This story is by Meg Bracco and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I should have been there for him.
Carefully, I maneuvered around the pile of leaves that lined the concrete walkway. The smell of spring and freshly cut grass filled the air as the whir of a lawn mower reached my ears. Coming to the cemetery never got easier.
“Afternoon Julie,” a familiar voice called.
“Good afternoon, Joe,” I greeted walking over to him. Joe was the caretaker here and an angel in my mind.
“Are you going to see Ed today?” he asked, setting down a box of flowers.
“Please, give him my regards and tell him I’ll stop by later.”
“I will, Joe, thanks. The flowers look lovely,” I said, pointing to the row of blue pansies waiting to be planted. I noticed they matched his eyes.
“Flowers brighten even the saddest places. Don’t you think?” he said as he lifted the box of flowers and loaded them into a utility cart.
“Yes, they do. See you later, Joe,” I said as I continued down the walkway.
I stopped several feet away from my destination. “Edmond Peters” stared back at me in bold, rigid letters. Even though it’s been a year since his passing, the last few steps were always the hardest to take.
“Hi honey,” I whispered as I moved in closer. “I know what you are thinking. ‘I shouldn’t be here. I should stop coming to see you and get on with my life.’ You’re right, I should, but… part of me doesn’t want to move on.”
I sat down beside him and put my hand where I believed his to be.
“The days aren’t getting any easier, Eddie. I miss you so much. But, I’m taking your advice. This will be the last time I will ever see you. Once I leave you today, I won’t be coming back. It hurts too much. Before I go, I want to tell you that, I am sorry.”
My eyes filled with tears.
“I wish I had the chance to tell you before you died. I hate this feeling of regret and guilt following me like a shadow.”
I looked at his headstone, recalling the time we first met. It was a blind date. He rolled up in his Chevy and charmed me instantly with his deep blue eyes. He was easy to talk to and made me feel like a queen. Afterwards, he drove me home and kissed me goodnight. It was the most wonderful kiss I’d ever had. He left me reeling and wanting more. It wasn’t long after that we were married.
“I love you Jules.”
“I love you too Eddie,” I laughed, playing with his hair.
“Stop that,” he laughed getting up. “Come on, let’s go for a drive.”
“Why? Can’t we just stay here forever?”
“We could, but I want to travel the world with you and the first step is exploring the world around us. Come on, let’s go!”
A few months later, he deployed. I still remember watching his plane take off. I felt so alone, but hopeful for our future when he would return. When he came home, he wasn’t the same. He began to scare me. He’d wake up in a cold sweat, shivering like he had a bad dream, but he never told me what it was about. Something happened to him over there. Sometimes he’d scream and wander the house in a rage. I cringed, recalling the fights we had. I wish I could take back the things I said to him.
“Just go away!” I screamed. “You don’t love me. If you did, you wouldn’t be acting like this!”
“Jules, I’m trying. I’m trying. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“You need help.”
“Then help me, Jules!”
“I don’t know how to help you, Eddie! You won’t tell me what’s wrong. You shut me out and get angry at me when I try to help you. I don’t even know who you are anymore! I hate seeing you like this. You’re not making this any easier by being silent. You used to be so easy to talk to.”
“Please Jules, I can’t handle the way things are between us now.”
“You’re the reason things are like this, Eddie! I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you need to figure it out.”
I remembered the look of helplessness on his face as I stormed off. I couldn’t help him. The next morning he was gone. He usually went off after we had a fight, so I wasn’t worried. I knew he’d come home, eventually. Then, I got a call from the police telling me he was in the hospital and it didn’t look good. I remembered the feeling of panic climbing within me at the news. I was so shaky I could hardly drive to the hospital.
I looked back at his grave silently.
“When I got to the hospital, you were already gone. I don’t remember if I ever told you, but Joe found you and tried to save you. He rode with you in the ambulance to the emergency room. He never left your side. He told me he used to talk with you when you were out walking. He understood you even if I didn’t.”
I turned my head and pulled my hand away from him.
“When they told me it was suicide, my heart broke into a thousand pieces. All I had was now gone. We never got the chance to travel the world together. I would never hear your voice again or feel the warmth of your kisses. I would never see life in your blue eyes again. And it was my fault.”
I looked down at my Eddie and remembered the day I buried him. It was still so vivid in my mind. The walk to his grave was agony itself, slow and gut wrenching. There was a gaping hole waiting to cover him up forever, not like the neat grassy bed he had now. I prayed it wasn’t real and he would wake up and smile at me and then we’d go home and make things right.
He never did wake up.
Some of his military buddies attended the funeral to pay their respects. They were solemn and quiet. I wondered if they knew what he went through. I wondered if they blamed me for it.
I haven’t spoken to them since.
“You know I am not good with words Eddie,” I said, “but I wrote you a letter. I hope in it I can explain what’s been in my heart.”
I pulled out the crumpled letter from my pocket, unfolded it, and began reading,
“Ed honey, I wish I could have told you while you were still alive that I am sorry. I am sorry I didn’t know how to help you when you needed me most. Doctors have been researching what you went through. It’s been a few years since Vietnam, but they call it PTSD. There wasn’t anything wrong with you. You saw something traumatic over there that was hard for you to understand and it haunted you. Many others besides you had it, some still have it. When you left me, I felt betrayed. You didn’t have to die. I didn’t want you to die. I didn’t want you to leave me, but I know now that it hurt you to leave just as much as it did me. I wish I helped you more. Now the guilt of not knowing what you went through and not being able to help you will haunt me for the rest of my life. I loved you then and I still love you now, even though you are gone from me forever. From our first kiss to your dying breath, I loved you. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. Yours forever, Julie.”
Carefully, I folded the letter and wiped the tears from my eyes.
“So, you see why this will be my last time coming here? I feel so ashamed of the wife I was to you. I feel like I made you leave. Made you…. I didn’t want you to leave. I just wanted you better. I still loved you in spite of all the mistakes we made.”
Gently, I placed the letter under his name and stood up, holding back my tears.
“Goodbye, my darling for the last time. By the way Joe, sends his regards and he’ll be by later. He’ll look after you. I promise you that. Probably the only thing I can promise.”
I turned around slowly and walked away. Death came as a comfort to him, but not for me. I should have been there.