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Though lovers be lost love shall not; and death shall have no dominion.
~ Dylan Thomas
If there was one thing the winter of 1941 taught me it's that the worst days of our lives are usually the ones that strengthen our character the most.
I stood over the stark brown casket feeling oddly detached. I knew the grief would catch up with me eventually, but in that moment the shock had yet to wear off. It felt like something from a dream as I stood in the center of a sea of caskets, all draped in the American flag, in the middle of a hanger bay on Hickham Air Force Base.
Dozens of people milled around me; some were family of those fallen, some were comrades, and some came simply to pay their respect to those who died for freedom's sake. Every once in awhile I would see a young woman bending over a casket with tears streaming down her face. I identified with those women most of all. They were mourning their lost loves, just as I was.
My tears had not come yet, but that didn't mean they wouldn't. I still could not process that the last few days had truly been real, but as I looked to the west toward the harbor I knew that reality would hit me soon.
I looked back down at the casket that held my fallen fiancé. Charles was a flyboy. He belonged in the air, and I knew there was nowhere he would have rather died and no cause he would rather have died fighting for. We had known each other since we were children. His parents owned property next to my fathers, and it was obvious from early on we would always be together.
Now those dreams were gone and in their place lay this simple casket, containing the remains of what I thought was my future.
I felt a strong arm slip around me as my composure began to crumble. Edward. I fell into my younger brother's embrace as I sobbed quietly. He knew there was nothing he needed to say – nothing he could say. The hurt would ease with the passage of time. My brother knew this perhaps better than I. Twenty years old and he was already battle weary. Already jaded to this life he signed up for. It's truly amazing how just a few hours can make such a difference in a person's life.
Edward enlisted straight out of high school. Charles had always been Edward's hero, and watching my fiancé train to be a soldier lit the fire in Edward's heart. Instead of enlisting in the army as Charles had done Edward went for the navy. We all knew that was where his heart was. Growing up in Honolulu gave a person a certain love for the sea that nothing could erase. He trained on the mainland and was eventually stationed on Pearl. Our family knew it was his skill as a sailor that earned him a place – only the best were sent to the pride of the Pacific Fleet. Even though we all knew this we liked to think it was the island calling him home.
Whatever it was that landed my brother here I had never been more grateful for it than I was now. Nothing would ease the pain as much as having my baby brother with me.
As I stood there in his strong embrace it was not lost on me just how lucky I was that he was still here. It was a joyous day in our family when word was received that Edward would be posted aboard the USS Arizona.
It was a stroke of amazingly good luck that he should have shore leave the weekend the bombs fell. Of course that did not stop him from running on base as soon as it was clear what was happening.
My baby was brother is selfless to a fault and cannot bear for others to suffer while he stands back. He spent hours that day helping to retrieve men who were trapped and bringing survivors to the base hospital.
I didn't even want to imagine the things he had seen. I knew he was there in the hospital when Charles succumbed to his injuries. They told me my fiancé's plane was shot down. He was pulled from the wreckage but the damage had already been done. He bled to death on a kitchen counter in the hospital because there were no more beds. Edward held his hand the entire time, telling him how much we all loved him.
He was never even seen by a doctor.
I shook with my sobs, my head resting on Edward's shoulder and one hand on Charles' casket, but was silent the entire time. There was a cacophony of sound all around me – the cries of women who had lost their loves, the odd laughter of children who were too young to understand where they were, the grinding of metal as the fleet began cleaning up the harbor, the familiar calls of the birds, and the water lapping against the shore.
All of it blended into a gentle hum that swirled on the air. All I could truly hear was my brother whispering that he loved me.
I hugged him tight before releasing the lifeline his arms had become. I bent to place a kiss on the casket in front of me; one final kiss to send my love into eternity. I saw a glimmer of gold on the far end of the hangar when I lifted my head and smiled involuntarily. My best friend Rose was standing on the other end of the hangar with a group of navy nurses. They were standing next to a casket I knew had to contain a fellow nurse. I had heard rumors that several had been killed in the fray.
I told Edward I would see him back at our parents' home later that night and made my way over to the only girl I had ever called my friend. She gave me a sad smile before throwing her arms around me, gripping me as tightly as she could.
"I'm so sorry, Esme," she whispered.
"Thank you, Rose." I smoothed her hair and looked down at the photo placed at the head of the casket. The young woman couldn't have been any older than Rose and me. She had a head of full, beautiful curls, and a warm face. Her photo radiated love and compassion, and even though I was in agony over my fiancé's death I felt a pang of heartache for this girl I knew nothing about.
"Victoria," Rose said. "She was killed in the hospital parking lot doing triage."
"I'm sorry, Rose." I had learned the hard way over the last week that death was no easy thing to understand. We were all coping in our own ways, but Rose was a truly sensitive soul. Though she was the same age as many of her fellow nurses she tended to take them under her wing.
Rose was the most nurturing person I knew though she often claimed my own compassion rivaled hers. I knew losing one of her own had to be causing her a level of pain similar to what I was feeling.
"She was a wonderful nurse. It's been very hard on us all."
I nodded not really knowing what to say. It seemed like we were all in a nightmare, just waiting to wake up.
"It is so much worse for you though," she continued. "Losing Charles; I just can't imagine it. You were going to be together forever."
I sighed. "It seems forever sometimes doesn't last very long."
"How are you holding up? You seem to be keeping yourself together quite well."
I smiled at her endlessly kind nature. Rose always shared the pain of everyone she cared about.
"I'll be fine. I keep reminding myself that he loved me, and that he died doing what he was always meant to do. There's no way he would rather have gone."
She reached out and rubbed my arm. "You are amazingly strong, Esme. I know that you're screaming inside, though. You can't hide these things from me."
The look in her eyes nearly made me break down completely. She knew me so well. She could see the frayed edges of my composure. If anyone knew how I was without asking it was Rose.
"Come on," she said, reaching down to grasp my hand. "I want to take you somewhere."
Bidding goodbye to her companions, we set off. After stopping at a florist to purchase two large lilies we made our way down to the beach. A small jetty snaked its way out from the sand toward the sea, reaching out to where the water met the sky. It seemed oddly symbolic.
Rose led me out to the middle of the jetty and sat down on a particularly large rock. After several moments of silence Rose sighed.
"I come out here to think a lot. I get homesick sometimes and when I come to this place it reminds me of the bigger picture. It reminds me that I'm doing something important. I guess that's what they died for right? The bigger picture."
I nodded, unable to form words without choking back the sobs I was not yet ready to release. She pulled two small sheets of paper and a lighter out of her coat pocket. She handed one of the papers to me and I unfolded it to reveal Psalm 23.
"My family does this back home," she explained. "Whenever someone dies we burn the paper and float it out to sea along with the lily."
She lit her own paper, attached it to the lily, and set it in the water before handing the lighter to me to do the same. We watched our small tribute float along with the waves for several minutes in comfortable silence. It was a rather poetic gesture, and I felt more at peace watching the lilies roll with the waves than I had in several days.
"You're going to be just fine, Esme," she said putting her arm around my shoulder. "You wait and see. These trials are only that – trials. We'll all get through them and be stronger individuals because of it."
"Do you really believe that?"
She nodded. "I have to, Esme. It's the only hope we have left."
I sat on the private balcony attached to my bedroom at my parents' house that night watching the moonlight float gently on the surface of the water, casting the waves in shades of lavender where each white moonbeam lay.
When Edward and I were children we would sit on this balcony and make up stories about the fish that swam just under those waves. Life was so much simpler then. Now we were both scarred and jaded by the things we had endured in the last week.
I feared nothing would ever be so simple again.
I looked down at the papers in my hand, trying not to regret the fact I had taken them out in the first place. I held every letter Charles had written me when stationed on the mainland, hoping his words would bring me some comfort, but knowing they would likely only prolong my grief. My body was wracked with the sobs I had held inside all day and the tears flowed freely down my face.
Rose believed we would all be alright, but how could that be when my future now lay in a pine box?
Since I was a child I had never fathomed a future without Charles in it. He was everything to me and I never imagined I would be without him. Now my future lay before me like a bleak, dark road, winding through woods I feared to enter.
I picked up the first letter and began to read as my tears left the small stains of my grief in their wake.
My dearest Esme,
It is so hard being away from you, darling. All my life I wanted to be a soldier, but nothing, not even that, matters more than you. You give me something to fight for. Thank you for that, Esme. Thank you for loving me…
The tears blurred my vision as I reached his words of love. I couldn't read anymore. Every letter contained expressions of his love for me. He would remind me of things that happened in our childhood – events that fell together like the pieces of a puzzle, creating the foundation on which our love was built.
That foundation was not crumbling around me and I was powerless to stop it. I looked west toward the harbor where the barges were still hard at working, clearing debris. Everything I had built my life on was falling to pieces, and I now felt the fear that the same could be said for my country. President Roosevelt's speech rang in my head as I contemplated what the coming months would bring.
Everything had changed – of that there could be no doubt.
My thoughts returned to my fallen fiancé. Of all the trite words of sympathy and polite hugs and gestures I had received over the last several days the only thing that brought me even a modicum of comfort were the words I had burned only a few hours earlier.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This first chapter is the prologue. The first official chapter will be up next Tuesday.
This story is being beta'd by Mackenzie L. and pre-read by texasunshine. I love them.
Thank you so much for reading!