07/12/2012 03:12 pm ET

Marie Tillman's The Letter (EXCERPT)

Excerpted from"The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss and Life" by Marie Tillman (Grand Central Publishing). © 2012 by Marie Tillman. All rights reserved.

A chaplain and three soldiers in full dress Army uniforms were standing in the conference room when I entered.

They did not have to say a word. I knew instantly that Pat had been killed. They had prepared us for this at the Family Readiness meeting a few months back. Class A dress uniform—killed. BDU, or battle dress uniform— injured. My mind registered their appearance. Class A.

“We’re sorry to inform you...” The words had no logical place to go in my head and ricocheted somewhere between hearing and understanding. The men stared straight at me, watching for my reaction—ready to catch me, I suppose. The chaplain pressed forward and took my hand. He started to pray but I cut him off. I needed to think, not pray.

I walked back to my desk in the stone-cold numbness of emotional shock. I picked up my purse and avoided eye contact with any of my coworkers. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I needed to get out of there.

Without saying much, the chaplain took my keys and got in the driver’s seat while I walked to the passenger side. The soldiers walked to their cars to follow us home. They were all professionals. They had done this before.

As the chaplain drove, I stared out the car window, watching the scenery without seeing anything. It had been less than three weeks since Pat left for Afghanistan.

I closed my eyes as the chaplain drove the car south, from downtown Seattle to the little cottage Pat, Kevin, and I had rented in University Place. Snug on a hill overlooking the water of the Tacoma Narrows, it had been the perfect retreat between their training missions and deployments—a short drive from Fort Lewis but a world away.

The regulation twenty-four-hour cushion between notifying the family and releasing the information to the press had broken down, the officers had warned me.

News of Pat’s death had already leaked. I couldn’t let his parents hear it first on TV or radio. I had to get in touch with them. I also didn’t want Pat’s mom, Dannie, to be alone when I broke the news. So with the chaplain driving, I made calls to family in the hopes that someone could get to Dannie’s house and call me from there.

Just as I got home, my phone rang. I froze, looking at the caller ID. It was Dannie. This wasn’t the plan; I knew no one was with her yet. I picked up and said hello. She was hesitant on the other end.

“Marie, is everything okay?” No matter how hard my brain tried, my mouth wouldn’t form the words. My throat closed up and refused to cooperate. Finally I just blurted out the words “He’s dead.” It was too harsh, but there was no gentle way to tell her. For a moment there was silence. The phone dropped to the ground and from a muffled, helpless distance I heard the shock of the news I had delivered play out.

The most agonizing scream from deep inside drew out Dannie’s next-door neighbors and I listened, unable to hang up, as Syd and Peggy rushed to console her. Finally Syd picked up the phone and assured me he would stay there with her. The worst part of my day was over.

More men in uniform started to fill the house. So many men were in our house that night, talking in hushed tones, their boots echoing off the hardwood floors. I didn’t know any of them. Whenever they spoke to me, I just stared at their mouths, trying to decipher their words—jumbled streams that made no sense. I played my role, nodding and agreeing.

The strangers shifted uncomfortably, looking around at photos on the walls and books on the shelves, aware they were uninvited guests in our home. Our sacred space, so carefully constructed and protected, was being invaded. I felt like the walls were coming in on me. I wanted to scream at them. I needed to leave.

It was late April but the night air still held its winter bite. I was dressed in a thin black sweater and pants, and the chill slapped my cheeks, making me conscious of the moment for the first time. The last several hours had been a blur of logistics and phone calls. Finally there was nothing left to do but wait.

When my family arrived, the soldiers’ job was done. They could leave knowing I was in good hands. They filed one by one out into the night.

Then it was quiet.

I took in the silence for a few moments, staring at the door, which had finally closed for the evening. My parents settled into the second bedroom. My sister fell asleep on the couch. I went to my room, finally alone—deeply, finally alone.

I recounted the events of the day but could not put them into any logical sequence. Everything was still unreal.

Things I had heard or seen but hadn’t registered were coming back to me now that I was able to reflect quietly. Had the officers in the conference room really told me that Pat had been shot in the head or had I imagined that?

I still was trying too hard to function, to be logical, to cope. I had not broken yet. I hadn’t even cried.

Wrapped in a thick comforter in our bed, I lay awake, curled on my side, staring at the wall. A small crack in the blinds let in a faint beam of light from the streetlamp below, and Mc, our orange-and-white tabby, flopped up on the bed, looking for a warm place to sleep. He circled himself twice, then nestled into the crook behind my knees and began kneading the blanket and purring softly.

If I closed my eyes, I could pretend it was like any other night, but I couldn’t close my eyes. I was trying to make some sense of anything. I gave up on sleep and switched on the small bedside lamp, which cast a warm glow on the room. I pulled my feet from under the covers, barely disturbing Mc, and quietly went to the dresser across the room.

Under a stack of old receipts and cards, I found the slim white envelope that Pat had set there “just in case.” It had smoldered there for almost a year. He had written it hurriedly during an earlier deployment, in Iraq, in a moment when he had thought he might not come home—a good-bye letter—and placed it on the dresser without ceremony during his break between Iraq and Afghanistan.

I had noticed my name written neatly on the envelope and had asked him what it was. When he told me, in an offhand way, I wondered for a moment if I should open it then. After all, he had come back from that deployment. But his enlistment was far from over, and the subject just felt too big even to have a conversation about.

So it had remained stashed in a pile without another comment from either of us. But we always knew it was there.

Nothing about the day seemed real except for this letter that I could touch and feel. It was both precious and awful—the last communication I’d ever have with Pat. I sat holding it for many minutes. Then I carefully opened the seal. My breath caught, and I paused another moment with my eyes closed.

I slowly flattened the letter on my lap. It had been so carefully folded. I pictured the slow, childlike way his oversized hands moved when put to a delicate task. It was one of the traits I loved most about him. The imposing exterior masking the most gentle soul. I recognized his familiar scrawl and smiled. I was ready.

Marie Tillman has launched a website to help serving military write their "Just in case" letter. You can visit it here.