My first duty station— Oak Knoll Naval Hospital—
I was just a young sailor assigned to Nine West.
They called this ward “The Stairway to Heaven”
for patients making a permanent port of call home.
I was new to my position and so eager to please.
Your requests for ice water were met with alacrity,
and even if I knew your wife’s name and used it
informally, I never knew you as anything but “sir.”
You left her in my care and, some twenty years later,
I want you to know what happened on the last night
you signed off on duty and placed me in charge of her.
In your stead, I kept watch, ready with the dispatch order.
It was a rough night and her breathing was labored.
It was apparent she would not last until morning;
the call was made and you were pulled from your liberty
to respond to the emergent critical situation.
But, you were in “blue water” sir, far from the ward
and I had to do something—so I pulled rank, sir.
I held her fragile hand in the last minutes of her duty
she held fast and kept her post as long as she could, sir.
In the end, it was her body—not her heart—that quit.
The later she kept for you, though my hand held hers.
She gently touched my National Defense Medal, smiled
and said, “In time, you will earn many more.”
In my crisp white uniform she said I were like an angel
sent to her in this moment, her changing of the guard.
She used all of the right words and kept her bearing
throughout a struggle we knew she would endure.
And while we waited for you, I sang softly to her
“Anchors away my boy. . .anchor’s away”;
and she seemed to understand that a ship at list
is best to find some stability. . . and she let go.
When you arrived, I had her ready for you, sir.
I had been very tender in her preparation;
I stayed by her body until you arrived
and we were able to share the formalities of grief.
Twenty years later, I wanted you to know:
on that night, I did what you would have done, sir.
Nothing more, than to take down the report from her
and present it to you as the messenger on duty.
Her message to you was simple— I can recite it by rote:
Tell him. . .he has made me so proud to have been his wife.
That he made each day. . . feel like the returning from the sea
and the love we shared was. . . like reuniting every single day.
I did earn many more medals for which I am proud, sir.
I had my time at sea and witnessed a sunrise at the equator.
But, it was when I came to the geographical center of myself
that I returned to the memory of your wife who served so proudly:
Upon whatever surface we may find their names:
chiseled onto cream colored crosses in a field of green,
eternally etched upon an ebony wall standing tall,
or written on the erasable white board of the ward,
they are heroes all. . .these sailors—men and women
searching for their fair winds and following seas.