A war widow battles through her grief to find a new life.
The author, left, with her husband before he died in Iraq.
Women will tell me later that they knew. Just knew. They knew the minute they woke up. They knew as they cleaned their houses in fits of clairvoyant anticipation. They knew as they dressed and waited on the couch for the soldiers to come.
Did I know?
When I think of the hours after Miles died but before I had been notified, when he was gone but I did not yet know it, I remember a moment at Fort Rucker when Miles took me into the equipment room to try out a pair of night vision goggles. He turned out the lights and we stood in unbroken darkness.
“Can you see that?” he asked. I felt his fingers brush the air in front of my face.
“Put these on.”
He placed the goggles in my hand and showed me the strap with his fingers, guiding me as if I were blind, and I strapped the bulky headset over my face.
I could see everything. The countertop, the shelving units, Miles next to me. The room glowed in shades of incandescent green as if someone had flipped the switch on a powerful floodlight. I saw in emerald tones what had been there all along.
Looking back to the notification—and earlier, to the time of impact—I recognize this knowing that the other women describe. As Miles was making a hard left bank over the sands of northeastern Iraq, I threw my car in reverse and ran straight into the bed of a parked pickup.
I gritted my teeth and climbed out to check my bumper. A 3-inch puncture cut into the black rubber. The car was brand-new, our first big purchase together, bought the week after the wedding. I ran my finger over the gash.
I checked the truck for damage—none—and drove home angry. That night I couldn’t sleep and the next morning arrived fogged over with feelings of guilt and anger and—there it is, in vibrant green—foreboding.
At my job at ECHO, managing tours of the educational farm in North Fort Myers, I called a docent about coming in early. I scheduled a group tour for the following Thursday. I had promised to make crepes the week before and I had brought in sugar, flour and eggs, but the plan seemed more interesting than the execution or I was too busy or I forgot, and at 5 p.m. I put all the ingredients back into my tote bag and lugged it out to the car. I drove home with the seed of unease stuck like a stone in the back of my throat. The fluorescent lights in the garage were turned off when I pulled in and the feeling was deeper there, thicker, murky like the waters of a slow-moving river. I made my way up the stairs with my purse in one hand and the heavy tote bag in the other. I set the sack of eggs and flour and sugar on the top step and put my key in the deadbolt, but the door was already unlocked. I pushed it open with my free hand.
A doctor friend once spoke about a diagnostic technique used during his medical school days in the 1960s. A resident would walk past a patient’s open door and try to make a diagnosis from those brief moments of passage—the time it took to step from one door jamb to the next. The doctor said the residents were often successful at diagnosing an ailment in those few seconds. They could even tell you the likelihood of survival.
“It’s true,” the doctor had told me. “You’d be surprised at how quickly you can assess a situation.”
I swept my eyes across the room: my mother in a dining chair in the middle of the living room, nowhere near where it should be; the living room lights turned off; two soldiers in dress uniform filling the space. I felt a drawing in at my navel, a great coming together of all the esoteric parts of me that are neither flesh nor blood nor skin. A silver cord slipped free, pulling from that central place, the part that keeps me whole, and I imagined my soul draining out of me like liquid mercury, disappearing into the ether of my suddenly intangible existence. I hesitated on the top step and thought about turning and walking back down to the garage. If I stayed on the far side of the door, the soldiers could not tell me what they had come there to say. If they didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be true. But I am too rational, too predictable. I am a rule follower. I opened the door wider. I stepped in.
The military has a term for everything that comes after a traumatic incident—right of the boom. The boom being the moment of the incident itself—an IED blast, a sniper shot, a helicopter crash. This is how I began to think of my life—right of the boom—as all the parts of military protocol fell into place.
The month after the notification, the Army shipped home Miles’ things from Iraq. My casualty assistance officer brought them to my house on a windy afternoon in December, and I helped him unload the two black tough bins from his car. We pushed the bins against the garage wall, where they stayed, untouched, for weeks. I knew what they contained: proof that Miles was gone. If I opened them, if I looked inside, then I would have to admit he was never coming home.
Finally, I worked up the courage, and on a Friday afternoon I left work early, drove home, and pulled a chair next to the largest of the two bins. Before I could lose my nerve, I unlatched the lock and opened the lid. What I found inside was a perfect ordinariness—Miles’ folded undershirts, his socks rolled into balls, his uniforms arranged in neat stacks. All of it was covered with a fine dusting of Iraqi sand. I saw that some of the items had come back in black velvet pouches: the mechanical pencils Miles used to mark flight charts, a pair of sunglasses he always wore, a yellow rubber bracelet he kept on his wrist, the metal nail clippers he put in the right front pocket of his uniform. I realized that these were the items taken from his body. This was what he had on him at the time of the crash. I cradled the sunglasses in my hand. They were unharmed. I thought of Miles, bruised and broken, and his sunglasses coming through without a scratch. The world is without reason.
In the weeks that followed, I soldiered through one brittle hour after the next, making my way toward a destination I could neither see nor imagine. At work, people remarked on how strong I was, how unbelievably well I handled things. But I was barely functioning. I moved through the motions of life, lost to everyone and everything, lost to myself.
I joined a local grief group run by Hope Hospice, and every Tuesday night I sat with other mourners. We were unalike in most ways and alike in the only one that mattered. On the night of my first meeting, when I struggled to even say my name, the other group members looked at me with such gentleness and compassion that I lowered my head to my hands and wept.
Time does not heal all wounds—that is a myth. But it does teach us how to carry our sorrows. As the one-year anniversary of Miles’ death approached, other widows warned me that I would be disappointed to discover what follows.
“What follows?” I asked.
“Another year,” they said.
I began to see that I could not grieve forever, and for the first time I asked myself what I would do with this new life. More than anything, I wanted to become a writer.
Through my own grit and some good fortune, I began writing for publications in Southwest Florida. Soon I was accepted to journalism school at Columbia University in New York, and, during the course of my graduate program, I developed a book proposal for a memoir about Miles’ death. That story, Unremarried Widow, was published by Simon & Schuster in January.
In a way, I feel as if I have been blessed. Or, I should say, looked out for. In one of the tough bins that came home from Iraq, I found a letter from Miles. Military widows call this a goodbye letter, to be read only if the worst has happened. Miles said in the letter that he regretted having to go so soon, and he urged me to pursue my dreams with all my heart, with honor, and with decency.
“Live your life to the fullest,” he said, “and know that I will be looking on you always and doing everything I can to smooth your way.”
From Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson. Copyright © 2013 by Artis Henderson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.