A Soldier Goes to Heaven

I posted the first chapter to my current book, The Fire Within, back in May.  I’ve been working on the book sporadically while editing another one in the middle of the distractions of family vacations.  There’s still more vacation to come, but I’m back to working on Fire more consistently and hope to have the rough draft complete by the end of 2014.  Here’s the emotional second chapter of the book that begins to lay the foundation that drives the main character.  How did you feel after reading this?  Did it strike a chord with you emotionally?

“Bobby,” his mother whispered in her softest voice. She rubbed her hand up and down his back trying to wake him in the most pleasing way possible, but even at the age of seven, he could sense something wasn’t right in the way she spoke. Her voice sounded ragged like her vocal cords had been rubbed with sandpaper and blown dry with hot air. “Wake up honey.”

Bobby rolled over slowly and rubbed his eyes before he stretched his hands above his head and kicked his feet out under the covers. The stretch reverberated through his body and made him shake under the silky sheets, which felt cool on his skin in the early morning air. The window across from his bed invited a slight morning breeze into his room relieving it of yesterday’s heat or preparing it for the heat that was sure to come once the sun pulled itself up into the sky.

“What day is it?” Bobby asked in a sleepy voice. He inhaled the crisp morning air and rubbed his eyes again so that he could focus on his mother who sat on the edge of the bed next to him looking forlornly at her young son, her only son. Her caramel-colored hair was pulled back from her face into a ponytail, but strands of hair had escaped the band and fluttered in the air like errant shooting stars. One strand hung over her left eye, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes were red and tired and darted from Bobby to some space above his head.

“Tuesday.” She paused as if she were trying to muster the courage to say something. Bobby blinked slowly but kept his eyes on her. He’d seen this look before, but he struggled to place it. Instead, he wondered if he’d done something wrong, but he could think of nothing. The past week had been rather uneventful even for summer vacation. He’d mostly avoided conflict with his sisters, but he remembered that he had hidden Joanne’s doll from her. He frantically tried to remember where he put it, but he kept silent as his mother looked at him.

“Bobby, I have something to tell you. I need you to sit up.” Her manner was fluttery, unsteady, which was unusual for her. Normally, she was stern and confident; she had to be in a house with six kids.

“What is it?” he asked as he flung his legs free from the top sheet and pushed them over the edge of the bed. He scooted closer to his mother, and they both sat there on the edge of his bed in the early morning light. Under any other circumstances, it would have been a heart-warming snapshot of mother and child.

She paused and looked at him. Salty tears clung to the edges of her eyes, but none fell. She grimaced, and Bobby noticed that even when her face was pained she was remarkably beautiful. The smooth skin on her face had just enough color to complement her hair. Her petite nose perched perfectly between her sparkling green eyes that dazzled even in the midst of the swollen redness that surrounded them. Her face was perfectly proportioned with high cheek bones that made her look elegant and refined. Even at such a young age, her son could clearly see why his father fell in love with her.

“Papa Sims had a heart attack…” She paused and tried to maintain her composure.

“Is he going to be okay?”

“I’m sorry…” Before she could say more, the floodgates opened and she started sobbing. She pulled her son into her arms and hugged him. He could hear the pain through her chest as she sucked in air between the sobs. He thought of pushing away so that he could look at her and get an answer, but he knew it already. He was too stunned to cry. He couldn’t believe it, so he just wrapped his arms around his mother and let her finish. The faint smell of her perfume and her shampoo tickled his nose and the warmth of her embrace made him too hot, but he didn’t complain.

After a moment, her crying subsided and she unlocked Bobby from her embrace. She pushed herself upright and wiped her eyes with a tissue she had in her hand. Bobby hadn’t seen it earlier and wondered where she got the tissue (he had always been prone to focus on the most absurdly tiny things in times of stress). She looked at him and managed a tiny smile through the glassy tears.

“Granny Sims found him on the kitchen floor this morning. It was too late. He had already passed.” More tears rushed down her firm cheeks, but she remained relatively calm. She wiped the tears in vain.

Bobby sat there too stunned to say much. No one he’d ever known had died before. Until that moment it felt foreign like something that happened to other people, not someone in his family. His grandfather had been a big strong man, a military man, who was tall and stiff and always said “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”. He dressed crisply and formally and liked to say “Check” when he accomplished a task. He was disciplined and hard, but he had a soft spot for his only grandson, the third Robert Sims in his proud family.

“Are you sure he’s dead?” Bobby asked still refusing to believe that the man who bought him ice cream after church on Sundays and referred to him as “little buddy” was gone. He couldn’t imagine life without his grandfather. He couldn’t imagine his family without his grandfather. What would Granny Sims do without Papa to take care of her? Would his daddy take care of her now?

“Yes, honey, I’m afraid so. The Good Lord took him home this morning. Heaven has gained a soldier,” she replied. Each word spoken proved more difficult than the last and she started crying again. She pulled her son close to her but didn’t smother him as much as she had earlier. He pulled his left arm free and wrapped it around her back. He still didn’t cry. He simply listened to his mother’s sobs and blinked slowly as he looked at his bare feet dangling from the edge of the bed.

“We have to get moving this morning. We need to go see Granny. Your daddy is already over at her house. I told him we’d get over there as soon as possible.” She wiped her face again with the tissue and stood up leaving her son on the edge of the bed. She suddenly seemed determined and focused, more like the strong woman that Bobby loved so. “Please get dressed and come downstairs for breakfast. Please do this quickly,” she ordered in the manner that he found very familiar.

“Okay, mom,” Bobby said solemnly. He remained on the edge of the bed, a gangly twist of arms and legs protruding from his summer pajamas.

She took a few steps out of his room and turned toward him from the doorway. “Thank you,” she said before she shut the door on her sad smile. Bobby sat there for an instant with a sick feeling in his stomach. He didn’t grasp the enormity of what had happened. He still couldn’t believe it was true. It seemed unreal to him like a bad dream that he couldn’t shake. He popped to his feet and got dressed with a speed usually reserved for when he was late for the family breakfast. He looked at himself in the mirror and patted down his reddish-blond hair, which had grown relatively long since school had let out. His daddy had threatened to cut it, but he’d been so busy of late that he hadn’t. Bobby liked it long. He didn’t want to always wear his hair so short like his daddy. Or his Papa.

***

Bobby’s father followed directly behind the hearse in the family minivan as the procession limped from the funeral home to the old church on the outskirts of town. All was quiet inside the van except for the exasperated air conditioner, which groaned under the weight of the rising summer heat. Bobby leaned into the warm glass of the window next to the third row of seats and watched the world slide by slowly as the van crept along the main street leading out of town. Downtown store fronts gave way to small clapboard houses that eventually morphed into the relentless flat prairie that encircled the tiny town of Patton, Kansas. He sighed into the window, but even his warm breath was not enough to fog the glass in the heat.

Normally, the energy from a family of eight crammed into the small space of the van would create a racket so loud and persistent that Bobby could still hear the conversations going after he left the van, an audio relic that echoed in his mind, but this was not a normal day. They were headed to the family church for his grandfather’s funeral, and the somber event had even squelched the conversational fervor of his excitable sisters, all five of them, who often had to be repeatedly shushed by his parents to the point that his father would become visibly angry. Not today.

Bobby sat wedged into the last row of seats next to his sister Joanne who silently played with the hem of her dress. Joanne, who was the youngest of his sisters yet still two years older than Bobby, often led the lively conversations that inspired the shushing from his parents. Unlike his bookish oldest sister, Barbara, Joanne was outgoing and talkative. She was also the prettiest of his sisters, remarkably so, and was the one that was routinely compared to his mother. Like his mother, she had long, caramel-colored hair with warm, smooth skin that stretched across her high cheekbones. Even at such a young age, everyone who met her knew she was destined to grow into a beautiful woman like her mother.

It’s not that his other sisters were pedestrian. They weren’t. In any other family, they’d be considered beautiful in their own right. They looked more like their father than their mother, and in most cases, this would be the kiss of unkind genes, but their father’s sturdy appearance manifest itself in softer ways in his daughters. They all had blond hair like Joanne, but their faces were less defined, distinct. Their noses were bigger, but not too much so, and their eyes were a little too close-set. This gave them a plain look that made them easy to forget, especially when compared to the stunning Joanne, who may as well have been an exact duplicate of her mother.

Joanne nudged him with her leg. “Scoot over,” she whined, “your pants are making my leg hot.” Her shrill voice punctuated the blown-air silence.

Bobby looked at her but said nothing. He rolled his eyes and edged a little closer to the window making a small space between him and his finicky sister. Of all his sisters, Bobby found himself in conflict with Joanne more often than not. She had never forgiven him for usurping her title as the baby of the family although she could not possibly remember the time before Bobby was born.

Bobby pulled himself away from the window and stared forward into the vehicle past his sisters in the second row to his father who sat behind the wheel of the van, stone-faced and unusually patient with the slow crawl along the road to the church. His father wore his Army dress uniform, which was crisp and clean and authoritative. Admittedly, Bobby loved it when his father wore his dress uniform. He had an aura of strength and might that elicited a strong feeling of pride from both himself and his son when he wore it. The heavy, dark olive jacket draped over his wide shoulders and buttoned in at his chiseled waist. The perfectly-pressed pants with a sharp crease down the middle of each leg broke perfectly over his shiny, black shoes. His shoes were so shined so well that Bobby could see his reflection in them. His heels clicked when he walked moving like a graceful stallion with certainty and confidence that made Bobby feel safe. He loved his father, but he feared him more.

On this hot summer day, his father sat next to his mother in the driver’s seat of their family minivan wearing his military best. He wore a pair of Ray-Bans, like Don Johnson wore on Miami Vice, that clung to his sturdy nose. His jaw was set tight and every feature on his face was tense. If Bobby could have seen his eyes, he would have noticed a redness about them that he’d rarely seen in his father. He drove the van carefully staying back at least two car lengths from the hearse as they followed it to the church.

Although he couldn’t see her from where he sat, his mother sat stiffly in the front passenger seat, somber and weepy. She didn’t make a sound, but she periodically dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief she’d brought with her. She wore a stark, sleeveless black dress that contrasted too much with her honey-brown skin. Black wasn’t her color. Yellow was. Yellow dazzled against her smooth skin and brightened her blond hair. His mother was beautiful no matter what, but the black dress sucked the life out of her. Funerals did that to people.

Before the silence became too much for Bobby, the hearse in front of them slowed, if that was even possible, and turned at an angle to park perpendicular with the entrance to the church. Bobby’s father pulled into a space off to the left of the building under a lumbering oak tree that stood on the edge of the parking lot. The tree hunched over in the morning heat and offered its condolences, its branches spread wide suggesting a hug of sorts. It had seen so many funerals over the decades of its life.

The old church his family attended every Sunday sat alone atop a small hill on an over-crowded two-lane highway on the outskirts of town. In the winter, the white clapboard building almost disappeared in the snow save for its pointed black roof. The other seasons were more lively, and Bobby had seen them all numerous times.

He loved the fields of daffodils that sprouted in the spring around the old church. He and the other kids would run wild among the yellow flowers while their parents socialized after church. Several old oak trees lined the back of the church in addition to the small stand near the edge of the parking lot and offered a respite from the overbearing summer sun. The same kids would often climb up the trees in their Sunday best clothes and cling to the limbs in the shade much to the dismay of their parents. Bobby had been scolded more than once for soiling his good pants. The fall provided plenty of opportunity to kick through the heaps of leaves the big oaks shed. Only in the winter did parents and kids leave the church quickly and rush to their cars without socializing in the small lawn that surrounded the church.

Bobby enjoyed playing with the other kids more than he enjoyed church itself. He often sat slumped next to his father, mind reeling in boredom, as the pastor droned on and on in that familiar deep voice of his. The pastor, Mr. Craig, was a kind man with graying, receding hair who always squatted down and met Bobby eye to eye when he spoke to him. He often reeked of cheap cologne, Santa Fe or something, that made Bobby wrinkle his nose when he got so close, and his Sunday best clothes looked loose and cheap on his skinny frame. His jacket, made of rubbery polyester and at least one size too big for him, swallowed him whole. His pants draped over his short legs and hung to the floor so that the back edges slipped under the heels of his shoes. Bobby would always look at the hems of his pants while the pastor talked to his parents and search for the smudged edges at his heels. Bobby’s father would never tolerate such sloppiness.

Nevertheless, he liked the pastor because he talked to him rather than down to him, unlike his father. As tough and disciplined as his father was, he always met Mr. Craig with kind adoration and respect despite the obvious fact that Mr. Craig wasn’t as sharp as his father would normally demand of his own son. He didn’t keep his shoulders up straight when he walked. His frumpy attire wasn’t as crisp and clean as his father usually required. His cheap, plastic glasses, often smudged, hung crookedly on the bridge of his bulbous nose. All of these things would send his father into a fit of obsessive talk about always looking his best, which he perfectly exemplified when he wore his Army dress uniform.

The family marched into the church in a single-file fashion lumbering well back behind the coffin that was hauled up the steps and wheeled to the front of the pews. Not a word was spoken among them as they took their seats in the front row as family and friends filled the pews behind them.

Bobby’s father sat next to his Granny Sims who was hunched over and drawn into herself. To a young boy Bobby’s age, Granny Sims had always seemed old, but on this day, she looked particularly worn and aged beyond her sixty plus years. His father put his arm around her and hugged her close as she wiped her cheeks with a wad of tissues clutched within her gnarled knuckles, her dark, weathered skin contrasted sharply with the pearl-white tissue. The tears streamed down her wrinkled face and seeped into the deeper lines around her mouth. She talked to his father, but her words were low and inaudible to Bobby who sat at the far end of the pew next to Joanne.

“I hope Granny is okay,” Bobby confided to Joanne.

“Me, too,” Joanne replied without looking at Bobby. She remained fixated on the coffin that sat before them. Bobby followed her eyes to their grandfather’s body even though he didn’t want to look.

“He doesn’t look real,” Bobby whispered to Joanne.

“I can’t believe he’s dead. We saw him last weekend.”

“I know.”

The children gaped at the coffin. Death seemed surreal to them like a fairytale of a faraway land that seemed impossible to exist. They’d never experienced death so close before in their short lives.

Bobby averted his eyes to the large picture of his grandfather next to the coffin. The picture showed a much younger version of his Papa Sims, proud and strong in his Army uniform. The smooth skin of his youth gleamed in the picture and the faint smile gave an aura of confidence that Bobby knew so well. His Papa had always been so proud of his service to his country. Although he rarely spoke of the great war, as he called it, when he was around his World War II buddies, they’d often recall old stories that Bobby rarely understood or cared to hear. To him, these stories were just old people talking.

Bobby looked away and watched people fill in the last remaining spots in the pews around him. Many of the adults looked at him with somber expressions. Some of the women who looked his mom’s age, but not as beautiful, smiled at him with eyes pregnant with tears. Others were already crying and wiped away the tears with tissues and handkerchiefs as they mustered smiles for him and his sisters. He noticed a lot of Army uniforms, too. Many men with the familiar hats walked into the aisle and slipped into the pews removing their hats as a sign of respect for the place and circumstances. Occasionally, one or more of the adults would wander up to the front pew and say a few words to his parents or Granny Sims. They’d hug, cry, and walk away with the same sad expression they had when they arrived.

In the whirl of it all, the comings and goings, Bobby could only think of one thing, his grandfather. The old man lay at the front of the church in his eternal repose, still and lifeless. Bobby had never known his grandfather to sit still even for a brief moment. He was always doing something or moving forward in some fashion whether he was in his workshop building something or under the hood of his beloved Corvette fixing it. Even for a young boy, his Papa Sims was an exhausting dash of activity. Whenever Bobby had spent time with him, there was usually something to do, something to learn. He had, in fact, learned a lot from his grandfather, but it would be years before he realized the significance of those lessons or appreciated them in the way that only time can make one appreciate the gifts passed from one generation to the next.

The funeral began with solemn, ominous organ music and a parade of people from all walks of life followed the pastor at the pulpit all talking fondly of Bobby’s grandfather, the great brother, the war hero, the best friend. There were laughs among the tears especially when an old man Bobby had never met before told a great story about how he met the elder Sims at boot camp before the war had begun. The old man had a booming baritone like Bobby’s grandfather and a congenial tone that invited the audience to laugh with him. He ended his dedication with a few heartfelt words and limped away from the pulpit, hunched and slowed by age but brought to life by fond memories of great times past.

A slew of mutters waved through the crowd as the old man slowly took his seat in the second row of pews closest to the pulpit, but the moment Bobby’s father stood up to say the final farewell to his father, a hush came over the crowd that silenced the small church like a dire warning from the pastor. His father stood up, unfolded really, from the pew and stood tall and straight in his uniform. He marched to the pulpit as if he were on a military drill and stood stiffly behind the lectern with his hands resting on each edge as if he were hugging it. He stared out into the crowd blankly like he was searching for the words to say. All heads in the church were turned to him expectantly. Men nodded slightly. Women smiled their heartfelt condolences.

“You all have heard the stories of my father today. He was a great man, a war hero, beloved by family and friends for his dedication to his country and his love for his family. He came from a modest background, but he pulled himself up and made a name for himself by persevering through the ups and downs of life including the great war, which changed the course of the history we all know today. When I was a young boy, I remember being so proud and in awe of my dad. I remember him telling me stories of his days in the Army, and I remember wanting to be just like him, but I never felt I could measure up to him or his expectations.”

“One day we had a particularly heated discussion because I was considering quitting the Army. I had joined because I wanted to be like him, but over the course of a very challenging period, I had doubts about my decision. I wanted something different, but the truth was, it was hard, very hard, and I was looking for an easier way. When I revealed my intentions to dad, he became visibly upset, and he said, ‘Son, nothing worth having is easy. It takes hard work and dedication. You have to pull yourself through. It may not be fun, but you’ll be damn proud you did it one day.’”

“We argued for a bit more after that, but his words always stuck with me. I ultimately decided to stay in the Army and I’m glad I did. I went on to have a good career in the Army and served my country in Vietnam. It wasn’t easy just like my father had said, but it was worth it. That’s one of the most valuable lessons that my father taught me, one that I hope to pass on to my son. I can’t thank my father enough for all that he’s done for me. I don’t want to spend this day mourning the loss of him. I want to spend it reliving all the great memories of his life. He touched us all in some way, big and small, but he leaves a cherished legacy that I intend to honor for the rest of my own life.”

He paused and scanned the crowd. His usually stoic face crinkled a bit as he forced back the tears. His voice croaked as he tried to speak. He stopped and steadied himself by looking down at the lectern. Bobby had never seen his dad cry. Even over the past few days, he’d only seen a redness in his eyes that suggested he may have cried, so he watched in amazement as his father struggled to regain his composure.

Finally, like a runner finding the inner strength to push across the finish line, his father comported himself and said, “As we lay him to rest today, think about what he meant to you, how he affected your life. Let’s remember the legacy of this great man, my father, and he shall live on forever because of it.”

At that, he stood up stiffly again and walked back to the front center pew and sat next to his wife looking furtively ahead blinking back the tears as he stared at the coffin. The music started again and the blur of the funeral continued. Friends and family paid their last respects in a line that seemed to last forever. Bobby grew bored as old vets shook his hand repeatedly and old women with sweet-smelling perfume hugged him and cried. He watched the same happen to his sisters and his parents. There was something comforting in all of it, but for a seven-year-old, it was a bit much.

Eventually, the coffin was closed for the last time eliciting a visceral wail from Granny Sims who was immediately steadied by her oldest son. The pallbearers emerged from the crowd to guard the coffin as it was wheeled down the aisle to the door and carefully carried down the stairs to the hearse. The hearse made the short drive down the gravel road in the cemetery behind the church where the coffin was placed above its final resting place.

Bobby felt relieved to leave the church after such a long service. The sun, still high in the sky, bore down on him in his black suit with a ferocity that immediately made him sweat. He wanted to remove his jacket to relieve himself of the claustrophobic feeling that almost overwhelmed him. His dress shirt scratched his neck and plied at his skin with a tenaciousness of sandpaper on balsa wood. He shoved his hands into the space between his collar and his neck and tugged at his shirt trying to let in some air. He stopped for a brief moment until he felt a light touch on his back. He looked over his shoulder to see his mother smiling at him weakly through the tears that streamed down her face. She said nothing, but Bobby knew to keep walking as the family led the mourners to his grandfather’s grave.

The short walk took much longer than Bobby expected, but when he sat down in the graveside chairs reserved for his family, he could feel the rivulets of sweat that had trickled down his legs. His discomfort grew as he waited for the crowd to gather around the grave. The coffin, draped in an American flag, looked otherwise nondescript. Bobby wondered if they would open it again so that he could get one last look at his Papa Sims. He had to know that it was him, but his curiosity faded once the Pastor started talking again.

A couple of young Army cadets removed the flag from his grandfather’s coffin and folded it carefully before the crowd. Everyone watched in silence save for a few audible sobs. After the flag was reduced to a triangle, one of the young men cradled the folded flag in his hands and extended it to Granny Sims. The old woman hugged it to her chest and cried silently as she leaned into her son. Bobby caught a glimpse of his father’s tear-soaked face, red and anguished, an image that would never leave his memory.

After a few final words from the pastor, two men from the funeral home appeared from the edge of the crowd and began working the crank that slowly lowered the coffin into the hole below it. Bobby watched as it inched lower slowly disappearing behind the edge of the green carpet that had been placed over the pile of dirt next to the grave. When the lid finally dropped from sight, his grandmother let out a wail of agony and almost fell out of her chair. Bobby’s mother and father both grabbed the woman as she fell forward. His mother took the flag and passed it to Barbara as she held onto the distraught woman. Her cries chilled the eerily silent crowd that fanned out from the grave. Bobby took it all in with the wide-eyed horror of a child at his first funeral, a visceral feeling that seared itself in his memory.

Several friends and family members converged on Granny Sims as the service came to end. Most were concerned for her well-being and expressed their condolences. His grandmother, still distraught, managed to regain her composure and thank those who comforted her. She was a strong woman, but Bobby struggled to imagine her without Papa Sims. To him, they went together like the sun and the sky, and to see one without the other was unimaginable.

A big bear of a man sidled up to Bobby as he stood at the edge of the circle that had formed around his grandmother and his father. The man looked to be his grandfather’s age and wore an old military uniform that looked like the one his grandfather had.

“Your Papa was a great man, son,” he said looking down amiably to Bobby.

Bobby looked at the man and smiled but said nothing.

“He would have taken a bullet for me, and I don’t know many men who would do that. We fought together in Europe. I was there when we pushed the Germans back from that town in France. Your grandfather, he was a great leader, a great military man. He deserved that Medal of Honor. One day you’ll understand what it all means and the significance of it. I hope you’ll make him proud.”

The man patted Bobby’s shoulder and smiled at him faintly. “Take care of your family, son,” he said before he walked away. Bobby turned away momentarily to find his mother in the crowd, and when he turned back to see the old man, he was gone. His eyes followed the crowd strewn along the gravel road leading back to the church, but he couldn’t find the old man. It was like the man was a ghost who had come and gone with the wind. Bobby felt confused, even a little scared, but he convinced himself that he simply couldn’t find the man in the thick mass of people. He turned back to his mother and subconsciously grabbed her hand. The man’s words lingered in his mind. He would never forget them.

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