for you, always waited for you, but you were a horrible, selfish person who never saw what a great guy he was. I hate you and I hate that he loved you, but even more so I hate that he died never having gotten married or had children of his own because he was too busy loving and waiting on a tramp like you.” She didn’t even tell me how he died, because she said I didn’t deserve to know. I later found out he had died in Somalia in 1993.
A part of me died that day. I felt it. I turned something off inside me, something that would carry me through the next twenty years. I ignored Memorial and Veteran’s Days and really anything and anyone that had anything to do with the military for all that time. I didn’t even mention his name to anyone. I didn’t even remember him. It took me those two decades to learn to love myself.
I wish I could say that James was the love of my life, but I can’t. I only had those two wonderful days with him. I’m pretty sure I was the love of his life, but I’d only just begun to love him when I lost him. I had always loved him, but not as he wanted. There’s no telling how things would have turned out had he lived and found me, and there’s no sense fantasying or speculating about what might have been. Life happened and moved on without him. I married the next year and lived for the next 20 years rarely thinking of him. I couldn’t. It’s only been this year that I’ve finally been able to grieve him and say ‘good-bye’. It’s no surprise that over these past few years that my best friends turn out to be former or current Army. I’ve always felt safe, always felt loved in the arms and affections of a Soldier. I didn’t know that about myself until this year.
So, after a very long delay, with my deepest gratitude and admiration I can finally say, “Thank you, James, for your love, your service, and your sacrifice. I love you and I miss you.” ~Your Girl