WORDS Liesel Schmidt
IMAGE Bill Chizek/Shutterstock
The night sky is lit with the light of billions of souls, shining in the blackness, and illuminating the darkness, watching from above. And the prayers we whisper float weightlessly on the gentle breeze, delivered like messages on the wings of birds. And, once in a while, we hear the answers to those prayers.
“I’m sorry it took me so long to come,” I whispered, feeling tears burn my throat and well in my eyes. “I’m so sorry for that.”
I knew better than to expect an answer. None would be coming. Not now. Not ever. But I could still hear that voice, the unmistakable sound of him. Even after all these years of silence.
I felt a breeze ruffle my hair, sending my curls dancing. A tear rolled down my cheek as my eyes traced worn letters, barely legible in the stone.
SF, In All Things
Semper Fidelis. Always Faithful. And he was. It was the ethos he lived by, personally, professionally…In all things. The inscription described him to a tee.
Jack hadn’t just been a Marine. He’d lived and breathed it. He’d been everything the Marine Corps exemplified, all wrapped up in a wiry man who could outlast anyone in the wilderness, armed with only a pocketknife and a signaling mirror; outrun even the most seasoned runner; outtalk the most articulate debater. He was complex yet simple, and we’d become the best of friends under the worst of circumstances.
And then, he was gone.
Just like that, in the blink of an eye. In the split second of metal against metal as truck collided with motorcycle and Jack was thrown through the air, one last flight for a man who had guided helicopters through war zones.
The call had come on a Wednesday. An ordinary Wednesday that turned into anything but, ripping my heart from my chest with two words that held more weight than I could carry.
It was too cruel to be true, too heartbreaking to believe. But it was. And there were no more phone calls, no more long email exchanges that got both of us through tedious days.
I had gone to the viewing feeling numb, unwelcomed to the funeral by a family that had been estranged from him for years. They’d descended on his home like vultures scrabbling over a carcass, picking it clean and rifling through his things with an irreverence that angered me. I’d wanted only one thing—that signaling mirror. But they had denied even that.
His older brother had been my only ally, an unexpected champion in my corner. And so, like Jack in so many ways.
Still, he wasn’t Jack. No one was.
And here I stood, fifteen years later, staring at a stone on a small patch of earth at the military cemetery, surrounded by others who had worn the same uniform, taken the same oath. Such a small stone for such a big life. It was almost too much to comprehend, how someone so full of fire, so accomplished and enigmatic, could be reduced to this.
We hadn’t been on the best footing when he died. It was something that haunted me, something that I wished to my core I could change. Our friendship had become so deep, and he’d come to depend on me so much. It had been a lot to carry, at twenty-three. I was his only confidante, this stoic Marine who never let anyone see his vulnerabilities, never discussed his feelings. He had entrusted me with that part of him, and I had buckled under the weight of the responsibility. I had taken a step back, put up a wall because I was frightened by how greatly he relied on me to be there, every time he called, anytime he needed to talk. One day I hadn’t been, and the result had been an onslaught of calls that were frantic in a way that alarmed me.
But we had been finding our way back, regaining our balance. Rebuilding and mending the damage done by his disproportionate response and my retreat. And then, he was gone, and I was left with echoes of the words I had spoken to him, my recoil at his desperate need for someone to steady him.
I felt the weight of all of it as I stood there, staring at that stone.
“Jack, I’m so sorry,” I whispered again, the words carried off in the wind that was picking up speed. My curls ruffled. Jack had always loved my hair.
“I’m sorry for all of it.” More tears came, blurring my eyes and making my nose burn.
“Are you okay, ma’am?” The voice startled me out of my reverie. I hadn’t expected to hear anyone else, not here, in this quiet place where I’d been alone—just me and the ghosts of my guilt.
I turned around quickly to see who was speaking, swiping at my eyes as I did. Whoever it was didn’t need to see my tears.
“I’m fine,” I replied, trying to sound resolute and convincing. “Thank you, though.”
The man in front of me nodded, looking dubious. He was tall and well built, strong without being overly muscular. A square jaw was outlined in the barest hint of stubble, and serious brown eyes assessed me carefully. His closely shorn hair was a dead giveaway for his military background—as was his bearing.
“Please, don’t let me disturb you,” he said in a deep voice that bore the faintest Southern accent.
I shook my head. “No, no. You’re not,” I assured him, pulling myself out of the black hole I had sunken into. “Who are you here for?”
He nodded his head, indicating one of the stones directly behind me. “Wells,” he said simply. “The major was my greatest mentor. I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it hadn’t been for him.”
I felt the ground fall out from under my feet. “You knew Jack?” I asked, barely able to get the words out.
His intense eyes studied me for a moment. And then a light of recognition dawned. “Hannah? Are you Hannah?”
My eyebrows knitted together in confusion. How did he know my name?
He smiled. “Wells talked about you all the time,” he said by way of explanation, sensing my surprise. “He thought the world of you.”
I smiled sadly. “I thought the world of him, too,” I shook my head in disbelief. “It’s incredible he’s been gone for this long.”
“I know,” said the man. “I feel the same. I’m Greg, by the way.” He smiled and extended a hand.
I took his hand, feeling his warm grasp. He had strong hands, calloused with labor and clearly capable. “Nice to meet you, Greg. Do you visit often?” I asked, looking toward the marker.
He followed my gaze and nodded, just once. “I try to come every couple of months. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. But I owe him,” Greg said. There was a weightiness in the words, and I wondered what was behind them. But knowing Jack, I knew it was probably true. He’d left his mark on many people’s lives—mine included.
Greg’s words made fresh tears well in my eyes. And then, words that I had never said out loud came out, unbidden. “I hurt him so badly before he died. There are things that I never got to say I’m sorry for. And it’s too late.”
By now, the stream of tears was flowing freely down my cheeks. Greg moved closer and pulled me into a hug, enfolding me in strong arms that felt like they could carry the weight of the world. Pressed against his chest, I took a deep breath, trying to slow the tears.
“Forgive yourself, Hannah. He has,” Greg said, his voice a low rumble that I could feel through his chest.
I pulled away enough to look up into his eyes. “How do you know?” I asked, hearing my voice break again.
Greg smiled, making his eyes light and fill with warmth. “Because you were all he talked about, to the day he died,” he said. “He loved you, always.”
The words made waves of tears wash over me. I crumpled back into Greg’s arms and felt them tighten around me. “In all things,” he said in a whisper, like a promise carried on the breeze. And in that moment, I could feel the weight of fifteen years lifted, an answer to the prayers I hadn’t ever spoken aloud.