In September, I introduced you to my friend Theresa. Three days after her Navy husband, Landon, was killed overseas, Theresa, who had a newborn baby, co-wrote a column with me about her experience. It was a fresh, raw glimpse at what being a new military widow with young children really looks like.
"To hear your screams of 'I want him alive! I want him alive!' was almost more than I could bear," Theresa wrote then about telling her son, Anthony, that his father was dead.
It was always amazing to me that Theresa was able to write with such clarity so soon after losing her husband. Of course, in many ways, her biggest struggles as a new, widowed mother were yet to come.
Landon is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Theresa's "newborn" is crawling, and Anthony is 7 years old. The funeral flowers are gone, and the rest of the world has seemingly "moved on."
That's why, on this Memorial Day, it's important to remember that Theresa is still here, still grieving.
I asked Theresa to write again with updates about these first months without Landon. What follows are her words:
"Eight months have passed since my husband was killed in the Red Sea. Landon was not killed by enemy fire, nor as a result of a mechanical failure. He was killed as he sat in his helicopter, rotors spinning and chained to the deck of a ship that was going too fast in high seas. A large wall of water hit the side of ship, shot up, and crashed onto the helicopter, causing it to break apart and eventually go over the side with both pilots still strapped in their seats.
As I sat at my kitchen table and read the military's investigation report, I felt like I was reading a book -- fiction. The helicopter's door came loose... that means the pilots could escape! I was waiting for a different ending. But it never came.
My children played in the next room as I read: the pilots were most likely 'incapacitated' before they hit the water.
The accident happened five days before our 10th wedding anniversary and shortly before Landon was supposed to come home. I remember filling out paperwork instead of celebrating with Landon. Rather than shopping for a dress for his homecoming, I spent hours in the mall looking for an outfit I could wear (and still easily nurse our son, Hunter) to the funeral.
On Veteran's Day, Anthony, then 6 years old, bravely walked into his school, which was a sea of dads in military uniforms for the school's celebration. I cried the whole walk home, pushing Hunter in a stroller. Born while Landon was on that final deployment, Hunter will never feel his father's arms.
In December, I watched, alone, as my boys opened gifts on Christmas. I tried to hide my tears when Anthony looked at all the toys and said, 'This is the best Christmas ever!'
Another time, when I had the flu, I wept in a rocker with Hunter in the middle of the night because my husband wasn't there to help me.
And the day I finally went to the Navy Exchange to buy large containers to pack away my husband's things, I wanted to scream. People watched me teeter the large bins on top of the stroller. 'Do you know what I have to buy these for?' I wanted to say. 'Please help me!'
Today, when Anthony asks, 'What if something happens to you?' I hate that I cannot honestly say, 'Nothing ever will.' All I can tell him is 'you'll be taken care of.'
On the morning of Sept. 22, 2013, I had no idea my life would be like this today.
Before that day, however, when I dared to think about the 'what ifs' -- because every military spouse does -- I didn't picture it like this. I never realized how quickly I'd lose my identity as a military wife or that the organization my husband vowed to serve and die for would ever fail me. I am no longer a Navy wife. I'm the VA's problem now.
Landon would be so disappointed.
Yet, despite all this, Anthony, Hunter and I still manage to smile and laugh every day. We continue to live, and we try our best to move forward. We have come miles from those first few weeks in September, and I am optimistic that although we will have bumps in the road, we will be OK.
At the funeral, the military gave the boys and me three perfectly folded American flags. Three flags to remind us of Landon's sacrifice. It's such a small thing. But for two little boys, one of whom will never know his father, someday, it will mean everything."
Photo courtesy of Dustin Smiley, who served with Landon and visited his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
This column originally appeared as part of Navy wife Sarah Smiley's syndicated newspaper column. www.SarahSmiley.com