23 years ago, I said yes the twentieth time Phil asked me out. I was not keeping track, but he was. He said to me, “This is number 20. If you say no today, then I will never ask you out again.” At the time, Phil was a young enlisted man who would strut around the Mountain Home Air Force Base swimming pool in a little blue speedo swimming suits (for the record, no man looks good in one of these types of suits). He flirted with every lifeguard working. I had just gotten out of a toxic almost six years of marriage to another military man. The last thing I needed or wanted was another young military man.
Phil was persistent, if nothing else. He always said that no meant that he wasn’t trying hard enough. The more I said no and directed him to young available girls, the more he pursued me. As a mom of three young children, I was scared to trust someone with my children and with my heart. I was broken and I didn’t see my worth. When I got divorced, the church that was my life shunned me. My own family cut me out of their lives. I was adrift and trying to get a commission so that I could support my children. I didn’t need or want another person in my life—especially a 21 year old in a blue speedo!
Phil began to ask me out. After awhile, it became a game until the twentieth time he asked me out. Along the way, we had become friends. I needed him as a friend more than I needed a relationship. We hung out together, laughed together, and shared sad stories of woe. He even sidled over and volunteered to help with the Special Olympic group I worked with twice a week. Twenty three years ago, something sparked in my heart.
Even though my words were still flat refusal, my heart was falling in love with an improbable man. I am a pretty old fashioned girl. I really didn’t think he would ask me out again, but on a fiery July afternoon, he asked me to go to the movies with him in Boise. This time, I said yes. During our drive to Boise, I discovered someone I could not only laugh with, but someone who didn’t need to fill every minute with conversation. I discovered a kindred spirit. While we had been friends before that, we were inseparable after that date.
It took Phil forever to kiss me or to touch me. He kept waiting for me to make the first move! As if! Did I say that I am an old fashioned girl? Once we began dating in earnest the end of July, the fires burned so hot that we eloped November 27th to Reno, NV.
Phil gave up a lot when he married me. His family (and I do not mean to hurt his sister) basically asked him to choose between me and them. He chose me. Even now, his family has shut him out. In death, they could not get past their old feelings of betrayal that he chose me. It took him much longer to get his degree because he became an insta-dad to my three children who he has raised as his own since they were 3, 4, and 5. He has always been dad and they have always been his kids—no clarification ever. The word step never left his lips unless he was challenged on the last name discrepancy. Even then, he always said that Patrick, Josh, and Emily were his kids.
We struggled a lot financially when we first married because we made the decision for me to stay at home with our children. Phil was an airmen first class with three children and a staff sergeant selectee with five children. He did not believe in handouts so we lived on his salary. We ate so many potatoes and rice and beans that many of our children can’t even lift a fork with those things on it. Even though we lacked material things at the time, as a family we thrived. We went to the park all the time, played games at home, and we went to the swimming pool (where I managed the pool in the summer). Those days are precious to me because our world revolved around our nuclear unit.
People could never understand why Phil and I were so close and why we really never needed outside people or activities (well, I ran—wink!). We had forged an unbreakable bond over the course of our friendship and with carrying each other’s hurts. We had each other’s back. I was Phil’s wingman as he was mine. I would have gladly given my life for him and I know that he would gladly have given his for me. I am thankful that 23 years ago Phil would not take no for an answer and that we had every day of those 23 years. I wish that it had been more.
Part 2: How Proud You Were to Fight for Freedoms in This Land
As I ran yesterday morning, as song that I often affiliated with my Phil began to waft through my head phones. “I could see it in your eyes how proud you were to fight for freedom in our land.” Phil never took for granted the freedoms afforded to him by the citizenship he received to our country a week shy of his 18th birthday. He felt civic duty to serve and to vote. While he was not a combatant in any sense of the word, he proudly donned the United States Air Force uniform every day of his working adult life (he enlisted when he was 18).
As a nation, we have grown complacent in our freedoms and the responsibilities we carry to maintain those freedoms. We fail to feel a sense of compassion, empathy, or responsibility to our fellow world travelers. We look only to our needs. We forget the oppressed or the people who can’t give us something in return for our actions. Would we even recognize the hurting person standing next to us? The want or need of another human. Sometimes that need is to be touched. To be talked to. To be heard.
When I hear our countries national anthem, I picture a dirty and spent Francis Scott Key sitting in a boat buffeted by the crashing waves. I hear the loud canons and the pops of guns around him. I smell the acrid gunpowder as in lingers in the fray of the midnight sky. I see men in tattered rags holding weapons and pressing on for the freedoms that they believed in. A society they coveted.
While the war raged on and the skies filled with the smoke of the fight, Francis could not see who was winning, but he believed. He believed and had faith that all would be for what was good, true, and right. All he could do in the moment was to have faith and to pen his thoughts. I understand this total sense of lack of control and of not being able to see ahead. I understand being buffeted by the tumultuous waves as I sit in my boat. I cling to the desperation of hope and I have faith that my Phil’s death mattered to others besides myself.
While this war was not on our American soil, and my Phil was in Afghanistan as a teacher…a trainer…my Phil stood for what he believed was honorable. He stood for our battered flag being raised in the sky. He stood for the piece of cloth still waving after the attacks on the World Towers on 9/11. He stood for people who had no skills or abilities to change their own infrastructure. He chose to volunteer to go to Afghanistan for a year to effect the change that he felt would bring that oppressed region hope for a better future without the violence it knows now. He stood as a man of faith willing to commit to actions.
On the fourth of July, I remember the patriots that have gone with my Phil and I am humbled by their sacrifice. What sacrifice am I able to give to change the world for others? What am I willing to give up or to do for our country in gratitude for the freedoms and opportunities that I have every day? While I do not carry a gun or go to Afghanistan, I can reach out to people here. I can see people. I can hear people. I can finally feel the pain of others. I can stand for something other than my own wants and needs. I can choose today to honor Phil’s memory with my actions and my service.