It was seeing his boots that hurt the worst, seeing them shined, glimmering in the sharp rays of sunlight, made blue and green and red by a stained glass shepherd who watched over us that spring morning. It was seeing them and knowing that my brother would never wear them again, the army boots someone from his unit had awakened before dawn that morning to shine.
It hurt too to see mama who suddenly looked old and thin even though at the time she was only half the age I am now. My daddy looked old and thin too as we filed in and took our places at the front of the church so we could be closest to the flag draped coffin where the body of my brother lay.
“It’s just his body,” my uncle told me, “his spirit has long since left. Gone on to be with the Lord.”
I listened, not understanding. My brother was the first person I ever lost. I was only seven, and in my seven year old way of seeing things he was still there, in that big wooden box, under that flag someone from his unit had awakened before dawn to unfold and iron smooth.
I remember feeling sad for how I acted the summer before when my brother got a second birthday party, my mama’s idea. That was right before he shipped out on a big bus for the other side of the country and then from there, the other side of the world.
I remember him smiling when he waved goodbye through the bus window. Then he was gone, my brother, forever.
I still have the handful of letters he wrote my mother, and I still have the flag the soldiers from his unit folded so carefully that morning as we all stood holding in our tears. They gave it to me, that flag, stars as bright that those which light the darkest of nights, resting in a field of blue. They gave me his belt buckle and his watch and they gave me his boots.
Mama made me keep all of his things in a trunk, for when I was older, and made me promise to take care of them. I did, and I still do, taking them out, from time to time, to look at them and hold them and remember, and every time crying more than the time before as I think about what mama saved up and had carved on the lonely stone which watches over my brother’s grave, “Forever Young.”
This is a work of fiction to honor those who laid down their lives so that we won’t have to.
edward reed 2019