From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

Virtuous Woman

Once the dreams began, they never stopped, but once they did I wished they would start up again. They were always the same—an explosion, fires burning, an army tank overturned and my son Jimmy’s body lying on the ground. Someone was taking his rings and watch off, and I would wake up crying, saying his name over and over: “Jimmy . . . Jimmy.” I was afraid to close my eyes, even to take a nap. The dreams kept coming and they were so real.

The strange thing was, Jimmy was still in basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He didn’t know about the dreams, and wouldn’t. I was afraid to give voice to them to anyone. Finally, from sheer exhaustion, I collapsed and was hospitalized. Four days later I awoke to find Jimmy sitting by my bed. It seemed, in my unconscious state I had repeatedly called his name. The doctor had contacted him and Jimmy got a ten-day leave. I told him it was just exhaustion, but the worried look on his face made me vow to myself that this would never happen again. I assured him of that. The dreams were never mentioned. I was to see him two more times.

After Fort Knox Jimmy was sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for advanced infantry training (AIT) where he received word he was being sent to Vietnam, but would be coming home for three weeks before going. Corky, my middle son, who had volunteered two months after Jimmy was drafted, and would also be going to Vietnam, was at that time stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. On Jimmy’s leave, Corky, my youngest son David, and I went there so we could all be together for four days.

After boarding the plane to come home, Jimmy looked out the window at Corky still standing at the gate and said, “That’s the last time I’ll see Corky.”

I said “Please don’t say that.” But he just said, “It’s true, Mom,” and never spoke another word all the way home.

After arriving back in Nashville, I had to take David back to the private school he was attending, but waited as long as possible so he and Jimmy could spend time together. As I headed David for the car, Jimmy said, “That’s the last time I’ll see David.”

He saw the look on my face and said, “It’s true, Mom,” and went back into the house.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of the riding lawn mower. Looking out the window, I saw Jimmy in cut off Levi’s and tennis shoes mowing the backyard. I took him some lemonade and said, “You don’t have to mow the lawn.”

He looked around at the house, the yard, at me and his car sitting in the driveway, everything, then said, “I like to mow this yard, and who knows, it may be the last time.”

The next day, at three in the morning on American Airlines, he left for Oakland, California. Before boarding the plane he hugged me and said, “Promise me you’ll always sing ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ for me.” I promised.

Three days later he was on his way to Vietnam. At midnight that night the phone rang. The operator said, “I have a collect call from Wake Island. Will you accept the call?” Practically screaming, I said, “Yes!” I will never forget these words. “Mom,” he said, “I know it’s a long ways and costs a lot of money, but I just had to hear your voice one more time.” We both said “I love you,” then he was gone. Sleep was a long time coming.

The nightmares continued. Corky came home on leave before he was to go to Vietnam. One day as I was writing Jimmy a letter, it turned into what I guess you would call a poem. The beginning line was, “My son, my son, I pray that you’ll come home to me my son, my son.” Finishing the whole letter, I read it to Corky. He said I should put it to music and send it to Jimmy. “He would be so proud,” he said. My producer, Owen Bradley, and my friend and coworker, Bill Anderson, agreed.

Two weeks later I went into the studio but couldn’t sing without crying. Owen said, “Jan, it’s just another song.”

“No, Owen,” I said, “It’s my son’s life.” Gently, he said, “If you can get through it one time, we’ll take it.” I did. In my next letter to Jimmy I told him to expect a small package, but didn’t tell him it was a tape of the song. I wanted it to be a surprise. “My Son” was released two weeks later. I tried to sing it in concerts, but the words couldn’t get past the lump in my throat. Corky left for Vietnam exactly two months at the exact hour and minute after Jimmy left; the twentieth of August.

October the twentieth I went to Atlanta, where I worked the next week. Worked and cried. I called my attorney, who was in the National Guard, and asked him to please check on the boys. His answer was, “Jan, they’re all right or you would know.” I told him that was the problem. . . . I did know. At the end of the engagement I returned home and did not leave my house.

Wednesday, October 29, I asked a friend how I would be notified if anything happened to my sons. I was told that two uniformed officers would come to my door. When I awoke Thursday morning I realized I had not had the dream. I showered and dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a light blue shirt, but no shoes. Ordinarily I would then put on makeup, but that morning I knew there was no use. My friend Jeannie Bare called and asked if I was all right. It was obvious she was crying. When I asked what was wrong, she said, “Oh, it can wait. I’ll call you back.” After that it was as if I was in a trance moving in slow motion. Ordinarily I would have turned on the Today Show, but not that morning. The phone rang again. It was my hairdresser asking me to please open the door because “they” had been ringing the bell for half an hour. I had not heard the doorbell or anyone knocking. “Who are ‘they’?” I asked and hung up the phone. But I knew. I don’t remember going downstairs.

When I opened the door, I saw two uniformed officers and my son David, who rushed forward and grabbed me as I began backing up, screaming, “No! No!”

But David, sobbing, told me the news: “Mom. . . Jimmy’s dead.” Over my screams I heard one of the officers say, “Mrs. Howard, we regret to inform you your son is dead.” That’s the last thing I remember, but I understand David, all one hundred and fifteen pounds of him, carried me upstairs to my bedroom. Five days later the plane arrived carrying Jimmy’s body, escorted by my son Corky.

Though I prayed to die, I knew I had to live for David and Corky. But I had one request: “When Jimmy’s letter comes, I want it.” They told me there would be no more letters, but I was adamant there would be. Jimmy’s funeral was on Tuesday and his letter arrived on Saturday. In it, he gave me instructions like “Don’t get behind in your washing and ironing; you know that’s your downfall. And promise you’ll take a vacation now and then. You know you’re not made of iron.” He also said, “I know Christmas will be there before you know it. Please don’t be sad because I won’t be there in person. Remember I’ll always be with you in spirit.”

Thirty days later I still had not left my bedroom and had done nothing but cry and read and reread Jimmy’s last letter. It was the first time I had been alone. Again, I was reading his letter just to see his handwriting. Suddenly he was beside me on the bed, dressed in his stay-pressed pants, V-neck sweater and open-neck shirt, the clothes he usually wore to school. He looked so sad. “Mom,” he said, “I’ve been trying to get through to you, but I can’t. Read the last chapter before the book of Ecclesiastes.” I screamed, “Jimmy!” and reached to touch him, but he was gone.

At that moment Corky walked in. I told him Jimmy had been there. He said, “Now, Mom . . .” But I assured him I wasn’t crazy and then told him what Jimmy had said to me. Corky got the Bible and turned to the last chapter of Proverbs. It told about Lemuel, King of Massa, and how his mother taught him advice about life. It went on to tell about the rareness of a capable, intelligent and virtuous woman. “She is far more precious than fine jewels. . . . her children rise up and call her blessed. . . . many daughters have done virtuously, nobly and well, but you excel them all.” I knew Jimmy had spoken to me through those words. He knew the Bible, but except for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I didn’t. I couldn’t have told you there was a book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and he knew that. And he knew Corky would know.

Jimmy could never stand to see me cry or hurt in any way and he knew I was literally grieving myself to death. In my heart I believe that God allowed him to return for just those few seconds to share words that would help me to live.

When my sons went to Vietnam, I had prayed so hard for their safe return. But when Jimmy was killed, I turned away. One minute I would say I didn’t want to hear God’s name, but in the next I’d be praying for strength. . . . which, through His Grace, I received. The first time I went back to church, I was late and the minister was already into his sermon. . . . The text that day was the last chapter of Proverbs.

Thank you, Lord.

Jan Howard

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