I wanted to tell this story for several reasons. 1) I still remember every detail and I don’t ever want to forget it. 2) People ask me “How are you doing?” But do they really want to know?
So here is my story or at least the parts I want to share because some of my moments and memories are only mine to hold.
November 15, 2008
The day started out not so unusual. My mom spent the night and we rearranged the living room and hung some pictures and shelves. We had an interesting talk about the death of my grandparents. I remember wondering why Don had not called me. He always called before he flew. I was sure he thought I was sleeping late cause I had a gig the night before or maybe he was off and sleeping late. But I tried to call him and got no answer. The day was uneventful. I took my mom home around 5:30 that evening, stopped by McDonalds and Bailey (my 8 year old son) & I had dinner, went by Lowes because I was one 12×12 tile short for the fireplace makeover (which I couldn’t wait for Don to see, I would send him pics when it was done). It was dark when I got home and I was tired so Bailey and I decided to camp out in the living room, me on the couch & him on a pallet on the floor. We must have fallen asleep around 8:00 or 8:30.
November 15, 2008
The nightmare begins.
When I heard the knock on the door and the dogs barking I remember looking at the clock. 9:22 p.m. Who could be here this late? I sat up on the couch and peered out through the sheers on the window. At first all I saw was a figure and a name badge. My first thought was that my horses were out or someone else’s horses were loose and it was the police needing my help. Then as I moved to get up I saw the brass buttons. OMG this is not happening. Instant shock as I began to tremble and I somehow started towards the door. I’m sure a million things were running threw my mind but the only thing registering was” THIS CAN”T BE HAPPENING!”. I have seen this a thousand times on TV. I have, like most military wives have, thought of this scenario several times only to quickly dismiss it. This happens to other wives, not me. I remember just cracking the door and seeing two soldiers in their dress greens standing, at My Door, on My Porch, at My House. The only words coming from my mouth was a quiet no, no, no. “Are you Mrs. Jamie Clark, wife of CW3 Donald Clark?” one of them asked. I remember answering an emphatic “NO”. I could not open the door. My hand just wouldn’t move. The chaplain obviously realized this and extended his hand. As I took his hand my body followed and then I remember saying “You can’t come in my son is asleep in the living room”. I went out onto the porch. I don’t think there were any tears yet just the sound of my voice repeatedly saying “NO, NO, NO.” I was squatted against the front door as I started to hear the other soldier chock out the words “On behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation…….” I have no idea what he said next. After he was finished the chaplain asked me if I wanted to sit in one of the chairs on the porch and he removed his jacket and put it around my shoulders. Did he think the trembling was from the cold? I remember looking up at him and feeling like a child who had just awaken from a nightmare. “Am I awake, Am I awake?” “Yes, ma’am, I’m sorry.” was his reply. All of a sudden some sense appeared and I announced I needed to go in the house and move my son to the back bedroom and put the dogs up. I went inside as if nothing had happened, lifted my son from the pallet on the floor, carried him to my bedroom, covered him up, kissed his forehead, took the dogs to the garage, walked back to the front door and let the soldier and the chaplain in. It was only then that trembling started again. The chaplain then asked who we should call. I open my cell phone pressed contacts and started scrolling. Who do I call? Tara, my best friend. No answer. I can’t leave a message, what would I say. I hung up and started scrolling again. The next name was Kim. Yes call Kim she’ll know what to do. I pressed dial and handed the phone to the chaplain. I remember him saying who he was and that he was at Jamie Clarks house and then I heard him say “Yes ma’am I am in my greens.” She must have asked and knew immediately. She was on her way. We then had to call my brother. Don had asked him to be the one to handle everything ‘just in case’. Don was suppose to get him all the information he needed, (as he is a civilian and knows not the Army ways) who to call what needed to be done, all of the benefits, etc. The chaplain spoke with him and gave him the news then handed the phone to me. I think this was the first of the tears. When I heard my brother say in a choked voice “Jamie, it’s gonna be okay, I’m on my way.” I lost it. This is real my brother just said he was on his way.
The troops start to arrive.
By now it is around 10:30 p.m. Kim is the first on the scene. Did she break the speed of sound or at the very least several traffic violations? She had called her husband who was playing a gig at which my best friend Tara was at with her husband Mike, who runs the sound for the band. Also at the same gig were many of our other friends.
Next to arrive was Tara’s mom, step-dad and sister saying Tara and Mike were on their way. Don’s buddy Jimmy arrived next and I think that is when the chaplain decided it was safe to make their exit.
It seems I remember everything and nothing at all during those first few hours.
Every one of course wanted to know where Bailey was and I kept reminding them to keep their voices down because I did not want him to find out like this.
At some point my sister called crying and asking what to do (as she, my brother and Dad live in Florida). My reply was can you bring him back and if not nothing. Well, I guess she assumed I had called Danielle, Brittany and Jonathan, (my older children) but I hadn’t. I don’t know why I just hadn’t. Brittany arrived next with her husband. She walked in the door, looked at me and said “Mom?” sorta as a question. All I could do is look at her through my tears. It is not any easier to tell a grown child then to tell a young one. She was devastated. I’m not sure if I talked to Danielle and Jonathan on the phone that night, but I think I did. I had to call Don’s parents. I wanted them to hear it from me not two strangers at their door. The call was heartbreaking. His mom was devastated and handed the phone to Don’s dad. “Is it Donnie” “Yes” “Is it bad” “Yes” “We’ll call you in the morning”.
Every one all stayed for a while, I’m not sure how long because my world had stopped revolving. I tried to call Don’s two best friends (both active Army) and got no answer from either. It was late and I all I could do was to leave a message to call me back immediately. Every one, except Kim and Tara left and Brittany and Andy decided to take Bailey home with them till the morning. All I kept thinking was how I was going to tell my 8 year old boy that his hero, his best friend, his Dad was gone. My heart was broken and now I was going to have to break his.
November 16, 2008
As the sun came up Sunday morning and my eyes were tired from no sleep and the continuous tears. I roused with a purpose. I had to gather every bit of strength i could summon because I was going to have to tell Bailey. And tell everyone “Don was in a helicopter accident yesterday and is gone” a hundred times.
I had to call my mother and tell her, and that was not easy. I than called our pastor and asked him to be with us when we told Bailey. Brittany, Jimmy, Pastor David and I gathered in the living room. Bailey climbed in my lap and I remember looking at David. I can’t do this. He must have seen it in my eyes because he took the lead. “Bailey, you know what your dad does is a dangerous job?” Bailey nodded. “You know where your dad is is a dangerous place?” Bailey nodded. “Last night your dad’s helicopter was in an accident and your dad has died and gone to be with Jesus” The silent tears rolled down his beautiful face and his world had been crushed and changed forever. How will we make it without him? How am I going to raise this wonderful child without the most important man in our lives?
Most of that day is kinda a fog waiting for family to arrive and Don’s best friends and their wives. I know that my CAO (casualty assistance officer) came with some paperwork for me to fill out to release Don and his escort from Iraq. Friends and neighbors started visiting with food and finally my brother.
November 17-23, 2008
The week went by like a blink of an eye. There were so many things to do. Arrangements to make, family arriving, Military paperwork, visitors, oh yeah and grieving. Mike arrived from Alaska on Saturday. Sunday came way too fast. Don’s body was due to arrive at Carins Airfield around 11:00 a.m. This is it. Nothing like a slap of reality.
It was just the immediate family, Don’s best friends, Mike, Tim and Art, and my brother JJ. We were escorted into a room to wait for the plane and I saw a lot of brass there but the only ones I recognized were the chaplain and the post commanding general (only because we had a meeting that week about some funeral details that I needed to make him understand I insisted on having). The time we waited seemed like an eternity. I could not stop shaking. I remember thinking I just want to go home and make this all go away. I remember Mike holding my hand and saying ” This will be over soon.” “I DON”T WANT TO DO THIS!” I was screaming inside. I think for the most part I had held it together until that day. The plane landed and we all went outside. It was a beautiful day. The sky was blue and the sun was shinning and there was a warm breeze. I guess. I say that because my sky was gray and my sun was gone and all I felt was an empty cold wind. We stood there watching them unload the casket from the plane in a ceremonious way. As it came down the lift from the plane and touched the ground I felt my knees buckle. This is it. This is my world now. A world without my husband, my knight in shinning armor, my best friend. For me this was the hardest part. The truth is, it is not a dream or a mistake. It is real.
I think of that day mostly as the first day. This was the day when my heart started saying goodbye. When I hear the song by Rascal Flatts “Goodbye” the chorus touches my heart and the memories of that day flood my mind.
Here comes goodbye
Here comes the last time
Here comes the start of every sleepless night
The first of every tear I’m gonna cry
Here comes the pain
Here comes me wishing things would never change
And he was right here in my arms tonight
But here comes goodbye
My intent was to leave the airfield and go home, climb in my bed, cover my head and not come out till the nightmare had ended. But as we left the airfield about 10 Patriot Guard riders, on their Harleys, all decked in there leather and flags, and about 20 of Don’s friends on their bikes were there to escort the hearse to the funeral home. It was a sight to behold and it warmed my heart. I said to my brother as we followed, because I couldn’t miss this, Don would have loved this and would have said “Forget everything else, this is the coolest thing I ever seen!” And it was. What a tribute to Don and his Harley that he loved so much. We followed the per-session to the funeral home. When we arrived I was able to go and spend some time with Tracy, Don’s good friend and escort from Iraq. I was then introduced to one of the leaders of the Patriot Guard. They kept asking about a photo and I wasn’t sure what they were talking about until we were asked to hold a banner and pose. I was kinda in a daze but was quickly snapped out of it as we stood there holding this banner and cell phones started popping out and then the guys camera didn’t work and we were asked to hold on. I lost it. I felt like some kinda of side show that people were there to be entertained by. What started out as something really cool turn into a me throwing hissy fit and going to the car.
Anyway we went home and I walked outside and yanked the yellow ribbon down from the tree it had been on since July and replaced it with a black one. He was home.
November 24, 2008
Today is the day I never imagined I would have to not only arrange but live to tell about. Your husband is not supposed to die at 37. Is there a Funeral Planning For Dummies? I still am not sure how I made the decisions I made so confidently and without hesitation. I guess I believe that even though Don was not on this earth anymore he was still working his magic. For those of you who knew Don you know he was a master at getting things accomplished.
I remember nothing of the day until the funeral. Mike drove Bailey and me to the cemetery. I don’t think I said much on the way there. It had rain that morning but the sky was now a glowing blue with white clouds hanging like giant pillows. Cars stopped and some of the passenger got out and one guy even saluted as we drove by.
We arrived early and I could not believe the people already there. The first thing I saw when we pulled up was the horse drawn caisson. The horse was a gray horse and it looked like Don’s horse Deuce. The rest of the family arrived right behind us. I kinda felt like everyone wanted me to tell them what to do, everyone meaning the family. I didn’t know what to tell them, I didn’t know what to do. We just stood there until one of the funeral directors came over and i guess he told us what was gonna happen.
The bagpipe player was standing at the open grave playing Amazing Grace. We saw the Huey in the distance making its approach to land just outside of the cemetery. You know sometime, especially in my family, you just say funny things at not so appropriate times. So as the helicopter started its decent and the wind was picking up all the fallen leaves I heard my daughter say “Look confetti” through her sobs and sniffles.The huey landed and the color guard started to take the casket off. I noticed every precise movement they made. It was beautiful and so respectful. The color guard marched over to the caisson and placed the casket inside.
The caisson moved slowly as me and the family and the crowd of over 250 people followed. Was I really here, was this really happening. “Yes Jamie” a voice keep saying “but it is gonna be okay.” We stopped at the pavilion were the funeral would take place and the color guard removed the casket and carried it to the front of the pavilion where it would rest during the funeral ceremony.
I felt like I was someone else sitting there except the tears were mine, the sorrow was mine, and the broken heart was mine. I was so close to the casket that every grain of the wood is imprinted in my mind. It was beyond unbearable. Our pastor was the first to speak. I heard later that this was emotionally the hardest funeral he has ever spoken at. He talked about Don as a man, as a husband, as a father. He talked about how smart Don was, and how he could have done anything, but he chose to stand shoulder to shoulder with his fellow soldiers and fight for what he believed was right.
Mike gave the eulogy. It was just perfect. He told some stories about Don’s funny side and a story about a camping trip disaster Don had us go on. He talked about his friendship with Don and how Don touched everyone he met. He talked about how smart Don was and how he could fix anything. He talked about what a great pilot he was and what a great instructor he was. He talked about what a wonderful husband and father he was and how looking back it seems as if he was preparing us for this day.
After the eulogy Shane Owens sang “The Dance” which was not only fitting, but was OUR SONG. The song that was playing the first time he ever held me in his arms and swooned me around the dance floor. The song that was playing when I fell head over heels in love with this beautiful man. The song that was playing when we started our journey together and the song that was playing when we ended our journey. The song that will forever be OUR SONG. As Shane sang the strangest thing happened. It was if the side of the casket faded away and I could see him lying there. Just as if he was lying next to me in bed in a peaceful slumber. That is the last image I have of him. See, I was advised not to view the body and I don’t think I have any regrets about taking that advice. What I carry as my last image of Don is Good. The army Chaplin said a few words, and like everyone who never had the privilege to meet Don, was sadden to have never known this man. The 58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters made their approach and flew over with one dropping out in the ‘Missing Man Formation’.
Then came the part I dreaded the most.
As they folded the flag that was draped over the casket the precision moves were hypnotizing. Again one of those funny thoughts “how long do they have to practice that?”.
As Mike approached the soldier holding the folded flag my sobs became very heavy. Mike took the flag, did an about face and slowly started walking. “Oh my God, he is really going to give this to me, me Don’s “widow”. Mike bent slightly, held out the flag and said the dreaded words. “On behalf of the President of the United States, a grateful nation, and a proud Army, this flag is presented as a token of our appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one to his country and Army.” I thought what about his faithfulness to me and his family. “WHAT ABOUT US” I wanted to shout. Then there were two other flags that were already folded and they passed them over the casket. Art took the first one and started to approach Bailey. He had been leaning on me through the service but as Art came close and knelt in front of him Bailey sat up so tall and proud. Art said the same words to Bailey but lead in and whispered something that only him and Art will ever know and Bailey cried. The third flag was again passed over the casket and Tim presented it to Don’s parents. We sat there for a few moments in silence. Well, I say silence. There was a lot of sniffling going on and it’s funny that I remember that.
From the silence was the loudest sound I had ever heard. Twenty one shots. Again my thoughts “This can’t be happening”, ” This can’t be real”.
Then the sound of the one horn. Taps. “Oh my God, please make it stop.” “I can’t do this.”
It was over. This is it Jamie. Pull up your boot strap. Cowgirls don’t cry.
But it’s not over, because every day I have to remind myself that he has been gone for 5 months today, 151 days, 3,624 hours. And my boots just don’t fit right anymore. And yes, cowgirls do cry, everyday.