“I’m truly sorry, ma’am. Sgt. Pérez was a great man and he died a hero.” My fingers gripped the wooden door frame harder as tears streamed down my pale cheeks. I breathed quicker.
“Thank you.” I mumbled towards the Lieutenant at my door. “Uhm,” I sucked in air. “I know this wasn’t the easiest news to give.” He bowed his head low and slowly walked back to his car. I closed the door, my eyes wide with confusion. Jack was gone? And it was then that I heard my heart shatter. My back hit the door hard as I slid down and collapsed on the wooden floor. My lungs stung to accept air. I wrapped my wet face in my hands and sobbed till my ribs felt like they were breaking. My husband, my love, my best friend, was gone. Could this just be a hellish nightmare? Could I wake up and Jack be by my side? If so, everything in me begged to wake up. To feel his warm arms hold me in the morning; to hear his soft yet hearty laugh when we watched our favorite movie together. The floor I collapsed on was warm from the streaming sunlight, but to my body it felt like a slab of ice. Cold. I let out a cry of anger as my sobs became louder. Anger. I was angry at that world for taking away the one thing I was breathing for; the one person I loved more than myself. He had been killed. Killed. He was gone.
My eyes opened in agonizing pain at a sound behind me. I sat up from the floor and tried to focus my vision but my eyes stung and stayed blurry. It took a second for me to calculate where I was; the entryway floor. But nothing felt worse than remembering why I was there. It was the same realization repeated again as I tried to cry, holding my stomach as it stung. The sound came again behind me, echoing in my ear like a gong. Someone was at the door. I tried to stand but my legs were too weak to support my trembling body. I unlocked the door on my knees and opened it just an inch to see who was there. My mom. Her face wore a heartbreaking expression as she opened the door and before I knew it, she was covering me in her strong arms. She let me cry on that floor, my aching head resting in her lap, and I felt a few tears of her own drop against my skin as she cried too. An hour went by and we hadn’t moved. She stroked my hair softly with her fingers and I closed my eyes in pain. I had broken my collarbone in college and it was the worst pain I had known, but this, this couldn't even compare on any level. It was like someone had reached inside my heart and ripped out flesh and bones and replaced it with emptiness. I was drowning in emptiness. My mom sighed and I knew she was about to talk, so I interrupted.
“Mom,” I tried to sound stronger than I felt, but it came out like a whimper.
“I can’t. I can’t live without him.” Without him. Those words stabbed my mind continuously. She sniffed and rested her hand on my heart.
“He’s in here,”
“But… we were going to…” I let my chest fall over my knees. “Going to grow old together.” The thought of gaining white hair alone, without Jack, was unbearable. That was what we were supposed to do. Grow up together and then grow old together. Together.
“I know, honey,” My mom cried into her hand, trying to stop herself from appearing anything but full of strength for her little girl. But mom had loved Jack too, and so had dad. Jack had a special place in everyone’s heart.
“I know you’re not going to like me saying this Jen, but you have to eat something.” My stomach felt like it was tied in a billion knots and I hated that she was right. We clumsily made our way to the kitchen as she sat me down at the kitchen table. A small wooden frame of Jack and me on our first anniversary stared at me from across the table. I reached over and fingered it, grazing over the glass that separated the past from my present. We looked so happy. We were happy. I placed it in front of me and nestled my chin on the table, staring at the photo as if I hoped the characters trapped inside would jump out and comfort me.
Mom placed a piece of bread with butter on the table. I felt sick but I needed to eat something. I bit into it and gagged. My face felt numb from the crying and shock of everything. Outwardly, I was too exhausted to do anything but eat the bread. But inwardly, I was screaming.
Nine months later.
I boxed up the last of the picture frames. There were so many photos in that house that I had spent nearly three hours collecting them all. Frozen faces stared at me in different locations and places as I carefully folded them in bubble wrap. It was hard saying goodbye to this house. Memories seemed to come alive in each room I packed up. Jack and I watching the moon from the kitchen window. Dancing to our old wedding tape on the TV in the living room. Laughing with friends on the front porch as July fireflies fluttered around us.
I came back to reality and realized it had been several minutes since I’d begun reminiscing about the past. It broke my heart that Jack was a part of the past tense now, to everyone else at least. To me, he would always be with me in the present. It had been nine months since his funeral, which had been beautifully honoring from what I could remember of it. I wasn’t in the clearest mind back then, and a lot of those dark days were mentally blocked from my head.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I was pulled away from his memory by someone at the front door. I looked out the back window and saw that mom was still on a phone call, so I sighed and walked to the door. I had become quite the hermit since Jack died, my people skills had diminished to nothing to where even answering the door was stressful. I turned the knob and opened it enough to see who was there. A man, I guessed in his thirties, stood at my doorstep.
“Can I help you?” He looked a little speechless. I saw his chest pump up and down.
“Hi,” He stared at me like we knew each other, but I had never seen him before.
“Is there something I can do for you?” He blinked out of his stare and chuckled.
“I’m sorry Jenny for staring, it’s just,” he smiled warmly. “You look just like your photo.”
“How do you know my name?” I saw him hesitate.
“I’m Chase, Jack’s friend. We met in Iraq while serving in June of 2019.” I swallowed hard. I had met most of Jack’s friends who were back in the U.S. at his memorial, but I hadn’t met this friend. But then again, Jack hadn’t told me anything from his time in Iraq and so I never asked. I took a second to take in his information.
“Jack really showed you photos of me?” I let a tear fall down my cheek as I smiled.
“He showed everyone. And I do mean EVERYONE.” I laughed as another tear fell. It made me feel a little hopeful to know that he had been proud to show off his girl back home.
“I came here to...” he looked down at his dusty boots before continuing. “To give you something from Jack.”
“What?” My eyes widened with confusion.
“He gave me this while we were serving. Told me to give it to his wife if anything happened to him.” I saw his nostrils widen and a vein on his neck stiffen. His eyes became red with tears. “I’m sorry,” he wiped his eyes, obviously embarrassed to show his emotions. Empathy ran through my heart and I walked over and hugged him. He stood stiff for a second before returning the embrace. I felt tears slide down his cheek and fall onto my shoulder. I wasn’t the only one who missed Jack. I pulled away and laid my hand on his shoulder.
“I can’t thank you enough for coming,” He nodded his head.
“I’m so sorry I couldn’t come sooner. I was still overseas until a month ago.”
“I understand, and thank you for your service.” He bowed his head and motioned for me to follow him to his station wagon parked near my mailbox. Opening the back of the trunk, Chase pulled out a box wrapped in brown packaging paper. It was covered in dirt spots and red soil, but I held it tightly in my hands as he closed the trunk. I saw Chase getting in his car, and without hesitating, my people skills came back and I spoke.
“Chase, would you like to come over for dinner tonight? I know my mom and I would love to hear any stories you have about Jack.” He smiled and nodded with his hand on the top of his car.
“Thank you. I’ll be here.” I waved as he drove away. With a hint of excitement and a whole lot of curiosity, I walked into the house and to our bedroom upstairs. I sat down on our old mattress, causing small dust particles to bounce up into the air as sunlight streamed in through the window across from me. I unraveled the felt ribbon holding the package together and unfolded the paper till a small wooden box was sitting in my lap. I sucked in as much air as I could before fingering the box lip with my shaking hands and lifted the lid. My hand flew to my mouth as I began to cry out of pure love for my sweet husband.
Inside, sat a small tan teddy bear with the words, “I love you, Jenny,” engraved in red thread. A small folded letter was beneath and I quickly read it, then read it again and again with happy tears streaking down my cheek.
If you’re reading this, then something happened to me. I bought this bear in an airport as I was being deployed to Iraq. I’ve kept it with me since then and every night I’ve wrapped it in my clothes so it smells like me. Trust me, it’s not the best smell, (living in a barrack with 20 other guys will make anything smell disgusting fast) but I hope it keeps you feeling like I’m there with you. Because I am.
Jenny, I pray that you never get this box. But if you do, just know this. I never knew I could love anyone as much as I love you. I think about you every single night. I imagine holding you in my arms, kissing you, looking into those magical green eyes of yours. That’s what keeps me going everyday. I’ll always love you. And, I know this is hard, but you have to be strong. Be strong for me, Jen. Maybe you’ll find someone who loves you as much as I do, and if so, don’t be afraid to love again. I want you to be happy.
I love you Jenny. I’ll love you, forever.
Your Jack Warren
The letter that Jack wrote gave me the strength I needed to move on. I kept it with me, always. And, in some ways, I felt that we did grow old together, just like we planned.