MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 72 – Drums of War
Billy thoroughly enjoyed the roast beef dinner I fixed on Tuesday night and had even been in a joking mood as, much to my horror, he showed Michael how to eat peas with a knife!
I had seen Billy pull this stunt first with his brothers, then much to my distress at the home of good friends, but so far, he had not shown Michael. I do not know what got into him that night, but he was full of himself with a smile on his face that rivaled the sun for its warmth. His son sat fascinated as he watched his daddy take his knife, cover it with margarine, then one at a time pick up the peas, and stick them on the knife! Of course, Michael had to try it too, and soon Billy had his son eating peas with a knife! Although I certainly thought this trick was one Michael did not need to learn, Billy’s happiness was contagious, and soon I forgot about my displeasure, relaxed and watched father and son eat peas with a knife!
After the children were in bed and we settled on our favorite spot on the soft white carpet, in an abrupt change of mood from carefree to deadly serious, he seemed abnormally quiet. I snuggled close to him, touched his face softly, and asked, “A penny for your thoughts.”
It was then he abruptly sat up, took me in his arms, and said, “We need to talk.”
Fearing only that he was going to tell me he didn’t love me anymore, my imagination, aided by my low self-esteem, ran rampant since nothing he could possibly say could be worst than that, and I knew he had been thoughtful and quiet since the children went to bed. Had he met someone? Did he want me to have another abortion? All I could do was sit and listen in stunned silence as he began to talk.
“Darling, I just want you to know a couple of weeks ago I bought another insurance policy for you and the kids. It’s just a term policy, not expensive, and if I make it back from Vietnam we can cancel it, and if I don’t, well, you will have the extra money.”
I started to protest his gloom and doom mood, but he put one finger to my lips and with a “shhhhhhh,” he continued. “There are two envelopes already addressed and stamped, with checks inside for you to mail for more insurance on the day I ship out. It terrifies me that you would have to live on as little as we have now and without my income. Although the Army will provide for you and the children, it won’t be all that much and I want you to be comfortable and not have to work, or to worry about money, so it’s just my way of letting you know I will love you forever, even after death, if it comes to that.”
Horrified, I held onto him and begged him not to talk about this now, we still had time, but as he held me even closer, he continued. “Little girl, I love you more than life itself, you know that, and I would never intentionally put myself in danger if I did not have to do so in the line of duty, but I am a soldier, and I am an officer, and I just might have to provide the example for my men to follow.”
As tears slowly started running down my cheeks, he kissed them off my face and added, “All the important papers are in the metal box – birth certificates, our marriage certificate, and our wills, all the papers you would need to take care of any kind of business. I have put off telling you all this because I know how much you love me, and I know you are scared, and I have not wanted to hurt you, but a memorandum came down through Brigade and it was suggested that all of us start putting our affairs in order.”
“I also had a photo taken last week, one in my uniform with the airborne wings and the Ranger crest. I know you have been asking me to do this, and after we took the children in for their photos, I talked to the photographer and made an appointment, but now I have thought about it, I wish we had a family photo too. Really, I wanted to save this to surprise you on your birthday, but I am not sure if we will still be here in December, although the rumor is we will leave right after Christmas. I just didn’t want to take a chance and not have it done or worse yet have it done, and you not know about it. Like you said, I have grown and changed a lot since college when I had the last photo taken, and I thought that perhaps you might want to send my father one for Christmas too. I want him to see I have turned into the man he always wanted me to become, just not in the occupation of his choice. All I can do is hope he is proud of me, and some day will accept me as a soldier in my chosen profession.”
“I want to tell you not to cry, but I know if it was the other way around, and you were leaving, I would cry, and as much as your tears hurt me, I know they are shed with love. We have had a wonderful time together, we have made two, no, three, beautiful children, and I know we will have even more wonderful times in the future. I just wanted to tell you all of this before we leave because sometimes I am too tired, and I doubt if I show you just how very much I do love you, and how much I have loved you since the moment our eyes met that night in the library. ‘More than life itself’ is not even sufficient to describe the way I feel, and the other week, when I thought about you and the children in the path of a tsunami, I finally realized how you must feel about Vietnam, and it was then I decided we needed to talk. Just love me, little girl, just love me forever.”
It had not been often in my life I had been left speechless, but this little ‘talk’ had left me not knowing what to say. Here I had been thinking I was not worthy of Billy’s love and he had found another, and he was thinking just the opposite and worrying about the children and me, and taking care of us while he was gone, or God forbid, if he died.
“Billy, oh my precious Billy”, I began, “You know I will love you forever. I just wish I could crawl up in your heart and stay there so if your heart ever stopped beating, my own heart could beat for yours. I can’t live without you; I do not want to live without you. Not even the children can bring me happiness if I don’t have you. You are my life, my past, my present, my future, and without you there will be no sunshine for me.”
I could see tears were beginning to form in his eyes now, and he kissed me more tenderly than with his usual passion. “Darling, you have to go on without me if it comes to that. Remember the promise you made to me one time, long ago, down in my old bedroom, after my parents had shown us what we did not want our marriage to become? Well, I want you to promise me again, and this time it is even more urgent with Ruth pulling the strings in Griffin.”
“I want you to promise; I mean seriously promise me you will never do anything to yourself if I am not around. I want you to promise me your parents and my father will never get their sick hands on our children. I know you would never be cruel or unkind, drink, or do any of those things we both had to live with for so long, and I know there is no one who could possibly love them as much as you do.”
“These children are the living symbol of what we have together, our love and our life, and they have never known what it is like to have parents who quarrel, hit, drink, neglect, or otherwise hurt them, and I don’t ever want them to go through that. It was bad enough for us and our siblings, and we did not have children so another generation would have to grow up with the emotional and physical abuse we all were forced to endure.”
It was my turn to say something now, and I did not know what I could say because he was right. I had promised him that night so long ago when I was just five months pregnant with Michael, and now I had to tell him I was not so sure it would be that easy to keep this promise. I knew life without him, for me, would not be worth living, and all the children in the world could not bring me the love he and I shared, but I did not want him to worry needlessly and perhaps become careless if his mind was not on his mission. As I had done in the past, I promised him, even though I was not so sure I was strong enough to pull it off by myself.
I knew he had not meant to frighten me, but if Brigade was telling them to get their affairs in order, and Billy even had his photo taken, after I had been begging him to do so for months, I knew he could be leaving any time now. I also knew that par for the course; the Army would not give us a lot of notice when it happened.
It was so like my kind, wonderful Billy to worry about us financially, although he had often taken our financial circumstances somewhat lightly, or so I thought. Now, when the time had come, he wanted to make sure the children and I would have more than he could provide, and somehow that did not seem fair. I needed him more than I needed money, and I simply could not fathom the alternative.
Flashes of Jackie Kennedy with her two small children by her side awakened from my memories but, as always, I thought, “This happens to everyone else, but not to me.”
How naïve` and how foolish I was to think this, but I was just twenty-two years old and Billy just twenty-four, life was just beginning for us, not ending. We still had our ‘perfect Christmas’ to look forward to – our very first without the turmoil we had faced every other Christmas of our marriage, and I was determined it would be a time of peace, calm, reflection, love, and excitement for all of us!
Satisfied he had done all he could to prepare me for his leaving, he then turned to the other thing that was foremost on his mind – sex!
We made love as if it would be the very last time, and we both soared into the sky and back, over, and over again, while Old Man Moon winked at us through the tall windows. It was my thought that I would make certain every time we made love it would be as if it were the last time so he would take that memory with him to Vietnam and leave him even more of a reason to want to come home!
Finally, as exhausted, we lay in each other’s arm, I said, “See, Billy McConnell, you can’t die, because I am sure you would not ever want me to do that with another man.”
“Oh, my little girl, if thinking about sex with you, and worse, thinking about you having sex with someone else could keep me alive, then I’m sure to make it! I feel physically ill when I think of you in any other man’s arms. You are MINE, and MINE alone, and you always will be. Oh, and another thing, you can’t crawl up into my heart, because you are already there, now and forever. As long as either of us lives, so does the other, and only until we both take our last breaths will the other die.”
With that thought, he stood up, and pulled me to my feet. We showered slowly, once again taking each other in as if we had never done so before. We caressed each other as we vowed to remember each freckle, each wrinkle, every inch of each other, and finally, we went upstairs to our queen-sized bed Billy had insisted we buy. And while the surf sang us to sleep, we held on to each other for dear life.
We knew it would be three long nights before he would be sleeping next to me again, and I was not looking forward to the big empty bed. I can still feel his strong arms around me as I sleep. I feel his heartbeat against my back, and the rise and fall of his chest with each breath, and I will never forget how loved I felt when he made love to me, and how much I still love him and always will – more than life itself.