She sang Happy Birthday to her son as a solo, doing her best to make it a cheerful moment. Ten candles ringed the top of Ryan's cake. It was homemade, served with ice cream. Afterwards, Betty sought the solitude of a back room. The young Mother thought she'd hidden the ache in her heart well. But now the floodgates were opened as tears spilled out. She sat sobbing, grasping a key that hung from her neck, supported by a dainty silver chain.
It was the key that unlocked all her good, but painful memories. Often she'd reach up to touch it, and sometimes grip it tightly, as if it might somehow rewind time.
"He was such a good man, always caring for others," she wailed aloud.
Her mind went back to that dreadful day, three weeks ago, when men had come to the door with hats in hand. The Marine dress uniforms and the demeanor of the two officers divulged their grave mission. They were delivering the frightening news every Soldier's family dreads. The words were as daggers, plunging into her soul.
"Mrs. Delaney, we regret to inform you..."
Her world stopped. Vertigo threatened unconsciousness. The voices sounded like a distant echo, spoken from some far off realm.
Her situation is not unique. For centuries men have died in combat. Multitudes of Husbands and Fathers have been snatched away, because of mankind's bent towards war. The saddest of ironies is that peace is the prize, sought through such great violence.
Sergeant Carl Delaney's Jeep had hit a land-mine, as it raced to provide medical aid to other wounded Marines over in Afghanistan.
Ten days ago, the chest had arrived. It held Carl's personal effects. Betty was searching for strength to go through the contents, which no doubt would be like singing sad songs to her wounded heart.
Her head jerked around, sensing Ryan's presence behind her. He wasn't fooled by her ostensibly cheerful birthday wishes. He understood.
"Mommy", he began, wrapping a skinny arm over her quivering body. "We're gonna be alright."
He was being the strong one for now. They'd been taking turns.
"Are you still worried because Daddy wouldn't go to church?"
Betty smiled through tear dampened lips and turned to take the little man of the house in her arms. It seemed he was the key to her sanity now. But what key could possibly open the doors of hope for tomorrow?
"That's part of it son. I don't know if your Dad was saved..." She choked on the words. Many times she had talked of Jesus and His love. Carl always listened patiently, but never responded. "Oh Lord... Just let us know he is with you, and that we'll see him again."
Dobbing tears with the back of her hand, she said,
"There's something we need to do Ryan. We must go through your Dad's chest."
She took the key from her neck and together they huddled around the military foot locker, emblazoned on the side with the name of the man who had been the key to obtaining the young family's dreams. Betty hoped the key in her hand would lead to some sort of hope. It was inserted in the brass lock and turned. Ryan reached to open the lid, hesitating to look at his Mother as concern crinkled his brow.
Inside were uniforms, one set of civilian clothes, pictures, and Carl's awards. On the bottom was a bundle of letters, the ones she'd written. Underneath was an envelope, an un-mailed letter addressed to Betty.
She quickly snatched it up and held it close to her heart. These were his last words to her.
This was special. She saved it for later--tonight perhaps, when she was alone. Maybe it held the right words that would make everything better. The letter was now the key to her hope.
Ryan touched everything, as if he were touching Dad. When the telephone rang Betty was of a mind to let it ring. She reached for the receiver, but her hand stopped at the doorbell's announcement of a visitor.
It was a man wearing the uniform of a U.S. Marine Chaplain.
"Mrs. Delaney, I just wanted to offer my condolences. Carl was a fine Christian man. It was an honor for me to be the one to baptize him."
Still clutching the letter to her bosom, sweet peace slowly filled her heart, as she realized the hope of every Christian soul. She would see Carl again.
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