This story is by Robert Harrell and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My earliest memory involves a graveyard.
I am two-and-a-half-years old. They bury Dad with full military honors, but I associate the uniforms and flag-draped coffin with Mom’s sadness and my father’s absence.
“I hate you!” Mom’s snarl startles me. “You promised you would always come back.”
Brow furrowed and lower lip quivering, I shove my hands in my pockets, stare at the ground, and slump my shoulders. “I sorry.”
Mom kneels and draws me close. “No, Mikey, Mommy isn’t mad at you. I’m sad.”
“Sad.” I pat her hand. “Daddy home?”
“No, sweetie. Daddy went away.”
“No. He can’t come home. Someday we will go to him.”
“Go see Daddy.”
“Someday.” Mom squeezes me tight. “When God says.”
We visit Dad’s grave twice a year, on his birthday and on his deathday. Mom talks to him as if he can hear her. It creeps me out.
When I turn four, Mom tells me I am named for her brother, Uncle Miguel, and Saint Michael, my patron saint. Following family tradition, I received Dad’s name as my middle name. Michael David.
At five, I can read the tombstone’s inscription by myself. “David Arthur Castillo. 06-30-1976—12-29-2000. Beloved son, husband, and father. Buried in Hope of the Resurrection. Semper Fi.”
On Dad’s deathday after my sixth birthday, Mom tells me he died saving his platoon from an enemy ambush. Although she insists I should be proud, I am devastated. He thought his platoon was more important than me.
Mom suffers her first stroke in May of the year I turn ten, but we visit Dad’s grave anyway.
By the time I am fifteen, Mom goes alone. To her, Dad remains a vibrant personality, but to me, he is an indistinct shadow who abandoned me when I was two. Intellectually, I know he died serving his country, but that doesn’t change my bitterness. Not coincidentally, I stop believing in an afterlife. Just another sappy fairy tale with an unrealistic ending.
After high school graduation, Mom drags me to the cemetery and shows me off. “He would have been proud of you, Mike.”
“Yeah, sure.” I unzip my graduation gown and stuff my hands in my pockets.
Mom points at the ground. “Sit.”
“Yes.” Mom uses her cane to lower herself to the ground, giving me no choice but to join her. “I need to tell you about your father, something I ought to have done years ago.”
I sigh. “Let’s get this over with. I have a party to attend.” With my cynical friends, who agree the armed forces are lame, even though their fathers are alive and well. The military stole mine.
She lays her hand on my forearm in the gesture I associate with important information. “Your father died defending freedom and his military buddies.”
“Is that so? Or did he die protecting billionaires’ financial interests? He was a tool.”
Mom’s voice is sharp, tinged with anguish. “Never talk about your father that way.”
“I’m sorry.” I stare at the ground, feeling like I am two again, needing to console my mother, and failing. This time, I cause the grief. “What did you want to tell me?”
“Never mind. Help me up.” She never tries to tell me about Dad again.
I marry my childhood sweetheart at nineteen. We exchange rings, promising to love, honor, and cherish one another until death do us part.
I am twenty when we have our first child. Mom takes William Michael on her semi-annual trips to the cemetery, first in a stroller and later in his red wagon.
In August after I turn twenty-three, Mom experiences her third stroke. Jane and I insist she move in with us.
A year later, I arrive home from teaching summer school to find Jane frantic. “Will’s gone! I can’t find him or your mother. I called the police.”
Pulling my wife into my arms, I ask, “What day is today?”
“June thirtieth. Oh! You don’t suppose . . . ?”
“She went to visit Dad and took Will. Stay here in case I’m wrong.”
I climb into the car and race to the cemetery. As I approach Dad’s grave, which I haven’t visited since my wedding, I spot my son’s overturned red wagon and a crumpled figure. Will stands, smiling and humming, beside Dad’s grave and runs his toy truck across the top of the tombstone. Heart pounding, I race to Mom’s side and kneel. “Mom? Mom. Mom!”
She opens her eyes, raises her hand to my cheek, and smiles. “We had a lovely talk. He promised to come back this year.” Mom closes her eyes and sighs.
A lump forms in my throat. Mom’s delusional.
Will shouts, “Nana talked to Papa!”
Of course, she did. She always does.
After a two-month stay in the care facility, Mom comes home. We set her up with a hospital bed in her room. She and Will spend hours each day playing together.
“Dad, Dad! Nana says Papa is coming.” My son squirms with excitement. For three months, Mom has been telling him stories about his grandfather, stories she never told me.
I gasp with jealousy and the pangs of loss I thought I buried with my father.
The stories need to stop. I won’t let my father disappoint my son like he did me. I will wait, though. Tomorrow is Christmas.
Will wakes up early and drags us all out of bed to open presents. Mom insists on giving out her presents last. Jane receives an elegant bronze statue of a phoenix rising from the flames. Will gets his yearly Tardis Christmas tree ornament, a sonic screwdriver with lights and sound effects, a Dalek figurine, and a Dr. Who book. For the last gift, Mom hands me an envelope.
Inside, I find a card, a key, and a gold ring with three diamonds.
The card contains a note, handwritten in Mom’s spidery script. “Dear Michael, Please forgive me for not telling you more about your father. He was an incredible person, loved you more than the world, and anticipated watching you grow up. The key opens the bottom drawer of my desk. The ring was your father’s wedding ring. Read the papers in the drawer before deciding what to do with his ring. Love, Mom. P.S. Merry Christmas.”
Replacing the card in the envelope, I consider the ring with distaste. The man I despise wore it as a symbol of undying love for the woman he abandoned along with me. As soon as I dare, I will sell the ring.
With the envelope once more closed, I study my mother, wondering what her hidden agenda is. She appears exhausted but happy.
“I think I’ll lie down before lunch. Mike, do me a favor and start reading today. If you don’t, you’ll procrastinate and regret it.” Mom knows me all too well.
After lunch, I bring Will to play with his Nana and open the bottom drawer of Mom’s desk. File folders hang from the rails and bear labels reading “Kyrgyzstan,” “Sudan,” “Taiwan,” and a half-dozen other places I know only from history class and the news.
“Read them in order from front to back.” Mom’s voice sounds weak but insistent. “In here.”
I settle into the easy chair we bought Mom and lay the envelope with the ring and key on the lamp table. After ten minutes, I glance up. “I didn’t know you were a writer. You should publish these.”
“They aren’t mine. They’re your father’s diary and letters to me.”
“What? Dad’s diary and letters? This is true?”
I read. For four days, I read. The diary entries describing Dad’s deployments read like an adventure story. In his letters, he professes his love for Mom and eventually expresses his hope of watching me grow to be a man. Every letter ends with a promise to return, no matter what.
Finished with the last folder, I turn to Mom and gaze into her eyes. “I’m sorry.” The words remain inadequate to express my remorse. “Would you like me to take you to visit Dad?” Today is his deathday.
She shakes her head. “No need. He promised he would return, just failed to tell me how long it would take him.”
An unseasonably brilliant sun blazes through the window, and the faintest whiff of cologne wafts to my nostrils. Dad’s cologne. Mom used to let me sniff the pungent aroma, but it made me sad. Now, an inexplicable sense of anticipation grips me.
Mom smiles, gazing with unfathomable love into the blinding radiance at something or someone I can’t see. She extends one hand in welcome. “Took you long enough.”
Her body slumps against the pillows, and her hand drops to the covers.
Will stares at the same spot Mom did, his eyes solemn and full of wonder. “Dad, Papa came for Nana.”
I nod and slide Dad’s ring onto my right hand. “He kept his promise.”