A Year in the Life of a Pilot’s Widow

I want to start off by addressing that I don’t really know why I am writing this right now, other than the fact that I have something to say to anyone who has or will ever mourn a pilot. I’m going to keep this short, and I’m going to keep it concise…

Before I get into that, I want to talk about what it means to love a pilot. Not a person who flies. But a pilot. Someone who was born to take to the skies.

I have heard so many military spouses talk about how they simply pretend the jobs our husbands and boyfriends have are “normal.” They pretend that they are bankers or lawyers. I get that this is done to protect themselves, but ultimately, they aren’t bankers. They are pilots.

Their jobs are epic. They have legendary stories to tell.

If you love a pilot, you love someone who literally tames and rides dragons all day. And then comes home and does laundry. And eats dinner with you. And asks about your day.

If you love a pilot this means weekly if not daily conversations about the dangers of the job. The dangers of ejection. The possibility of severed limbs. Third degree burns. Broken backs. And death.

Not just one conversation, but many conversations.

If you love a pilot, you love someone who spends their whole life fighting gravity, and bending it. And to love a pilot means that one day, you very realistically may have to mourn that pilot, because even the greatest pilots can die doing what they love.

It’s the gig. To truly love a pilot is to be ready and willing and able to try your best to survive their death.

And when and if, one day, your pilot falls from the sky, we, their widows, are left to mourn heroes.

We are also left with a community who says they want to support your grief but also really hopes you stay quiet about it.

When you mourn a pilot, everyone mourns with you for a while. You get a lot of calls from people who didn’t know your pilot but want to express their condolences.

You also get messages from pilots you don’t know. Their wives in the next room. These pilots are panicked, they have so much fear of death, but their wife simply can’t understand and so they can’t talk to her. (Maybe because she is trying to convince herself that he has a normal job and he doesn’t want to upset her).

So these pilots talk to you. Because you’re already destroyed.

And though you are broken and grieving, these are your person’s brothers, so you stay up til all hours of the night trying to console broken men while you yourself are broken.

When you mourn a pilot, you know conversations are going on about you in the spouse groups. Are you still a spouse? Most think yes. But there’s always one or two who consider you less of a spouse, and after a few months of trying to figure out how to deal with their passive aggressive dismissals of your suggestions, you decide that maybe, ultimately, you may need to leave that group completely. And leave those friendships.

A lot of people tell you that they’re going to do really amazing things to honor your dead pilot. Getting necklaces made. Bracelets. They’re going to send them to you when the designs are finished…but the designs never get finished, and ultimately you just forget about it.

When you mourn a pilot, you listen to other spouses with living husbands complain about the amount of time their guy is flying. They don’t complain in group chats…they, for some reason, complain to you.

You get called by investigators over and over and over again. Every time, they need a little more information. A few more details for the report. And then the report of the accident comes out, and you read “pilot error,” listed across the top. And your soul screams. And you feel like your guy has died twice.

And on top of that, people keep saying over and over and over again, “I’m sure his last thoughts were of you,” and you want to scream at them, “do you even get it? Do you even understand what they do up there? He better not have been thinking of me, he better have been trying to get out of the god damn airplane so he could get back to me.”

When you mourn a pilot, you show up to their final funeral service, and you see people with their cell phones out.

You collapse by their coffin afterwards when everyone is trickling away and you sob. And you clutch the name tag hanging from the handle of the casket and you look at your dead pilot’s name. And you feel your heart shatter again.

And while that’s happening, someone walks up behind you and taps you on the shoulder and asks if you can move for a second…because they want a picture of the casket (it’s their first time at Arlington Cemetery after all, and they don’t know if they’ll ever be back).

So you move. And they get their picture.

And at the services, you run into one of the pilots who called you months earlier. And later on after the funeral, he calls you again when it is a little too late. He’s alone in his hotel room. He asks if you want to meet up. And you hang up the phone and delete his number. And you mourn your dead pilot even more because he was truly a good person. And you feel like you’ve been left to the wolves.

When you mourn a pilot you consider the idea that maybe you don’t want to live anymore. You make the mistake of telling one of the wives. And she takes the screenshots of those messages and shows them to other wives. And ultimately one of them finally calls you and goes, “I just think you should know she is saying these things about you,” and you stare blankly off into space and ask her, “did you stand up for me?” To which she responds, “well, it’s not really my place to do so, but I thought you should know.”

And so you think about it.

And you make a list of every single person from your pilot’s squadron, and you delete them from social media. And you write really angry posts about things they never let you say. And you’re talking for the first time, honestly, about how you feel. And you let it all out. You use your anger to scorch the Earth around you. And it feels good.

People start calling you and telling you you’re causing too much pain to others. And you laugh to yourself that anyone is trying to talk to you about what “too much pain,” is. And it feels good.

The fact that people can see, for the first time, how little they mean to you in the face of what you lost, feels good. It feels so good, because you finally, after almost a year, feel like people hear you.

And the first year ends. And you’re finally breathing again after spending so much time suffering a death by a thousand cuts.

And you take your first few steps into the second year of being a dead pilot’s widow.

And then another pilot dies. And you see his widow in the news articles and you hear the talks and lofty speeches about how the community is going to pull together to support her.

And you just hope it goes differently this time.

****

There are truly so many great and supportive people within the military communities, please know I acknowledge that.

This post is a culmination of things that happened to me and other widows after their losses. So obviously…there is some room for improvement.

I Didn’t Want a Life That Would Make, “A Great Book”

I cannot stress enough how much writing has served me in the months since John died.  Writing has allowed me to illuminate the saturated murkiness of deep grief in a way that continues to surprise, and at times, exhaust me.

Even though the aftermath of loss is where people typically find themselves with, “no words,”  I, for some reason, have been able to find many.

And so I’ve written them.

I’ve written about the love me and John had and continue to have.  I’ve written about what it felt like to have met him and why it mattered so much. I’ve transcribed the events that led up to the night he died trying to get out of his plane during a routine landing.  And I’ve written at length about how my life has unfolded since.

Writing has served to cauterize the deepest and most gruesome parts of this experience, as well as to illuminate the  incomprehensible moments of re-connection that I’ve been blessed with since the accident.  My writing has connected me to so many others whose journeys run parallel to mine, and I believe it will find its way to people who need it down the line.

My writing has helped me, and so I’ve continued to write.

My writing has also led to many of my closest friends and family earnestly telling me the one thing that almost everyone who faces a tragedy hears at some point:  That one day, I should write a book about all this.

(Believe me when I say that I take this as a compliment).

People have urged me to write a book about the life I had before John.  My relationship with him.  And the healing I’ve undergone since his death.  Almost every widow I know has been urged to do this.

Some do.  Some don’t.  But all our stories, untold or not, really would make for great reading.

I, speaking for myself, find the task deliriously daunting.

Maybe at some point in my life, I will be able to pluck out a single thread in this Gordian Knot of an experience, but until then I think what I want to say most is this:  that my life… this life that would make a great book…I truly wish I did not have it.

I wish it so very much.

I wish my relationship with John didn’t have to be described as “epic.”

I wish I didn’t learn first hand how death can open people’s hearts, only for them to realize that it’s too late for it to do anyone much good.

I didn’t want a life where I watched one of the kindest humans anyone has ever known die.  And I didn’t want a life where I learned that I could survive that kind of pain.

I most definitely did not want a life where some people think I’ve lost my mind because I can see John’s love manifested in dreams and cell phone glitches and balloons.

I did not want to be a seeker. I did not want  wisdom.  I did not want to be an example of strength.  I did not want any part of this life. 

No one would.

I wanted what almost everyone else I know wants…the norm.  I wanted a benign life, yet I was given this one.  And I know people want to read about it because I probably would too.

I suppose the easiest thing to read about are the difficult lives people lead.

But I don’t want a book about me and John because between the romance, obstacles, tragedy (and eventual magic) that our relationship carried with it, I feel we were really more the “fairy tale” type.  I don’t think many people could disagree.

I want our stories to be told in times where immediate comfort is needed, even if that means our names will eventually get lost to time.

I want people to hear about us so they fight for and forgive those they are lucky enough to love in this life.

And I hope, at some point, the story of the time John sent me quarters makes its way to a grieving person who needs to hear it.  I want people to hear about “some pilot” who shows up in kids dreams because he really wants to talk about planes.  I want people to look at red balloons and think, for just a second, that maybe there is more to this life than what meets the eye.

I want nothing more than for these stories to be shared and told…so I will keep writing.  I want nothing more than for people to find hope and re-connection after they lose someone, so I will keep writing.  I feel like it is what I was meant to do, so I will just keep writing.

But I also wish with all my heart that I was the one hearing and reading these stories, not the one writing them.

I don’t want to be living through the difficulties that make for easy reading, no matter how great the book would be.

You wouldn’t either.

 

I Was Never Meant to be “His Wife”

After John died, safe to say, I lost sight of who I was and what I meant to him.

Though he had told me hundreds of times how he felt about me when he was alive…without the formal titles and celebrations of a wedding or marriage, after he died, I found myself diminishing the role I played in his life.  And I also found myself floundering under the weight of the fact that I was, “just his girlfriend” when he died.

Sure, when he was alive, if one of his friends asked him what our future held, his answer was an unequivocal:  She’s the one.  

Sure, before his accident, whenever he talked about his future career moves, I was always included in those plans.

But then he died.  And I was left here with the living.  And there was more of them than there was of me, so eventually, their perspectives began to color my own.

I was left listening to a wide array of people who somehow found ways to mention that John thought all of his girlfriends, at some point, had been, “the one.”  His friends didn’t doubt that John loved me, because… well… according to them, John was always “all in” with every girl he dated.  His friends had seen how much he loved his ex-girlfriends…so they were sure he must have loved me too.

His family, who never approved of me, felt the need to tell me that they, “had no idea,” John was so serious about me…because, according to them, John was “serious” about all of his relationships prior to ours.  And all of those relationships ended, so his family had no reason to believe this one would be any different.

And even though his parents included me in the memorial and funeral services in a genuine effort to “make up for lost time,” when John’s personal items were sent to them, I was told, by his mother, that his things: his shirts, his sheets, our chessboard…all of those things were “for the family” to go through and have.

They were sure I’d understand their decision.

And I did. I understood what everyone was telling me:  I was just John’s girlfriend.  And if John hadn’t died…I might have lived to see the day where I ended up as just another one of his ex-girlfriends.

I don’t blame people for thinking this.  When John met me, I was brash and fiercely independent. I didn’t mince words, I was reactive, and ran head-first into conflicts John would have typically avoided.  John, on the other hand, was always much more composed than I was, and he was much more of a people-pleaser.

I began to see, after he died, how terribly mismatched we had been.

I began to realize why John’s family had doubts about “his girlfriend.”  I could see why his friends, who had seen us fight and make up several times, probably also had doubts about “John’s girlfriend.”  That girl, who I was when he was alive, his girlfriend…wasn’t perfect for John.  Wasn’t perfect for his career.  Wasn’t good for his family.

So I, subconsciously, decided that I’d step up my game after he died and become the woman that everyone else would have wanted John to marry.  Simply put, I tried  to become “John’s wife.”

For months, I attempted to bury my own pain to help other people with theirs, just like John would have wanted “his wife” to do in the wake of his death.  John was always able to paste on a smile, no matter how hurt he was…so I found a way to make crutches out of the broken parts of my spirit, and pretend that that was the only support I needed…just like I imagined John would expect of “his wife.”

After he died, I checked in on his family, like John’s wife would’ve done.  I checked in on his friends.  I tried to bridge the gaps and overcome the hurdles John and I would’ve faced together if he was still alive.

I had one goal: to live out my life like someone I felt John would’ve loved to be married to, and that woman happened to be a very, very diminished and muted version of myself.

And John’s people, so many of his people, loved who I was.

But then, after nearly a year of swallowing my anger, and choking down my pain, and putting on a brave face, something occurred to me.

I realized a sobering fact:  John didn’t fall in love with an even-tempered, ever-forgiving woman who smiled for the sake of others, though she was broken and angry inside.  He didn’t fall in love with someone who turned the other cheek after she was mistreated over and over and over again.  He didn’t fall in love with someone who avoided conflict.  He didn’t fall in love with the woman I believed everyone would have wanted him to marry.  Not even close…

John, when he was alive, fell in love with me.

Me.

My stubbornness.  My tenacity.  My, at times, fanatical dedication to talking about the things people found too difficult to discuss.  He didn’t like me all the time, but (and I know his family hates cursing) he sure as hell, fucking loved me.  His girlfriend.  His last one.

That’s what I was meant to be.

John trusted me, his girlfriend, to be his home in this world.  No one else, when he died, was closer to him.  No amount of time, of experiences, of genetics makes up for the vulnerability and trust we shared with one another: I was the person he called when he was frustrated, when he was lost, when his friends let him down.  I held him whenever he was overwhelmed and couldn’t find the words to articulate his disappointment in something or someone, even if that person was me.

Had he done this with girlfriends or family in the past?  Maybe.

But I was the last girlfriend who got to hold him when he cried.  The last woman he wanted to face the world with.

John would make the four hour drive to get to me after a twelve hour work day, even if he knew I’d be asleep when he got there.  He didn’t do that for some idyllic woman, he did it for me.

He fought for me.  For his girlfriend.  John, who, when I met him, considered his mom, dad, and siblings the backbone of his life, went to bat for me when they couldn’t see past how different I was in comparison to the “ideal match” they had always prayed for.

John fought to have all of me, his girlfriend, in his life.

He threw himself against the barrier of their disapproval for a year. He listened to his mother tell him he was tearing his family apart.  He listened to his father tell him there was no chance of a future where the family accepted his decision to be with me.  He listened as his brother, who heard through the grapevine that John was going to marry me regardless of his family’s wishes, voiced his disapproval.

John shouldered all of that…for me.  As I was.

John listened as some of his closest friends advised him to cut ties with me for the sake of his own happiness because these friends, like John’s parents, didn’t believe John could ever be happy without his family’s support.

And John disregarded them all, and still drove the hours to see me, and still made plans with my friends, and still hung out with my family, and still made plans for the one day where he would eventually marry me.  His girlfriend. The girl who no one else, besides him, believed was worth all that damn trouble.

And who knows…maybe I wouldn’t have been worth it.  Maybe the tension with his family would’ve gotten to be too much.  Maybe I would have hated military life.  I would’ve found these things out if I’d ever gotten to be John’s wife.  But I didn’t.

But now, looking at all the things that have happened since he died, I’m beginning to think that focusing on the person I never got to be for John was a mistake.  Because I’m missing out on honoring the person I was and am.  The person he fell and stayed stupidly in love with. The person who wasn’t perfect for him, but he knew, somehow, was right for him.

I’m not sure if I was really ever “meant” to be his wife.  To be dutiful around his family.  To be mindful around people who could make or break his career.  I don’t know.

All I know is that I was meant to be his last girlfriend. And I lost sight of how unbelievably special it was, and is, to be the last woman John left it all out on the field for.

Was he happier before he met me, his girlfriend?  I don’t know.  But I do know that he was better and stronger after loving me.  And I am better and stronger for having got to love him.

Some people may disagree with that, but…they didn’t know him like I did.  No one did.  No one could.

I wasn’t meant to be his wife in this lifetime.  And I won’t live that way…tethered to the ghost of a life that never was and never will be.

I wasn’t meant to be his wife, but I believe I was meant to be his game changer.  A malady and remedy in one.  I was meant to tease the final drops of life, and passion, and frustration out of him in his last few years, so that when he died, he died the fullest possible version of himself.  A version not many people got to experience.

Because of me, he died a man who stood up for what his heart wanted.  He died a man who had cut ties with what he had always known so he could carve out a path of his own.  A path he could have walked alone, beholden to no one.  But a path he chose to walk with me.

Because of me, his last girlfriend… he died his own man.

And because he died, I get to live my life as my own woman.  A woman who, for whatever reason, got lucky enough to be John’s last girlfriend.

 

 

You Weren’t Allowed to Do This

There were rules, babe.

You said it yourself.  Time and time again… Whenever someone at work was acting up, or whenever someone in their personal life was doing something idiotic, you’d shake your head and talk about “the rules” in life:  The things people are allowed to do, and the things they aren’t.

We didn’t agree on everything, and that was part of the beauty of what we were, but we always agreed on “the rules.”  We lived by the same ones both in our lives, and in our relationship.  Simply put:  we knew what we were allowed to do and what neither of us were allowed to do.  The rules were very clear.

And as the years went on, I’d like to think I got more liberal in my allowances.  I think we both know I started off pretty…rigid.  But I think towards the end there, we were really getting it right.  By the end, after loving you for so long, there were a lot of things that I would have happily allowed you to do:

You were allowed to forget to call. 

All those times you would fall asleep, phone in hand, and wake up to 17 angry missed calls from me…were totally allowed.  Though I said otherwise at the time, all that anger…all that irritation… would disappear the second I saw your name appear on my screen the next morning.

I’d listen to you frantically explain what happened: how tired you were from work, how you fell asleep watching a movie with your roommate, how sorry you were for not calling.

And I’d tell you to never do it again because it worried me…because your job is dangerous and whenever you didn’t call, the worst case scenario would explode in my head… and you’d swear it’d never happen again.  But it always did, because it was allowed.

You were allowed to fight with me. 

And man, did we fight.

Those knock-down drag-out brawls where we’d be set on nothing short of complete and utter annihilation of the other person’s point (or feelings)…those fights were allowed.  The fights were allowed to be ugly.  They were allowed to be ruthless.  They were allowed to hurt.

Truth be told, I loved fighting with you; honestly I did.  Because, no matter how bad they got, every single fight we had  would lead us to the same realization time and time again: The realization that the bottom was never going to fall out on us.  That we were never going to give up on one another.  Never not have each other’s backs.  Even if we needed days, weeks, months to get over something.

To give up on one another…that…simply was not allowed.  Ever.

You were even allowed to leave me. 

You were allowed to decide that you needed something else in a partner.  You were allowed to meet someone else and be happy with them.  I would have allowed it.  Because I’d still have been able to have your back, though someone else would have your heart.

You were allowed to find someone your family liked, someone who loved themselves more, who didn’t press you so hard on every…single…stupid…thing.  You were allowed to do that, babe, if it made you happy, because at times, I certainly didn’t feel like I made you happy.  And you deserved nothing short of that.

You weren’t allowed to die.

Not even a little bit.  It wasn’t even something to be discussed.

You weren’t allowed to leave me here and not take me with you.  We had adventures planned…together.  I wanted to go everywhere with you, and you went to the one place I can’t get to, and to say that that completely breaks my heart is the understatement of a lifetime.

And I can’t talk to you again, and I can’t call you again, and I can’t see you again, and I can’t figure out what exactly you expect me to do because you’re not here for me to ask you, and that wasn’t ever allowed.

You’re gone.  You stopped living.  You broke the rules.

But I didn’t, so I still have to follow the rules we set for one another: I have to be tenacious.  I have to be honest.   To be a better version of myself every day.  I have to walk outside everyday in a world you’re not in anymore and continue to try to be a good person.  And I have to do it without my best friend, my wing man; I have to do it without my heart.  And I have to pretend that it isn’t utterly exhausting just to keep breathing sometimes.

And sometimes, it’s too much, and I just miss you.

And I know…I’m not allowed to fall completely apart.  Or to give up on myself.  Or give up on people.  I know that because you made those rules very clear over and over again when you were right here next to me.  You believed in me.  Always.

I know I’m not allowed to turn into a person you wouldn’t be proud to know.  I’m not allowed to turn into a person you wouldn’t recognize.  I’m not allowed to turn into a person who stops showing up for her friends or family.  And I won’t .

I’m not allowed to let the space in my heart that held all of the joy and happiness you brought me turn into a sanctuary for bitterness and anger and resentment.  That place is only allowed to be filled with goodness.  With you.

And even though you were way better at following the rules than I was…I’ll finally say what I never said during any fight we had, and that is: Ok, babe…you win.  I’ll follow the rules…some days more so than others though, but I’ll do it.

But one rule I need to make absolutely clear to you is that I am allowed to keep loving you…forever.  And I will, babe.  Every day.  Without fail.