In the dark of December 2013 I sat stunned in my small Princeton apartment. My fingers clicked the keys of my Apple. I typed frantically, trying to untangle and understand what I just heard. Letters came together to help me simultaneously process and distance myself from a painful reality that would come to demarcate a distinct “Before” and “After” in my husband’s military career.
These were my twenty-thirteen words:
You have a hurried 45 second conversation with your husband.
You get a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach.
You check the news.
You try to go back to your day.
You wake up in the middle of the night.
You get the email.
You want to vomit.
You have a million things to do.
You are paralyzed and can do none of them.
You want to be with the person you love more than anything else on this earth as he does the most difficult thing he has ever done and feels a depth of pain he has never experienced. But you can’t.
You hurriedly snatch all of the black clothes from your closet and stuff them in a suitcase. and stare at it.
You will soon come face to face with someone living your worst fear.
You realize how easily this could have been you today.
You feel guilt and sorrow and intense rage.
You want to escape but you can’t.
You want to sleep but you can’t.
You want to distract yourself but you can’t.
You want to live the kind of life you see everyone else living on Facebook and Instagram but you can’t.
You want to know what’s happening next but you can’t.
You want to wake up from the nightmare but you can’t.
This is grief.
Memories of the phone calls I got from Afghanistan that day are blurred. The first was somewhat cryptic, and I was half asleep. Details couldn’t be disclosed. Nothing had hit the news. Yet. Not all official notifications had been made. My husband wanted me to know he was still alive. But it–whatever “it” was–was bad. More soon.
I knew. I didn’t have to be told. My husband was alive but whether he was “okay” was an entirely different story. Hours later, another call. More details. I pictured the flash of the blast in my mind. My eyes were blinded by tears as I took in the news through my ears.
The deployed Christmas pictures that my husband took in Kabul of a brother and his beautiful wife two days before would be the last ever snapped.
Philip and Dana would be stepping on to the back of a plane, bound from Bagram to Dover. Dave would be carried.
The transatlantic trip took place on a piece of steel marked with the tail number 88201.
Was this a nightmare? No. Nobody was going to wake up from this.
Was this a nightmare? Yes. The most haunting of sorts.
No one wants to walk out of the back of a C-17 at Dover next to a box holding a hero. No one.
There are few pictures that will pierce your soul and stay frozen forever like the image of a flag-wrapped coffin.
I will never be able to strip from my memory the sounds of a casket sliding down metal slats as it came out of a plane.
On January 8, 2014 I bore witness to an event that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I watched through tear-filled eyes as a 29-year-old widow accepted the flag from her husband’s casket and listened to these words: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Department of the Air Force, and a grateful nation, we offer this flag for the faithful and dedicated service of Captain David Lyon.”
There was a suffocating permanence to what I was seeing. My stomach was sick. My head was spinning to the realities registering. A million and five “last times” had been lived and shared without anyone being the wiser. The ones that had been unfolding in the days leading up to the lowering of Dave’s body into the ground had been hand-stamped with “this is it.” On this side of eternity we had the final gut-wrenching glimpse of a young, brave face. The last touch of a hand on the box that held his body.
My feet and fingers were numb, free of all sensation due to the frigid January temperatures. The feeling of the frozen tears on my face still hasn’t melted away.
Twenty-one rounds of fire and smoke, the final salute was complete. A mahogany rectangle–Dave’s final resting place–would soon be surrounded by soil.
We exited the guarded gate at the Air Force Academy and staggered back to the first hours of our life in the after, still in shock.
The day following the funeral, I sat folded in a corner of the Denver International Airport and wrote:
Last night I left the church in darkness, emotionally exhausted, and walked back to our car. As soon as the door closed, I melted into sobs. Not because my husband is returning to theater in the coming days to continue to carry on the mission that he and Dave shared and are deeply committed to–but because I was painfully aware that while I drove away from the funeral with Philip last night, Dana did not get to go home with Dave. And there are no words to even begin to describe the pain and grief her loss creates in my heart.
Five months later, my first Memorial Day in a world without Dave brought forth words that have proven to be a timeless truth since he left this broken earth to be with his Savior:
I am painfully aware that this weekend is NOT about an extra day off of work, moving cute white sundresses to the front of the closet, barbecues, time at the lake, or sporting the first sunburn of the summer. It IS about flag-draped caskets, grief, ultimate sacrifice, remembering, honoring, living (and dying) for something bigger than yourself, courage, selflessness, service and valor. It is about grappling with unanswered questions and survivor’s guilt, not taking even the most seemingly mundane things for granted, and the searing pain that accompanies loss. It is about individuals and families who pay an exorbitant price for freedom every.single.day. they wake up without a husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, or father.
Memorial Day is our family’s “why.” Dave’s death became the “why we stay” when faced with professional choice points about my husband’s active duty military service commitment. We stay for the people. Living and dead. You are hard pressed to find a job or office in which you know that the colleague on your left or your right would, at the drop of a hat or bomb, leave this earth forever for you and your freedom. When another man dies so that you can continue to write your story–taste the sweetness of the kiss of your spouse, rock your babies, pin rank on your shoulders that he will never hold—it changes you. It changes everything.
This Memorial Day, be changed. Be worthy.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.– Abraham Lincoln, 1863