A California Ghost Story
We knew right from the start that Johnny was going to be a soldier. Even as a child, all his concentration was on the military. So we weren’t surprised when he joined the Marines right out of high school.
Johnny excelled in his chosen career. He was so happy to be serving his country. I could see it in his face every time he came home on leave. He was itching to get into some "real action", something that – as a mother – frightened me. He was my only son, and I didn’t want to lose him. But he was also a grown man with a wife and a baby on the way. I was very proud of the way he was living his life.
Then came the terrible day in September when everything in our world changed. I knew as soon as I saw events unfolding on the television that Johnny was going to get the action he craved. And I started praying: "Please God, keep him safe."
Johnny went to the Middle East and I started sending weekly care packages and checking my email several times a day. The tone of his communications was always cheerful, if a little strained. He was in danger many times, but somehow he always made it through unscathed, although he lost a few friends along the way. This deepened him and I saw a new maturity in my son that made an already proud mother even prouder.
My relief was intense when Johnny came home. I ran to him and almost knocked him over in my excitement when he stepped out of the car. He hugged me tightly, and then reached into the backseat to remove his little daughter from her car seat and show her off to us.
I tried to conceal my fear when he told us a few months later that he would be going back to the Middle East. But Johnny knew me pretty well. On his last leave before deployment, he took my hand, kissed me on the cheek, and said: "I love you, Mom. We’ll be together again real soon." I held back the tears until he was gone. Then I wept like a child.
Johnny’s emails on this trip were sporadic and his tone was grim. Things were tough over there, although he did not say much about it. He just spoke of little things like the rapid growth of his beautiful girl and the many activities of the wonderful woman who was her mother and his wife. After he’d been gone nearly a year, Johnny started making plans for his return home. He thought he might make it home in time to celebrate Hannukah with the family, and I clung to that hope with all my strength. My husband and I always made a big fuss over Hanukkah, ever since Johnny was a little boy. The eight-day Festival of Lights commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV and celebrates the "miracle of the container of oil." According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was exactly the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil. Since that time, the Jewish people have celebrated both victory and miracle each year by kindling the lights of a special candelabrum, the Menorah or Hanukiah, one light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. We read the sacred story, pray special prayers, eat latkes and fruit-filled donuts, play games with our children, give gifts. It is a time of great joy for our family.
When Johnny emailed us the news that it looked like his tour would be extended, I was upset. I had my heart set on us being together for Hanukkah this year, and the news hit me hard. But I kept on smiling, proud of my soldier boy, and only cried once when no one was around. We had my daughter-in-law and granddaughter over on the first night of Hanukkah, and showered them both with food and gifts. If, perhaps, we acted a little too happy, a little too cheerful, well, who could blame us? We were all keenly aware of the beloved one who was missing from the occasion.
Late that night, I awoke from a deep sleep, certain that I had heard Johnny’s voice. "Mom," Johnny said again. I turned over and blinked in the dim light coming from the streetlamp outside our window. Johnny was standing beside the bed, gazing down on me tenderly. I sat up immediately, my heart beating faster in excitement. Johnny was back. He had come home for Hannukah after all! They must have decided against the tour extension.
"Johnny," I gasped.
He smiled and sat down beside me, as he had often done when he was little. He took my hand and said: "I want you to know how much I appreciate you and Dad. It couldn’t have been easy, raising a head-strong boy like me, but you did a wonderful job."
Johnny’s words filled me with a great joy and a terrible fear. The military had sent him home, hadn’t they? (Hadn’t they?!?) Something in his beloved face told me that this was not an ordinary visit. That he hadn’t come home the normal way. My heart thundered in my chest and I began to tremble, dread making my limbs feel heavy. Tears sprang to my eyes, and Johnny gently wiped one away with his finger. "I came to tell you that I am all right," he said quietly. "Take care of my girls for me."
"We will," I managed to say, realizing at last what this visit meant.
"I love you, Mom. We’ll be together again real soon," Johnny said. He leaned forward, kissed me on the cheek, and then he was gone.
I fell back against the pillows, too stunned even to weep. My husband, who was a heavy sleeper, woke when he felt the bed jerk. He rolled over and mumbled: "Are you all right?"
"Something has happened to Johnny," I said, too grief-stricken to be tactful. "I think he’s dead."
My husband jerked awake. "What?!" he exclaimed fearfully. I started sobbing then, and told him about Johnny’s visit. We held each other close for the rest of that long night, waiting for dawn and the news which would surely come with it.
The days following the official notification of Johnny’s death — killed in action in the Middle East — were mind-numbing. I clung to the words my boy had spoken to me in the moments right after he died. Johnny had said he was all right, and I believed him. My son’s body was gone, but his essence, his soul, everything that made him my Johnny was safe and well. And we would be together again real soon.
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