He came home in the dead of night, the sound of Velcro ripping and boots dropping and whispering in the dark not to touch them until he could clean the gray matter and the blood. And I thought nothing of the oddity of it all.
A pair of boots.
I searched everywhere for them. For weeks my mind raced frantically, desperate to find the black boots that were as much a symbol of the man as the badge he wore and the gun he carried. I called the ones who had done what I could not, polishing brass and pressing dress blues. I emptied boxes, only to repack them and empty them again. I searched cupboards and closets and car trunks, tears rushing down my face as I tore through what had been left behind. And then I sank into the soft, dark blue pile.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In that moment when I realized he would walk forever in them, I lost my fight against the pain I had fought to control. For as long as I had known him, he had worn those boots. They rested, weary and strong, on the bottom shelf in our closet, beside utility belts, Kevlar vests and tidy stacks of inky cargo pants.
Molded to his imprint, they grew battered and weary over the years, evidence of the daily hazards that came with the career path he had chosen to tread. He chose resoling over new purchases, a decision of practicality, comfort and security that is an unspoken understanding amongst men and women of service and valor.
Losing his boots was as though I had lost a vital and very real link to the man who had walked into my life unexpectedly and left just as suddenly. His footprints are deeply imprinted on our lives, as are the footprints of any father to a child, any husband to a wife. He was so much more than a pair of boots, but the boots were symbolic of the man he was. Confident. Steady. Strong. Supportive. Loyal. And, each day, after he gave everything to a community that did not know him they carried him home to us.
Each Memorial Day I stare at the pictures – dusty and dirt-worn boots standing weary and proud at an inverted rifle’s base, empty helmet resting softly – and I think of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who wear boots every day for each of us.
I think of the ones sleeping restlessly in them behind cover, and the ones climbing hostile terrain worlds away. I think of the ones standing on street corners, and of the ones riding to the scene.
And I think of the price of a pair of boots.