War—A Widow’s Weeds, A Widow’s Words

War—A Widow’s Weeds, A Widow’s Words

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

War—A Widow’s Weeds, A Widow’s Words

Lead me from the unreal to the real. Lead me from darkness to light.

The Upanishads

John was to be stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for about four months. I just knew he was pounding a typewriter. I was marking off each day on the calendar in anticipation of the week after Thanksgiving 1968, when John would return home. I was so lonesome for him.

While running errands the first weekend in August, I found John the most beautifully styled summer jacket at a department-store sale. I knew he’d be so handsome in it on our trip to the Bahamas that winter. He thought his religious calling demanded he wear black, blue and gray. Boring!

We were engaged before he told me he was a Baptist minister. After we married, I started buying his clothes with fashion ideas from GQ. He almost lost it when I bought him French-style underwear in colors. He was happy in plain white military-issue underwear. Yuck. I told him those were for me to look at and enjoy. Sometime later, he told my dad that I’d bought him the colorful underwear, and my father placed an order for some, too.

I also managed to find some his-and-hers outfits. After all, he was to be out of the Marine Corps on New Year’s Eve. Our civilian life was to begin with a big bang. Since he was a Baptist minister and part of the Progressive Baptist Church in Nashville, I knew we’d not have much time to ourselves. I was making plans to meet him on his way home, store his gear and escape into our private space for a week or so in the Bahamas.

The mail from him was sporadic. He told me about how beautiful the world was. He also sent me a thank-you letter for being his wife. How strange. He mentioned that he had not had a chance to find me the promised pearls and silk in the colors I liked.

The next week, a letter came with an address change. He was in Vietnam.

I’d been feeling uneasy recently. Was it the New Jersey humidity? Was it being lonesome? On Tuesday, I went to work and felt worse. I’d never felt this way before. I went out to lunch alone. Until the day I die, I’ll never forget hearing my husband’s voice calling out to me as I walked back into my company’s building. It was so real that I spun around looking to see where the sound came from.

On Saturday, August 10, I had an early doctor’s appointment and was happy that I got a clean bill of health. I still felt miserable. I took a long, hot bath—yes, in the middle of the day in the New Jersey humidity. That was no help. I put on fresh clothes. My spirit told me to put his two favorite records on the stereo. He had bought the classics in Italy.

We’d decorated our living room in Mediterranean colors and furniture. I stretched out on the sofa and felt his presence in the music. The inner door was open to the street, and the screen door was locked. Before the second record dropped, I heard footsteps coming up the walk. The doorbell rang.

There were three U.S. Marines in summer khaki dress. I stared. “Oh, no!” automatically spilled from my mouth.

“May we come in?” asked the major. I opened the door and watched them remove their covers. All I remember was the major saying, “We are sorry. . . .” I know that I stopped the music at some point. John had died on Tuesday local time, and I heard his voice New Jersey time at about the time he took his last breath.

The words rendered by the marines were tender and sincere. I could hear people gathering outside our home. I remember yelling on the phone for my father to come to our house and not telling him why. When Dad did arrive, his arthritis did not keep him from bolting up the steps.

Plans, arrangements, phone calls. The Marine Corps was going to do this. I had to do that. The marines left, and I was alone with my painful thoughts and aching heart, along with my dad, and, now, a crowd of neighbors in my home. I’d seen my dad cry only once before, and that was at my mother’s funeral. He thought my husband was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

There was no rest. We waited days for his body to arrive from the military embalming center in Dover, Delaware.

The marines practically took up residence in my living room. They were protecting me from those who might have been against the Vietnam War. They had warned me about opening mail from those I did not know. I was fortunate that all the unknown senders were so kind.

Finally, my dad and I flew to Nashville. I had my first look at John in the funeral home, and it was a horror. He was sealed in glass, and I could not touch him. Only his eyebrows and long eyelashes were recognizable. I was told that the heat, time and injuries made him look that way.

If only I could have touched his gloved hand . . . “No.” “How about a button?” “No.” His escort was kind, but had his orders. The funeral home had its orders from the Marine Corps.

His mentor, Dr. Powell, was eloquent. The funeral was over. I followed the steel-gray, flag-covered casket to the church entry. The marine pallbearers took the earthly remains to the hearse for packaging to fly to Arlington National Cemetery the next morning.

Upon arriving in Arlington, Dad and I were taken to the chapel where we took our seats with relatives. The chaplain did the Final Rites, the gun salute, the folding of the flag and that much-said line of condolence: “On behalf of the president of the United States . . .” I received the flag, so hot from being in the sun. I asked the chaplain if I could kiss John good-bye. He said, “Yes.” He escorted me to the coffin. I kissed it and whispered a message to my darling.

I sobbed all the way to my grand-aunt’s home where there were more relatives awaiting us. After a couple of hours, some relatives were ready to drive my dad and me back to New Jersey. One of them reached for my still-hot flag to put it in the trunk of the car. I lost it. Never would John’s flag be in the trunk of any car. Just hours earlier, I’d seen his crated casket roll out of the belly of an airplane. I clutched the flag tightly during the entire trip.

I had to move from our home. I couldn’t live there without him. I rented a small townhouse. The marines were still checking on me. We had a medal presentation in the townhouse. They returned some of his belongings; the most important was his wedding ring, still caked in mud and his blood. I’ve never cleaned it. I removed my matching ring and put them together . . . forever.

For those who have lost and those who may lose family members, God bless you.

Patricia Barbee

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