Martha couldn't see the birthday cake, but she felt the heat of the
lighted candles against her face as the cake was placed on the table
before her. She blew as hard as she could, unable to see how successful
she was. The sound of someone else finishing off the candles went
unheard. Valerie, her oldest daughter, took Martha's hand and placed
the handle of the cake knife firmly against the palm of Martha's right
hand. With Valerie's guidance, Martha made the first cut. She heard the
faint clapping of hands and the distant singing of Happy Birthday.

Martha Hampton was 90 years old. She took little joy in the celebration
around her, although she was grateful for her family's continued
devotion. She hoped this would be her last birthday party. Being unable
to see, and barely able to hear, was a steeper slope than she was
inclined to climb. She smiled, inwardly, thinking that life's incline
was steeper than most people acknowledged. As she took a bite of cake,
her eyelids followed the closing motion of her mouth. To the others it
appeared that she was sleeping, but Valerie was only deep in her
memories, which were always more clear when her eyes were closed.

As she looked back to the beginning, while still contemplating the
present, her body quivered in hopelessness about the future. The paths
of her life were strewn with family members lost in decades of battle,
in far away places, seeking to build a better world. Her head jerked
slightly at the thought of her father lying bloodied and breathless,
one of 1,811 fatalities at the Battle of Belleau Wood, in 1918, six
years to the day after her birth.

Her eyes opened, as Valerie held her arm and walked her from the table
to the living room, where she sat in her favorite chair, her eyes
closing once again, only to see another American soldier, her husband
Jack, gone forever, felled at Pearl Harbor, shortly after she had blown
out the candles on the cake at her 29th birthday party. She started as
she felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Hi, Great Mama," she heard her great-grandson Todd say. "Can I get you
anything: coffee or tea?"

"No, thank you," she said. "I'm fine."

"Okay, Great Mama, just holler if you need me," Todd said, giving her a
kiss on the forehead.

 Her eyes, always heavy, seemed so much heavier. She drifted away in a
heavy sleep, only to be awakened by another tap on another shoulder.

"Mom, we're leaving," Valerie said. "Come, let me help you with your

The cold blast of air rushed through the open door, lightening the
heaviness in Martha's eyes. Following Valerie's lead, she reached the
car and settled into the back seat, grateful that her son-in-law had
turned the heat on a few minutes earlier. As the car turned onto the
highway, Valerie turned back toward her memories. She thought she heard
singing, but what she heard wasn't a song, just the word Hoengsong, a
cacophony of terror in 1951, which took her son, Thomas, away from her
on a hilltop in Korea, on the same day she turned 39.

She felt the car stop. Her son-in-law's door slammed shut, as her
daughter's hand reached into the open door beside her to help her out
of the car. They walked slowly together into the house. Valerie helped
her with her coat, and then guided her to her bedroom.

Martha was aware that she was not alone; however, she felt like the
loneliest woman in the world. Her father had been taken from her; and
then her husband, son, and grandson. She wanted to be taken. She had
been ready to go for so many years, yet she was still here. She thought
she heard the television, off in the distance.

"Yes, it's the news," she told herself. "What could be new?," she thought.
"It's always the same. Nothing will ever change."

Her breathing slowed. A newscaster's voice announced that the United States
was committing more forces to the war on terror. Martha heard a voice fading away.

" I'll be fine, Great Mama."

Eric  Miller is a retired dentist who has laid down his drill for a quill. His work appears or is forthcoming in
Foundling Review, The Storyteller, Calliope Nerve, Stories that Lift, The Cynic Online Magazine, Word Slaw,
The Stray Branch, Flutter Poetry Journal, Word Catalyst, Short Humour, Poetry Friends, Boston Literary
Magazine, and  Blink / Ink.

As a Vietnam veteran, the theme of this story is very close to me. Witnessing history repeat itself in Iraq and Afghanistan affects me deeply, especially when I see the postings of those lost in action at the end of "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS.

After attending a birthday celebration for a neighbor's elderly mother, I saw those postings on my television screen and began to write the story. On one level it was very difficult to write, but on another level, the words came easily. I wanted it to be very simple, but powerful.


Copyright 2009