Chapter 26—"I Shall Be Released"
The week after Hook died I ran into R.J. as I was walking into Commons. We both stopped.
“Sorry about Hook,” he said.
“His name is Dennis.” I pushed by him and he grabbed my arm.
“You can’t do this to me, Becky.”
I stopped and turned. I looked into his eyes and for some reason I felt a deep sadness for him. I was surprised at how calm I felt. Kennedy wife calm. Hook was doing his magic, surrounding me.
I paused and looked around. “R.J., you are the best goddamn guitar player I ever heard. Don’t blow it.” I turned and walked away.
I never saw R.J. again. He flunked out after that semester.
Fall semester was over. I hit the road to spend Christmas at home, detouring through Cleveland to give Dennis’ mom his medals and army jacket. Dennis was all she had. Her husband left without a word when Dennis was little.
Mrs. McKinney greeted me with a hug that only the mother of Dennis could give. It was good to feel a Dennis hug again.
“It is so nice to meet you, Mrs. McKinney,” I said as she invited me in.
“Dennis’ friends are always welcome.”
Mrs. McKinney took me to the living room. I walked over to the fireplace. On the mantle were three framed pictures. One was of Dennis and his mom when he was about two years old. He had a giant ball in his hands and a grin that covered his entire face. I picked up the picture as she arrived with a tray. I turned to her. “He sure was cute,” I said.
“That he was,” she replied. “He was also quite a pistol.” My mom described my brother that way but I never heard anyone else use that word.
I put the picture down and picked up the second one, his high school graduation picture. His hair was growing out and he had that sexy grin. “I bet the girls loved him.”
Mrs. McKinney smiled. “He was never without a date. His special girlfriend, Sarah, broke his heart when she went away to college and told him they should break up so they could both meet new people.”
The third picture was a 3 X 5 photograph of Dennis in his fatigues with his arm around his buddy grinning at the camera. “I found that one in his stuff after he got back from Vietnam. That’s the buddy who died in the swamp when Dennis lost his hand.”
I picked it up. “He looks so happy.”
We sat down on the couch and she served me coffee and cookies. On the tray with the cookies was a scrapbook and the Christmas present Dennis made for her in the first grade. “Isn’t this adorable?” She handed me a blue felt frame with sequins glued around the outside and a picture of him standing by his desk smiling. “This picture of Dennis has been hanging on the bulletin board by the telephone ever since first grade.”
I smiled at her. How in the world could she be so composed? How could I be so composed? What we both wanted to do was scream at the world, pump our fists at heaven and ask why such a good person could be taken. It was the Kennedy wives thing again. They showed us how to grieve gracefully.
We looked through the scrapbook. “This picture was taken in the third grade when he had the role of the shoemaker in ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker.’ He took the role so seriously that we took a trip to the shoe repair shop. The owner showed Dennis all his tools and gave Dennis the tool that’s in that picture.”
“Here he is playing Little League Baseball in the sixth grade. He played catcher.”
“He never told me that.”
“He loved being in every play of every inning. Hold on a minute.” She came back with the signed baseball they gave her when he hit his first homerun the next to last game of the season.
“Here’s the ribbon he won at the science fair in the ninth grade for his display on the impact of flood and drought on farm land. One night after dinner he said his science project was due the next day and he didn’t know what to do. All I could think of was to make something with a salt dough mixture. He came up with an idea of a field with gullies on the flood side and cracked earth on the drought side. I couldn’t believe he won second place.” She smiled at me.
“That was like him, though. Waiting until the last possible minute to finish an assignment.”
“Always was his weakness.”
She turned the page. It was the program from the state championship football game and the newspaper article when he won Most Valuable Player. “That’s his trophy,” she pointed to the bookcase in the corner. “He played football from the time he was in seventh grade. He was a smart kid but all he wanted to do was play sports. He struggled with his grades but he wasn’t stupid.”
I walked over to the bookcase and picked up the trophy. The inscription on the bottom said ‘Dennis McKinney, Most Valuable Player.’ I touched his name and turned to his mom. “You’re right. Not only was he smart but he had an opinion about everything.”
“Opinionated and stubborn.”
I held the trophy to my chest as the tears rolled down my cheeks. “Thank you for sharing him with me, Mrs. McKinney.” I put down the trophy and walked over to her, took hold of both of her hands and we cried together. It was still too raw. We didn’t want to be composed. We weren’t the Kennedy wives.
“Now Becky. I cannot have you call me Mrs. McKinney. It’s too formal.”
I laughed as I wiped the tears out of my eyes. “Well, I do have a name for you. Dennis was very generous with your care packages of homemade cookies and brownies. When I saw him with one of your packages, I’d say, ‘What did Mama McKinney send today?’ That’s who you always were to me.”
“It’s perfect,” she said. She picked up the box with the two medals in it, fingered each one. “He hated these things.” She looked at me. “I begged him not to enlist. I always felt guilty for being happy when he was injured. I know the injuries tormented him. But he was coming home.”
I got up and walked to the mantel, picked up the picture of Dennis and his buddy. I touched his face. “When I first met Dennis I was scared of him. It didn’t take long to realize he had a heart of gold. He was my best friend.” I put the picture down and went back to the couch.
“He talked about you all the time in his letters. You helped him come alive again.” She looked at me then took both my hands. “I think he was in love with you.”
I smiled. I was in love with him too.
“I have something for you.” She walked over to the end table under the window and picked up a box. She handed it to me. In it was a framed picture of Dennis and me walking down the sidewalk outside Commons. The picture was taken from the back. I was holding on to his hook and we were looking at each other laughing.
“Where did you get this?” I looked up at her.
“The public relations department at the college sent me a number of pictures of Dennis a couple of weeks after he died along with a beautiful card. I had this one framed for you.”
I looked at her, overwhelmed by a sense of grief and gratitude. I held the picture to my heart. “Thank you,” I said. I looked down and then back up at her. “I am so sorry I let him go into Chicago that day. I should have stopped him from going.”
“It wasn’t your fault, dear. No one ever knows what’s going to happen. He died happy. I know that.”
“I was with him that morning before he went into Chicago. We were eating doughnuts at his apartment. If we ate one less doughnut or one more. If I kept talking for five more minutes or if I let him go the first time he said he had to go, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Mama McKinney took one of my hands, patted it and held it in both of hers. “You loved him. That’s what’s important.”
“Thank you so much for the picture. I will cherish it. I carry his red bandana with me everywhere.”
“That infernal bandana,” she laughed. “When he got back from Vietnam he made me tie that bandana around his head every day. He was so proud when he learned to tie it himself.”
I didn’t want to leave but had to get further down the road. I’d be back.
“Now wait a minute before you leave. I want you to take some cookies for the road.” She handed me a bag of cookies and then Mama McKinney gave me another Dennis hug. She said, “You give all those wonderful friends of Dennis a hug for me.”
“And promise me something.” Anything. “Promise me you won’t forget him. Promise me that.” I promised. Cross my heart hope to die. I would never forget Dennis McKinney. “And end this damn war.”
It was good to be home with my family for Christmas. We made cookies. My mom had the best collection of cookie cutters. We frosted them red, green, blue, yellow, white. For some reason, I always made the reindeer blue. And we decorated them with colored sprinkles, red cinnamon drops and silver balls.
We covered the tree with decorations we’d made throughout the years. When I was five we cut up pictures and glued them inside the silver foil bottle caps that came on the bottles of milk delivered in the box outside our door. They were my favorite.
I lay in bed one night wondering what happened to me. My dad’s only piece of advice had been to be myself. Where had I gone off the path?
Jeff. He seduced me with his eyes. Somehow I got caught up in the wine and weed, the kisses and caresses. Is it all part of growing up? Does everyone go through it? Losing yourself to find yourself? I loved Jeff. I loved Hook. They died. Will everyone I love die? Can I love and have it last? Why did I ever think R.J. could make it better?
I survived. I could think of Jeff and smile. He taught me to live life full-out, not be afraid. It still hurt to think of Hook. But whenever I thought I couldn’t stand it anymore, when the missing was the fiercest, I felt him hold me.
I told my family stories about Dennis. My dad loved the story about playing gin and slapjack. My sisters loved the walks to the lake and the stone skipping adventures. I told them about the medal he won and wanted to get rid of. “The same medal Uncle Jim has in his cabinet in the living room.” And I told them his story about Vietnam. No one in the family moved except to refill glasses of Diet Rite Cola and bowls of chips. They let me talk until way past midnight. I don't know why I didn't share more with my parents when Jeff died. It would have helped the healing.
When I was done I cried. My mom reached across the table and took hold of my hand. “I was in love with him, Mom.”
When my mom was four, her six-year-old sister died from diphtheria. No one told my mom what happened. Her sister simply quietly disappeared. When mom took my hand I knew she knew. The pain of love is deep. Love is what heals that pain.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 36,956