The night my grandfather died, I was a young (and brand new) Marine wife, living on Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in coastal North Carolina. My husband was deployed overseas, and I still didn’t know many people there. If you’ve never lived on a military base, it’s a lot like living on another planet. It’s one of the best planets the universe has to offer, but it takes some getting used to. And I was still in my fish out of water phase.
I don’t remember exactly what I was doing before the phone rang that night. Probably having a showdown with a North Carolina palmetto bug — a giant, flying cockroach related to the pterodactyl. Or trying to figure out a way to tell my husband during our next morale call that our German shepherd puppy ate his favorite comforter. This was back in the year 1993 PC (pre-cell), when corded telephones roamed the earth. And the Marine Corps gave us a free, 15-minute overseas phone call once a week. I had to get up at 0200 and go through an operator on a party line (which was more 1943 than 1993), but it was better than nothing.
I do remember it was late at night and really cold outside (go ahead, have a field day with the foreshadowing and symbolism there). Anyway, the phone rang. You know what happens next.
My mom and I talked through that first rogue wave of grief, but eventually, I knew I had to hang up the phone. And then I thought, what am I supposed to do now? My parents were 2,000 miles away. My brother was in college in Kentucky. And my husband was deployed half-way across the globe. I was alone. Alone, alone. Well, except for that palmetto bug and my textile-eating German shepherd.
Palmetto bugs don’t make for very good grief companions, so I called one of the other battalion wives. She was a stranger once removed, really. But ten minutes later, she showed up at my door with a hug and a bottle of wine. That’s the thing about the Marine Corps Mafia (all military families, really) — if you call, they come running. She came inside, handed me the bottle of wine, and said, “Tell me about your grandpa.”
And so we sat, in the dark, in the middle of my living room floor. We drank that bottle of wine and she listened to me cry . . . and encouraged me to remember. Looking back, I have no idea why she and I sat in the dark in the middle of my living room floor. My husband and I were young newlyweds, who hadn’t yet accumulated a lot of stuff, but we did have a couch. And electricity.
I also have no idea what kind of wine she brought that night. Other than it was red flavor, and probably cheap — new 2nd lieutenants aren’t exactly flush with cash. It probably had a cute, dancing animal on the label. But it didn’t matter — that wine tasted like solace, and it was one of the best wines of my life. As we drank that bottle of wine, I cried less and smiled more. And when the bottle was empty, she stood up and said, “Go get some rest. You’ll feel better in the morning. Things are always better in the morning.” (She probably wanted to go home and sit on a couch, like a civilized person).
And you know what? Things were better in the morning. Not by much, but they were better.
I’m not much for poetry (most of it grates on my last good nerve). But when I was in elementary school, a friend gave me this poem, and I’ve kept it in my cedar chest for the last 30 years . . .
People come into our lives and walk with us a mile, and then because of circumstances they only stay a while. They serve a need within the days that move so quickly by, and then are gone beyond our reach we often wonder why. Who knows the reason that we meet and share a smile, why people come into our lives and walk with us a mile.
I wish I could tell you that bottle of wine ignited an enduring, quarter-century friendship, but it didn’t. We lost touch over the years. And that’s OK. That’s the reality of time and distance. Some people come into our lives and walk a marathon with us, others just walk a mile.
Honestly, I don’t spend a lot of time wondering why — I’m just grateful I didn’t have to walk that mile alone.
That night, a friend showed up . . . and she brought wine.