I sent this letter several weeks ago to Ren Allen's wonderful blog, Letters to the Dead. I have held off on posting it here because it's a bit depressing for the overall tone of this blog. However, I felt it was appropriate to share for Memorial Day. My uncle did not die in combat, but he did die while serving his country in the Army.
Relevant to the day, more than to my uncle: If you believe war is sometimes necessary, you will naturally see the importance of honoring fallen veterans. If you are against all war, then you should be respectful too, because these lost young men and women are the very evidence on which your cause hinges. Remember that not all of them freely chose the military, and none of them chose to begin the wars in which they fought. At the very least remember that these are the real friends and family of people you know - and we miss them.
Dear Uncle Dick,
You've never met me before, so I should introduce myself before I start rambling to you. I'm the only daughter of the baby sister you left behind when you died. I'm grown now, but I still sometimes feel like a kid - and yet, I'm older than you ever had the chance to be. Death at 20 is something I can hardly fathom. I know you must've had so many dreams you never got to live out. The Army was never your choice, and I wonder what you would've done if you'd had all the freedom I've had. Maybe you'd still be alive. Maybe you would've lived just a few more years, only to be sent to Vietnam and die there, with your mind and soul broken by the violence and horror. Korea, at the time you went, was a safer place, and I'm glad your time overseas wasn't spent watching your best friends die.
There's so many things I wish I could ask you. What did you think about politics? Did you like Nixon or Kennedy? Were you religious like Nannie and Mama, or a searcher like Granddaddy and me? What did you like to do for fun? I know about the dog shows, because that was Granddaddy's hobby too, but I don't know much about who you were besides that. I've seen a few of the letters and pictures you sent home from Korea, and I can see your sense of humor in them, especially that one picture of you in a dress. (We have dozens of pictures of you, but that was always secretly my favorite.) I think you would've made a great uncle, with that sense of humor. The only thing anybody really said about you was that you were kind of private and didn't share a whole lot of yourself with the family. I'm the same way, so I can understand that. We're both Virgos, maybe that's why, I don't know. But I do, selfishly, wish you'd left more of yourself behind.
Mama left me last year, gone at a young age too, though she lived two and a half times as long as you. We buried her beside you. Nannie and Granddaddy have been gone for years, and so have all our aunts, though Aunt Evelyn lived to be 93. Maybe you know all that; maybe they're with you in some comforting, tangible afterlife. But in case they're not with you, in case you never saw them again, you should know that you were always remembered and deeply loved. I've known about you for as long as I've known anyone else. Mama always talked about how she admired her big brother, and Aunt Evelyn was always going on about little Dickie with the golden curls. Even though I never knew you, I could feel the hole you left. There was something dark and broken behind Nannie's eyes, some unanswerable confusion in Mama's mind, some hardened place in Granddaddy's heart that was built to hide his pain. Mama was so little when you died, and had a bad memory besides, but she could still remember the way Nannie screamed when she got that awful telegram. Nannie never could bring herself to talk about you much. I think she was afraid she'd start screaming again.
I've mourned for you, too, in my own way. Many times I've regretted that I never had an uncle, when I knew I was supposed to. Many times I've wondered if I would've had your children to grow up with, or your grandchildren to babysit. I was scared when I turned 20, scared some family curse would come and take me then too. I wrote an essay about you in sixth grade, to warn my classmates about speeding and seatbelts and all. I drive carefully. When I hear about car accidents, I see you in my mind.
I think that's the thing that makes me most angry, when I think about how we lost you. Like so many of your generation, you died while in the Army, but you didn't die in service. Nobody got to describe your death as a "sacrifice" or take comfort in the idea that it meant something. Your death was meaningless and stupid, wholly avoidable, a product of young foolishness that wasn't your own. The "friend" who crashed the car that killed you dragged your lifeless body into the driver's seat and ran away. He only broke his arm. Thinking of that makes my blood boil, though I sympathize with him. I'm sure he was afraid of jail, and thought the blame could bring no consequence to a dead man. He was wrong. It troubled Nannie deeply to think you would do such a stupid thing. She never believed you were responsible, and she claimed to "hear" you tell her, somehow, that it wasn't true. A few weeks later she received a letter saying the driver confessed to what he'd done.
Part of me will never forgive him for taking you away from me, for taking your potential children away, for putting out my grandmother's inner light and making my mother grow up feeling unstable and lost. But I also know he was young and out for a good time, and cars weren't as safe in the 60's as they are now, and anyway his conscience has probably ripped him to shreds over the last 48 years. I hope he's found some peace about it, even though I doubt I could look him in the eye.
Even though most of the people who knew you are gone, I've still kept quite a bit of you around. I still have your coin collecting book, though it's out of date and falling apart, and somewhere around here is the bag of international coins you collected. I still have your Army hat, and your Buddy Holly record, and your favorite shirt, and your baby shoes. There's a box under Mama's old bed with your Korean knives and the keys to the car you died in. I have all your letters, too, though I haven't been able to bring myself to read many of them. In some ways I've done what Nannie did, deliberately keeping you at a distance to avoid the pain. The more I know you, the more angry I am that I don't know you. It hurts, too, seeing you write to people I did know and don't have with me anymore. Someday, when the pain of losing Mama is not so fresh, I'll dust them off. Maybe I'll write Donna and ask her to dig up some old memories - I think she knew you better than anybody else.
Until then, though, I want you to know that I care about you. All of my friends who've known me for any length of time have heard of you. I plan to tell my children about you. I think of you when I hear Buddy Holly on the radio or see a bull terrier or a little boy with curls. You've been gone so long, but you were never forgotten. I plan to keep it that way.