Dead petals fall upon my boot as I lift the bouquet from the headstone. I pick one from the bunch, twirl the stem between my fingertips, and watch the orchid fall apart. Scientists have claimed that humans forget most of our early years after we turn seven. This childhood amnesia occurs because our brains are not developed enough to carry this information into adulthood. Unfortunately, because fate particularly enjoys messing with me, I remember every detail of that day. October 23rd, 1999, I was only five and I was playing with a toy plane I had received earlier that month for my birthday. The front propellers spun as I carried it through the air, my arms spread apart mimicking the wings of the aircraft. I soared down the stairs searching for someone to be my copilot. As I neared the corner of the hall I spotted my mother’s ash blonde hair that was pulled into an ever-present top knot, not a single strand out of place.
“Mama, mama!” I called. She stepped back and turned to face me, revealing two men wearing military uniforms who were standing outside our front door. Their blue suits freshly ironed, housed impressive medals and pins to commemorate honorable actions. Their faces were blank, the only hint emotion came from their eyes. As if they are searching for an escape from the things they have seen. The things they themselves have done. I turn my attention back to my mother, hoping she would enlighten me on their visit, but she is nowhere to be found. My mothers radiant smile is gone, her contagious laughter silenced, and bubbly personality has floated away. All that remains are salty tears, quiet sobs, and a person consumed with grief. I run to her and latch onto her leg, afraid that if I let go the rest of her will disappear.
She takes a breath to compose herself, “It’s Oliver.”
The cool wind slaps my face and brings me back to the present. I stare at the crumbled flower on the ground. Flowers are fragile, but humans are even more delicate. Moments in a lifetime can destroy a person, like they ruined my mother. I bent down to trace the carvings in the stone. Oliver Eastridge; son, brother, and hero. April 4 1979, - October 22nd 1999. A low rumble drew my attention to the sky. An old white plane with spinning front propellers swept through the clouds. The same aircraft model Ollie had given me when I turned five, the same plane that he used for his first assignment, the plane that took him away. I leaned a fresh bouquet of flowers against his headstone, kissed my palm and pressed it to the frostbitten earth, as my way of say saying goodbye for now. I push my hand into my pockets and make my way down the path of hedges towards the newer plots in the cemetery. They said it was a heart attack, an undiagnosed condition that couldn't be avoided, but I knew that wasn't the real cause.
A few years ago at my high school graduation I remember walking down the aisle, searching for my mother. Bright camera flashes impaired my vision and the screeching of noisemakers filled my ears. Considering my weakened senses, I become hyper aware of the fact that I am wearing high heels. One misstep and I am going viral on every social media platform. I mutter curses at myself for purchasing the overpriced pumps, that granted, looked amazing with my dress. Finally, I arrive to my seat unscathed, and try to return my heart rate to a normal level. The crowds cheers fade away as the principle stands at the podium to give the opening speech.
“Welcome, family, friends and faculty to South Hill High. Tonight we are recognizing the hard work put forth by these seniors before us. But first I would like to…” I stop listening and once more scan the crowd for my mother. She is sitting in the first row in her favorite beaming yellow dress which she wears to every special occasion. I asked her a few days before my graduation, “Mom it’s so old and the material is stretched out why don't we go and get you another dress.”
“I don't want another dress, I like the one I’ve got.” She responded. She must have seen the confusion still present on my face, “Its full of memories. This is the dress I wore to your brothers graduation, at your birthday parties, at every family function, this dress is more than a dress, its my memories. This dress was present at all of the most important moments in my life, which is why there it will also be attending your graduation.” she said simply, and those words ended the argument I realized I had no chance of winning. Later on after the drawn out repetitive speeches, after I collected my diploma, and after I made my way through the mass of congratulating families I finally rejoined my mother. She took both of my hands, met my eyes and said “Honey, I am so proud of you” before engulfing me in a hug. She shed many tears that night, cried while a waiter struggled to get our orders, cried on the drive home, and cried when we said goodnight. She blamed her outburst on her overwhelming pride, but later that night when she wept into her pillow she was emotional for a different reason. That night was a reminder of the last day she spent with Ollie, before he left to serve the air force, before his plane crashed. No matter happy she was, or how much time had passed, she was still grieving her son. Less than a year later, my mother passed away.
Those memories led to the tears that brought me back to the present. I stopped in front of a smaller headstone that simply read, Marge Eastridge loving mother. How ironic that her greatest quality was her downfall. She loved us, Oliver and I, more than anything in the world. Family friends used to joke that I owned one half of her heart and Ollie claimed the other. After Ollie passed he broke her heart, and a person cannot survive without the other half.