The memorial was long and elaborate, stones pressed together for the inscribed names of every American World War II soldier that died in battle.
Identifying every single soldier took years. Years and years of lists and recollections, with large textbooks and endless hours of checking.
But now, it was completed. They allotted a substantial section of Washington D.C to the cause.
The memorial was a twirling, curvy stone structure that made a shooting star, in the aerial view. One could walk through the spirals bleeding off the star, reading the names of thousands. One could feel the floor light up beneath them, and watch the ghost of their loved one finally come home.
I was one of those people, waiting for my father’s name to be written in neat, polite cursive among thousands. I went during the day, flowers and tears, and walked.
Alphabetical order. Thank God. There was no other way I could find William Wallace in the sea of words.
There were long names, short names, unique names, and all American ones. I nearly laughed, despite my grief, at seeing hundreds of ‘James Smith,’ ‘Robert Wilson,’ and so on. I even saw some women’s names, and that surprised me.
My mother wouldn’t be there. Apparently dying from the terrible conditions in the places she worked to raise money, then taking care of three children, did not make her a soldier. It did not make her a survivor of war. It made her nothing. Not even a casualty.
I spotted a name I thought I would recognize – another Wallace. People made jokes about similar last names–people made the fastest connections.
There were plenty of Wallaces when I was out in France. Like Thing 1 and Thing 2, we became a long list of numbers. (We hated the numbers, so we made specific nicknames for ourselves. Numbers were too real, too intimate. Especially after reaching the concentration camps).
I wondered if the sweat on my palms was hydrating the flowers. Petals cascaded to the ground as my hands trembled. I found myself apologizing to the flowers, then hoped no one was nearby.
I wondered what this memorial meant to those who were not affected by the war. It was a showcase, an exhibit. I saw kids run their fingers over the names, never seeing the blood, sweat and tears behind the names.
I was mostly surrounded by women, to my surprise. They all lingered in the same places, gazing at the same section, murmuring between painted red lips. What soldiers, having the balls to stand before their ghosts and not cry.
I got a few sympathetic gazes as I walked past. Now I passed the R section. Raffael, Regan, Riley. Ronaldson, Russell.
My eyes remained on Russell, because Russell was my tutor back when I was a high school student failing science class. Even then, he was an old man. They made grandfathers fight in the war, because the oldest bones were the toughest.
As I passed this vast list of names, I realized they could never count the names of everyone killed in the war.
Who starved? Who became homeless and died in the depths of winter? These were the questions the records never asked. These were the questions these memorials could not answer.
According to the governments, my father was a soldier. Not my workaholic mother, not my skeleton-thin baby brother, not my frost-bitten aunt. And while I mourned his honorable death with every bit of my soul, I mourned their deaths too.
I eventually reached the W section. My heart seemed to thrill.
Finally. The recognition. He’ll be known somewhere other than his gravestone.
But at the same time, I was worried. I was worried I would break down crying, because five years still wasn’t enough time to recuperate from this loss. I struggled to find the way to fully, fully leave him in my past, in photos instead of my heart.
Other people seemed to be looking at ghosts as they read their special name. I wondered when Dad would appear.
We’re all just delusional, aren’t we? Death makes people delusional, I concluded.
Dad’s friends would jokingly call him Willie Wallie. His parents didn’t make the right decision, giving him a similar first and last name. It only made him closer to them.
Willie Wallie. It was what I first saw when I spotted his name. Ol’ man Willie Wallie, the man with hands for holding children and eyes for looking at the stars.
I broke. I fell onto my knees, pressing my forehead against the smooth stone, the flowers falling out of my hands, and cried.
I cried for ten minutes until a timid hand tapped my shoulder.
“E-excuse me?” A girl’s voice chirped. “Who are you crying for?”
I raised my heavy head. It had perfectly fallen on William Wallace’s name. “That one.” I nodded towards my father.
“William Wallace? That was my uncle’s name.”
My eyebrows lifted, stretching tears across my face. “I … I’m sorry, I didn’t think he had a niece. He’s my father.”
“Oh! Yes. Yes, you must be.” She set down her own flowers. “You know what? I … I guess I’m not his niece. By blood. He took care of me. When I was a refugee.”
Now I noticed the scars on the girl’s face, from some disease, and realized Dad would not have seen the girl with disdain.
“Your uncle was a lovely man. He died a while ago, but …”
“Still feels like yesterday.”
She laid her flowers next to mine. We drily chuckled. “Do you, um, want to keep talking? Even if war is a depressing subject, it’s quite fascinating to learn more. Like I’m revisiting my father.”
There was a countless number of soldiers I would hear stories from, stories reflecting the aspects of my father I had never seen before. This woman was one of them.
“Sure. Your dad’s got a lot of stories.” We stood in sync, our loads lightened, and left with my father’s ghost watching.