Last week I celebrated my son’s birthday alone, sighing over a stack of old letters. Jimmy, my only child, has lived in Michigan for the past 20 years and, while he has built a wonderful life there, I know he longs to come home to Maui. I, of course, would love nothing better. Each year, when June 30 rolls around, I get all sentimental and start to feel a bit sorry for him and for myself.
This year, I sifted through a box of Jimmy’s childhood writings and artwork, reliving those long-ago years, when we celebrated every day together. I thought about sending him my precious memory box for his birthday, but I can’t bear to part with it. Instead, I texted him photos of my favorites.
One was a card he wrote, probably for Valentine’s Day, when he was 5 or 6 years old. Scribbled in red crayon, the words “LOVE” and “JIMMY” cover the front. Inside, he wrote, “Love to evvybody Even you.” Neither of us remembers what prompted the “Even you” afterthought. I have a feeling he was annoyed with his mom but felt obligated to wish me a happy day anyway.
A page from his kindergarten journal states, “Love is my mom making my favorite dinner.” To illustrate, Jimmy drew a stick figure boy with his tongue hanging out of a huge smile and an object in the corner that looks disturbingly like a garbage can. But in the center of the page is an amazingly detailed drawing of me, carrying a giant plate heaped with food. There’s a thought bubble above my head, showing a boy shoveling stuff into his gaping Pac-Man mouth. The best part is the T-shirt he drew on me; it says “I Love Jim.”
Sniffling my way down Memory Lane, I decided to take a break and check my email. There was a message from my old friend McAvoy Layne, who has been away from Maui even longer than Jimmy has. Longtime locals remember Mac as KMVI’s Riddle King and one of the most colorful characters of 1970s Maui. He now lives on the shores of Lake Tahoe, portraying Mark Twain and writing a column for the Incline Village newspaper. We exchange our columns via email, weekly.
This time, there was no column attached; instead, Mac told me about a recent chicken-skin moment, also involving a mother and son, a letter, and a birthday. With his permission, I’m sharing the story with you.
Weeks ago, as Memorial Day weekend approached, McAvoy was telling a friend about a Marine Corps buddy, John Sibilly, who was killed in the Vietnam War. The day after John died, Mac sent a letter to John’s mother on behalf of their unit. Unfortunately, the letter never arrived; instead, it went to five different addresses before ending up in McAvoy’s mother’s hands and, eventually, back to Mac.
The email he sent me included photos of the ill-fated envelope, postmarked Sept. 19, 1967, and the letter itself, which read, in part:
“No letter of commendation from John’s buddies over here, or from the president himself, can justify or rectify in the slightest, the grief you must be burdened with today. But there are things that cannot be left unsaid about John Sibilly. The way he lived and the way he died was an inspiration and a credit to all of us as Marines and as Americans. . . . John was one of those rare leaders in the Marine Corps who was able to command respect without the usual sacrifice of being well liked; a rare quality anywhere in life.
“Today John and Sgt. Bliss were to receive their Bronze Stars for their actions in Cam Lo. John had told Bliss facetiously, ‘Well, now that we’re heroes, we can sit back and take it easy.’ Just the opposite turned out to be John’s fate.
“When his squad was assaulting enemy positions yesterday, when John could have been sitting back taking it easy, he was leading his men into the assault. In the end it was as he would have wanted it.
“You must be very proud, Mrs. Sibilly. With us, very sad and very proud.”
Touched by the story, McAvoy’s friend did some sleuthing and located John’s brother, who finally received the 51-year-old letter last week. He is having it framed and plans to deliver it to his mother this month, when the family gathers to celebrate her 90th birthday.
After reading Mac’s email, I sheepishly returned to my box of memories. Jimmy may not be at my side, but he’s alive and well, and just a phone call (or text) away. For that, and for good folks like Mac and John, I am extremely grateful.
Happy birthday, Mrs. Sibilly.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.