And every time I hear twenty-one guns,
I know they brought another hero home to us
We’re thankful for those thankful for the things we’ve done,
We can rest in peace, ’cause we are the chosen ones,
We made it to Arlington, yea dust to dust,
Don’t cry for us, we made it to Arlington
~ Arlington by Trace Adkins
The last few days have passed by in a blur. I remember the two officers coming to tell me of Sam’s death. The one officer seemed to feel my pain as acutely as I did; the chaplain, however, seemed very detached. In truth, I didn’t want either one of them there. I know it’s irrational, but I hated both of them for telling me that my husband wasn’t coming home to me and my son. I know it wasn’t their fault, but they were the messenger.
Poor Hunter, I don’t think he fully understands what it means that Sam isn’t coming home. I’ve tried explaining it to him the best I can, but I don’t necessarily think it is something that a four-year old can grasp. He still thinks that his daddy is just away and will be coming back later.
Two months…two fucking months and my husband would have been done with the army. He had enlisted right out of high school, because there just weren’t any opportunities for him in his hometown and his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college. I met Sam while he was doing basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. I was a freshman at the University of South Carolina; I was working at a local bar to help pay my way through college. We hit it off instantly. Once his ten weeks were up at Fort Jackson, Sam went to Fort Sam Houston in Texas because he wanted to train as a medic. While he was there, we still kept in touch. Whenever we could, we spent time with each other. Sam proposed during my junior year, and we agreed to get married once I graduated. It was a small ceremony; neither one of us had a lot of family, so it was just a few friends and the few family members we each had.
We were really lucky that Sam was stationed at Fort Bragg. I found out I was pregnant about six months after we married, Sam was over the moon; we were both so excited and instantly smitten once Hunter was born. Life for us seemed perfect for the next two years. We talked about trying for another baby after Hunter turned two, but then our perfect life shattered. Sam was called to active duty in Afghanistan.
Sam never really told me about his time in Afghanistan; I don’t think he wanted to worry me. But I worried every day; how could I not? I tried to avoid the news because I was afraid that I might somehow see him in one of the images. My imagination got the best of me many times while he was gone, I ran through scenarios of him being killed, captured, tortured, injured, you name it. Fortunately, I found a support group of other Army wives whose husbands had been sent overseas. A few of these women were wives of the men also in Sam’s unit. I wouldn’t say the support group made it easier that Sam was gone, but it certainly helped me keep my sanity.
News spread quickly through our circle of friends about Sam’s death. I suppose one of my neighbors had seen the officers arrive at the house and they spread the news. Normally, I’m not one for nosy people, but in this instance I was grateful. It was hard enough telling mine and Sam’s families about his death. My Gran and brother, Jason, flew in from Louisiana to be with me. God Bless my Gran, she helped me with all the funeral arrangements. She worked with the funeral director to make sure that Sam’s funeral received full military honors. Sam’s mother, Bernadette, argued vehemently with me that Sam should be buried back in Texas where he was from, but I refused. I was having him buried in a cemetery in Spring Lake; I wanted him close to Hunter and me.
Gran and I opted for a graveside service. There were not that many of us in attendance, and I didn’t think I could handle prolonging the service by having to go to more than one site. Gran sits next to me, holding my hand. Hunter sits on the other side of me in silence; he did not move, nor did he speak. I really had not wanted to bring him to the service; I was afraid that all of this would be too traumatic for him because he was so young. But Gran pointed out that he needed the closure and had just as much right to say good-bye as I did. He solemnly stares at the empty casket throughout the service. Jason sits on the other side of Hunter to make sure he is OK. Thank God for my brother; he has been the one to distract Hunter this week while I handled all the details.
Sam’s brother, Tommy, delivers the eulogy. Tommy looked very uncomfortable to be speaking in front of everyone, but he pushed through. He spoke of all the times that Sam protected him while they were kids. He spoke of Sam teaching him about sports, how to drive, and how to pick up girls. At that comment, Tommy looked at me apologetically, but I smiled at him softly. I wanted to laugh because Sam had been so shy; I couldn’t imagine him teaching Tommy how to pick up a girl. Hell, I was the one that asked Sam for his number. Tommy then started talking about how happy Sam had been with me, how Sam always said that Hunter and I were the best things to happen in his life. Fresh tears start falling, and I bowed my head. I hear Hunter sniffling next to me; I picked him up so that his head is on my shoulder and I pray for Tommy to hurry up; I need to get out of here before I start screaming.
Tommy finishes his eulogy, and the minister states that it is time for the presentation of the flag. Gran takes Hunter from my arms and places him in her lap so he can watch the soldiers fold the flag. It truly is an impressive sight, but I would rather be anywhere but here. There is a group of four service men and women that are there to fold the flag. Everyone watches in silence as the flag is folded. The Army officer holds the flag and walks towards me. He stands before me and presents me with the flag. I take it from him silently and pass it to Jason. I don’t want to touch it; I feel like it is burning me. I pull Hunter back into my arms just as the bugler begins playing ‘Taps’. I fucking hate this! I know Sam deserves to be honored, but I cannot take any more of this. I just want to be in the comfort of my home so that I can wallow in my grief. I bury my face in my son’s shoulder and cry silently. I can feel Hunter squeezing me as tight as he can, the force of his sobs shaking his small body. The song concludes and I hear the other mourners moving about as the funeral service is over. Several people come forward to pay their respects, but thankfully many leave us alone.
I place Hunter down on the ground, and I rise from my seat. I grab Hunter’s hand and we move to walk up the aisle between the rows of chairs. I stop when I see a single officer standing at the back of the ceremony site. I have to squint in the sunlight to see him clearly. I gasp in surprise and freeze instantly; it is the officer that told me about Sam’s death. What is he doing here? Before I can move from the spot I am frozen in, he raises his hand and salutes both Hunter and I. He turns and walks away briskly.
Jason comes to stand next to me, “Who was that, Sis?”
I turn to Jason stunned, “I don’t know.”
It’s been six months since Sam died. Every day has been a struggle for Hunter and me. At first, it was a sharp stabbing pain that never went away. Every little thing would remind me of Sam, and I would break down in tears. The first week after the funeral, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I wanted to wallow in my grief, but I had Hunter to take care of. Hunter is the reason that I was able to keep moving forward.
I worried about Hunter adjusting to life without Sam. I checked with my pediatrician and she suggested a grief counselor for both of us. At first I refused, I didn’t want to talk to someone else about my pain. But the doctor stressed that it was just as important for me to work through my grief. She pointed out that my moods would greatly influence Hunter. How could I expect him to heal if I wasn’t willing to do the same?
As time passed, my pain isn’t so severe over losing Sam. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still there; now it is more of a constant dull throb that occasionally stabs at me. Hunter and I both have our bad moments, but we don’t get lost in our grief like we did initially. Hunter is in preschool, so it gives him an outlet for his emotions. He gets to run and play with his friends every day. His teacher, Miss Jessica, is super sensitive to his moods and can help him when she feels he is beginning to get lost. I am truly grateful to her.
It’s a bright sunny fall day and Hunter and I are in the park playing. We do this every Sunday; we would play in the park for a few hours and then we would head to the cemetery to talk to Sam. The counselor suggested this so Hunter would feel that his father is a part of his life even though he is no longer with us. At first, it was very painful; it seemed all we did was cry when we would go visit Sam’s grave. Over time, Hunter started telling Sam stories about things that happened during the week, sometimes Hunter even left pictures he had drawn for Sam. I also gave Hunter five minutes alone at the grave each visit so that he could have “guy time” with Sam. When I asked what he would talk to his dad about, Hunter would just say “guy stuff”. My little man is so adorable!
Today Hunter is riding his bike in the park. I won’t let him ride it at our house because it is a busy street, and I fear for his safety. I am sitting on one of the park benches watching him ride his bike along the path. He has begged me to take the training wheels off of his bike, but I don’t think he is ready yet. I know I’ve been overprotective since Sam died, but I just can’t bring myself to let go.
“Hunter, that’s too far!” I called out when I see my son getting towards the edge of the path. He turns around suddenly trying to come back to me, but loses his balance on his bike. He tumbles to the ground, and the bike falls on top of him. I rush to my son’s side as I hear his cries fill the air.
Before I can reach my son’s side, one of the joggers runs over to help Hunter. The man must be six and a half feet tall. His blonde hair is in the traditional military buzz cut. He looks familiar to me, but I can’t place it. His muscular body bends down to help my son. The man lifts the bike off Hunter and helps him sit up on the ground.
The man asks my son, “Are you alright, Little Man?” He has a deep voice and I can tell he is concerned for my son. He takes the bike helmet off Hunter and sets it to the side.
Hunter continues to sob and points at his knee. I reach my son’s side and drop to my knees in the grass next to my son. I can see that Hunter has ripped his jeans and skinned his knee. The wound isn’t even bleeding that much, but to a four-year old I know it has been a traumatic experience.
I push Hunter’s pants leg up exposing his knee. I pull all the necessary first aid items out of my bag. Hunter is a true boy and tends to play rough; he often comes to me with cuts and scrapes on his body. I efficiently clean the wound and place a band-aid on it while Hunter continues to cry. I look at his face and see giant crocodile tears on his cheek.
“Aww baby are you ok?” I ask him.
He looks at the man next to me and nods his head as his tears dry up. He looks embarrassed to have cried in front of the stranger. I turn to the man to thank him for his help. My smile freezes on my lips when my eyes lock with his.
Holy shit, it’s the officer that told me Sam had died!