5: That Last Goodbye

5: That Last Goodbye

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles

That Last Goodbye

We laughed until we had to cry, we loved right down to our last goodbye, we were the best.

~St. Elmo’s Fire

The letter is dog-eared and forever creased because I’ve had it for decades. The message was written in pencil by a young, passionate soldier who looked a lot like Richard Gere.

Mark was flying back to his Army post on the eastern seaboard when he wrote it. In simple, transparent words, he put his heart on paper, and mailed it off to me.

Later I wondered if he stood before the Atlantic’s crashing surf and relived the turmoil of our last days together. It had not been smooth sailing, but that’s what we were — a wonderful, terrible, volatile explosion. It was heady stuff, being eighteen and head over heels in love with someone who was anything but safe.

He wrote that he wanted to talk with my dad and work out their differences. Mark was an optimist. He was young, unconquerable, and full of dreams. Dad, on the other hand, had plenty of hard times in his rear view mirror. He was a little too worn down by the world that Mark was ready to meet head-on. Dad wanted his only daughter to be happy. He didn’t envision a whirlwind named Mark making me happy.

I unfold the familiar paper, and trace his words. I close my eyes and step back in time.

Weeks had passed since he left. I had just graduated from high school and was working for a CPA. On lunch break, I backed my 1967 Firebird out of the long alley. Then my breath caught in my throat. Was that Mark, sitting right there, in the empty parking lot?

The motorcycle was polished — just like he kept it. From the back, it looked like his familiar posture. He was just sitting there on his beloved bike. But it couldn’t be . . . he’d flown away weeks ago. I felt like I was hallucinating.

My foot hesitated between the brake and the gas. My hand fumbled, confused by what gear I should be in. Then he looked at me. I was ready to run to him.

I started to back up again, because I knew I had to be seeing things. Mark’s motorcycle wasn’t here; it was in South Carolina. But I had to look back, and when I did, my eyes were filled with Mark. Logic shouted no; it could only be an incredible imitation — right down to his resolute jaw, his smoldering eyes, the exact color of his hair — and, of course, the exact motorcycle that he had. It couldn’t be him. Mark would’ve smiled that great crooked smile of his by now, so smug about surprising me.

Finding the brake pedal, my car was still, my stare locked. He looked so intently into my eyes, and looked so strangely sad. So very, very sad.

Drawn to him, I shifted out of reverse and inched forward, then pulled over and parked. My hand had found the familiar door handle, but when I looked up again I’ll never know if it was logic, or apprehension, or simple doubt that persuaded me that the man on the bike looked less familiar. Mark was in South Carolina. My heart had to be playing tricks on me. So I put the car into gear, backed away, and drove home.

All through lunch, I listened for the sound of a throaty motorcycle careening into the drive with a furious Mark aboard. I wanted it more than anything, because I wanted him to be real. I wanted the man in the parking lot to be mine. I promised myself I’d call him that night. I hugged the stuffed animal he won for me at a carnival when he was on leave. When I drove back to work, there was no sign of a handsome motorcycle rider.

Hoping for a message, I raced home after work. Nothing prepared me for what was waiting for me.

My father met me at the door with three words and tears in his eyes. “Mark is dead.” He spoke those words softly; he could barely get them out. I felt my legs go weak and my head began to spin. “He was killed in a traffic accident in South Carolina,” my father whispered.

The hard concrete driveway accepted my tears. It doesn’t matter how many you cry, you can’t fill up a concrete driveway.

I cried because I had lost him.

I cried because I had seen him.

I cried because I had passed by the powerful, pensive image of the man I loved, the man who had written about us starting to buy furniture.

He had somehow reached across a continent, so we could look into each other’s eyes one final time.

Forty years later, I still visit his grave, in the same military cemetery as my father, for the sake of a bittersweet memory and a faded letter. I sweep the debris from his headstone — and the years with it — and I remember and I thank him for that last goodbye.

~Christy A. Caballero

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