We children of the lost soldiers, sailors and aviators of WWII are mostly collecting our Social Security checks by now, but we can't seem to let go of what we never had: our fathers. Many of us, infants or toddlers when our fathers died, don't have even a single memory of the men for whom we grieve.
As we grew older we often sought our fathers' burial sites across continents, hoping to connect to them in death as we never could in their brief, unfinished lives. I had reached my late 40s before I sought my father's grave in the Punchbowl, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
Recently I received an e-mail from a woman I didn't know named "Pat," another war orphan. I learned that Pat belonged to AWON, the American War Orphans Network, established in 1991 to help orphans of WWII meet and support each other. I, too, was a member of this group.
Our generation of orphans had been raised in an atmosphere of silence. Our fathers' names were whispered, out of earshot of their children who suffered in silence, their need to know rarely satisfied. Many of us learned too little when the ones who could answer the calls of our hearts were still alive, their memories still clear. We thus turned to each other.
In our brief correspondence, Pat showed me that our need to make peace regarding our loss ran deeper than many of us had imagined. In her case, that moment occurred in a plane more than 30,000 feet in the sky.
Her first note, though, began with an announcement: "I visited the Punchbowl in Honolulu this month and stopped at your father's grave," she said. "I promise to visit it again when we return to Hawaii."
A dialogue ensued. I thanked her for that visit and told her that I only once had been to my father's grave. I placed a lei of plumeria blossoms on his stone and sat there for quite a while, talking to him silently.
The experience had been gratifying, I said. I was only 2 years old when he died in the final battle on Okinawa, but I felt close to him for the first time sitting by his grave.
"You're lucky your father had a grave," she responded. "Mine was buried at sea."
Throughout her life, Pat said, she had regretted the absence of a tangible resting place for her father, a place she could visit.
"Did you lose him at Pearl Harbor?" I asked.
"No," she said. "He died aboard the USS Bunker Hill."
The Bunker Hill naval aircraft carrier had supported the invasion of Okinawa. On the morning of May 11, 1945, it suffered a crushing blow by two kamikaze suicide planes. Several explosions followed, leaving 264 men wounded, 43 missing and 346 dead. Her father was among the dead.
One day an idea came to her, Pat said, and she planned a trip — a flight to Singapore that would take her over the spot in the Pacific Ocean where the explosion occurred.
She had learned the longitude and latitude of the Bunker Hill when it was hit, and then the time her plane would pass over that special place in the deep sea.
"I waited in the quiet of night for that exact time to come," she said.
In the calm of the darkened plane, Pat said, she gazed out the window, sensing the exact spot in the dark sea below.
"At that moment I felt closer to my father than ever before," she said.
More than any of the WWII war orphans I have encountered, Pat best represented the intensity of our lifelong need to find our fathers. I realized our connections came any way they could — even through a quick glance out a plane window, sensing the place of loss in an invisible blue-black sea.
Pat and I haven't exchanged any further letters, but we understood something profound about each other in the brief correspondence we had.
"It never quite leaves us, does it?" I asked my friend in our final letter.
"No, my sister," she replied. "It never does."