06/26/2012 11:38 am ET Updated May 31, 2013

Why I Ate Pizza on My Wedding Day

It was my wedding day and I was just going to have fun. And I did.

Though I probably would have preferred a small wedding, Pat wanted a big party, and so did my parents. The guest list -- 250 people strong -- was the only thing Pat really weighed in on. Well, that and having an open bar. Our wedding was full of the moments that make for great photography: me in a white dress with an enormous bustle; Pat and his 10 or so groomsmen, decked out in tuxes. There was an elegant staircase, perfectly placed flowers -- the whole picture-book fairy tale. Though I didn't relish the moment of walking down the aisle with everyone's eyes on me, it was still the most meaningful part of the day to me.

Pat had recently decided to enlist, so our relationship seemed like it had reached a new level of closeness, of connectedness, knowing we would soon be apart. Pat and I had already started our new life together, and meeting each other at the altar was a significant symbol of making it official. Without even thinking, Pat and I kissed as soon as I got to the end of the aisle, an act that drew the ire of more traditional family members, because it went against custom. We didn't care. We were married outdoors by a judge, so we obviously weren't too hung up on custom to begin with.

After the party was over, all our friends decided to go out. Ordinarily, we would have gone with them. Pat probably would have stayed out all night. But we didn't go, because we wanted just to be alone together. Time was starting to feel more precious. We still had our honeymoon to go on, but not a lot of time before he'd be leaving. There were so many changes going on in our life, and they all got wrapped up together. There was a lot of deep meaning to the day, not just a wedding and a party.

So as the party moved to a bar down the street, Pat and I snuck away. Realizing neither of us had eaten all day, we stopped at a little Italian place close to our hotel and ordered a pizza to bring back to our room. I was still in my long white dress, and Pat still in his tuxedo, as we plopped on the bed, the pizza between us, to recap the day. Debriefing was always my favorite part of a fun night out with friends. I loved sitting in bed with Pat, hearing his stories and exchanging bits of gossip.

Pat and his brother Kevin shared the enlistment news with their family the very day Pat and I left for our honeymoon in Bora-Bora. We spent a week relaxing in the sunshine, waiting for the drama at home to subside. Bora-Bora is a pretty small island, only 18 miles in circumference.

A little road circles the island, and on a bicycle you can make it around the entire perimeter in just a few hours. On our first day, we woke up, had a lazy breakfast of strong coffee and giant omelets that took up more than half the plate, then walked down to the bike rental store just outside our resort. A variety of colorful beach cruisers lined up outside the storefront, and we each chose one -- mine with a cute wicker basket attached to the front -- and set out to explore. We rode along the ocean for a while, until Pat motioned for me to pull over to a small fruit stand on the side of the road. We bought two huge slices of watermelon and sat in the grass enjoying the delicious fruit. As we ate, we watched people from the town walk by. Some bought fruit; others just stopped to chat with the owner.

"The locals seem so happy," Pat said. "I mean, they have so little -- most of them are walking around with no shoes. I can't imagine there's much work here besides catering to tourists. Yet they all have smiles on their faces and look like they don't have a care in the world."

I'd noticed it, too. "It makes you realize life can be much simpler," I said. "People at home seem so much more unhappy." I tried to push away thoughts of the complicated scenes I felt sure were unfolding in our absence. "Let's never go back to real life," I said, and lay flat back on the grass. "We could live on an island, right?"

"Definitely," Pat said, and lay back, too. "We could swim every morning."

"And read on the sand all afternoon."

We looked at each other and grinned. Then we didn't say anything at all for a few minutes, but I knew we were thinking the same thing. The truth was, though our lives back home were complicated, we were excited for the future. Pat was looking forward to the military; he wouldn't have enlisted if he'd felt otherwise. And I was excited about being married and moving together to a new place, to start our new adventure.

Pat Tillman was an NFL star who joined the military shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. He was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 by friendly fire. The U.S. government attempted to covered up the circumstances surrounding his death, painting him as a hero killed in the line of duty, to maintain public support for the war. Marie Tillman's memoir details her marriage to Pat, the letter her left her -- "just in case" -- before leaving with the military and how she recovered from her grief to learn to live again.

This essay is excerpted with permission from "The Letter" (Grand Central Publishing). Available in bookstores and online now.