by, D. Kenneth Ross
Jake leaned against the open door of the rickety barn and watched as the drab, olive green Buick with the Property of U.S.M.C., stenciled in black on its front doors, navigated the dusty drive leading back to the paved road.
The Marine Corps lieutenant and his driver, a young corporal probably younger than Jake’s son, Benjamin, had been there in the barn while he fed the two horses and the old gray billy-goat no one but Jake had use for.
They’d driven out from Pendleton to tell Jake, Ben wasn’t coming home. But, Jake already knew he wouldn’t be back.
So, he kept working while the rigid, impersonal Lieutenant, in the tailored khaki Marine officer’s uniform and military issue sunglasses, delivered his apologetic message. He said how proud his country was of Benjamin, for the sacrifice he and, of course, his family had made.
Jake let him prattle stiffly on for a few minutes and then jammed his pitchfork in the ground between them. He balled his hands into fists and said, "You’ve done what you came for, now get off of my property." He turned his tanned, muscular back on them and walked slowly out to the old well where he picked up a rusty metal water bucket and dropped it impatiently under the spout of the pump handled spigot.
He didn’t turn around until he heard the doors of the Buick shut and the car start up. There were no tears then, only a sickened feeling of frustration and intense anger.
Jake wouldn’t let anyone see him shed tears. Not even his son, Benjamin, his only son... his dead son.
When the Buick turned onto the roadway, obscured by a tiny sun-sprinkled cloud of dust, Jake wiped his hands on his Levi’s, then walked into the cluttered country kitchen of the house he now lived in alone. He picked the phone off of the kitchen wall and dialed the Pritchett Funeral home.
"They’re sending Benny’s body to you, Pritch. Do what you need to put him next to Millie. She’ll be wanting him there." He let the phone drop back into the chrome cradle and trudged wearily into the living room where he sank down into the maroon, leather armchair his wife had bought for him six years ago. Three months before she’d died.
He sat staring out at the golden orange streaked horizon, miles beyond the asphalt road, as the sun began its steady descent behind the San Andreas Mountains.
Jake Rohderson felt cheated.
They were both gone now, his Millie... the only woman he’d ever loved and Benjamin, the strong-willed kid with the wild sandy-blond hair that wouldn’t comb right.
The son he’d always wanted, but had made so many mistakes with. Jake almost chased the boy into the Marine Corps.
It was his fault Ben was dead, deep down he was certain of that, he’d made it nearly impossible for the kid in high school. After Millie died.
Ben enlisted in the Marines within a month after he’d graduated from Fallbrook High School. That was a little more than two years after Millie passed.
The last spoken words between himself and Ben echoed in Jake’s mind.
"Sure Pop, you’re right, I can use a little discipline, and I’ll sure as hell get it in the Marines. You said so yourself, the Corps was good for you."
"Yeah sure, kid. Cut and run." He’d turned his back on the boy.
"If that’s the way you see it, Pop." Ben picked up the wardrobe bag he’d packed the night before and left, wordlessly.
He never came home on leave, though it was only fifteen miles from the Fallbrook gate at Pendleton to Jake’s.
Ben wrote post cards every week, from boot camp, from tank school and his first deployment in Haiti, and last from Iraq. A post card a week. Hi, Pop, everything going well. Love Benny, and, Hi, Pop, hope you’re doing fine. Love Benny.
Jake had a stack of them, all from FPO-USMC, San Diego, CA. He’d never answered one of them because his pride wouldn’t let him, he couldn’t bring himself to beg the boy to come home, though it was what he wanted.
He didn’t even write to tell Ben to, at least, write a letter instead of those damn post cards that didn’t say anything. Now it was too late. It shouldn’t have been this way.
Jake woke up at four forty-five in the morning still dressed in his jeans from the evening before. It took only a few seconds of being awake for the pain to return, the awareness that now Ben wouldn’t be coming home either.
So he lifted himself from the chair, knowing he had to let time elapse in order for the pain to dull some. The only way to fight it, he’d convinced himself, was to put things in his way in order to occupy his time. It was necessary to force it to the back of his mind... as far back as it would go.
His chores were already done from yesterday, when the two Marines were in the barn. Jesus, he thought, Why did I make it so hard for them to do something they had to do?
He remembered the young corporal looking as though he would rather have been anyplace but in that old barn. The lieutenant, with his dark glasses glinting from the streaks of sunlight coming through the slats of the barn wall, was carrying out an order given from the commanding general’s staff.
He kept his dark glasses on while he spoke, probably because he knew he might choke-up, a sign of weakness, his training told him, in front of an enlisted man.
, Jake thought, I did the best I could to ruin any good that might come out of that traditional, discharge of duty.
He had to be someplace else, at least for a while, he couldn’t stay home or he would cave-in to his paralyzing loneliness. He went into the bathroom and turned on the shower and got some clean jeans from the drawer in his bedroom.
It was really Millie’s craft room before she died, but he couldn’t bring himself to sleep in the Master bedroom, not since that last day. He awoke with his arm around her, but she was gone.
Millie Rohderson was a practical woman. Though she didn’t wait till the last moment to tell her husband she was dying, she did wait until the final test confirmed the inoperability of her tumor. The doctors gave her three to six months to live.
It wasn’t so much that she felt Jake wasn’t strong enough to handle the news. She knew her husband, he would try to move heaven and earth to turn the inevitable around and that would make their final days together more painful.
She’d waited almost a month, until after his birthday when she bought him the leather recliner he’d been looking at for the prior two years.
Then,a week or so later, she took both of her men out to dinner. Jake and Benjamin. They were both so much alike... quiet, loyal, strong men. Only, they both suffered from the same flaw. They loved too deeply without expressing it, at least without the words some expected. Millie understood without the words.
When they got back from the restaurant she’d made apple crisp pie and topped it with ice cream. While they sat enjoying their pie in the living room, Jake in his new chair, Ben was next to her on the couch... she told them she was dying.
She explained her symptoms. Some they had been aware of, others she had hidden or ignored, like the frequent dizzy spells, and bouts of blurred vision. She finished by saying, "Very few people can say with any accuracy how long they’ve got, but we know I’ve got at least three months and maybe even more. I want to live without wasting even a minute of that time. Okay?"
Ben got up from the couch and went into the kitchen where he dropped his dish in the sink, intending to rinse it, but it shattered because there was nothing else in the sink to break its fall. It devastated him... like a symbol of the fragile months ahead.
He went out into the back yard and threw up in the mulch pile on the side where their property merged with the forest of gnarled but elegant oaks, slender birches and serene maples.
Millie had watched him and forced back her own tears, then came out and put her arm on his back and said, "I know how this hurts son, it’s how we react to what we don‘t understand." She helped him over to the back steps and sat him down. "Stay here for a while where you can feel the sun, the warmth will strengthen you."
Then she went inside to see to her husband.
He hadn’t moved from the recliner and his dessert dish was still in his lap. Millie walked over and took the dish and put it in the stainless steel sink where she had already cleaned up the broken dish from Ben’s accident.
She came back and rested her hand on Jakes arm. He looked up at her with eyes that asked questions she had no answers for. He put his hand on top of hers and asked in a halting whisper, "How long have you known?"
"I’ve known for sure for a little less than a month. Doctor Miller made a very tentative diagnosis about three months ago and suggested some tests over at San Diego University. The last one confirmed a tumor in a position where it just couldn’t be operated on."
"What about a second opinion?" Jake asked, desperately.
"Its been looked at by two other specialists, one was a visiting neurosurgeon from the Mayo Clinic. They both certified it was inoperable." Millie looked at Jake and squeezed his arm. "I waited to tell you because I wanted to be certain, in my own mind, there was nothing that could be done."
"I... don’t know what to say." Jake’s eyes moistened and his strong shoulders sagged with the unwelcome weight.
Millie knew he wanted to ask, why? But that would sound like he blamed her.
As he dressed, Jake remembered the poignancy and the terror of those three months. Millie never let on of her suffering if there was any, and Jake knew there had to be. She gave him and Ben all her attention. Her warmth and quiet courage inspired them to face each succeeding day as the time grew nearer for her to go.
"Oh God, Millie! I’ve so let you down. In my selfish need to grieve for you, I forgot Ben’s need for his grief. And now he’s gone, all I’ve got is my sorrow for both of you." Jake got in his truck with tears streaming down his face. Push it to the back, man, think of something else!
It wasn’t easy to do that, he replaced his grief of Millie’s death with that of Ben and that brought with it the feeling of failure to help his son through what had to be the most devastating loss of his young life; finally, Jake again felt anger, searing anger with himself.
He turned onto Mission road and headed in the back way to Oceanside. There were too many people he knew in Fallbrook, he didn’t want their questions about Ben’s death, he had to deal with it alone.
Benjamin had been a town hero in his junior and senior years as a star running back on the high school football team. Jake understood at last, how Ben had taken his grief out on the football field. He was driven to be the best, most punishing, runner he could possibly be, driven by his grief.
Sadly, Jake hadn’t bothered himself with any of it until he’d run into the varsity coach shortly after Ben had enlisted in the Marine’s. Coach had said, "You know Jake, it kind of scared me, after a game, Ben never took part much in the celebrating. He’d have to sit for an hour at times, even before he showered, to come down from his intensity for the game. I really had to wonder if he was having fun out there?"
At the same time his son was plowing through defensive players on the football field, Jake was keeping himself busy with the house and their ten acres. He plowed his field and grew the different crops to feed them and to sell at the co-op. He was constantly repairing irrigation pipes and ditches, leaky outbuilding roofs, and minor things around the house.
He didn’t make a lot of money. He had his retirement pay from the Corps and Millie’s insurance money had been reinvested and with the extra money he got from his small crops and odd repair jobs, it was enough to keep things going. The house, he had inherited from his folks and it was paid for, and there were no other debts.
But, during that two years, he and Ben grew apart. That was Jake’s fault, he didn’t know how to talk to the boy.
He came into town, passing Oceanside High school, where Ben had played against the Pirates many times and where Jake could now look ahead and see the ocean.
When he was a kid with his first car, he brought Millie down this same street many times to go to the movies on the corner and then to the beach after, where they would park and make out. For an instant, before the emptiness flooded back, he thought, even then Millie seemed to know just how far to let things go.
Jake turned right on Hill Street and headed for the Denny’s where he’d asked Millie to marry him, more than once, after parking. He parked and went in to get some hot coffee since he had no appetite.
He found a corner where he could see the ocean on his left and the restaurant entrance on his right. It struck him that he couldn’t remember Ben having a date in those last two years of high school. He didn’t talk about anything having to do with school.
Jake took a sip of his coffee and leaned back. He could see the Greyhound bus station across the street and noticed, some of the passengers getting off were young women with children, one was pregnant even now. They seemed to be together.
With a gut-wrenching clarity, only someone in the same kind of pain could comprehend, Jake knew they were here for the memorial ceremony honoring their fallen husbands.
They were all so young to have their lives shattered. They held their children, either by the hand or on their hips, reacting to the primal instinct dictating they must be strong for the sake of their young. Every step for them was an effort of courage to keep going forward for the children.
Only in the darkest hours of their lonely nights could they grieve, out of sight and hearing of the children.
Jake drove back into Fallbrook to Pritchett’s Funeral Home where he waited till there were no cars in the lot and went inside. Henry Pritchett had buried Millie and was aware Jake would want something tasteful and inexpensive.
Jake added, "I’d like to bury him as soon as possible, Pritch. Just a short ceremony next to Millie’s grave."
"He’s entitled to Military Honors, Jake."
"I know, but I want it simple and as soon as possible. He’d want it this way. He just needs to be next to his Mother."
They agreed on a burial time two days away. It was the quickest Pritchett could handle.
Because he wouldn’t be burying Ben until Thursday, Jake decided to go to the memorial ceremony the next day. It was something he could force himself to do which would privately honor his son’s memory, but allow him to grieve in a place where everyone shared the same pain. He wouldn’t be noticed... especially if he stood toward the back.
There was a nondenominational church on base at Pendleton, where the ceremonies would be held. Since it was early fall, the Chaplain, a captain in the Marine’s, decided to hold the ceremony outside. The area alongside the church was a beautifully manicured lawn and floral garden where the grieving families could congregate and remember their dead with dignity and solace.
Jake was one of the last to arrive in the morning.
Before he’d gone home the previous day he’d stopped by the clothing store and bought a dark blue suit, a new white shirt and a solid gray tie. He thought Ben would like it. Pritch had given him Ben’s measurements and he was surprised at how close they were to his own.
He wanted to look decent at the memorial and the burial so he bought the same combination for himself, except the tie for himself was solid blue.
The ceremony was mercifully brief. The base commander, a two-star general who was wearing his dress blues spoke a few minutes of the family of Marines on bases and outposts across the world who grieved for their fallen brothers and sisters and whom he represented at this time, for their individual family’s terrible hardship. He let the relatives know their sacrifices were among the most grievous in any time of conflict. He said they were part of the extended family of Marines.
The Chaplain gave an invocation to bless the departed fighting men’s souls and their families. And then he began calling the names of the Marines, there were no women this time, who had died. As their names were read, a member of the family was given a neatly folded American flag.
Jake had no desire to receive a flag for which he didn’t feel worthy, so he left before the Chaplain called his son’s name.
The rest of the day of the ceremony was long and painful for Jake. Even chores wouldn’t ease the loneliness and guilt he was consumed with. He ended up, like the two previous days, sitting in his tinted-maroon, leather recliner, staring at the distant horizon, trying not to think about anything, especially tomorrow.
Yet, before sundown, a blue and white cab turned into the long drive up to his house. At first he assumed it was lost and would simply turn around, but it kept on slowly, trying not to disturb too much dirt as its driver made his way up to Jake’s front yard.
He didn’t want to have to go to the door, he wasn’t prepared for any kind of conversation. Except, when the cab stopped and the cabby got out and opened the rear door of the car, a young woman with a small boy emerged. Her face was set in what Jake interpreted as the struggle between grief and necessity.
She was one of the women he’d recognized getting off the Greyhound, with their unmistakable facial masks of forlorn but courageous dignity.
But what was she doing here at his house?
When Jake opened the door the young woman, hesitantly holding her boy’s hand, said, "Mr. Rohderson, I’m Jodie."
He started to ask her how she knew who he was, but something stopped him. He trembled slightly, not visibly to the girl, but enough to awaken something deep within.
"I’m sorry, I don’t think I know..." Jake’s eyes were drawn to the moppish, sandy blond hair of the boy, and his look of awesome trust in his mother. A hopeful glimmer took root inside Jake, but he couldn’t yet acknowledge it.
"Ben was my husband, and this is little Jake." She tried to smile but tears welled up and she turned her head away from the boy. "Sorry," she choked, "I wanted this to be different."
Jake stood in the door with a look of complete confusion for what must have seemed an eternity for the young mother and her son.
It was left to Little Jake to push things along.
"Could I have a glass of water Grandpa? I’m thirsty."
For the first time in a long while the expression on Jake’s face changed to one of sheer joy. He bent, scooped the boy in his arms and said, "You want ice in your water, youngster?"
The boy giggled and replied, "Be careful, I’m just a little boy."
Jake held the boy easily in one arm and with the other he urged the uncertain mother to come inside. He glanced out at the cab driver who must have been told to wait and waved goodbye. Everything was okay.
There was, definitely, much they needed to talk about, but it could wait until after tomorrow. The most immediate task for Jake and his son’s wife, Jodie, and his grandson, would be getting through the funeral, but as hard as it might be, they would help each other face it.
At the church service, little Jake presented his Dad’s flag to the casket bearers and they ceremoniously spread it over the casket, where it remained until minutes before the coffin was put in the ground. Then they refolded it primly and gave it back to the boy who was solemn as he handed it to Jake.
Jake acknowledged with a new hope, the years ahead for all three would be full of triumphs and trials, which would be as it should. There would always be that void for them, that was true , but there was also the incredible strength they drew from each other.
It was their renewal.
D. Kenneth Ross