I remember the missed call. I walked into the house for Thanksgiving dinner and placed the fruit plate that we’d never get to eat on the counter. I instinctively reached for my phone and found a missed call on the home screen. Why did E call me? Is he here? I asked aloud. A different phone in another room rang.
I remember the overheard shouted conversation: he shot himself …
I didn’t ask where he’d shot himself until we were in the car racing towards the ship. I held out hope that it was just an accident. That there was an accidental discharge and that he’d shot himself in the foot or some other appendage. Nothing serious. Something that we’d all laugh about in the near future. We were in the car and I was driving too fast, swerving lanes, my hands shaking against the steering wheel. We were at the gate, five minutes past the call, before I could bring myself to ask where?
I remember the tremble in H-‘s voice when he replied with just three words: in the head.
I remember arriving at the ship, 10 minutes past the call – 12 minutes post gunshot, my flip flops slapping against the metal gangway, charting my uneven path. The blood was bright and oxidized. More pink than red-its metallic stench following the congealed trek across grey metal. I thought only of myself in those first moments.
I remember the shame of being dressed for a party. My lips painted an orangey red, my hair — wild curls defying gravity, my colorful sundress, covered in large sunflowers and bloused out from the wind – everything about me was wild and alive in that moment. And I was embarrassed by the hard pulsing blood in my veins and quick, shallow breaths in my chest.
I remember that I ran to put on my uniform and tame my hair into a more sober and dignified arrangement. And I remember throwing that dress away as soon as I got home. Still, I thought of only myself in those moments. I thought about the sluggishness that had followed me all morning. The idea that had rested at the base of my thoughts, the one that I’d ignored all morning that said stop by the ship, see how things were going. I thought about the incongruity of the sunny Thanksgiving day, the bright blue water of Pearl Harbor, and the ever present rainbow over the ship. I thought about everything except for the impossibly young, barely breathing body, pale and gray, wrapped in bandages.
I remember the sound of my Senior Chief’s voice splitting the stillness of the flight deck in grief, my hand resting lightly on his arm and the thump, thump, thumping arrhythmia of my own heart.
I remember that it took him another two hours to die.
I remember his soft Puerto Rican accent and how he’d explain salsa lyrics to me each morning as he swept the P-way. And I remember how hard he worked and how much he was a part of all of us. I remember mostly that he was just a boy who loved his mother and was going home for her birthday.
I don’t remember the full grief of the memorial service – just quick cutaways: the large picture of him in his dress whites, the In Memoriam Facebook post, the heartbreaking sound of men crying that filled the chapel. I don’t remember how I stilled my breathing — how hard I tried not to cry — how hard I sobbed anyway.
I don’t remember how we kept going after this and I don’t remember how we learned to walk by that spot — eyes just slightly averted –without breaking in two. I don’t remember how we learned to laugh again or how we managed to show up to work each day and love each other in spite of everything. But we did.
But we did.