Around the 20th anniversary of my stepfather's death, I found myself visiting his grave for the first time in many years. I had long since left my hometown and moved to the smoggy shores of California. However, I found myself thinking about him more and more, and the significance of his two-decade absence was burning a hole in my heart. When I visited his grave, I broke down and wept. This completely surprised me; I hadn't expected it to hit me so hard. As I sat on the grass staring at the stone marker in the ground, I thanked him for coming into my life. Even though it had been twenty years, I could still remember the very first day we met.
My mom and I were living in Hillbrook Apartments at the time. Most of my early childhood memories centered around this sprawling community of buildings. The playground, the central meeting point for all the kids in the area, was just outside my building. It seemed as if everyone I knew resided in these apartments. Not just my friends, but my mom's friends as well.
Since divorcing, my mom had put her personal life on hold and wasn't looking for a relationship. When friends of hers invited her out for drinks, she knew they were trying to set her up with Chuck. When she heard he was in the U.S. Marines, she couldn't have been less interested. She decided not to go.
Later in the evening, my mom's friends called to ask if she wanted anything to eat; they were stopping for fast food on the way back to the apartment. Again, she declined. An hour later, Chuck called to personally invite her over since they had picked up something for her anyway. She reluctantly agreed and walked down the hall to their apartment.
After an evening of entertaining stories and jokes, Chuck walked my mom back home. Outside of the doorway he said, "I think you're the one." Having been out of the dating game for so long my mom wondered, "The one what?"
Despite my mom's reluctance, Chuck's natural charm won her over. A whirlwind romance ensued in which he often drove the long distance from where he was stationed in Quantico, Virginia to Cleveland, Ohio for weekend visits.
During this time, he took me to baseball games, taught me how to ride a bike, and showed me how to fish. He would turn a simple drive down the street into an adventure by either popping in an eight-track tape so we could rock out with air guitars and drums; or by pretending the car was a helicopter and we were cruising through the air on a vital mission for the President (whom he had actually met while on duty with Marine One, the Presidential helicopter).
It didn't take Chuck long to propose to my mom, but because he knew he had to serve a year overseas, they decided not to marry until he returned. He couldn't wait. Halfway through his tour, he flew halfway around the world and married my mom.
For her, it was the fairy-tale romance she had always dreamed of. She finally found the joy that had eluded her in her first marriage, a wedding of convenience due to a youthful indiscretion (namely the inception of your humble author).
After a short honeymoon in Niagara Falls, Chuck returned to the Philippines to complete his tour. It was a dark, rainy autumn afternoon when we drove him to the airport. Three weeks later, he was dead, killed in a helicopter crash during a combat training exercise.
When the Marines arrived at our apartment door, I knew something was wrong. The news sent my mom into hysterics. For some reason, I didn't cry. As a child, I'm not sure I understood the permanence of death. I walked down the hall and told our friends.
I don't remember much about Chuck anymore. What I do remember mostly comes from the stories my mom has told me. Yet, I have a few vivid memories of him, including the Sunday afternoon we first met. I had laid out every comic book I owned in the apartment hallway so I could sort through them. They stretched from the bathroom door to the kitchen. He listened attentively as I told him about the stories within their pages. He listened in a way that most adults didn't. That was just one of his qualities I've attempted to emulate in my life.
It's been nearly thirty years since Chuck entered our lives. He left almost as quickly as he arrived. Each year, my mom still makes a pilgrimage to his grave. Even though she has since found love with a man whom she's been with for over 25 years, Chuck left an indelible mark on our souls.
For me, it's strange to think that I've spent more years on this planet than he was ever allowed. I outlived him and continue to do so with each passing moment of my life. In some ways, his short life is a reminder of carpe diem; seize the day.
Of course, it's impossible (not to mention impractical) to try and live every day as if it's your last. But there are times when you just need to live, embrace the moment, and tell the people in your life how much you love them. I don't do it often enough. This column is for you.
Stormcrow Hayes reflects in Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A. For more information visit www.stormcrowhayes.com.