Our daughter, Kate, was conceived within minutes of my getting home with my wife on the day I returned from Iraq. I was a young lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division, and I’d just gotten married a few weeks before my unit’s unexpected deployment to the Persian Gulf 8 months before.
After an alert call that left me saying farewell to my wife at 2:00 in the morning, followed by an extremely long trip that placed me in a strange place with a lot of time on my hands, I started doing what most frightened men do during wars. I gave thought to the rest of my life. I tried repeatedly to make lists of the things that I wanted to accomplish with my remaining years. But I kept getting stuck and could never finish the list. I just couldn’t seem to think past my immediate fears over whether I would survive the next few months. And the only thing that I knew I wanted was the opportunity to make it home and become a father.
If people ever wonder why there is always a baby boom after a large-scale deployment of military forces, it seems fairly obvious to me. It’s not the product of pent-up sexual energy, although that undoubtedly helps. The real cause is basic human nature. When we confront our mortality, we’re driven to reproduce. It’s primal. It’s instinctive. And it’s the most powerful force in the universe.
I absolutely adored Kate, from the moment she was born right until her death. She was a wild and amazing girl. There are three especially vivid memories I have from Kate’s 18 months. Well truthfully there are hundreds, but here are three of my favorites.
One evening after dinner Kate and I went for a walk in the neighborhood and she discovered her shadow. She was at that incredible age when a child has just mastered walking, and her brain is exploding with language. We were just toddling along together and Kate was looking at, pointing at and shouting maniacally at everything she saw, ecstatic with her surroundings. But when she looked down at the street and found a grayish shape that looked like her reflection, moving whenever she did, that left her entranced and speechless.
A few nights before Kate died we had dinner at a friend’s house next to the 18th fairway of a golf course. After dinner we wandered over to the driving range to hit a few balls. We brought Kate’s big plastic golf clubs and balls. But when we got up to the tee she wanted no part of those kids’ toys. Kate kept grabbing a full-sized driver, and clobbering the striped range balls right out of the bucket, screaming wildly. She wasn’t one to be bound by anyone’s expectations or limitations.
Kate used to love to take a clean sock from the laundry basket in the living room and put it over her eyes like a blindfold. She would have to tilt her head back so it didn’t fall off. Then she would run around with her eyes covered, unable to see where she was going, howling with excitement. Her mother and I would be terrified that she might crash into the brick hearth, or just bump her head somewhere and need to get stitches. But her recklessness was inspiring, just as it was instructive to us as parents. It spoke of the unknown, and of making peace with the limitations of our control.
Just a few weeks before Kate got sick I’d gone to a funeral for a soldier from my unit. He was a Forward Observer from Bravo Battery, on the team of one of my younger West Point classmates. I didn’t know the man. I’d been in Alpha Battery, and despite serving in the same unit with him, our paths had never crossed. The funeral was on a Wednesday evening, and a couple of my buddies were going. So it was an excuse for me to go out with the boys. My experience as a kid had been that funerals always involved at least some drinking.
On the way to the funeral I learned that the soldier had killed himself. Apparently his wife had asked him for a divorce only days before. And he’d shot himself in the heart. I thought it was a poetic thing for him to have done. At the funeral home I waited in the receiving line and met the widow, thinking to myself that she didn’t look like a woman who merited suicide. When I reached the front of the line it was awkward. The young woman in black didn’t know me, or whether I’d been close with her deceased husband. I muttered the detached phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss.” She seemed to lean forward to kiss my cheek. I recoiled dispassionately. She said, “Thank you.” And I immediately grabbed my two buddies wanting to leave and have a drink.
We laughed nervously on the way to the car, my friend, Kevin, commenting on how tactless it was for me to hurry them out of the funeral. Then we went to a bar and had a few rounds. At some point over beers the subject of golf came up. I was a horrible golfer…still am today. But I assured my two buddies of my conviction that if I invested enough time into the game, I could one day play at a professional level in that sport. They had both seen me play golf and knew my confidence was misplaced.
Kevin tried to explain to me that there are, in fact, some things that are beyond our control, and that he was pretty sure it wasn’t within my ability to become a professional golfer. I dismissed his remark as heresy. Kevin had been dropped from Ranger school, something he was constantly reminded of by his peers with a Ranger Tab on their uniforms. And his marriage was troubled, for reasons none of us knew very much about. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these experiences had wizened Kevin.
He tried to reason with me. He related a story about his father’s business, which was destroyed by a corrupt partner that had embezzled funds and bankrupted the company. Kevin’s father had failed despite his virtues. But the message was completely lost on me, and we returned to our beer.
Kate’s death was very sudden. She’d never been sick before in 18 months. Kate had a runny nose for a few days but no other symptoms. Then she developed a high fever one evening. We took her to Womack Army Hospital on Fort Bragg as a precaution that night. In the waiting room were dozens of soldiers with injuries from athletic competitions happening as part of All-American Week, an annual tradition in the 82nd.
After a long wait Kate saw a doctor who evaluated her, and concluded that she likely had a virus, and we should take her home, then return if her fever didn’t ease the next day. A few hours after we got home, in the middle of the night, Kate went into shock. I drove frantically back to the hospital while talking my wife through how to administer CPR to a toddler. But Kate was dead before we arrived.
There’s a special room in every hospital where people wait for doctors to come and tell them the shocking news that someone they love has just died. It’s a really awful place. It’s a place where you enter as one person, with naïve hope, filled with prayers and fears. And it’s a place where you exit as someone else, filled with nothing, no hopes, no fears and no prayers…only a numb feeling, a sickening awareness that you’re alive, wondering what to do with yourself because someone you’ve never met before just told you the focus of your life is gone.
My first act as that new person was to call the battalion headquarters and let them know I would be absent from parade formation in four hours. After that my wife and I both went to the bathroom. Then we walked out the door of the ER, and climbed into our car which was still sitting with its doors open and its lights on. Then we went home and slept for a little while.
In the morning some of my fellow officers came by. Their wives brought food, but we didn’t eat. The house was cluttered with Kate’s toys and clothes. A soiled diaper was sitting next to her crib in her room. Nobody stayed more than a few minutes.
My friend, Kevin, came by that morning. He simply walked in the door and gave me the greatest hug a man has ever given me. Like nothing I had ever experienced before, it was the hug of a man comforting a child, asking nothing in return. It was firm and warm and complete, like a massive blanket being wrapped around me. He didn’t speak, but his gesture told me, “I’m sorry that the world is so harsh…but I will help you.”
There are books about different stages of grief, but I never read any of them. I remember a few distinct feelings I had at different times after Kate’s death. Bereavement is particularly difficult when someone dies at a time that is out of sequence with the natural life cycle. And I’ll bet it’s a lot different for an older child, or for an adult child. But a woman told me once there’s no rank among tragedies.
For a while I remember not really wanting to talk to anybody. It seemed like there was no way anyone could appreciate, nor could I ever adequately explain, the deep anger and pain I felt. That didn’t last for much more than six or seven months. Later, and for a few years, I would see life in trees and flowers and squirrels gathering nuts, and acknowledge the beauty of the world, even talking to them, and always vocalizing my gratitude to Kate for the example she’d set for me.
It’s been more than 15 years now since Kate died. And my wife and I have three very healthy kids whose passions and vitality have helped to heal the gap caused by Kate’s absence. But an unexpected visit from an out of place animal or insect will still remind me of Kate and fill me with energy. For the longest time it seemed to happen as I was addressing the ball while playing golf, though I seldom play anymore. A small, unfamiliar bug would land on my ball just before my shot, causing me to think of Kate, and then I would invariably hit it perfectly.
Several years after Kate died I went to the funeral for a classmate of mine from West Point, John Lewis. I knew him reasonably well at school. We had been opponents in boxing class, and had lived in the same building for four years. We’d been through Ranger School together, and we had friends in common. The funeral was in a rural part of Virginia, just a few hours from my home, so when I learned of his death I was glad to have the opportunity to drive down for the ceremony and remember him.
The gathering was on share-croppers’ land that had some meaning in John’s or his wife’s family’s ancestry some years before. There was an old church on a dirt road with a few run down trailers nearby, and some land that is still planted today. When I arrived, just a few minutes before the start of the ceremony, I entered the back of an old, country church, and was one of two white persons in the building. The only remaining empty seat was near the front, next to John’s sister.
At the time of the funeral there had been a pattern of arson, with several black churches being burned down in the Southeastern US. So the pastor began with a word of caution, making sure everyone knew where the exits were. It was solemn for me to hear a safety briefing at church, something that is perhaps not unusual for many others.
The ceremony was deeply moving and memorable. Nothing like the cold, ritualistic, Catholic funerals I’ve been to before and since. This service was clearly a celebration of John’s life. Every member of John’s family spoke before the congregation about him. Then at least 40 more people got up to speak about him, most of them friends and classmates from West Point. They talked about how they had met John, and what his friendship had meant to them. All of them spoke about John’s unforgettable smile.
After the remarks which lasted perhaps 90 minutes, there was a reading, and some music from the choir. Everyone participated in the singing. Then one of John’s closest friends played some music videos on a big screen TV. Country and Western…it was John’s favorite, some real melancholy music. I guess it was the combination of the setting, coupled with the music and the sincere, kind words by so many people, but a powerful wave of emotion came over me just then, and I cried more than anyone in the church. John’s sister kept handing me tissues, patting my shoulder to comfort me, and I couldn’t stop the flow of tears.
Right in the middle of all of the music, while bawling my eyes out, a big Cicada flew up from behind me, and thwacked me on my right ear. Then it kept right on flying and crashed into the big screen TV at the front of the church before falling down on the floor.
I thought of Kate running around with a sock covering her eyes, and then I just started laughing.
image Stephen Sheffield
Originally published in THE GOOD MEN PROJECT anthology of men’s stories.