This is Dennis (I really wish I had a better picture). He was my stepdad's best friend. He was also a veteran of the US Navy and served in Vietnam. By the time he and his family came into my life, he was already a grandfather to 3 and working hard towards some form of retirement. He was a handyman and was always there to help when needed. He had an infectious laugh and smile, and always knew how to brighten your mood. You could always find him at the VFW or American Legion helping out - either that, or on my parents' back porch having a good time.
A couple years ago, Dennis was diagnosed with cancer. To be honest, it's not surprising because of the lifestyle he chose to live. But, regardless, the diagnosis was hard to swallow. He started seeing the oncologist that my mom and sister work for (and I use to work for). He went through chemo. He had multiple scans done. The typical journey for someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.
He had a follow up appointment at the office. I can't even remember what day of the week it was... maybe a Friday? He talked and joked with my mom and sister at the office. Things were going pretty well. Not great, but nothing that the doctor deemed to be urgent or concerning. He had come over to my parents house that afternoon and was talking with my stepdad on the back porch eating cheese balls. I remember being there that day for some reason.... even though I was living in Zephyrhills at the time. Probably because it was July and the middle of the summer - my schedule is always out of whack during those months. After a while, Dennis wasn't feeling too well and decided to go home. Nothing out of the ordinary. He tired easily at this point. I remember heading back to my apartment shortly after that, and Dan must have come with me.
Later that night, I got a phone call from mom. The conversation started off as normal. Hey. How you doing? What are you up to? But her voice sounded funny. Immediately I asked what was wrong. My mind feared it was my stepdad (we've always been worried about his health). But it wasn't him. It was Dennis. He'd had a heart attack. The doctor said it must have been caused by a blood clot, which is sometimes a side effect of the medication regiment he was on. But we'll never know for sure. I just remember sitting on the bed and crying. I don't think Dan had ever seen me cry like that.
Anyways, what does Dennis have to do with my stepdad's Christmas gift? Everything. You see, at his funeral, there was a 21 gun salute. I didn't know it at the time, but the family collected the shell casings. The divided them up among the children. And then they gave a few to my stepdad.
A few months later, I noticed these shell casings sitting on top of my parents' television. Seemed odd considering they aren't gun owners. So I asked my mom about them. She filled me in on the story. I told her they should be somewhere safe, not just sitting on top of a t.v. where they could get knocked off. She agreed. So, I started brainstorming a way to protect them, but still allow them to be seen. And then it hit me...a shadow box.
Initially I thought about just a simple square box with the 3 shell casings spaced evenly. But then I realized that years down the road, people might not remember what the shell casings were. So I knew it had to be a little more than that.
I found a small, black, 4x6 frame at Target that would work as a shadow box. I went to Michael's and picked up some scrapbook paper (for the background), a set of military stickers, and some tacky glue. I recruited my mom to order a name plate from a local trophy store.
Honestly, gathering all the supplies took longer than actually putting it all together. I didn't take any "in progress" pictures, but here's the play-by-play. I laid out everything to make sure it would all fit. Then, after cutting the scrapbooking paper down to size, I glued it directly to the back of the frame. The name plate came with an adhesive backing, so I stuck that and the round naval sticker into place. I played around with the direction of the shell casings and decided they should all face the same way. I tried my best to keep them aligned as I glued each one down. Once those were in place, I added simple stars in between the casings.
Here's the finish product while the glue was drying:
And here it is being wrapped before taking it to Orlando:
I texted that last picture to my mom to show her the finished product. She showed it around the VFW where Dennis was well-known. Everyone loved it. Everyone said my stepdad would cry.
To say my stepdad was surprised is an understatement. After he opened it, it took him a second or two to realize what it was. Then he ran out the door. Yep, right out into the front yard. He needed a minute to himself to soak it all in. We all got a little teary eyed. I can pretty confidentially say that he loved it. He didn't even realize that the shell casings had been missing. Shoot, he didn't even realize they had somehow migrated to the living room - he thought they were still sitting in the top drawer of his dresser.
I don't think we will ever be able to top this gift. And you know what, I'm okay with that. I can't wait to see where they choose to hang it up.
If you're looking to do something similar to this to honor a fallen veteran, I can tell you it was super simple in terms of skill. The supplies probably ran us just under $25 - the most expensive items being the frame ($7) and the name plate ($7.50). Plus, if you already have the glue on hand, that's one less thing you'd have to purchase.
We all miss Dennis. But I'm glad that we now have a way to remember him, and remember his sacrifice to this country.