The One Year Memory of One of the Hardest Days and Part 2: Four Years Later and the Rest of the Story

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One year. One year. It has been one year on the 27th since my life imploded. The trees were budding with promise, and the tulips, daffodils, and crocuses were popping up to usher in spring. It is as if the world stood still as I stood in numb disbelief. It felt like my life had ended when I got the news of my husband’s assassination. The promise of spring was and is long gone. Miles and miles of frozen tundra stretch before me. I am rooted in inertia just below the surface as the rest of the world joyfully greets the dawning days of hope.

I was further along before April. I had begun to stretch through the frozen cracks in the soil and I had begun to feel the new life emerging from the frozen bulb hovering in darkness. As I sit on a plane flying towards my American soil, each time I close my eyes, all I see is the plane that landed in the dark of night at Dover AFB in Delaware. In the blackness of the ebony night, my heart and life ended as the flag covered box carrying my Phil was wheeled out and placed next to eight other flag covered boxes. In the darkness, Phil and eight others received a reunion nobody wanted. A reunion orchestrated in the dead of night. Happy reunions are public in nature and people want to see them. People, no body really, wants to see nine families bent, bowed, and broken. The anguished sobs that filled the lonely night could not have been tamed or fixed by the many important people who stood with us.

Where is the joy and laughter? Where is it now? I have become a true patriot who stands with her military family. My heart is awake and alive to the very life that I lived for 26 years as a military spouse and mother. In those 26 years, however, I just didn’t get it. I thought I did. Now, I feel it, I walk it, I live it. I recognize fear and a false sense of bravado. I see the pain in the rebellion and anger of my students. I finally understand the cost which is paid not only in death, but with the living who walk in fear, loss of brothers and sisters in the military family, and in the lengthy deployments. While I do not go about my life thinking that lightning is going to strike twice, I do know that it is possible. I will never be the same Pollyanna I once was. My tulip bulb has frozen and may be too damaged to blossom again.

I still feel like the broken girl who stood in numb disbelief as box seven was wheeled down the ramp. As the clacks and sounds filled the biting cold air, I heard only the broken sobs of one as her heart shattered into a million unfixable shards. One year has passed. Some say that I should move on and get over Phil. Others lament that I was lucky because few get what Phil and I had. It isn’t as if I haven’t had blessings this year. It isn’t as if I am unhappy where I am. I haven’t lost my faith, but this month, once my favorite, has reshattered the few shards of my heart that had come together.

Betrayal. That is a word I know too well. I am living in that hell of fire behind me, in front of me, and on either side of me. How does a person explain this to anyone? I live by the credo of the Air Force–Integrity first. I trusted Phil when he told me that he was going to be safe even as he prepared for the what ifs. I trusted Phil when he told me that he was practicing his language skills with a man that would one day look at the fear in my Phil’s eyes and shoot him time and time again. I trusted a man and had begun to take small steps forward. He blindsided me. I trusted a counselor who I thought was a friend. This counselor told all of my private secrets that I had shared verbally and she took my blogs and wrongly judged them to be an obsession with Phil.

How do I defend myself? I am broken this month, but I truly believe in a life beyond this life. I have been carried by so many. While initially I wore a mask, I began to feel some of those frequent smiles and I had begun to feel like I could find a measure of happiness in my life. Perhaps that was an illusion, but time will tell.

I miss Phil. I am lonelier than I ever thought possible. I miss the family we were. I miss the inside jokes, laughter, and the naivety that death like Phil’s could never happen to an Air Force language instructor. I miss living in Phil’s shadow and I miss falling into his arms when people were less than kind. I am alone and as the mean people seek to control me with words that do not help or with words that betray confidences, I feel just as broken as the broken body of my husband–or is it the heart that is broken and beyond repair?

Again, it will never be the same, but I had begun to believe and see some green shoots popping up. I had begun to feel hope, happiness, and a purpose in my breathing moments, but I do not understand the people who tell me that writing equals obsessing or that I should move on because it has been a year. I do not understand people who use me for their own agendas or as an option. Surely, I am worth more than the Linda who is now back on the frozen tundra. While I am no longer lying inert waiting for the icy tentacles to take my life, I am on my knees trying to stand. I ‘m trying to make sense of my life and I am trying to figure out who I can trust and believe in. I am trying, trying to find foothold and faith in myself and in my perceptions. I am so mired in the pain of betrayal that I do wish I could share it in the warmth of Phil’s arms, but I am falling to my faith. I write because all is well with my soul.

People have questioned why I chose to write about my journey. It has cost me for a brief time by distancing me from one of my children. Initially I wrote because I felt the nudgings of the Holy Spirit and I needed a way to express my pain. I have never been good at voicing my pain or need. By writing publicly, my life has been blessed by the many reaching hands of God. Friendships were moved beyond the realm of mask wearing into a genuine gift. I continued writing because hope and happiness sparked in the midst of my darkest hours.

I am a writer. While my public journey is over in large part, my writing is as important to me as my running. In both realms, I show my weakness, strength, and need. I let others in and I reach for others. I fall to my faith and I find hope floating like tiny rills of bubbles that burst through the most turbulent ocean waters. I am thankful that I did not fall to my normal mode of living–stoic silence. God answered my pleas with many reaching hands.

So, here I kneel. All I see is miles and miles of barren landscape. I am sucking in the frigid air that is searing my lungs. I can barely breathe. I miss Phil and I miss the life we shared. I would give anything to have that life back, but that is not going to happen. I was creating a life and moving on, but it is what has happened this month that totally broke me. I wonder if I will ever be normal or if people will ever see me as more than the sum of my loss–a loss hidden and shrouded in the deepest darkest hours of night. I wonder if I will ever be able to read people and trust completely again. I wonder if I will ever feel the green sprouts of hope again. I am on my knees hoping, ever hoping, for a world that sees my value and for a life that shines for Jesus even if I stand forever alone. I stand hopeful that I can learn to trust and believe in people again, but it is going to take me time and strength. I need more of that than I needed a week ago, but I do believe that the tulip will bloom blood red again and that my petals will wave with promise as the spring zephyrs compel me forward.

 

The Hardest Days

 

There are three dates that I will never forget because they are the darkest days I have ever breathed through.  The darkness pressed from within and from without.  I never saw those days coming. Those days were based on loss, betrayal, and nightmares.  I couldn’t see beyond that time and I never thought the day would come when even though these days hurt, I am also able to laugh at the memories and look forward to a life beyond today.  Seeing the memories of four years ago reminded me of how shattered I was; I hardly recognize that girl now. That first year was end and yet it was also the beginning of a girl I could never have seen.

 

April 27th, the day that Phil was killed, is one of those days.  People can immediately nod and understand how difficult that day was.  Phil’s death was unexpected, brutal, and very, very public.  It occurred far from home and changed every facet of my life.  In the military world, the widow or widower is given one year to figure out where they want to live.  While that is waiverable for up to three years, how would a non-military spouse know to ask for that?  The surviving spouse loses not only their spouse, but their community.  This community, a community they once fit into becomes a hostile foreign place at best.  People stop talking to the surviving spouse because they are the visible reminder as to what could happen to their spouses (one is unfriended on Facebook often), or the community doesn’t know what to say or they think that a surviving spouse’s moral compass has changed because s/he is suddenly single.  Gossip surrounds a surviving spouse at every turn.  People took bets on how long it would take me to date and remarry and they thought it was funny enough to tell me about it less than two weeks after my spouse was killed.  They all were wrong and they all thought it was a compliment to me to tell me that I was okay enough to have a life after Phil.

 

Imagine have spent one’s entire adult life as a spouse living in base housing, moving 13 times in 26 years, and having all of one’s children grown with most of them serving in the military.  I didn’t know where home was.  Home was a person and anywhere the military sent us.  I was too old to go live with my mama in Boise, ID—a place I hadn’t lived since 1979.  I was too young to go live with any of my children.  I certainly couldn’t go to WA state where we had planned to retire, so I ran….far, far away to Germany to teach.  In the process of running, I lost my support system and a job that I still miss.

 

The second unforgettable moment of total breaking was June 24th.  It was the day the autopsy pictures and photos came.  I am good in an emergency and injury and illness do not bother me except this one was my Phil and his body so broken.  I couldn’t comprehend the words, thus I looked at the photos.  Sometimes those images still creep into my nightmares.  I broke even more than I had on the 27th.  My heart hurt and I wept like I have never wept before or since then.  I couldn’t find a reason to live and I questioned why him and why not me.  He had so much to give and I was that quiet, shy girl in the shadows.  I have written about something amazing that happened that day—my modern day miracle that scared me enough to stop questioning God’s hand.

 

The last day of total brokenness came 25 April 2012, nearly one year after Phil’s death. I posted that memory earlier today.  I was tired, so very tired.  I felt betrayed by people I thought I could trust, the military, and even by Phil.  I felt far away from my children and I was constantly being put in a position with my school where I heard that I was just a teacher and that I was supposed to stop the generals and other visitors coming to out small base.  I couldn’t’ stop those visits and I needed those visits as I grappled with trusting the military, other people, myself, and I could go on.

On a day just before Phil left, I had heard a song, a very old song;  Billy, Don’t be a Hero.  I came home from my drive to run singing that song, “Philsie (Phils—now you all know that I am not adding an extra s sometimes), don’t be a hero.  Don’t be a fool with your life…”  Phil told me that I was being melodramatic because even the Air Force thought he was safe.  I wasn’t afforded the spouse’s deployed briefing and as a key spouse, surely I wouldn’t be the one needing that briefing.  Phil told me (as he laughed at me) that he would run and hide if an ugly situation ever came up.  He didn’t run and he didn’t hide and he paid very dearly.  People told me he was a hero, still tell me he was a hero, but I didn’t want or need a hero.  I just wanted him to make good on what he promised and what the Air Force all but guaranteed.  The Air Force was supposed to be safe because it is the country club branch after all. When AF deploys, it is for shorter times and to places that often include Holiday Inns.  As an officer who wore blues as an USAFA foreign language professor, he should have been safe.  It should have been okay to eat with a high ranking military officer from Afghanistan who had fought the Taliban for over 20 years..  Phil and this guy would practice their many languages—Phil spoke 10 languages, the assassin 9.  This vile monster knew all about his family and what killed me was that Phil had time to know his assassin and time to feel pain.  I felt so betrayed by our government, military, school, people who stopped being my friend because they didn’t know what to say, the Air Force Academy because we all struggled, and I felt betrayed by a man who insisted he had to go.  He didn’t; he volunteered.  Every letter and e-mail said the same thing, “Do what you have to do, but come home to me.”

 

As I grappled with my anger at the military, my school, Phil, I realized too that people saw me differently.  They didn’t see me as quiet and shy.  They saw me as broken.  On the 25th of April, someone who I had thought was a friend and who was a counselor betrayed my words both written and spoken in a very public forum.  Someone else who I had a strong connection to (we weren’t dating, but it was heading that way) betrayed me by telling me that I was not dateable because of how public my journey was.  I totally shut down.  That day led to 2.5 years of keeping people at bay.  Yes, I have friends, but the friends I have were not anybody that lived nearby.  I also stopped believing that I would ever be normal enough to be in a relationship.  I buried myself in school, volunteer work, and my job.  I was just too tired and unable to lose anymore.

 

At the five year mark, I can honestly say that I have let those walls down.  It took a lot of patience on the part of my friends and a certain male in my life.  I was too busy convincing myself that I was too broken, too unworthy, and too old to need anything but work, running, volunteer work.  The friends I have?  We all carry one another.  They simply see me as Linda.  Yes, I have a story, but so do I.  The man I am dating?  That one was harder.  I had shut my heart down because while I have been asked out often enough, nobody looked at me as just Linda.  They saw me as broken or a story.  Some saw me as a meal ticket or as someone attractive enough.  It took a friendship and a long dinner before I realized that this person was destined to be a great friend because he treated me normal.  He never walked around on egg shells—still doesn’t.  He doesn’t ask me to stop speaking or writing about my journey and we talk about it.  That is part of the conversation, but it isn’t something that comes up every time or for long amounts of time.  He simply lets me shine in this area and he isn’t intimidated by Phil’s story—my story.  He also gave me lots of time to let the walls down by offering the gift of friendship.  Through that gift, I have learned to trust not only him, but myself.  That trust has led to dreams that are not nightmares.

 

While those three days in 2011/2012 still linger, and while those days still knock me to my knees this week, they are only a part of the story.  I can see the way ahead.  I can see the girl I am becoming and I can see a life beyond my loss.  The very best gift I have been given are the people who have walked with me from the start loving me through the hardest moments and who rejoice with me now as the light pierced my darkness.  These friends never treated me differently, they just loved me and on those darkest days sent me sparkles, polka dots, cards, Kind Bars, socks, Starbucks, and more than that they offered a safe harbor from the crashing waves.  I love my tribe and I am so glad that you are my tribe.

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