Calvin Davis, 6

Marine Staff Sgt. Jonathan Davis, 34

Died Feb. 22, 2013

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From his booster seat, Calvin Davis peered out the window of his mom’s gray Chevrolet Silverado as it clattered down a gravel road in rural Arizona. The setting sun bled over a sprawling landscape of sage brush and three-story amber boulders.

“I can see the white fences,” announced Calvin, who is 6 and missing a front tooth. “There’s the graveyard.” He turned to his mother, Helena. “I see Daddy’s flags. Do you see it, Mommy?”

One was American, ripped in half by the wind. The other was scarlet and displayed the words “UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS.” The pole was planted next to the grave of Calvin’s father, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Davis, killed by a bomb in Afghanistan on Feb. 22, 2013. Calvin was 4 at the time and adored his dad, who stood 6 feet 3 inches and had such powerful arms that he could toss his only child all the way across the pool.

As months passed, the boy remembered him only in fragments, many of which he was unsure were real. He sometimes imagined that his father taught him to ride a bike or shoot a pellet gun. “Right, Mommy?” he asked. No, she said. A grief counselor had warned her that because of Calvin’s age, even his most vivid memories were likely to fade or vanish.

Helena, 35, refused to accept that. So, twice a year, she and her son drove 600 miles from Southern California to Davis’s grave in Kayenta, Ariz., a remote patch of the Navajo Nation. This was where Davis raised sheep with his family and starred on the high school basketball team and fell in love with Helena. Here, too, was where he dreamed of serving as a Marine.

Calvin remembered why his father left and did not come back: “Because of war.”

Calvin hopped down from the truck. He found coins that others had left to honor his dad and set them atop the headstone. He dug his sneaker into the dried brown clay and dragged it in a circle around the base of the burial mound. He tossed a rock, then kicked it. He pointed out a towering set of boulders in the distance that he was sure looked like a man’s butt.

As they left, Calvin glanced at his mom. “Do you miss Daddy?” he asked.

“Very much.”

“Are you crying?”

“Yes.”

“I knew you were crying. You cry a lot when we go to Daddy’s grave.”

She stroked his hair. “You know it’s okay to cry, right?”

He changed the subject.

Calvin didn’t talk much about sadness, in part because he was too young to fully understand what he’d lost. Instead, he talked of the early morning fishing trips with his father. The coffee they shared from a thermos, and the worms his dad always put on the hooks because Calvin felt bad about sticking them. He used to lie on his father’s chest and tug on his ears. He used to ride on his father’s shoulders and feel so tall. Together, they sneaked bites of Helena’s homemade cheesecake. “I would eat the last piece,” he crowed.

He remembered all of this, just as he remembered that the clouds were gray on the day his father’s flag-draped casket rolled off the plane at Dover Air Force Base. Just as he remembered that the house where they stayed had blue Jell-O and his favorite green Gatorade. Just as he remembered why his father left and did not come back: “Because of war.”

Left and right: Calvin Davis with his dad, Jonathan Davis. Calvin recalls fishing trips with his father, but other memories are hazy. (Family photos)

What he didn’t remember was that his dad nicknamed him “Calvinator.” He didn’t remember the last hug or kiss or goodbye. He also didn’t remember the day the three men came to his house and one of them said, “We regret to inform you . . . .”

And this was why Helena brought him back to Kayenta.

On this trip, they visited his father’s grave twice, the second time with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather replaced the torn flag as Calvin picked up a metal rake longer than he was. Quietly, he walked in circles, towing the metal prongs. His mother handed him a miniature Christmas tree. He took it to the gravestone and set it down next to a handprint he made when the concrete base was poured. Calvin crouched on his knees and placed his right hand where it had been that day. His fingers were longer, his palm wider. He had grown.

For a moment, the original impression disappeared.

Faces of the Fallen

Find out more about the service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.