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Stick to the Plan

We buried my husband on July 7, 2003—my 26th birthday.

I was 16 years old when I met him, a 20-year-old in faded jeans and a t-shirt with his hands deep in his pockets looking a mix of easy confidence and shyness. He stepped forward to shake my hand as he introduced himself. The formality of it all threw me off. I thought to my 16-year-old self, “Who is this guy?”

I knew right away that he was different.

But I was still in high school and he was leaving for BUD/S in a few months, so we agreed not to get too serious. That was the plan anyway. I knew I loved him long before I knew what that really meant and what it would mean for the rest of my life. By the time he left for BUD/S, it was already too late; he had all of me.

I was 19 when we got married. We intended to have a long engagement since I was in college, but he was deploying for the first time and I remember thinking, “I want to be his family.” I’ve always thought that meeting and falling in love with him marked my entrance into adulthood. After seeing the world and myself through his eyes, I left behind my teenage life and concerns—I wanted to be better.

We made plans. He would be a SEAL and do everything that entailed. I would pursue my education and go to graduate school. That meant working around the realities of his goals and his commitments, but he understood and supported my goals as well.

He left six weeks after our wedding. This was pre-9/11 and things were different back then. Because there was very little communication—no emails, no Skype, only infrequent and sketchy phone connections—I have these wonderful handwritten letters from that time—a snapshot of our life together.

But then there’s this other snapshot that haunts me. The one of a stranger knocking on my door and telling me, “Your husband has been gravely injured and is not expected to live.” At that moment, I broke into pieces, screaming, “I’m not ready. I want more time.” And in the midst of my hysteria, a strange thought took root—You are going to be embarrassed when he is fine and you made a total fool out of yourself. Pull it together; these men are your husband’s bosses. My next instinct was to be a good Team wife and suffer through my breakdown in private.

So I started asking questions because a good Team wife needs to be prepared and have a plan.

Was anyone else hurt? Yes, two others were seriously injured, but they are expected to survive.
Ok, good. Where is he now? En route to Bagram Airfield.
Ok, good. He is going to be at a major hospital soon. Where was he shot? In the head.
Ok. Where was he shot? Umm, in the head, ma'am.

They must have thought I had lost my mind, but I just wanted to know exactly how bad it was. None of the people telling me about his injuries knew what I knew—that he was super human and would be just fine. We would stick to the plan, our plan, and he would be just fine.

But the reality was that he was lying in a hospital bed with no brain activity. I wanted him to hear my voice. I couldn’t hold him but maybe hearing my voice would break through and his damaged brain would make the connection to reality. I asked to speak with him even though we were separated by thousands of miles. Finally, in the middle of the night, someone handed me a phone. Across the ocean, in that foreign place, one of my husband’s teammates held the phone to his ear. I sat there on our bed, surrounded by strangers, and told him that I loved him, that I believed he was going to come home, and that I would take care of him no matter what. We would be together, just like we had planned.

But I also told him that if he had to go, it would be okay—I would be okay.

Later, I regretted saying that. I didn’t want him to leave our two sons. I didn’t want him to leave me. I wanted our boys to know him, to know his sense of humor, his honesty, and his strength. I wanted to grow old with him.

In our ten years together, we built a life and a family. We made a plan and we stuck to it until we couldn’t. In the years since his death I’ve felt utterly alone, lost, and without a rudder. But I have also found the strength to get up every day, take care of our sons, and give them the sort of life we wanted for them. And, years after his death, I finished graduate school, and I know I am in the right place. In so many ways, I have been blessed.

But…I buried my husband on July 7, 2003, my 26th birthday. That was not part of our plan.