On her 21st birthday, Lisa Winslow wrote a letter to her parents, thanking them for having her. They had been just that age when she was conceived -- out of wedlock -- and the change she must have made in their lives was very vivid for her.
"Thank you for giving me a family," Lisa wrote, "when a lot of other stories that started like yours very seldom end up like this one."
Lisa died before she could deliver that birthday letter. Her parents discovered it among the things she left behind. Born too early, Lisa Winslow also died too early.
"There was never a doubt that I wanted her and I let her know that her whole life," said Lisa's mother, Betty Winslow. "Had I known we would only have her for 21 years, I still would have done it."
Lisa was Midshipman First Class Lisa Winslow of Bowling Green, Ohio, a senior at the Naval Academy. She and two other women midshipmen, Robin Pegram and Autumn Pevzner, were killed in December 1993 when the car in which they were returning from the Army-Navy football game hit a fallen tree near Annapolis.
"I had prepared myself long ago for the fact that if that dark car pulled up and two men in uniform got out, we'd lost her," said Mrs. Winslow. "I just never thought it would be so soon."
Mark and Betty Winslow were in Annapolis again Thursday -- just as they had been for her memorial service and for the May graduation of Lisa's class -- for the dedication of a brass plaque in the Academy's ornate and imposing Memorial Hall.
Among all the tributes to Naval Academy graduates who died in service to their country, this plaque is a tribute to the midshipmen who died before they graduated. Like Lisa, too early.
"We cried, but it was wonderful," said Mrs. Winslow. "All her friends were telling me Lisa stories and I liked that, but I also wanted to hear that they were getting on with their lives."
The most compelling Lisa story is the one in the letter to her parents. Her mother found it as she was sorting Lisa's uniforms.
"Those uniforms meant so much to her. She never wanted them to be treated with any disrespect. I didn't feel like I could deal with them, so I sat down to write a letter on a pad of stationery that I'd come across," said Mrs. Winslow. "A rough draft of the letter was in that pad."
"Dear Mom and Dad," it began.
"This is my first attempt at a letter to the both of you thanking you for the past 21 years. I am now at the age when the two of you got married and it's really put into perspective what the two of you did and how much you gave up to make the decisions you made.
"Dad, I respect you very much for the decision you made to stay with Mom. Most of the guys I know at 21 would have tried to weasel out of the whole situation, yet not only did you 'do right by Mom' but you dropped out of school to try and raise a family. I find that incredible. You really could have had 'better' but you chose us instead. Thank you.
"Mom, I can more easily put myself in your shoes, being a woman, and it amazes me that you didn't try to get an abortion. If I was ever put in a similar situation the only thing that would keep me from making the wrong decision would be God and since you didn't know Him then, I am doubly amazed that things turned out the way they did. Thank you."
Mrs. Winslow has lived in the palm of God's hand, she says, since the day the dark car arrived with the two men in uniform. There is an abyss beneath her and only her faith has kept her from falling, falling, falling.
"Lisa wanted to be a ballerina, then she wanted to fly jets, then she wanted to fly helicopters for the Marines, but more than anything she wanted to be in heaven. She's happy now. It is just that those of us left behind are so sad."
A year after her death, Lisa's legacy still pours into the Winslows' home in calls, letters and tributes left at her grave.
"The Lisa we knew was just the tip of the iceberg," said Mrs. Winslow. "She made such an impact on so many people. I pinch myself that not only did I know her, she was my child. She turned out better than we ever could have dreamed."
Lisa's letter concludes: "I often used to wonder . . . if the two of you would have ever gotten married if it hadn't been for me. I'm glad you did. I just wanted to tell you that I'm very proud of you and I hope that you never regret the decisions you made 21 years ago."