How do you say goodbye to the love of your life and then get on a plane to resume your life in the house you shared together? How do you get up, get dressed, walk the dogs you both loved like they were your children, and smile and say thank you to people who offer their condolences? How do you say goodbye?
When you are a widow at 23, life becomes a blur of questions.
Danny proposed to me in 2002 in front of the eternal “Flame of Hope” Memorial for MIA/POW soldiers near our house in Virginia Beach. The flame is meant to burn 365 days a year in honor of all those men who have fought for our country and have sacrificed so much. At 22 he already understood the power of a gesture so he bent down on one knee and said, “My love will last as long as this flame.” Now, as I look back, I think how fitting it was that he would ask me to marry him at that park.
Danny died in 2005. He died an honorable death fighting to protect his brothers and his country. We had such a short time together, but those years were full of life, love, and purpose. In some ways, that made saying goodbye to him a little easier.
But your last goodbye is never an easy goodbye.
I wore heels to Danny’s memorial. This was 2005, before there were so many lives lost in our community. Before we all had our funeral clothes at the ready. It’s such a small detail to remember, but I vividly remember walking in these shoes because I knew this was the last time I was going to walk with Danny.
We buried him where he grew up in Colorado, thousands of miles from our home in Virginia Beach. In the mile-long procession to the burial site, family was supposed to walk behind Danny’s casket, then his Team. I didn’t think about it beforehand, and I know that was supposed to be the order of things, but as we started to walk, I looked back to see these men—these superior warriors, tough and tested by war—with their heads down and tears rolling down their cheeks. In that moment, I knew what Danny would have wanted, and I wanted to make him proud, so I stepped out of the procession, halting it for a moment.
I asked his Teammates to allow me to walk behind them. These were the guys who would have given their lives to bring him back to me. My husband, he loved the Teams and most of all, he loved what they stood for. These were his brothers, and they deserved the honor of walking with him. Of course, his Teammates rejected my offer, but they quickly realized I was not backing down. Knowing that this would make me happy, they humbly obliged.
I hadn’t planned on a mile-long walk—but then again, none of this was a part of my plan—our plan. I only noticed that my shoes were cutting into my feet when my friend pointed out that my foot was bleeding badly. But you have to understand what he went through before he died—he fought until his last breath even though he was mortally wounded. So, a cut on my feet was not going to stop me from making it to his resting place. This was my last goodbye, and I wanted it to be perfect.
I had dreams of growing old with Danny. I wanted to have children with him and see him be a father. I wanted to take care of him when he was sick and laugh with him at life’s little surprises. I wanted more time with him.
When you are a widow at 23, life is a blur of missed opportunities.
At the end of the day, I stood over his casket and said my goodbye, the wind blowing my hair and my arms wrapped around the flag that once draped over his casket. When I think back on that day, I think about the Teams and how much they meant to him. I think about how proud I was that he fought so hard for his country, for what he believed in, and for the men next to him. In some way, I am comforted knowing that he died doing what he loved. And still today, he inspires me to be the best person I can be, to live my life to the fullest.