I remember the first time I received a love letter. I was in the eighth grade. The letter was handed to me at the end of the school day, soon before I was about to take my daily bus ride home. It was folded neatly, multiple times, to make a rectangular shape. The letter was written on a white piece of paper with faint blue lines (the kind of paper that was torn from a spiral notebook). My name was written on the outside of the letter in blue ink. It was given to me by my elementary school boyfriend and I couldn’t wait to find a place of privacy to open the letter and read its contents. Patience was never one of my great virtues. But I was able to wait long enough (about 10 minutes) until Bus 6 was called over the school speakers. And then I hurried to the back of the bus for an empty seat where I could sit privately with my letter. As I opened the folder paper with frayed edges, I could feel my excitement build as I anticipated the words that were written inside. Once the letter was unfolded, I just stared at the tiny print for a handful of seconds before reading the sentences on the page. And for as much as I remember the details leading up to the reading of my letter, the only part of the letter that I remember today was the ending. It read, in all caps, “I LOVE YOU!!! Love, Lane.”
I kept that letter tucked away for over 10 years. I’m not typically a keeper of memorabilia or old “things.” But every couple of years, when I started cleaning out my closets and drawers, I would come across that old letter and I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out. There’s something so sweet and innocent about the affection that comes from a young crush. But as the letter neared it’s double decade age, old memories were released into the trash. Maybe with the hope of making room for new ones?
Several years after I released my first love letter to some remote wasteland, I ran into Lane at church. We did the math and decided that we hadn’t seen each other in 15 years. He looked exactly the same, except that his head was now smoothly shaven. We talked for about ten minutes and during that time I found out that Lane signed up to become a marine. And he made this decision at a time of war. It was shortly after 9/11 that Lane decided to enlist. He told me that he wanted to do something for his country. And I specifically remember Lane saying that he hoped his decision might spare a man with children from having to fight overseas. Lane was a young man, with no kids of his own. But as he stood next to his mother near the church pews, I could see the look of worry on her face. For this was her child, and she too wanted to be spared the possibility of losing her son. But the decision was made. My first crush was about to write another chapter in his young life.
As we said goodbye that day, we promised to keep in touch. I always keep my promises. And so, we began a new type of letter writing, through email. At first, we played catch up on each other’s lives - stories about family, old friends we had in common, and pre and post college years. I told him about my work travels around the world. And he told me about his travels in the Middle East (there was no doubt that my experiences in the sunshine and sand were much more luxurious than his). I found out that he taught himself how to play the harmonica, which was not only therapeutic for him, but also entertaining for his unit. Jack Johnson, he told me, was one of his favorite musicians. As luck would have it, I was heading to Los Angeles to interview Jack Johnson. I made sure to grab one of Jack’s CD’s for Lane. After the interview, I asked Jack to sign it for my friend. On the cover of the CD, he wrote, “To Lane - Get home safe! Jack Johnson.” I emailed Lane right away and told him all about it. I wanted to get the autographed CD in the mail to him as a special treat! When I heard back, he sounded excited and grateful, but told me to keep the CD in a safe place until he got home. I honored that request, but sent a care package of movies instead. In the meantime, I tucked away the autographed CD in one of my drawers at home. Keeping it safe until it reached the hands of its intended owner.
A year passed, and the CD remained in my drawer. Lane was still fighting a war. And his correspondence became less frequent. But when I did hear from him, I got the sense that he was ready to come home. One day, when I was at my desk at the television station where I was working, my cell phone rang. It was my cousin Steph. She went to high school with Lane and she knew that we kept in touch. I wasn’t expecting her call, but I was always happy to hear from her. I’m sure I answered the phone with a cheerful hello. There’s no easy way to deliver the news she was about to tell me, so she just got right to it. “Lane Tollett was killed,” she said. And then there was silence. I’m sure I couldn’t even hear my own breath because I was probably holding it. My eyes filled up with tears and everything in front of me looked fuzzy. “I just heard from him three weeks ago and he was fine. What happened?” I asked with a shaky voice. She didn’t know the details and there was really nothing to say in that moment. But in the privacy of my cubicle, with watery eyes, I logged onto my email and reread the last message I received from my friend. I read it over and over again. And I only felt pain in my heart knowing that it would be the last letter I would receive from him.
Before Lane’s funeral service, I printed out some of the emails that we exchanged and folded them neatly. I had a handwritten letter to Lane, prior to his death, that was attached to the CD. He asked me to keep that special gift someplace safe. And while it was meant for him, I decided to give it to a person who I knew he loved and adored -- and who always made him feel safe -- his mother.
Today, as you enjoy your freedom to do anything that you please - drink a cold beer, dance to your favorite music, garden around your yard, indulge in BBQ ribs with your family -- take a moment to recognize the sacrifices of the truly brave and generous souls who gave their lives in the name of freedom. And to my buddy Lane, I hope they’re playing your favorite tune up in heaven! Cheers, and thank you my friend!