by Margi Desmond
A trumpet played “Taps,” along with a drum’s cadence, while the horses’ hooves click-clacked on the pavement; the majestic animals pulled the carriage transporting the fallen soldier’s casket. Katherine watched the somber procession through Arlington National Cemetery on the television, and she read the information on the screen regarding the latest three casualties. The Ultimate Sacrifice, an Armed Forces Network public service announcement, appeared repeatedly on every AFN channel throughout the day, reminding viewers of the human sacrifices made on behalf of the United States of America.
Killed in action: Wardak province, Ghazni, Maiwand…not where he is. Thank you, God. Katherine turned her attention to the front window of her third-story base housing. Two years ago, she and Todd moved to Germany. Todd, a Green Beret, had spent months away either training or deployed to the war in Afghanistan. Katherine had basically lived alone for the past year and a half. She tried to make the best of the situation by working at the arts and crafts center on base, but it was a lonely existence, especially for a woman so close to her family. She and Todd had been married for five years, the majority of it with him traveling to various parts of the world, but this past couple of years had been the hardest for Katherine, who was unable to see her family at all. The international trip from Germany to the United States was too long, expensive, and exhausting compared to visiting when she lived in various locations in the United States. There had been promises of visits, but with family members’ precarious health situations and financial obligations, nobody had been able to travel. She understood, but still missed them.
Katherine sat on the couch and looked once again at the Christmas card her grandmother had sent. Nonny had written, “May God bless and keep you that I may hold you in my arms again.” Poppy suffered from terminal lung cancer, the man of eighty-eight years accepting his fate and not pursuing treatment. Katherine was convinced she would never see him again. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she quickly wiped them away. She had to remain tough. Special Forces wives do not cry. They must remain strong for everyone—their families and their men.
A few months before leaving for his deployment, Todd convinced her to travel home to see Poppy one last time. Katherine had been torn between the decision of going or staying. The cost of travel. Taking time off from work when the craft store was already severely understaffed. She also feared that seeing her dying grandfather would be too painful. Maybe memories of him in better times would be more comforting. But Todd had convinced her otherwise.
“You’ll be glad you did, trust me,” Todd said.
“But the money…”
“Who cares? We can afford it. Just go. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
She booked the flight to spend one last lovely time with Poppy.
Katherine worried that her grandfather would lose his fight with cancer before she could make it home. According to Nonny, Poppy experienced okay days and really bad ones. Katherine hoped that he would hold on until her arrival. “He’s excited to see you,” Nonny said. Katherine had heard of people hanging on to life, waiting for a special event, and she hoped this was one of those circumstances.
Her neighbor, Elizabeth, drove her to the airport. Traffic was sparse on the autobahn, and the drive only took a few minutes. Elizabeth parked her Mini Cooper curbside, and hopped out of the auto. She opened the trunk and handed Katherine her suitcase. “Have a safe trip, sweetie,” Elizabeth said as she slammed the hatchback lid closed.
“Thanks for the lift,” Katherine said, and the two women hugged each other goodbye. Elizabeth was no stranger to heartache. Few of Katherine’s neighbors were. Such was the life of a military spouse.
Katherine pulled her luggage into the airport terminal and looked around, trying to figure out where she was supposed to check in for an international flight. She had arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare since she was not sure of the numerous security checks she would have to go through in order to board a flight back to the United States. Following signs to the international check-in, she waited in line for a few moments before an airline agent signaled to her. The agent said something in German that Katherine did not understand.
“Ich spreche kein Deutsch. Verstehen Sie Englisch?” I do not speak German. Do you understand English? Katherine said in what she figured was an atrocious accent. She felt thankful when the agent asked for her passport in English. Once Katherine checked in for her flight, she stood in line at the security checkpoint. She did not have to take off her shoes, but she did walk through a metal detector, and an agent wanded and patted Katherine down before allowing her to continue to her assigned terminal. She confirmed her boarding location, walked to the nearest café, and ordered a cup of coffee. Only a few people sat in the airport. She took a seat at the café’s bar and watched the television, tuned to BBC news reporting, thankfully, in English. One of the reasons Katherine had failed to learn German was because so many people in Deutschland spoke English. Reading German wasn’t too hard in most instances since both languages are of Germanic roots. Katherine sipped the strong, small cup of coffee, and nibbled the tiny cookie the waiter had placed on the saucer.
With an hour to spare and knowing she had many hours of sitting in a cramped seat on the airplane, Katherine decided to walk around the terminal and window shop. She had forgotten to bring a book to read, so she walked in search of a bookshop. Unfortunately, all books for sale in the numerous shops were written in German. Even the magazines. “Hopefully they’ll be showing a couple of good movies on the plane,” she thought. It didn’t matter much, though, because she probably would not be able to concentrate as her thoughts kept drifting back to her dying grandfather.
Katherine was not sure if the exhaustion she felt from the long flight would help to keep her from crying or if it would cause her to break down when she saw her grandparents. She drove the small rental car from the Charlotte Douglas International Airport to Arden, North Carolina, trying to concentrate on the music playing on the radio rather than on thoughts of the reason for the trip: to see her grandfather for one last time.
It had been years since she had celebrated Christmas, Thanksgiving, or any special holiday or birthday with him, so during this visit Katherine planned to meet her sister and mother at Nonny and Poppy’s home where they would celebrate everything all at once: birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. It would be a Christmas in June for they knew Poppy would probably never see another actual Christmas again.
As she made the last leg of her journey, turning down Fuller Road, the weight of the reality of the situation sat like a brick in Katherine’s chest and stomach. She drove down the winding country road, noting things she had seen countless times before only then with a surreal, slow motion, out-of-body experience. The last visit. The very last visit. A lump rose in her throat, and tears welled in her eyes, but she gripped the steering wheel hard, took a deep breath, and asked God to give her strength. Crying, showing pain would only exacerbate everyone’s misery. She must be strong, enthusiastic, and her usual upbeat, cheery self that Poppy had always appreciated. She would supply the strength for everyone.
Katherine turned into the gravel road leading to Nonny and Poppy’s home. Their old horse, Buddy, lifted his head from the meadow beyond, pricked his ears, and trotted to the fence gate. Katherine parked her rental vehicle under the shade of a tree, close to the ranch-style house where her grandparents had lived most of her life. A house in and around which she and her sister had some of the happiest times of their lives. She walked to the gate near the front of the house and pet Buddy’s soft nose. He blew a deep contented breath out of his nostrils, his version of “hello.” He squinted and shook his head as flies swarmed around him. “Poor old man,” she said. “I don’t have any treats for you right now.” She promised the horse that she would visit him later with a carrot or apple. As she turned toward the house, Buddy resumed his grazing in the front meadow.
She assumed nobody—except Buddy—had seen or heard her arrive, so she entered through the back door and stood in the dining room watching her grandmother in the kitchen. She was rearranging items in the refrigerator, her back to Katherine, unaware of an audience. That was Nonny’s kitchen. The heart of the house where she made hardy meals and scrumptious desserts for as long as Katherine could remember. To her left, Poppy sat in his recliner in the living room, also oblivious of her presence. The old clock on the mantle ticked away the seconds, and she took in the peaceful sounds and smells of her grandparent’s home, the site of so many holiday and summer vacation fun times.
Not wanting to give Nonny a heart attack by surprising her, Katherine cleared her throat loudly and said, “Hi Nonny!” Nonny turned from the refrigerator and glanced in Katherine’s direction. Upon Nonny’s realization that it was her granddaughter standing in the dining room, her blank expression turned to one of delight as they walked toward each other and hugged. They held the tight embrace for a while as Nonny repeated Katherine’s name several times.
“I’ve missed you so much, my sweetheart.” Nonny started to cry but quickly recovered herself, surely not wanting to upset Katherine.
“Daniel,” Nonny said, taking Katherine’s hand and leading her to the living room. “Daniel, look who’s here.”
Poppy gazed upward with groggy eyes and smiled. Katherine leaned down and hugged him. “Hi, Poppy.”
Every other time Katherine had driven to visit them, Poppy had heard the vehicle coming down the driveway, walked out the door, and waited as she pulled up. They would embrace, and he’d insist on carrying her luggage in for her. This time, it was apparent that he did not have the strength to move from the recliner. He’d lost weight, was pale.
“That’s a pretty long trip traveling here from Germany, wasn’t it?” He smiled up at her.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Long and exhausting. I certainly wouldn’t do it for just anybody.” She grinned at him.
Poppy grabbed her hand and squeezed it tightly. A squeeze worth a thousand words, a simple act she’d cherish forever.
Tired, due to the jetlag caused by traveling across six time zones from Germany to North Carolina, Katherine went to bed early the first night of her visit to Nonny and Poppy’s house. She slipped in between the covers of the ancient, creaking bed and gazed about the room. The bookshelf containing old books, worn by the use of many family members, especially the Little Golden Books, always the kids’ favorites growing up. On the top shelf, a photograph taken at Jennifer’s wedding, of three generations of smiling McKinney women—Nonny, Mom, and Jennifer—arm-in-arm, smiling for the camera. Katherine grinned, remembering that beautiful day years earlier.
Poppy had walked Jennifer down the aisle; a bittersweet moment after her father’s company transferred him to their Hong Kong facility. A highly respected nuclear engineer, their dad explained this would be his last career move before retirement. His schedule would not allow him to fly back to the United States so he asked his father-in-law, Poppy, to walk his youngest daughter down the aisle. Poppy, always there for his family, enthusiastically accepted the request.
“Sweetheart?” Katherine heard Nonny’s voice calling from behind the closed bedroom door.
Nonny slowly opened the door and poked her head through the crack to see Katherine in bed. “I wanted to say goodnight.”
Katherine grinned and held out her arms, like she had done as a small child. Nonny smiled and trotted to the bed. They hugged each other. Nonny gave Katherine a kiss on the cheek and smoothed the hair on the top of her head. “Goodnight, my love. Don’t forget to say your prayers.” Nonny turned and shuffled out of the bedroom, both she and Katherine trying to hide tears from the other, for they both knew for whom they’d be praying for that night.
Katherine’s sister, Jennifer, and mother, Linda, arrived the next day with tons of food and presents for the big celebration. Just the three of them—sans husbands or other family members—would enjoy the party with Nonny and Poppy.
“I bought a bottle of champagne,” Jennifer announced.
“Your grandparents are on medication,” Linda scolded, hands upon her hips.
“Mom!” Katherine nudged her mother. “A couple swigs won’t do any harm.”
“Damn right,” Poppy said. “Open that puppy up!”
Linda’s eyes widened. “Daddy, it’s only ten a.m.!”
“Oh. Well, I guess we’d better wait then. I’m loosing my marbles. Didn’t realize the time.” Poppy laughed and rolled his eyes.
“How about you drink an Ensure right now?” Linda said.
“No, I’ll wait for the champagne.” He clutched the remote and turned on the television while the ladies gathered in Nonny’s kitchen.
“You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble,” Nonny said, surveying the bags of food placed on the counter.
“Oh yes, we should have,” Linda said and gave Nonny a hug.
“It’s party time!”
Delicious cooking aromas wafted from the kitchen throughout the house, bringing back olfactory memories of holidays past. Meanwhile, the family decided to sip champagne and open presents before dinner. Jennifer proceeded to open the bottle of champagne. “Don’t pop the cork violently. You’re supposed to ease it out of the bottle so you don’t traumatize the champagne,” Katherine said.
“Traumatize the champagne? What the—” Linda said.
Katherine giggled. “That’s what they taught us during the champagne tasting in Paris.”
“Oh boy, listen to the world traveler.” Jennifer popped the cork and poured everyone a glass of the crisp, bubbling liquid.
Everyone raised their glasses, and Poppy said the toast, “To the best group of ladies in the world!” His eyes welled up with tears as they all clinked glasses.
“And the best grandpa,” Jennifer said. Clink!
“And best dad,” Linda chimed in. Clink!
“And best husband,” Nonny added. Clink!
“Have mercy, we’d better stop toasting before we end up sauced,” Linda said. “Let’s open presents.”
An array of beautifully wrapped gifts sat in front of the fireplace in the living room. Jennifer and Katherine took turns passing out the presents and taking photos as each person opened their special gifts. A new, soft pair of pajamas for Poppy for Father’s Day, a novel by his favorite author for his birthday, and a donut cushion for Christmas. He laughed when he opened the last one. “How’d you know I needed this?”
“Nonny told us,” Katherine answered.
“This will be great. Sitting here all day long really makes my bottom sore.”
“Well, Poppy,” Jennifer said, “every time you sit on that donut, remember we’ll always take care of your ass!”
“Jennifer!” Linda said, but couldn’t help laughing along with everyone else.
After dinner, of which Poppy had little appetite and merely picked at his food despite Nonny’s urging, he fell asleep while sitting in a living room chair, his feet propped on the matching ottoman. Katherine spread a soft, chenille throw on his legs, sat on the couch, and watched her grandfather sleep. Her poor, old Poppy who’d always taken Jennifer and Katherine for banana splits at Dairy Queen, who’d helped her move into her college dorm her freshman year, and who was always there for every graduation, wedding, birth—every monumental event of their lives. Please, God, don’t make him suffer. Please take away his pain.
When Poppy woke an hour later, he refused dessert and shuffled down the hallway to his bedroom. The next few nights, Katherine lay in bed, listening to Poppy’s snores through the bedroom wall, panicking when they’d stop, and relief flooding through her body when the snoring resumed.
As Nonny had previously indicated, Poppy did, indeed, have okay and bad days. The few days after the party, he accepted pain medication, which made him groggy and sleep much of the day. Katherine used the time to peruse old photo albums. Nonny and Poppy—he in his Navy uniform posing for wedding photos with his young, beautiful bride; constructing elaborate sand castles with the kids at the beach in the summer; the Grand Canyon, camping trips, skiing—a lifetime of love and laughter, far outweighing the intermingled trying times.
The day Katherine must return to Germany came too soon. She gave Buddy an apple and petted his warm, soft coat while he munched. She kissed his soft muzzle. “Goodbye, old Buddy.” He rubbed his head on her, leaving horsehair all over the front of her shirt. “Ah, a little something to remember you by, thanks.” She turned to leave, and the gentle stallion whinnied. “How do I say goodbye to Poppy?” she thought, choking back tears.
Her grandfather sat, bundled in blankets despite the warm summer day, on a lounge chair in the screened-in porch. Too weak to stand, he embraced Katherine as she leaned down to give him a hug. “Goodbye, Poppy.”
She hugged her Nonny and rushed to the car, calling back, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Poppy said.
On December fifth, Katherine said, “See you later,”—she refused to ever say “goodbye”—to Todd as he left for an eight-month deployment to the war in Afghanistan. Two days later, the phone’s ring jolted Katherine out of a fitful sleep. She knew there was only one reason someone would call her at three o’clock in the morning. Someone she loved had died.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Katherine?” Jennifer, said.
“Poppy’s gone,” Katherine’s voice cracked.
“Yeah,” Jennifer replied in a small voice. Memories of the rest of the conversation remained sketchy. Something about writing a eulogy. Something about Linda taking care of Nonny. Katherine tried to remain calm, tried not to cry or sound upset for the sake of her sister. Jennifer was a fragile person, kept feelings bottled up inside. Katherine didn’t want to add to her little sister’s pain.
After the call ended, Katherine lay in bed, eyes closed, in silence. She saw nothing, heard nothing, existed in a vacuum. Poppy was gone. He was finally gone after a painful battle with cancer. Poppy, the World War Two hero, had fought in the battle of Normandy. Her Poppy, a gentleman of the Greatest Generation, now with his brothers in heaven.
Margi Desmond has written more than 100 articles and short stories including “iMurder” (2014); “Big Brother,” “Bon Appétit,” and “Oblivious” (2013); “Home Sweet Gnome” and “Till Death Do They Part” (2012); and “Customer Satisfaction” (2011). A United States Army wife, Margi and her husband are stationed in Germany. For more information, please visit her website at http://www.margidesmond.com or see her Facebook Author Page at https://www.facebook.com/MargiDesmond?ref=hl