Almost seventeen years ago, I was a young mother who had a newborn during one of the worst winters the Northeast had ever weathered (no pun intended). This meant that my maternity leave—yes, the one that was three months long and seemed like it would be an eternity before I had taken it but what was really the blink of an eye—was spent shoveling snow, breastfeeding, shoveling more snow, and gazing longingly out the window to see if I could venture out with an eight-pound baby strapped to my chest. My house isn’t that big so walking the floors—her favorite activity—took all of about six minutes, even if I did it ten times in a row. Outside was the way to go, but with the sidewalks slick and icy, there was no way I was going to make the trek down the steep stairs in front of my house with a baby wailing in a sling across my gigantic bosom. It was just too dangerous and with my predisposition to klutziness, a recipe for disaster.
One day, the weather broke. It was early March and the snow was now almost gone, the streets wet but not slippery. I stuffed the baby into the front-facing pack and headed out into the cold, whereupon I came across another young mom and a tiny toddler—about eighteen months old—walking up the street, apparently as happy as I was to be out and about after a winter trapped indoors. The mom looked familiar but we didn’t know each other; we came to find out that one house separated us and we both had small kids. The toddler had a cloud of white curly hair not unlike cotton candy blowing around in the breeze, his hands protected by mittens, his parka pulled up around his ears. His name was Spencer and he was the younger of her two children and possibly the cutest child I had ever seen.
Spencer and his family were our neighbors up until five years ago when the opportunity to purchase a house on the side of a hill with a meadow in the back presented itself. We stayed in touch as you do when you aren’t neighbors anymore—a quick hello in the grocery store, or a wave as you pass on the street, everyone racing to their next destination or carpool pick up. “We really need to get together!” we would say and we would mean, but it happened only rarely. In the past five years, I was also dealing with a cancer diagnosis and had kind of holed up in the house, so the opportunity to see our friends dwindled as I struggled with treatment and its attendant difficulties. All of us worked full time and had kids to raise. Spencer and his brother made it a point to come to a prayer service on my behalf, though, and Spencer visited every Halloween without fail. We looked forward to his visits; he was now a rangy teenager with a penchant for anime and a creative streak. He would come for candy and to touch base, telling us how much he missed the old neighborhood and his friends here. We never considered Halloween to be officially over until Spencer came in whatever getup he had come up with and got his requisite Three Musketeers bar. Once he had come and gotten his candy, we would shut off the porch light and go to bed, another Halloween now in the past.
This past summer, I got a call from Spencer’s mom: he was turning eighteen; would we come to his birthday party? We were delighted by the invitation but found it a little strange that an eighteen year old would want a birthday party replete with old fogies like me and my husband. We found out when we arrived that it was a surprise and the reason for the party was fraught with emotion. The next day, on the day Spencer would actually turn eighteen, he was enlisting in the Marines.
Spencer and his family were profoundly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. Spencer, it would seem, had been so affected that he wanted to join the Marines and fight for our country. His parents were ambivalent, to say the least, but trying to support their son. The party was to be a celebration of his life and his ambition; we all had a blast, eating lobster tails and steak and drinking delicious wine and celebrating this young man with an incredible goal.
I focused on how much fun the party was and tried not to think about this tow-headed young man heading off to Parris Island in March. I have kept my emotions pretty much at bay since August, even when I thought about the party and what it meant. However, when I heard the doorbell ring at 9:30 p.m. last Sunday night—Halloween night—and heard the kids race down the stairs shouting “It’s Spencer!” I declined to come out of my bedroom. I couldn’t face the thought of seeing Spencer for the last time on Halloween night, here to collect his Three Musketeers bar and to say hello to us as he has every year since he was two years old. He was dressed as a woman, and a pretty convincing one at that, according to Jim and the kids. He was going to dinner with some friends but told them that before they got to their destination, he had to stop at our house to say hello and get his candy. It was tradition. Next year, he’ll be somewhere else and we’ll have to find another way to figure out when to shut off the porch light.
The next day, I sat at my computer working, like I do every day. The phone rang and it was a friend asking how our Halloween was. She wasn’t expecting me to burst into tears but when I explained why I was crying, she understood. She said that every time she sees a list of names, bios, or photographs in the paper of young men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, she stops and reads them, offering a silent prayer. She knows that they are someone’s child, someone’s grandchild, a brother, a sister, a husband, or a wife. They deserve to be remembered and to be celebrated for their commitment to something bigger or greater than many of us will ever know. They deserve to be counted.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think the little blonde toddler in the parka would grow up to be a Marine. There’s not much more to say on the topic except that our friend, Spencer, will be in our daily thoughts and prayers while he serves his country proudly. But most of all, we want him to know that we look forward to the day when we can give him a Three Musketeers bar on a Halloween night not too far into the future.