“Lou is offline.” The same message greeted me each time I checked the computer screen in our bedroom. I knew I had the computer volume cranked as high as it would go, but I checked anyway. When Lou came online and pinged me, I didn’t want to miss the beep. Unable to sleep, I snuggled up on the bed with Cassie, our black Lab mix. The four boys were still asleep upstairs. The windows were open wide, welcoming the warm June breeze as it filtered through the trees. The sun had yet to rise as I lay in anxious stillness.
Lou had been in Iraq for four days. We’d managed a video chat the previous morning, and he’d promised to call again but hadn’t. There was no way to sleep while imagining the worst.
Eyes closed, mind racing, I let myself breathe the scent of freshly cut grass curling through the window screen. I constantly replayed my memory from ten days ago; Lou in his desert camouflage uniform at Fort Drum, kissing me good bye and promising he’d be okay. How I had tried to believe him.
The sound of heavy footsteps on our front steps jolted me upright. The clock blinked 6 A.M. Our bedroom window was next to the front door and it sounded like a football team was out there. Cassie gave an uninterested grunt when I shifted her off me to leap out of bed as the doorbell rang.
Oblivious of my threadbare blue tank top and shorts, I ran down the short hallway into the living room entry. Looking as shocked by my frantic entrance as I was at their unexpected appearance were three men on my steps. They were in Class As, the formal military uniform. Behind them on my lawn I had a glimpse of a man I thought was in a white t shirt, studying the ground. The three soldiers gaped at me through my screen door for a moment while I gaped back.
A sickening surge of fear coursed through me as the worry I’d felt all night about Lou, the shock of the doorbell at dawn, and the realization of what these men signified collided within me. I launched back from the door, smacking into the corner where the living room wall meets the front entryway. One of the men was talking through the screen. “Mrs. Allen? Mrs. Louis Allen?” came to me through the screams now bursting in my head. I was grabbing the wall and had my face turned into it, trying to avoid this scene, avoid what it meant. I couldn’t find the strength to answer the soldier who insistently called my name. I was desperate to stop him from saying what I already knew.
I was aware the soldiers had opened my screen door and were cautiously approaching me as I clung to that wall. “Ma’am why don’t you sit down?” one of them asked softly. “Ma’am, do you want to sit?” I didn’t want to sit. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t want them to be here. My throat was closing up. My chest felt like it was ripping apart, and when I opened my eyes, the three men were spinning around with the rest of the room.
They would not go away, I knew, until they carried out their mission. That mission was to tell me Lou was dead. The pre-deployment meeting Lou and I attended covered the procedure and made it abundantly clear that the only reason a military detail would show up at our door would be in the worst case scenario.
The five minutes since my doorbell rang seemed like an hour. I was still clinging to the wall, and the soldiers’ voices registered an increased level of concern as they suggested I sit down. I was yelling at them, “Say it. Just say it!” so they would get it over with and leave. It wasn’t until one of the men’s shaved heads was in front of me, angling in to catch my words that I knew I was barely whispering. He finally understood what I was trying to say and stepped back. I saw only two men now when I cracked my eye open. They were silhouetted against the light coming in from the door and I could not see their faces. But I could see they were ramrod straight at attention as one of them read from a paper before him.
I caught the words, “We regret to inform you” before I slipped back into a pathetic shell against the wall. Determined to convey the message, the soldier’s voice continued. I heard phrases like “mortar attack” an officer “had positively identified the body.” Most of the rest was lost on me. All I could think was that “the body” these men were referring to could not be Lou. He’d only been there a few days, and I had just seen him so alive in our video chat yesterday morning. He could not possibly be dead. This cannot be happening because I cannot handle it. Not Lou. Not us. Not our family. Please, God, not us.
I slowly opened my eyes to see the two soldiers standing close to me now, hands at their sides, a mixture of empathy and concern on their faces. I looked at these two men, so young and so serious, and I had no idea what to do. I managed to stammer out the question “What happened?” In unison they snapped back and one of them read from that paper again. “Ma’am, … killed in his sleep” is all I grasped of that announcement. I was seized then by the vision of Lou lying in bed, and his world exploding around him. Of him exploding with it. So innocently lying there asleep. But something about that didn’t seem right, in addition to the news itself.
It came to me that Lou would not have been asleep when this happened, because he hadn’t called me. I knew he’d meant his promise to call me before he went to sleep, and the only thing that would have prevented him from doing so was if he was killed or injured before he went to bed. Which meant perhaps they were wrong. Maybe it was some other poor guy who was killed, and Lou was lying injured in a hospital somewhere. Because if he is dead, I prayed, please let me die, too. Right here. Right now. This pain is more than I can take. I am not strong enough to want to live through this.
As I look back now, I am ashamed at how weak I was. Ashamed at being the kind of mom who would rather die than see her children through the devastation that awaited them. It was not the only time those thoughts would cross my mind, that I would wish to die so I could escape my world—- escape the pain of what was happening around me. It is something I have since been trying to make up to my kids, and have asked God to forgive me for.
One of the soldiers asked me if there was someone I could call. Someone to come here and help me. My first instinct was to reach for my husband, so this question seemed cruel. But I knew I had to think of someone who could physically arrive in my home in the next few minutes, and my friend Claire popped into my head. I needed to get her here before the kids woke up because I was unable to get through this morning’s routine alone.
I was shaking uncontrollably, and grabbed one of Lou’s big shirts to cover up. The guy in the white t-shirt turned out to be a security guard from our private lake community. He’d escorted the soldiers to my house earlier, and said he would take the men to Claire’s. I asked one soldier to guard my house while my kids slept and had the others drive me to Claire’s house around the corner. I rang her doorbell while pounding on her door. Claire’s husband, Mark, came down, wiping the sleep from his confused eyes as he noticed the military uniform standing behind me. I fell into the house, landing in a heap on the carpet at the bottom of their stairs, whispering “Lou is dead.” Then I sat with my head on my knees, rocking back and forth, sort of gasping. He ran upstairs and I heard Claire scream. She came to me and I asked her to come help me get the kids off to school while I figured out what to do. She said she’d be right up, and I let the military guy drive me home. My kids were still asleep. It had been twenty minutes since my doorbell rang.
The soldier duo accompanied me into my kitchen, where I thudded gracelessly into a chair at our table. The chaplain, as I learned the tallest, third uniformed guy was, maintained a discreet distance while I called Chris Protsko. She was a friend whose husband was in Lou’s original unit currently serving in Iraq. She’s the head of the Family Support Group and I was sure she would say she’d been in touch with people, that this was all a mistake. Instead, she was stunned when I told her the news. One of the soldiers took the phone I extended. I could hear him quietly explaining, “Ma’am, … killed in his sleep.”
Claire arrived then, a light, wrinkled t-shirt and shorts combo on her short frame. Her eyes were rimming with tears, and I noticed then I hadn’t yet been able to let any tears of my own loose. Why aren’t I crying? I wondered. Claire flipped her wavy dark hair away from her face and gave me a hug. I asked her to stay inside, get the kids as they woke, while I went outside to let the notification crew leave.
I stood outside in a patch of early morning sunlight in our front yard, talking with the soldiers and the chaplain. One of them told me he was going to Afghanistan soon, and I told him to be careful. One of them was fighting back tears. Another had vivid blue eyes but that is all I remember of them. They gave me their cards – If there is anything we can do… As the chaplain maneuvered his card into my trembling hand, I saw and felt the first of my tears splash onto my arm.
I don’t remember in which order the boys woke or who greeted them. I do remember telling them I wasn’t feeling well so Claire would be driving them to school and preschool today. While Claire fed the boys breakfast, I went to my room to make the phone calls. Realizing Lou’s parents were in Maine, I called his sister Jen and choked on the words, “Lou is dead. The military was here – said he was killed last night.” She screamed, said, “I’m coming.” And we hung up. Then I called my parents. Same conversation.
The next hour was my first experience of attempting to be a mom in spite of wanting to curl up and die. I made the kids’ lunches and packed their backpacks in a state of disbelief and panic. Our oldest son, six-year old Trevor, was all smiles as he proclaimed how wonderful life was now because it’s almost summertime, and summertime is always fun. And, he said, it is one day closer to Daddy coming home. I could only hold my breath and stare at him as Claire nudged them out the door past their Aunt Jen and Uncle Tom as they were arriving. Five-year-old Colin asked why Aunt Jen and Uncle Tom were here and I said we had work to do. I gripped the stair railing and the pain hit as I watched all four of my kids being driven away. I realized their days of being innocent, secure children were over. In a few hours I would have to tell them their father is dead.
My parents arrived, hoping I was mistaken. Lou’s parents had been called by my brother-in-law and were making the drive from Maine. I couldn’t stand to say the words anymore, so Jen was telling everyone. Family trickled in and we were all so helpless. What do we do now? There had been no army seminar about this part.
Finally, Lou’s parents arrived. I watched them pull up in front of the house and slowly emerge from the car. They walked around to each other, and Lou’s mom, a short Italian woman dwarfed by the height of his six-foot-tall dad, leaned into her husband. That picture of husband and wife literally leaning on each other was the first, lasting visual glimpse I had of what would never be for me again. The sound of my mother-in-law’s sobs preceded them across the yard as they made their way over and gave me a miserable hug.
It had now been about seven hours since my doorbell rang, and I was as ready as I would ever be to tell the boys. My mom drove me first to kindergarten. I was a mess in the office, blabbering to the openmouthed woman at the desk that I needed to get Trevor right now. Soon, he was walking toward me, his big blue eyes looking warily up at my teary ones as I leaned over to pick him up. I carried him to the nurse’s office and told him something really, really bad happened. I told him a bad guy killed daddy. Daddy’s body died, so Daddy had to leave it and go to heaven. We would never see him again here on earth. Trevor clung to me and we were both crying. I just held him tight and prayed for the strength and courage to get us through this. I told Trevor when he was ready, we had to go tell his brothers. He said, “Let’s go.”
Mom drove and I sat in back holding Trevor. I had called ahead and the kids’ preschool teachers were waiting with Colin. I sat in the parking lot with him on my lap, and Trevor standing with his arm on my shoulder. Colin’s normally over-expressive face was as blank as I’d ever seen it. It was as though the news froze him from the inside out and I could not stop the tears now pouring down my face. Panic filled me as Seanie, our three-year-old, walked out. How can I say this again? Am I doing this right?
I squeezed Sean onto my lap with Colin and told him Daddy died. We would never get to see him again. His little face, which looks so much like Lou’s, crumpled. The damage to my children seemed enormous and cruel. Their childhoods were now over. One-year-old Jeremy would never know his father. Lou would miss his youngest son’s first sentence, and his children’s whole lives. The boys worshipped Lou. He wasn’t a perfect dad, but pretty close. He was so proud of them and looking forward to being their dad forever.
I sat on a log in the parking lot with all three boys now on my lap. Jeremy was napping inside. We would come back for him later. For now I focused on telling Trevor, Colin, and Sean what happened as best as I could. I held on to them and promised them I would spend the rest of my life taking care of them, and their dad would help me from heaven. I assured them he would never have left if he knew he wouldn’t get to come back, and that he had tried really, really hard to stay in his body so he could come back home to us. But his body was too broken for him to be able to stay in it, so God let him come to heaven. I told them daddy would be able to watch over us from heaven, and sometimes we would see or feel something beautiful or happy. That would be Daddy’s new way of hugging us.
I just sat in the shade with them and talked. They asked me some questions like “Did it hurt Daddy?” Every nerve in my body shrieked in pain when Trevor asked me that. I answered their questions and did my best to reassure all of us we would be okay. I would get the answers I didn’t have now and we would all learn how to be happy again one day. “But for now,” I told them, “It’s okay to cry.”
Once we ran out of things to say and the boys were ready to go, my mom drove us home. Eventually, darkness crept over the house. The military never reappeared. We had been told from someone in Arlington that another official notification detail would come to see Lou’s parents, but by 10 p.m. we gave up. Lou’s parents were understandably upset to be overlooked by the military. That would soon become a common feeling from then and a common practice of the military.
Gradually, the mass of family and friends at my house began to leave for the day. After Lou’s parents left to drive the hour to their home, it was just Lou’s sisters Vicki and Jen staying that night with me. I sat up on the glider swing out front. Lou gave it to me for Mother’s Day one year. I loved that swing. Once, when I was alone, I was suddenly aware of a comfortingly burning warmth swelling from within me. It was as though Lou were wrapped around me, sending love and strength from a place I could feel, but not see. Afraid to lose him, I froze and concentrated on nothing but the warmth. I wanted so badly to believe it was real. The front door creaked open as Lou’s sisters came out to check on me. The warmth ebbed away, but the comfort lingered for a while. We talked and cried for a few minutes before they went back in. I remained out on the swing, rocking the rest of the night away.
The display on my cell phone read 4:32 when crunching gravel and two headlight beams sliced through the dark stillness of the early morning. I was still on the swing, wrapped in our comforter as I watched the delivery guy lean out his car window and slide the local paper into our box by the driveway. I waited for the guy to drive away, then walked slowly to the box.
My heart was pounding as I unrolled the paper and saw us on the front page. I looked like some washed-up, stringy-haired blonde crack addict with four morose children, on the swing in front of the one patch of chipped paint on our house. “TEACHER, FATHER OF FOUR, KILLED IN IRAQ” screamed out the headline above the picture. It was the first of several stories that would run in papers all over. Lou’s death and the circumstances surrounding it would soon become one of the most notorious cases in the United States military. It would introduce us to the world of the military justice system, and mire us down in the role of victims. But not yet. For the time being, we were under the impression an Iraqi had killed Lou. We could not fathom how this could get worse and, had we been told what was to come, probably wouldn’t have believed it anyway.
….. that’s the first 9 pages of my book, and I know so many of us can relate to those moments.
My husband was killed- fragged- by an American soldier while in Iraq. His commander and friend was killed with him, and the aftermath of how they died has been just as difficult as their deaths themselves. I count my friendships with other widows as one of my blessings, and am inspired by all your stories. I am so glad the AWP is here