On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom
I'm back and still in the band of the living. I borrow this expression from a letter written on Jan. 1, 1876, by J.H. Wait, who was the brother of my great great-grandfather. He lived in West Potsdam, New York, and was writing to his relatives in Detroit.
He began his letter to Laura, his brother's widow. He called her "Absent Sister."
"I once more offer to exchange a few more lines with you to let you know that I am yet in the band of the living thanks be to God."
People of that time wrote beautifully. Their letters were full of meaning. This was their long distance communication. They couldn't pick up a phone as we can today, and their minds were not dulled by watching TV.
Further on he writes, "I think this last run of rheumatism will destroy my muscular powers and bodily health and bodily springs. I think I never shall be able to dance anymore, but thank God, I can use my tongue yet."
Some of the most haunting and poignant letters come from times of strife and war. We all remember the letter of the Civil War soldier in the Ken Burns documentary. It almost made you cry to listen to it.
When the Marines were preparing to invade an island atoll in the South Pacific in the Second World War, many would write letters home to a loved one. The letters were only mailed if the Marine died.
Sometimes we think that expressions of love and faith are absent today, and that we don't measure up to the beauty of thoughts written in earlier generations. But let me share with you a recent letter written home by a soldier in Iraq. It appeared in the New York Times. The soldier was Jesse Givens and he died on May 1, 2003. He had a six-year-old stepson named Dakota. His wife was Melissa and a son he called Bean was born on May 29.
"I never thought I would be writing a letter like this. I really don't know where to start. I've been getting bad feelings, though, and well, if you are reading this ...
"The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when you quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy's laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn.
"You will never know how complete you have made me. You saved me from loneliness and taught me how to think beyond myself. You taught me how to live and to love. You opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed existed.
"Dakota ... You taught me how to care until it hurts. You taught me how to smile again. You taught me that life isn't so serious and sometimes you just have to play. You have a big, beautiful heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it. Never be afraid to be yourself. I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can play. I love you, and hope someday you will understand why I didnt come home. Please be proud of me.
"Bean, I never got to see you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I know you will be strong and big-hearted like your mom and brother. I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your moms belly, and the joy I felt when I found out you were on your way. I love you, Bean.
"Melissa, I have never been as blessed as the day I met you. You are my angel, soul mate, wife, lover, and best friend. I am sorry. I did not want to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share. A lifetime's worth. I married you for a million lifetimes. That's how long I will be with you. Please keep my babies safe. Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone ... Teach our babies to live life to the fullest, tell yourself to do the same.
"I will always be there with you, Melissa. I will always want you, need you, and love you, in my heart, my mind, and my soul. Do me a favor, after you tuck the children in. Give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside and count the stars. Don't forget to smile."
The letter was signed, "Love Always, Your husband, Jess."
To paraphrase the expression of another, Cry with me for our beloved soldiers.