I saw your kids today. You’d be amazed at how much they have grown. Max is nearly six feet tall already. Fourteen years old, and six feet tall. He’s a great basketball player too, the best in his school. He looks just like you, you know. Same smile, same eyes. He’s even got that same dimple on his chin.
Juliette looks just like her mother. What a beauty she is. And smart as a whip too. She just started university in the fall and is planning to be a psychiatrist.
You’d be so proud of them both. And they would have been proud of you if there had only been an opportunity for you to talk with them. But you couldn’t. They were much too young when you left. You couldn’t talk to them. You couldn’t talk to anybody but me, and your friends down at the legion.
I remember those nights and all those conversations you had with your comrades. I remember the laughs, and the drinks, and I remember the tears. I remember how tortured you were. And I’ll never forget the day you left.
Nancy waited for you to come back; you know. She was sure you would one day. The kids waited for you too. They asked their mom every day, “when is Daddy coming home?” She always told them you’d be home soon, that you just had some things to work out first.
But she lied. Not intentionally, of course. She believed you would come back one day. She believed that you would eventually be okay. She hoped with all her heart, but eventually never came and she had to accept the truth. You were not coming home.
Nancy didn’t know what you had been through. She tried to get you to talk with her about your nightmares, but you couldn’t. You were sure she’d have nightmares too, and you didn’t want that for her. She didn’t understand, so she kept trying but she could never get through. Every time she pushed you to let it out, you ended up in a fight.
Then she tried to get you to talk to someone else. You agreed to seek therapy, but never went back after the second or third session. You didn’t want to talk about it with a stranger either. You didn’t want to think about it. You just wanted it to go away so you could have a normal life, like the life you had before.
The only place you found comfort was at the legion with your buddies. The only people you could talk to were the men and women who were there too, men and women who witnessed the same horrors you did and relived the same nightmares. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
I was there with you all those nights. I heard the stories. I heard the sobs. I saw the tears.
After you left, Nancy took me and your other medals off the mantle and packed us in a box with your uniform. She didn’t want to look at us anymore. She was angry then, angry with you for all the arguments you both had, angry with herself for asking you to leave, and angry with us for existing.
We reminded her that you deserted her and kids, at least that’s how she felt at the time. She laughed at me, your Medal of Bravery. She said you weren’t brave. She called you a coward. Then she threw me in that box and stored it in the attic, where it sat, collecting dust, for years.
Until today. She took us down today and gave us back to you.
I missed you, old friend. I’ve been wondering for a long time if I’d ever see you again, and I have to admit it’s a bittersweet reunion. I wish we were meeting under better circumstances.
Andy’s here. He read your eulogy. You’d be happy to know he’s walking again. He got fitted for prosthetics a couple of years back. At first, he was resistant. He just wanted to wallow in his depression, but once he made the decision, it changed his life. He’s happy again. You’d be glad to know that too.
He never forgot how you stayed with him after he stepped on the IED. You waited until the medics came and helped carry him to safety. And you never gave a second’s thought to the danger you were in.
Eric’s wife and kids are here too. They were talking about how good you were to them after you came back, and how you passed on the message from Eric about how much he loved them. You told them Eric didn’t want them to grieve, that he didn’t want his death to destroy their lives. He wanted them to have good lives, even though it had to be without him.
His wife talked about you, and the story of how you dragged him into the foxhole and held his hands while he took his last breath. I know that you never told her that, but she eventually learned the truth.
She also talked about how you and Nancy gave her money from your own paycheck to help them out and how you took Eric Jr. and little Dylan to their hockey games.
You were like a second father to those boys. You’d be happy to know that Dylan and your Max are still best friends to this day. I don’t know if you’d be happy to know that Eric Jr. is dating Juliette, but I think you would. He’s a good boy. He’s in law school now, and even at his tender age, he’s already working as an advocate for veteran’s rights. Yeah, I think you’d be proud of him and happy to have him as a future son-in-law.
They’re all here, my friend. All the people you gave up on. All the people you thought gave up on you. They’re all here. They said you look really handsome in your uniform, just like you did when you were younger, before depression and the nightmares stole you away.
Your mom is here with your brother Dan and his kids. Uncle Jack and Aunt Jenny are also here to say goodbye.
Nancy’s here with Max and Juliette. She’s still beautiful, my friend; just as she was on the day you met her. She never remarried; you know. I think in some way she always hoped you’d come home, and that your lives could get back to the way they were before.
You may find that hard to believe. You both fought so much before you left, and she’s the one that asked you go, but truth be told, she didn’t think you’d be gone forever. She never really wanted you to leave at all. There was just so much fighting, and two small kids to think of.
You’re a good man, soldier. Nancy understands that now. She knows you got horribly lost and were unable to find your way back. You’ve always been a good man, and Nancy’s always known that. She forgave you a long time ago.
It’s such a tragedy that she never got a chance to tell you that, and an even greater tragedy that you were never able to forgive yourself.
I’m here with you today, my friend. As are your other medals. Nancy’s planning to get a special display case for them, and she’s going to put them right back on the mantle.
I won’t be among them, though. I’ll be right here with you. Nancy laid me on your chest before they closed your coffin. She said that’s where I belong. She remembers the day she called you a coward and says that is one of her biggest regrets.
You’ve never been a coward. You fought for your comrades, and you fought for your family as long as you could. Even after you left, you fought the urge to go back, to beg for forgiveness. You knew you could never make them happy as long as you were fighting your demons. Sadly, those demons were too strong for you to overcome.
You don’t have to fight anymore, old friend. I’m here with you, and here I will stay. I’ll guide you through your final journey, and together we will find the elusive peace that you spent half your life looking for.
Rest now, soldier. Let the bagpipes guide us home.
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