The events of September 20, 2008 will forever be etched in my memory, or at least I think so at the moment. However, as these days I seem to be “slower” and just generally more forgetful than I ever was so maybe one day, on top of losing my car keys (in the fridge), sunglasses (top of my head) and leaving the soy milk out to rot, I will forget September 20th too. This I don’t ever want to do, plus I read that writing is therapeutic (gotta be better than smashing dishes) so here goes my story. September 19th was a Friday night, and after putting in more than 60 hours that week in my 4th grade classroom, I was beat. By this point I was well into my hubby-is-deployed routine, working late weeknights, taking a six month vacation from any and all cooking or cleaning, and making damn sure that my weekends would be full of friends so I wouldn’t feel so lonely while my best friend was gone. I had made plans that night to play some “friendly neighborhood poker” next door, but since one of the most crucial elements of my Air Force-mandated temporarily-on-my-own routine was regular communication with my better half, I decided to sit down at the computer and type a long mushy email first.
We were doing so damn good this deployment, we had learned so much from Rod’s previous two tours in Iraq and Saudi Arabia (not to mention the many assorted smaller trainings and TDYs that separated us) been through the whole PTSD thing, and somehow emerged from it all with a stronger, happier and more fulfilling marriage than I ever thought possible. True, for 11 years I have always loved him, but when we first met as college students, I don’t think I was even capable of loving someone that truly and deeply. Our trials were the fire in which our love was forged. Although neither of us was particularly happy about this deployment, we were confident in the fact that we’d get through it, and six months down the road we’d somehow be even happier than we were at the moment (as if that was possible…I was deliriously happy at this point) and then we’d start the family we’d been putting off for the last eight years. We got this crazy little booklet, “Long-Distance Couples” it was entitled, and it has all of these silly little tips for staying close. Being the adventurers that we are, we tried a bunch, and they were working fabulously. We went on a little weekend trip to the Mosel River in Germany about an hour from where we lived, and we tasted wine and hiked and held hands and made love all weekend. At one particular vintner, we bought a grapevine, and named him Peter and took him home to plant. We never got around to doing the Internet research that we intended to as to where the best place and time of year would be to plant Peter, but we vowed we would and it would be one of the many projects we would work on “together” while Rod was gone. In addition, I would take pictures of Peter to send to Rod and update him on the growth of our “love child.” Then, we’d have something to talk about besides how lonely we both were and what kinds of stresses we were both facing, both in the field and at home. We took an amazingly romantic trip to Malta just two weeks before Rod’s deployment, and the sunshine and laughter we shared there helped us to forget about his pending deployment and the fact that his laser eye surgery that he had waited three years for had been postponed. The weekend before Rod left we went to IKEA and spent hours pouring over the perfect desk so that we could move our computer up from its current location in the basement amongst the daddy-long-legs so I wouldn’t be so reluctant to be on it on beautiful sunny days. We stayed up until the wee hours of the night putting the damn thing together, blissfully unaware that the cheap ply board piece of crap would live much longer than the wonderful man who lovingly put it together for me. The day of Rod’s deployment, D-day, as we humorously called it, I walked around placing little scraps of cardboard with love notes in Rod’s stuff. I wrote mushy stuff like “you are my soul mate” and, I’m thinking of you right at this moment and missing you” on more than a dozen little bits of paper, then I stuffed them in the bottom of his socks, in the pockets of some of his brand-new ABU’s, in his shaving kit, and in his IPod case, so I was sure he couldn’t possibly discover them all at once. The last one, one that informed him to be on the lookout for my romantic antics, I placed in the front pocket of his ABU’s that he planned to wear that day. Rod’s flight wasn’t scheduled to leave from the PAX terminal until 4 pm, so I doggedly rode along in the car as we completed all his last-minute deployment errands. By 1 pm (three hours before “show time” you could find us huddled in a bright corner of the upstairs part of the terminal, wiping Subway crumbs from each others mouths and making lists of our respective “deployment goals”(lose weight, complete unfinished projects, become superheroes, blah blah blah). I still have those goals, in his handwriting and mine, and never in a million years could I have guessed that they, along with a myriad of my other life goals and plans, would be shattered less than seven weeks from that day.
So, as my ADD would have it, I’ve digressed (surprise, surprise). Back to September 19, 2008, which was not even a year ago, I realize now, but somehow two lifetimes ago in my mind. Tired as hell, but excited to have my whole weekend in front of me, I hop, two at a time, up the many stairs to my computer room for some “quality time” with my sweetheart. I am not sure if we had arranged a Skype “date” or if I just got lucky, but Rod was online and seconds later I could both see his face and hear his voice for the last time. We had read long ago that it was important for married people to date each other, so we would generally decline plans with others and reserve Friday nights just for us. This night was no exception. I usually dressed up for our web-cam sessions, refreshed my makeup, put on a low-cut shirt, and attempted to tame my red mane. For some reason, on this particular night, I did not, and I remember feeling guilty that I was not my “hottest”. What I’ll never forget, however, is the way that Rod, my sweet Rod, cocked his head to one side and said, “You look so beautiful tonight babe.” “Babe,” that was our word for each other, our own silly version of “honey”, I suppose, but there was a way that he said it that was just for me. I can honestly say that I was his first and last love of his life. When I look back now, one of the many blessings I have is that in the eleven years I had with Rod, I received enough love to last me a lifetime. This thought alone has sustained me through many a dark day since. So, it’s Friday night, and raggedy Caryn is sitting in front of her web cam, staring at the gorgeous man she married, and teasing him for his unsuccessful attempt to grow a beard. “You’re so scruffy, babe” I laugh, as Rod explains to me that it is Ramadan in Pakistan, and he is practicing his best OPSEC (operational security, for all you non-military folk) and trying to blend in with the Pakistanis, who do not shave during this holiday. For Rod, however, the Native American part of his Hispanic heritage ensured that his face looked like someone had stuck coffee grounds to his cheeks and upper lip, and most places (chin included) remained smooth and hairless. My “International Man of Mystery,” I often called him, because it seemed that no matter where we traveled, (Egypt, Thailand, South Korea), people were unable to quite put a finger on Rod’s ethnic roots. After I was informed of Rod’s death, I kept hoping that this ethnic ambiguity has resulted in a mistake by the Air Force, and that Rod was alive somewhere, and a Pakistani man who was unable to properly grow facial hair was in the flag-draped coffin I received. No such luck. Damn it.
So the last time I “saw” Rod alive, he was in his BDU’s, blouse off, with just his black t-shirt and his fatigue pants. He adjusted the screen of our brand-new laptop to pan around the room, his room, at the Marriott hotel. I told him he looked like he was in one of those hostage videos, and to blink Morse code at me. The furnishings were sparse and worn; not at all what you’d expect from a Marriott, but Rod assured me that for Pakistan; this was four stars. We talked/Skyped for more than two hours that night, and I missed poker completely. We made plans for our future, I updated Rod on Peter the grapevine’s status, and I filled him in on all of the details of the past 18 hours since my last email. I showed him again our “date jar,” which the neighbor kids helped me make the weekend after Rod left, and how it was getting quite full with me putting in a Euro for each day he was deployed. When he came back, we planned to blow all that money on one weekend getaway, in which money would be no object. Ha ha, the two most frugal people I know (besides Dad and Andy) trying to “blow” money? It would have never worked, we would have found a reasonably-priced hotel, fueled up on base so as to not get gas on the economy, and driven around for a while to find a restaurant that looked “not too fancy.” El Cheapo numbers 3 and 4, I think. Anyways, my date jar still sits here next to my computer, filled with less than 40 Euro and just waiting to be “blown” on a homecoming that will never take place. Damn date jar. Where do I come up with these stupid ideas anyways? Oh yeah, “Long Distance Couples.”
So it’s Friday night and nearly 2300, and I don’t want to turn our webcam off, and wish instead to Rod that I could take him (or at least his web-cast image) up our final flight of stairs to bed with me. “I know, babe,” he says, “I wish I could take you to bed with me here, too.” I inform him of my plans over Christmas to fly into Islamabad and book myself into a room at the Marriott. “It’s too dangerous, babe” Rod replies, but I know that he is secretly delighted at the thought, even though he pretends to discourage me. I would have done it, too, I’ve done way more rebellious things in my life, and to my knowledge there’s no law that says I can’t be a tourist in Pakistan.
Islamabad, Pakistan, Rod’s top-secret location. I wasn’t supposed to know where he was, you know OPSEC and all. But I guessed it/looked it up from the prefix on our caller ID when he called from the Embassy. “So, I know where you are, it’s something you do with a suitcase that ends in –stan, right?” I say to him one evening over the phone.
“Wow, babe, good work! But do you know which city? I’ll give you a hint; it rhymes with Yo-momma-bad.” Rod was so cute like that. Ever the professional, he had a quiet sense of humor that could tickle me no end. So I wasn’t supposed to know. So I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody after my “detective work” led me to the truth. So I only told, like, 5 of my closest friends. I kick myself for this. Sometimes I think, “If I had practiced better OPSEC, the terrorists wouldn’t have targeted the Marriott” God help me, I’m partially responsible for this. “Loose lips sink ships,” or “Caryn’s verbal vomiting leads insurgents to a bombing” or something clever and rhyming like that. I am such a retard sometimes. I know logically that it’s probably not my fault, but grief leads you to wish that you could have changed something, somehow.
So finally, Rod and I kiss goodnight, because I know he probably has to work on Saturday (he doesn’t say this, but I know him) and we’ve gossiped/discussed every single possible subject our Friday-night brains can fathom. It was a great conversation, I remember this. The best part was seeing Rod’s face and his eyes and knowing that he got as much strength from my image/voice as I got from his. Skype is the coolest thing ever. Best of all, for us El Cheapos, it was free.
Eight hours later, it is Saturday morning (not mourning, yet), and my alarm at 0700 reminds me that I was foolish enough to take a Saturday class for graduate credit. So I drag myself out of bed (which is not as hard as it would be if Rod was in it), shower, and drive to Ramstein, where I attend an all-day seminar on technology for the classroom, which I can’t wait to try. Katie is also a glutton for punishment and we meet up after class (1500) to do some serious wallet-lightening at the annual ROSC bazaar. Usually I don’t attend such an event, but since I am in single-girl mode I decide to do some “cheater shopping” for Christmas for family and friends. Katie buys me a birdcage ornament for my Christmas tree, since I have a new friend (Ludwig, the parrot) who I’ve been trying to teach cuss words to since I got him the day after Rod deployed.
1800. Katie receives a call from Brian on her handi. “Is Caryn with you?” he asks calmly. “Because Pam is freakin’ out and wants to talk to her.” So Katie passes me the cell phone (mine’s dead, of course) and I call my neighbor and good friend, Pam.
“Waz up?” I ask casually.
“OK, Caryn, I’m not trying to alarm you, but what hotel did you say Rod was staying at again?”
“Did you hear on the news that there was a bombing there?”
“OK, well I’m sure Rod is fine, but you just might wanna call and make sure, ok?”
Dude, this sucks. But it’s not really that bad, yet, ‘cause I regularly freak out over stupid things and they turn out fine. Can you say, “Drama Queen” (imagine the falsetto voice). So this particular DQ asks Katie if we can go to her car, where my planner (an ADD essential) is waiting with the phone numbers from Lt. Col Vivians (Rod’s commander) and Rod’s Pakistani handi. (Say that 10 times fast). So I call Vivians, no answer, and speak with another SNCO who informs me that the commander is just coming in to Frankfurt from a TDY and someone will get back with me. Not good enough. So typical Caryn, I take matters into my own hands and drive separately with Katie to my classroom at Landstuhl Elementary School where I can have access to a DSN phone and Rod’s direct line at the Embassy. No answer. This blows, but I know that Rod is probably just working with his troops in the aftermath of the disaster, his only thoughts on how to help others in their moment of need. That was how he was, always thinking of others, even when he himself faced tragedy. Never have I met a more selfless person, really. Mostly I hate how people “over-glorify” the dead, inducting all who have passed before us into a quasi-sainthood, but Rod really was a saint. If you knew him, you’d agree with me. These days, I hate telling shrinks/counselors how wonderful my husband was, but it’s true. I promise.
1900. I’m still in my classroom, and I’ve exhausted all my resources. I’ve spoken again to the MSgt, and to Col Vivians himself, who is driving home from Frankfurt at the moment and will call me as soon as he hears anything from Command Post. I try the Embassy again, and a mechanical voice tells me, “This line has been disconnected or is otherwise not in use”. Rod doesn’t answer his cell phone. I write a quick, panicked email, “Babe, I’m watching the news and I’m terrified. Please email or call, even if it’s only just one word. I’m praying for you….” I am starting to feel nervous, but I remind myself again that “Drama” is my middle name and I need to take a chill pill. There’s nothing to do now but wait and I’m sure everything will be just fine, I convince myself. And, somehow, I really believe this. So Katie and I head home, she hasn’t left my side even though I’ve told her to, and little do I know that this fair-headed angel friend of mine will continue to stand by me in my darkest hours for many months to come. So we drive to my house in Steinalben, separately, because we drove two cars to our seminar last year (or was it just that morning?) and I’m not yet too freaked out to drive.
2100. Faithful Katie, vigilant Pam and I are seated around my beautiful European kitchen table our “Colonel’s Table” as I liked to call it. The rustic Belgian wood is nearly three inches thick, and the table can comfortably seat 14 people when the leaves are in. I told Rod that when he made Colonel, we’d have fancy dinner parties around this table.
2130. ZZZZZZtttttttt! “Your dryer’s going off,” Pam says, but I know it’s not the dryer. My doorbell would be more appropriately named “door shock therapy” for its awful noise. “Who could be at your house this late?” Katie wonders aloud. “Probably Herr Sus,” Pam replies.
Oh God, I hope it’s Herr Sus.
I peer out the glass and into the face of my worst nightmare, three Air Force personnel in their dress blues. Katie and Pam are out of their seats now after a moment of shock and heading down one of the sets of my stairs. “Caryn?” Colonel Vivians asks gently. His brown eyes are tender and kind, and only slightly watery-looking. Then the script to my nightmare began. “We regret to inform you that Major Rodolfo Ivan Rodriguez was killed by an explosive device at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad Pakistan on September 20, 2008.”
“Nooooooooooo….” I wail, trying to drown out the voices that are breaking my heart. “Not Rod. Not my Rod. Not him. Please. Pleeeeeeeaaaaaasssse!” All of a sudden, I can’t stand. My legs collapse underneath me and I’m on the floor in my foyer, sobbing uncontrollably. Fortunately, Katie and Pam are there to catch me, but they can’t quite support the weight of this new burden that has become mine. “Not Rod. Not MY Rod. Not my babe. Please. Please don’t.” But they can’t help it, they must recite this script, word for word, and I can tell from their eyes that it’s breaking their hearts too, to see me like this. Katie and Pam are sobbing right along with me and we’re pretty much all just a sea of tears and pain, the six of us in my tiny foyer. Somehow, the chaplain leads me into my living room where he presents me with a book he has been holding, entitled, “Good Grief.” Good grief? What the hell is that, some kind of sick joke? Later, I will burn this book in a private ceremony in my backyard, but for now I am just dumbfounded by the insensitivity of the author. Nothing is good about grief. It doesn’t make you stronger or wiser or any more well-liked, as far as I can tell.
2200. Now that these three blues-clad men have done their awful job as Casualty Notification Officers (CNO’s…everything in the Air Force has a freakin’ acronym, I’ve learned) it’s time for me to perform mine. I’m told they can’t leave until I’ve called our families, Rod’s and mine, so they can be sure that all next-of-kin (NOK, I’ll see this acronym on lots of paperwork later) have been notified. The Pakistani media has Rod’s name and rank, and are planning to publish it in the news the next day. Initially, I refuse. I don’t want to. I can’t. How will I possibly tell Rod’s mom that she’s lost her firstborn son, her pride and joy? What will I say to his brothers, to whom Rod’s always been a father figure? My dad? How will he take the news that the son-in-law he has loved so dearly has been blown up, along with his daughter’s whole life? How will I comfort them when I am thousands of miles away? All these thoughts and more are running through my head, but somehow, I find the strength to pick up the phone.
In retrospect, I can’t believe I did this. I can’t believe I did a lot of things these past eight months, but this was definitely one of the hardest. I remember that partly I just wanted these guys out of my house, Col. Vivians, the chaplain and the MSgt, I just wanted them to take their blue uniforms with their shiny brass buttons and stupid grief books and GO AWAY, get out of my house so that I could wake up from this bad dream in a cold sweat and write it all in my dream journal at 3 am, and then tell Rod all about the terrible dream I had the night before. For about four months, really, I went through all the motions of life, just patiently waiting to wake up. But I never do. This is real, and it sucks.
I can’t remember who I called first, but I do know that both conversations were incredibly short. To my parents: “Dad, it’s Caryn. Rod was killed today. I’ve gotta go. There are military personnel here and they are waiting for me. Love you too.” My voice was cold and flat. I’d like to credit the Air Force with this performance of professionalism in the face of crisis. Usually, I’m much more dramatic. At Rod’s house (who I am kidding, he lived with ME, I am his “primary beneficiary” his first next-of-kin or FNOK, his FAMILY, his soul mate, his life) I spoke with Fernie, his youngest brother, first. What do you say? Rod’s dead, he’s gone, they just told me, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Can I speak to your mom? Mama, Ivan esta muerto, lo siento mucho, no tengo las palabras, lo siento. Necessito irme. Te amo. “
All next-of-kin notified: check. Good grief book in hand: check. Sleeping pill: check. Stop hurting: unchecked, but that can wait for tomorrow. Tonight, I must sleep.