It was just recently that I read again Paul Kanalithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air. Chosen by other partners here at Tuck as April’s book club selection, I looked forward to spending time revisiting what I remembered to be an inspiring and deeply moving book. I have to say I was surprised at myself and the feelings that have come out as I’ve read this book over, now further into my marriage and parenthood.
Maybe it was that the first time I was a too-new mother, with a months-old baby on my mind, only half of my attention on the words on the page. Maybe I was too tired, too distracted, too annoyed with my own husband to fully devour the meaning and purpose of the work. Maybe because I was reading it for joy and not discussion I only gave it a fraction of the focus I should have. But here I am, much further down the road, and guys, I’m feeling all the things.
I think the reality of a looming loss has set in. Yesterday was our three year anniversary, and I’m sitting here with a deep seated fear that the very thing that makes my husband the man that I respect and admire so deeply will also be what snatches him away too soon. A fear that I will be left standing alone before I get my lifetime of memories with my husband. That I will sit at our sons’ football games alone, have no one next to me at their weddings, no one to hold our first grandchild with. How will our boys become a men like him if he’s not here to guide them?
Lately it seems that every week I get news of another friend whose husband has decided to get out of the military. That kids, life, money, politics- something- has made serving not worth it anymore. I sit here in stark contrast, watching my husband’s loyalties to the Army only grow deeper each day as he attends school. I can’t help but feel guilt about the pang of jealousy that comes with knowing they will more likely get their 30, 40, 50 years together. There’s no countdown for us, no boundary to cross to safety. I love what he does, I respect him for his service. The problem is that I’m terrified of grief.
The gut punch that I feel at the thought of him not coming back from future deployments is sickening, and I can’t help but wonder how many other wives feel like this. To know that something wildly beyond your control can terminate life as you know it at any moment. Where in the spectrum of dying and death does a soldier’s situation fall? A terminal illness gives you time to live and time to prepare for life after. A fatal car crash hits you in the face and you handle it. The sudden or progressive death of a civilian is out of your control. I can’t help but feel like there is this bizarre in between that soldiers fall into, where we know that death is very possible yet you can’t lean into it the same way as a crisis or illness. There is a dark cloud that hangs overhead, always threatening yet completely intangible.
The fact of the matter is, I’m terrified of being left to grieve. I look around at widows- both service and civilian- and I wonder how they have found the grace that they handle it with. How they have somehow clawed their way out of the hole left by losing their partner. How do you do that? What is the first part? That’s not me, I don’t believe that I have that grace. When you get married it is inevitable that one of you will die first; but what if you know that you are the weaker part of the pair, and yet the most likely to be left behind?
I thought a lot about what marrying an Officer would mean for my life before marrying Chris, the things I would have to give up or postpone in order to support him. I can’t say that I fully comprehended the fear that would creep around the corner over time, as the reality of this life and how unpredictable it is set in. It’s impossible to accept that our time together could end so shortly after it began, yet it’s a harsh reality of this life. If you know it’s slippery out, you put on a raincoat. If you know something might give you cancer, you don’t do it. If you know you might die, but you still choose to serve, where does that leave you? And more selfishly, where does that leave me?
photo credit: Justine Johnson Photography