MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 73 – Bloody September
Never before had I realized how much my life revolved around Billy - that is Billy coming home from work to a hot meal, happy children, a loving wife, and peace in his castle.
For me he was the heart of our family, the provider, the lover, the caring father who maintained discipline, and the knight on his white horse who reigned supreme, at least in our small home. If anyone had asked me what part of the day, I enjoyed the most, it was the moment Billy walked in the door, as the entire house lit up, and this sole event justified my life on this earth. I was here to serve him, to love him, to give birth to his handsome children, to feed him, to keep his uniforms clean and ironed, and to make sure that our home was a peaceful refuge where he could unwind from his extra-long days. When he was in the field, I felt empty, as did the house in spite of a rambunctious 3-year-old, a crawling infant, and a German Shepherd puppy! The days were long, but the nights were even longer as I tried to keep myself busy until my eyes would no longer stay open, and while that was not difficult I would find myself wondering what I would do first. Wednesday night I caught up on my correspondence, Thursday night I went through the children’s clothes, packing away the outgrown shirts, pants and tiny delicate dresses that our now crawling, cup-trained daughter could no longer wear. Naturally, she had changed the most and was just beginning to grow soft blond curls at the nape of her neck, although it had taken her much longer than it did her brother. This time I had no worry that Billy would rush to the barbershop since he had waited as patiently as I had for our daughter to grow some hair! He was delighted that now I could put a small bow in her hair and he would twist the soft curls around his little finger as if that might make them grow. She was all girl, with dainty features and tiny bones beneath the rolls of baby fat, and she was far more mobile at six months than her brother had been. Billy just knew she would be walking by Christmas since already she was pulling herself up using the couch to hold onto, the sliding glass doors, or a chair. She was our delight in her feminine uniqueness and Michael was our joy in his all-American boy appearance and demeanor.
Never shy, our children never met a stranger and would willingly go to or with anyone who offered, although Michael firmly remained my boy while, like her mother, my little girl preferred the men! In this day and time, it might be a cause for worry, but in the mid-sixties, the world was mostly a safe place for children to live in and predators, while not unheard of, were few. I had thought when I was forced to take over the role as disciplinarian, since Billy’s nights at home were so sporadic, that Michael would turn to his father for comfort and solace as he had once turned to me, but instead he seemed to accept my discipline without the shrieks of terror that foretold a correction from his father. It was not a chore I gladly accepted, but necessary. Michael had to learn to mind me and not take advantage of my love for him, and I could not let him run rampant for an entire year while Billy was away. Also, with the discipline, I had to take over the checkbook and pay the bills since Billy was usually in such a rush that he left so much information off of the check stub I had no idea how much, or where many of the checks had gone. This also I found distasteful, but I knew Billy needed to come home to peace, and not confronted with the necessity of dealing with his son’s mischief of the day or the stack of bills on top of the desk. In fact, I kept the bills in one of the top drawers so he would not even have to see or think about them since I knew it was stressful for him to have to rob Peter to pay Paul, but I was good at it, so it became my jurisdiction.
These long days became longer nights and the Hawaiian music was about to drive me out of my mind, as in vain I searched the airwaves for any other kind of music – country, rock – anything that did not talk about pearly shells or little grass huts! Oh, I loved living in Hawaii and especially so close to the beach, but after awhile the same music, with rhythms that seldom varied, just became enough. Friday night I set aside to iron Billy’s uniforms and just that evening, after the mailman came, I remembered to put a letter in the mailbox that I had written to my mother on Wednesday.
After the children were finally asleep, both downstairs in their bedrooms so I could hear them if they awoke, I took out the ironing board, iron, the damp fatigues that I had sprinkled and rolled in a towel then put in the refrigerator to keep them from drying out. I then turned on the radio hoping to find some music that did not talk about palm trees and I finally found a country station that usually had unreliable reception. I was pleased to find it coming in loud and clear this bright starry night. There was not a cloud in the sky and if I cut the lights out, our living room became an observatory, as it seemed as if the stars came down out of the heavens just for my benefit. However, I did not have time to watch stars this night since I knew Billy would be home sometime in the early morning and he did not have a fresh uniform for Monday. I definitely did not want to spend my weekend ironing or doing anything else that I could do when he was gone. I just wanted to be with him, walking on the beach, snorkeling, sitting on the rocks watching the waves break when they hit the coral reefs, and with the moon and the stars shining down upon us, make love on the soft carpet. I was looking forward to a restful weekend with my husband by my side, and planned hamburgers on the grill for Saturday night, then on Sunday his favorite supper. While he was in Ranger School I found after Billy was gone for days at a time, I could not keep my hands off him when he finally came home, and I planned for this weekend to be available to do whatever he wanted to do. I knew he would be tired and would probably sleep most of the day on Saturday and I hoped the children would both nap and I could crawl into the bed beside him and just watch him sleep. I did not like to be downstairs when he was upstairs. Even the sound of his soft snore was comforting.
While I ironed, I thought about the things Billy and I discussed Tuesday night, although it seemed as if it had been more than three nights since we had made love on the carpet while time slowed to a crawl without Billy’s jovial deep voice filling our home with laughter and love, and his presence.
A sense of peace came over me as I rolled over in my mind what I would do when the 25th finally deployed to Vietnam, and whether I could stay here without Billy. He would be receiving combat pay and he said he would only need about $50 a month to keep him, if that much, and he would send the rest of his check to The Bank of San Antonio where we had banked since the day he was commissioned. This bank was the ‘father’ of the present day U.S.A.A. Bank, and catered to its strictly military officer clientele and never bounced a check, understanding that the family might be in the middle of a transfer. Certainly, I should have enough money to stay here, and certainly, I would be as close to Billy as I could possibly be, and certainly it would be easier and less expensive for him to come here on R&R than it would be for me to go back to Atlanta and then meet him here. Yes, I decided, I would stay right here, on this tiny island with year-round sunny weather and balmy breezes, at least until he received orders for stateside. We both thought he would make Captain towards the end of his tour in Vietnam and his next duty would surely be the Officer’s Advanced Course at Ft. Benning, so in a sense we would be ‘going home,’ although our home of record was still Dahlonega.
My final decision made about where I would stay when he left, I continued to iron while the Grand Ol’ Opry crowd sang their songs of lost love and twanged their guitars. It was slow going ironing fatigues with their multitude of pockets, and the fact that the fabric was heavy and the starch so thick it took several passes with the iron to dry it, but I had two uniforms to complete before Billy came home. It was early Saturday morning around 3:00 a.m. when I finally put the ironing board away and left the iron to cool on the back of the stove where Michael could not reach it. I felt proud of my work as I looked at the two clean and freshly ironed uniforms and knew even the laundry on post was not as meticulous as I was with them, and there was not one crease that should not be there, and that every crease that should be there was absolutely perfect. This was by no means my favorite chore, but it left me with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, and after all, I was doing this for my Billy.
After a quick shower I slipped into my nightgown, picked up our sleeping daughter and went upstairs to bed knowing it would not be long before Michael woke up to find me no longer ironing and would come upstairs and slip quietly into my side of the bed. My head barely hit the pillow before I was asleep, and only the sound of the little sports car coming up Ke-Nui Road woke me. Excitement filled my heart with longing as I slipped out of bed, covered Michael and pulled a fresh muumuu on over my head, combed my hair and brushed my teeth. I wanted to be downstairs to greet my weary warrior and to get him something to eat since I knew he was starving for some ‘real’ food!
“Give me a kiss sugar!” Billy roared as he came in the door and saw me standing at the foot of the stairs waiting for him. But I was not about to give him a kiss with the black camouflage paint smeared all over his face making him look like Al Jolson in black face! Besides, he smelled something like a wild buffalo after three days in the field with no bath!
“Just as soon as you take a shower,” I replied, “then I will give you more than a kiss.”
“Oh Darling, I’m afraid not, as much as I would like to,” Billy said. Then he sadly added, “I have to get back up to Schofield and take a rifle range this morning. There is no one else to do it, and headquarters called me out of the field for that reason alone. I am so sorry.”
“You mean that you might not even be home yet if you had not been called for the rifle range?” I asked, my voice sounding a bit cantankerous and offering a challenge.
However, Billy did not want to argue. He was tired – more tired than I knew. He just wanted to shower, shave, eat some roast beef sandwiches, and get on with the job that he had to do so that he could get home and stay for a while.
“Darling,” he said, “I know that you are disappointed, no more so than I am, but I promise I will make it up to you tonight and Sunday.”
With this comment, he stepped into the hot shower and I went upstairs to find fresh underwear and socks and retrieved one of the newly ironed uniforms from the closet in Margie’s room. I put the clean clothing and two fresh towels in the bathroom, picking up his soiled fatigues and underwear with one hand, while holding my nose with the other. I was surprised to find his shirt soaked with perspiration although it was not hot outside at all; in fact, it was most pleasant with the hint of a rainstorm brewing.
While Billy shaved, I cut up the roast beef for his sandwiches and wondered why I was doing this since usually I let him fend for himself, but I think I was just grabbing all the time I could with him before he left again. Just as I finished his sandwiches, I heard Margie’s awakening cry, so reluctantly I went upstairs to nurse her. Finishing as quickly as I could, I leaned over the balcony to talk to Billy who, having gulped down his sandwiches, was rummaging through the desk drawers looking for something.
“What time will you be home?” I asked, not too kindly, and he replied it would be four or five in the afternoon, that it was an all day range.
“I have finally accepted that you love the Army more than me,” I continued bitterly, “it makes my life easier.” Instead of picking up my thrown gauntlet, Billy just smiled up at me.
“My darling wife, you are so wrong, I love you more than life itself,” he said, as he held up his left hand and slipped his wedding band onto his ring finger. He never wore his ring in the field since not only was it reflective, but he did not want to lose it either. So, while I fussed, it was the ring that he was looking for.
My heart melted, like it always did when he knew just the right words to say, or the right things to do to make me happy, and I ran down the stairs and into his arms. We kissed and kissed and I told him I was sorry I had tried to start a fight, but I was just so disappointed we would not have the entire weekend together, and worried he was overly tired. He told me he had not had any sleep since Tuesday night, the last night he had been home, and he had taken three platoons, not just his, through the training tests since there was no one else to do it. Although he knew then that two of his platoons had finished first in the trials, he only told me that he thought all of them had done very well.
“They really worked hard for me,” he said beaming, “and they never questioned any order that I gave them. I am proud of them and know that I could not ask any better men to fight by my side in Vietnam. Even the old timers did not give me a hard time, so they must be beginning to respect my leadership in spite of my youthful appearance.” This said with tongue in cheek, but he was so right, he looked even younger than his twenty-four years, although he was well muscled and filled out from all the training. “You don’t have to worry with those guys taking care of me,” he added. “They are the best.”
“Billy, how would you like to make love on the beach tonight?” I asked wanting him to have something special to look forward to when he came home that night.
“Darling, do you mean it? After all the months I have been trying to get you to make love on the beach, do you really mean that you will do it tonight?”
“Yes,” I said, “and I love you more than life itself too.”
Then a thought came into my mind, and I asked him if he would let me drive him to work, he looked so tired, and I could put the children in the car and drive him up to Schofield and then come back to get him when he called from the company later that afternoon. He would not hear of it, and I even asked him if he wanted to take my car since it looked like rain, but he laughed and told me that his car did have a top on it. As we talked, I continued to fondle him where he was the most sensitive, and he kept his hands on my breasts where my nipples had hardened with anticipation. My heart beating as swiftly as hummingbird wings, I knew he was becoming worked up too since his appendage became hard and stiff and he commented that he hoped it would go away before he got to the range!
“That’s all I need, to report to work with a hard on! I would never live that one down,” he chuckled with that devilish look in his eyes I had always found so appealing. While I begged him to hold me and never let me go, finally with one long last kiss, he turned and opened the door, winked, told me he loved me more than anything else in the world, and he was gone. The little white car roared up the narrow road and then out onto Kam Highway leaving puffs of smoke in its wake while I watched until it was out of sight.
If I could have just held onto that last moment, and if I could have just insisted that I drive him to work, so many ‘ifs’ would forever haunt me. However, if I could have stopped the clock on one moment in time, it would have been that morning as we kissed and fondled each other longingly. I could stay in that time and in that place forever, and never be bored.
With both children still asleep, I went back upstairs to try to get a few minutes more, but left on my muumuu since I knew it would not be long before Michael would be awake and I would need to get breakfast for him and for the baby. I was right, and within an hour, all three of us came downstairs, just as the phone rang. It was the sergeant in charge of the firing range and he wanted to know if “Lt. McConnell” had left home yet? I knew there had been plenty of time for him to get to Schofield, so I assured the sergeant he could be at the company barracks and to call over there since he had left here around 5:00 a.m.
No sooner had I put down the phone than I heard Trish calling me from next door. Standing at her window, obviously distraught and in tears, she told me Elizabeth had taken several Contac capsules and fed some to Trouble, their shepherd puppy. Of course, I offered to take her up to the clinic at Schofield since Rusty had their car, but she refused my offer saying Rusty was on his way home. At the time, I thought it strange that she was crying and so very upset since Elizabeth and Michael had been sharing forbidden concoctions for some time now, and we just gave them ipecac and treated it like a joke. However, this morning Trish was inconsolable and I asked her if she wanted me to come over while she waited for Rusty. Refusing my offer, she assured me she would be all right, although I remained puzzled and concerned about her obvious distress. Little did I know that her tears were for us, and that she already knew the news I was about to receive, and had been called and forewarned not to allow the police to get to me first.
Just as I finished pouring Michael’s juice and fixing his cereal, I heard a car drive up and pull into our driveway. At first, I thought perhaps Rusty had just driven past his own drive in his rush to get home. Soon I heard a soft knock on the side door and decided that perhaps Trish needed me after all, but when I opened the door, I was startled to find Chuck standing there with two other officers, Colonels, who I did not recognize. Trish and Rusty were standing right behind them and I knew they had not come for morning coffee.
Somehow, from the expression on Chuck’s face, which was one of despair and shock, I just knew. I barely remember his words as he took my hands and with tears running down his face, said, “Mrs. McConnell, Diane, I regret to inform you” – and then I passed out. Michael has only a very few memories of his father, but he does remember the “bad men in light tan uniforms who made Mommy fall down.”
From this point on I will have to rely on what others have told me since my memory froze at that moment and I remember very little, although what I do remember is forever embedded into my mind. I felt as if I had died and was out of my body, but this was probably due to the powerful sedative that the doctor, one of the officers with Chuck – the other was a chaplain -, gave me. Amazed, I watched as this person, who was supposedly me, say and do all the right things. To say I was in a state of shock was underestimating the grief that had torn my heart right in half and I knew neither time nor words would ever make it complete again. The pain was as if someone had reached into my chest and ripped my heart from my body and I physically felt this pain and would for months, then years later as I write this book.
Time became irrelevant, but I was not ready to accept that Billy was never coming home again.
As I later learned, other neighbors took Elizabeth to the clinic, while Trish and Rusty were right there by my side as I sobbed in Trish’s arms. Soon the house filled with friends and other members of the 1/14th and almost immediately, Colonel Proctor’s wife was running the show, and quite competently, as if she had done this before and soon would be doing it again, and again, and again. The police arrived not long afterwards and insisted on talking to me, but Mrs. Proctor held them hostage at the side door and said I could not be disturbed. They insisted and finally she allowed them “just five minutes!” There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that she would be keeping a close eye on the police, the clock, and me.
From the initial investigation, Billy had presumably fallen asleep behind the wheel – deduced by the lack of skid marks and his 72 hours without sleep, and his tiny car hit a tree just the other side of Haleiwa on the way to Schofield. I knew then he had to have been on the back road since there were only pineapple fields on the main road and no trees. I wondered why he had taken that road, since at the time I had forgotten his fondness for this route with its curves and slight hills, unlike the main road that was straight and wide. In that tiny car with the rear engine, he had no protection in front of him, and he never regained consciousness but died in the ambulance on the way to Schofield.
The police asked what he had to drink that morning and I answered with the truth, “Ice water since we didn’t have enough money to buy cokes.”
At that point, Mrs. Proctor almost bodily threw them out of the house and they never returned, perhaps realizing it would be useless with her guarding the door. It seemed all-important to me to learn if it had been raining since there had been clouds and a few rain puddles earlier that morning, or perhaps I mistook the early hour dawn for cloudiness. I did not want to think of my Billy lying mortally injured in the rain, although I knew that the top had been up on his car when he left home. Chuck vowed to find out anything and everything that I might want to know and I trusted him with this task. It turned out to be far more difficult than either of us would have thought possible, and the reasons still bother me today.
At one point, my daughter cried in hunger and with Linda and Trish following, I took her into one of the downstairs bedrooms, only to find out I had no milk – my breasts, which had been full of milk just hours ago, were now completely dry! Again, I began to cry, or had I ever stopped crying, but now I had failed my baby too. Margie would not take milk in a bottle, so Trish put apple juice in her bottle, put Margie in her high chair, and gave her milk in her sipper cup since she and I had talked about this rather premature phenomenon. At some point, I began pacing the floor, saying over, and over, “He’s not dead, I know he’s not dead, he’s just hurt, I want to see him.”
However, others knew the truth that my heart and my mind could not accept, and Billy’s body already was in Honolulu at the state morgue for an autopsy since his was an un-witnessed accident. State law mandated the autopsy, which I later learned, and had I known this fact it would have relieved me of some of my burden since Billy had been so explicit when his mother died that if anything ever happened to him, I should demand an autopsy. His reasoning had been if he was not already dead, an autopsy would kill him, and it would be impossible to live through one. I could not have rested either until I knew why and how my precious Billy had died, although it would be weeks before I received the complete report. In the meantime, I knew arrangements would have to be made and not knowing where to turn or what to do, I decided to call my aunt and uncle in Atlanta, although not much could be done until Monday morning.
It was Saturday afternoon by now in Atlanta and if I had been in my right mind I would have known they had have already left for the Georgia Tech football game since my uncle always bought season tickets. The only one at home when I called was my cousin Cathy, but I had to tell her why that I urgently needed to talk to her mother so Helen would call me back just as soon as she arrived home. Not able to think of soothing words, I blurted out that Billy was dead, and for a long time afterwards, my cousin would not answer the phone when she was home alone. This was long before cell phones and beepers, and she simply had to wait with her own tears until her parents came home to relay my message, and this had to be hard for her too. Everyone loved Billy, just as he loved everyone, and he had been adopted into my aunt’s family, and frankly, I had nowhere else to go. I knew that my aunt would tell my parents and my grandmother, and I simply could not call everyone. I did not know if I could bear to hear myself say those words again, but I knew that I had to make one more important call, and perhaps this would be the most difficult of all, considering the circumstances.
Chuck asked me if I wanted to tell Mr. McConnell or if I wanted him to do it, but I knew, it was my duty as Billy’s wife to do so, although I would give the phone to Chuck for the details. I knew Gene would be devastated and all I wanted to do was shout in the phone, “Damn you! You did not send him that medicine like he asked so it’s all your fault!” Some part of me took over that was kinder and gentler than the part of me who was thinking if Billy had those pills, he would still be alive. When asked for Gene’s phone number, I went to the desk drawer to find the address book and found the two envelopes sitting there stamped and ready to mail to insurance companies, as if Billy knew that his time had come, only not quite this soon, or in this way.
While the Chaplain dialed the number, I tried to compose myself and to think how I would want to hear this horrible news if I had to be told on the telephone. As soon as Gene came to the phone, I said slowly and distinctly, in a clear but tear choked voice, “Mr. McConnell, this is Diane. I am so sorry to have to tell you this, but Billy died in an automobile accident early this morning and…”, at this point I was about to break down again and my voice began to quiver, so thankfully Chuck took the receiver and tried to give him as many details as we knew, so far. I did hear him emphasize that he had apparently fallen asleep behind the wheel, and I was so glad that he had said those words that I could not bear to say. Not to this man who had refused to send medication so that Billy would not fall asleep when he had to go without sleep for days, and this same man who had told him to go see a doctor! He knew that Billy would not see a doctor because if he did have narcolepsy his Army career was over. We both had known that is what Gene wanted since it was the only way he thought that he could get us back to Griffin, but I doubt if he ever thought that his adored oldest son would be coming back in a coffin. Only I knew that if anything ever did happen that Billy could no longer stay in the Army, we would go back to Dahlonega, a friendlier town to raise our family, and he would work for Mr. Moore, never his father!
Now that I have had time to think about it, Billy was too young to have narcolepsy, and his own father had been in his late 40’s when diagnosed, but no man, even a young man, can go 72 hours without sleep, and then drive into work for another 8 hours without disastrous results. It actually took this tragedy before the Army figured this out too! While Chuck talked to Gene, I started to turn the blame inward and said to someone, although no one in particular, that I had offered to drive him to work, that I knew he was tired, but he had refused to let me wake the children. Now I was wishing that I had lain down behind his tires and refused to let him drive, but it was too late now for these last thoughts of what I would, should, or could have done.
Somewhere I lost all track of time since it had no relevancy for me anymore – Billy was never coming home again and my life was over too, as far as I was concerned. I knew with all these people here I did not have to do anything, even take care of the children, but first I had one more very important thing to do and that was to tell Michael that his daddy was gone forever.
Michael had been enjoying the excitement and the attention, but he did not really have any idea why all of a sudden the peace in our little home had erupted into one big party, or at least it had to seem that way to a child. Taking Michael by the hand, I walked with him back to his bedroom and closed the door so he would listen to me, and not become diverted by all the confusion. He had to listen to me now while I broke his three-year-old heart, and I just hoped he was young enough not to know the pain I was feeling and that I feel even now while I write this story.
“Michael, son,” I began, “Your Daddy is not going to be able to come home and play with you anymore; he had to go live with Baby Jesus.”
Michael looked at me perplexed and said, “Why?” as I knew he would, but God reached down and put the right words in my mouth when I had no idea what to say or how to explain the wanton negligence that had led to this tragedy.
“Because,” Michael, Baby Jesus needs him more than we do.” However, this was not true! I knew it, but I did not know what else to say. How do you tell a three-year-old that his daddy is dead and gone forever? I vowed then I would not take him to the funeral home or to the funeral, he was too young to have to see his Mommy struggle to get through these next days, and the days ahead when we got back to Atlanta. All I could do was hope that someday I would find the words to explain all that would face us in the days, the months, and the years to come, and that God would once again put words in my mouth that would not break my son’s heart as it had my own. How well I knew that children are far more astute than given credit for, and the questions would appear, when I was least prepared, and those questions I would have to be ready to handle.
When I woke up that morning to take care of my precious Billy, I was a twenty-two year old wife and mother, with a strong, handsome, loving husband, and two beautiful children. Now, all of a sudden, I was a widow and single mother of two, no three, I had forgotten for a moment I was pregnant! How I hated the word ‘widow’! How would I be able to fill out forms and have to check that block? Well, now was not the time to think about it, and like Scarlett, tomorrow was another day and I would think about it then!
This most awful day was far from over. I still had to talk to my family about arrangements and I had been thinking about how I could best please everyone when truly I should have been thinking about my own needs. I needed to have Billy close to me although he had wanted his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, which, at that time, was still open to all soldiers killed on active duty, but that was too far away from Atlanta. As much as I disliked it, the only place I had to go was Atlanta, and now I would not have my Prince Charming to protect and rescue me. A traditional military funeral was appropriate and exactly what Billy would have wanted, but I thought that perhaps since Ft. Benning was not so far away there would still be soldiers who served with him to act as pallbearers, and I kept that thought in mind. Certainly, Sgt. Tuttle would have to know, and I knew that he could and would organize this scenario if possible, but I did not know how to contact him except through Headquarters at the O.C.S. School and this too would have to wait until Monday. Why I did not think of just going back to Columbus where we had been so happy, and where I was sure to find many friends and classmates, I do not know. Just suffice it to say, I was not thinking.
Patterson’s of Atlanta was the most prestigious funeral home where many of the South’s most famous sons and daughters were laid to rest prior to their burials, and its Spring Street location would be central for the family on the north side of town and the family in the West End. By the time my aunt called me back, I had silently been going through the motions of dignified grief while thinking about ‘arrangements’ and I had begun to hate the word! My aunt said she could tell I was in shock since I spoke to her like this was a business call, and I told her word for word how I wanted the ‘arrangements’ handled. I knew the 3rd Army Headquarters on that end would take over and see that my wishes were granted as far as possible, so when Helen told me my grandmother had offered a grave in her four grave plot in Arlington Memorial Gardens in Sandy Springs, I knew that would be perfect. It was not the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, but named ‘Arlington’, and surely, Billy would forgive this one transgression from his wishes. I told her I would be giving her name and phone number to the officials in Hawaii who would contact 3rd Army, and that if it was all right with her, she would be my ‘contact person’ in Atlanta, to which she readily agreed.
In fact, I do not even remember asking if we could come to her home, I just assumed the children and I would be welcome. It was a far better place for all of us than my parent’s crowded house or my grandmother’s small apartment, although I longed to be a child once again and climb into my grandmother’s lap and let her kiss the ‘boo-boo’ away. However, this was the big one and it would never go away, not completely. I do not remember any of the conversation but Helen said I spoke as if I were on ‘automatic pilot’ and making arrangements far beyond my expertise and years, and I knew everyone would do all possible to fulfill my wishes. The one thing I do remember that I asked for was for Taps just as before the sunset, and not having seen the site, I did not know there was a small hill opposite the gravesite where the bugler could stand with the riflemen who would render the traditional 21-gun salute. I wanted Billy laid to rest in dignity and with honor, for his twenty-four and one-half years on this earth had ended just as his career was taking off. Although denied serving his country in Vietnam, he had performed all of his duties, completed all of his training with great enthusiasm and love for the Army. Now his beloved Infantry was folding its wings tightly around his widow and his children, and I knew everyone would do all possible to fulfill even the most minor of my requests.
Since this was a Saturday, most of the business could not be even begin until Monday, but I knew too that everyone would handle this with utmost efficiency and as expediently as possible. In the meantime, I had to get through the days and the nights, which would be longer than they had ever been, and I needed to keep myself from falling apart from sheer grief and exhaustion.
As the day wound down into evening, at one time an officer who had been assigned as my ‘survivor assistance officer’ from the 1/14th, came to the house carrying a plain brown manila envelope which he said contained everything Billy had on him or in the car when he died. I could not bear to touch it or to look at it, and I physically recoiled as he handed it to me, and someone wisely put it away in the top drawer of the buffet. The horror of accepting that envelope that contained Billy’s wedding band, his class ring, his billfold and other papers taken from the car made it just too real. It was as if by handling these things when they were not on my Billy, I was accepting he was gone for good, and I was not ready to do that, not yet, not ever. I knew it, but I did not want to know it. Deep inside I guess I was hoping for some miracle, some mistaken identity, anything, and my handsome soldier to come walking through the door asking what the party was all about - maybe tomorrow.
By suppertime, almost everyone had left except for Russ and Linda who would stay with me until my mother could arrive. Somehow the message was received that Mother, Gene and Ruth would be arriving on the same flight from the mainland, and for the life of me, I cannot remember what day that was, probably Sunday or Monday. This is where I go blank. When I was not attending to business, I cannot remember what I did, who was there or what happened around me, and for the life of me I cannot even remember taking care of the children, which I obviously did with Linda’s assistance. Sometime during the night while all were sleeping I wandered through the house and gathered Billy’s personal items, his toothbrush, razor, shaving cream, and other things I cannot remember, and I put them all in cardboard boxes that were in the house, probably because I had requested them, but again I do not recall how or why.
One part of my mind was running with the precision of a fine watch, while the other part of my mind and my heart had stopped working altogether. If I ‘felt’ then I could not get through this, and I wanted everyone to see and to know how much I loved Billy, and by maintaining my dignity, I kept his. I so wanted him to be proud of me, although in all my twenty-two and one half years I had never felt the grief I felt now, and while I did perform in a dignified manner at his mother’s funeral it had not been with my heart breaking except for the motherless little boys. Now I was practically paralyzed with grief, and thought perhaps I would die too, but something inside of me that was far stronger than anything I had ever been, took over, and while it seemed as if it was I doing all the right things, it was someone else. I was the observer and from ‘out of body’ I viewed myself as I went about doing what had to be done in the most efficient way possible. This nightmare was not going to end for days, or even weeks or months, and I would have to be stronger than I had ever been, for my children, and as the perfect officer’s wife who has to deal with even the most dreadful situations with dignity.
Somewhere deep inside I thought again about Jackie Kennedy and her grief stricken eyes, like those of a doe caught in the headlights of an onrushing car, but outwardly, she was dignified and efficient. Could I pull this off? I did not know, but I knew I had to try, and it never dawned on me how much younger I was than the president’s widow. In my heart, I remember one of the last words that Billy had spoken to me was “I love you more than life itself,” and I was ever so grateful we had parted with words of love, although those unfulfilled promises would now never be kept. The night on the beach, which Billy longed for, was now almost over, and all I had left was memories, our children, and that brown manila envelope in the buffet drawer. Again, during that long night, I woke up and remembered I had not even asked Trish if Elizabeth was all right after ingesting the Contac, but then again, had they not been here with me? I was becoming more confused as the medicine took effect, and finally I dropped off into a restless sleep with my daughter in her crib at the side of the bed, and my now fatherless son in bed with me. I knew I simply could not sleep alone this night so Michael was delighted to sleep upstairs and then again, Russ and Linda had the beds downstairs.
“Dear God,” I prayed, “help me through this nightmare.
Next Chapter coming soon...