Note: This is the story of a family dealing with a military death and how that experience personally changed me. David’s death, as in the loss of any child is terribly difficult and is especially hard when they die in combat. My hope is that this story does nothing to diminish this and does everything to uphold his legacy.
Her voice was calm and unshaking, like always. Natalie is one to never be rattled. But there was an urgency.
“The Marines have come to the house.”
Natalie, her sister Mary and I lived together for several years after college. Natalie married and moved a little over an hour away while Mary and her infant son Shaun still lived in Columbia.
David is Natalie and Mary’s brother. He was serving in Iraq with the Marines. He was young, newly enlisted and quickly deployed and on this day in May, the Marines were bearing the terribly painful news of his death.
I remember everything about that day and nothing at all. We often hear stories of time standing still, of moments moving in slow motion easier to see and remember. This day was like that. It moved slow as if wanting us to take the mental picture, but cruel to not pass too fast.
I grabbed my keys, closed my office door and walked out. I’m pretty sure I never told my co-workers where I was going. The car ride was silent, sans a few quiet sobs. Mary was understandably numb.
The grief surrounding military deaths is unique. In a sense, you know death is entirely possible and likely, but that reality settles. It becomes a part of how you live, and you have no choice but to live – making breakfast every morning and dinner every night. The giant elephant in the room makes himself at home on your couch. And this settling makes it all the more sudden when two uniform officers show up at your door. Shock and expectancy collide in the most unusual way. Nothing compares.
The house became ground zero for grief and remembering. An endless stream of casseroles and rotisserie chickens, timid knocks on the storm door, handshakes and head shakes, tears and hugs. Because weeks can stretch on from the time the news of the death is received to the time the family can hold a funeral, days moved on like this, punctuated with both laughter and tears.
Natalie and I had been friends for a while. Her wisdom-beyond-her-years marked my early twenties. Her family was warm and open, anything they had was yours too. There was an endless string of people living in their home at any given time. Need somewhere to stay until you get on your feet? We have an extra couch, stay here. The mailman once stopped one of Natalie’s sisters and asked “Exactly how many people lived at this house?” Restoration is the word that comes to mind. Come here and let us love you back on your feet. This family is the real life hands and feet of Jesus.
But in these days, it was our turn to love them. As their good days had been lived with open hands, so were these of hurt. All were all invited in. Watching this softened me. Death is a thin place, ushering in all sorts of shifting and rearranging, but this, my first experience with combat loss, redefined relationship.
In the weeks it took to have David’s funeral, I would leave work several days of week and seemingly without thinking drive the miles to Spartanburg. There was no agenda – I don’t really remember being needed, sans a few grocery runs – but to hold hands, hug shoulders, be there to cry and laugh too. There were no conscious thoughts the month of May that year. Rather everything was natural and automatic as if there is no question what to do when a friend is grieving and hurting. This was new. No striving or overthinking, but yet still loving.
David left a legacy, as do all military men and women, of bravery and sacrifice, as well of the personal story of his life and death. But part of the legacy David left behind was the change in my heart too. When I think of David, I think of friendship redefined. His giant sacrifice framed smaller, every day sacrifices for me. From those days to now, loving others had a different story. The grabbing the keys without question, driving the miles, making the time, type of love. I’m sure there were appointments and meetings that had to be cancelled or rescheduled, but I can’t remember them. I don’t remember the extra miles and oil changes on my car. But I do remember the opportunity to love a family that loved everyone else so well. I remember them being humble enough to let us. I remember learning to honor and memorialize well. I remember knowing this was sacrificial love in us and for us all.
These day when the panic text comes or the interruptions flip the script on days or weeks or months, I remember this time. I remember David and his family and I grab the keys and jump in the car.
As with all things in life, there are a million smaller stories birthed out of the larger. And these smaller stories carry legacy too. So today is for remembering, honoring and counting the tiniest of beauty born out of ashes.