November 16, 2010 came and went. Regardless of how brutal and devastating that day was for me and many others, the sun went down, night time came, and Tuesday turned into Wednesday, November 17, 2010. Although I felt like my whole world was shattered and my life had come to an end, the very first thing I learned about death is that time does not stop or stand still for those of us left behind. Life does not stop. The days still come and go.
In the early morning hours of November 17th, I received a phone call from a number that I recognized as a call from Afghanistan. My heart skipped a beat. I hoped it was Javier calling. To my dismay, it was not Javier. It was Javier’s platoon commander, Lt. Jason, as I like to call him. The first thing I heard him say was, “Veronica…this is Lt. Jason…I am so sorry” Hearing him say that, was like hearing the captain say, “your husband passed away this morning.” He really did die. It was real..very real. He sounded very sad. He sounded on the verge of tears, and as though he was forcing himself to stay strong. I cried. I asked what happened. I wanted details. I don’t really remember if Lt. Jason gave me any details. What I do remember is that I asked him, “Did Javi know how much I love him?” He responded without hesitation, “He absolutely knew how much you loved him.” After I spoke with Lt. Jason, I spoke with Sgt. Peg. We had known Peg for years, spent holidays together. He was a friend to both of us. The first words that came out of his mouth were, “Vero…Vero…I’m sooo sorry. We tried everything we could but he was already gone.” I proceeded to ask him questions. I asked him to tell me exactly what happened. He started by telling me that they were on a patrol, everything else he said went in one ear and out the other. I can’t remember any of it. What I do remember is asking him, “Peg, will I be able to see my husband’s face again? Will I be able to give him one last kiss?” He replied quietly, with tears in his voice, “No Sweetie. I’m sorry.” My next question was, “Peg, do you think Javi knew how much I love him?” He also answered without hesitation, and his exact words were, “Oh, without a doubt, Vero. Don’t ever doubt that.” I don’t really remember anything else from the conversation. I don’t know how it ended. I do remember how devastated I felt after I hung up with them. I had just been slapped with a good dose of reality. I didn’t think it was possible to feel more devastated than the day before, but it was. Now, not only was Javier dead. I would never be able to see his handsome face again. I wouldn’t be able to give him one last kiss goodbye. I wouldn’t be able to confirm for myself that he was truly dead. I had to take everyone else’s word for it. I felt worse than the day before, but for the first time since receiving the news, I felt a small bit of comfort. I found comfort in knowing that Javi knew how much I loved. I was thankful for their phone call. I closed my eyes and attempted to get some sleep.
When the sun came up, I opened my eyes and laid in bed. My mind was flooded with thoughts. My heart was flooded with emotions. I was still in shock, but I was also feeling angry, and more than anything sad…very sad. I thought about our kids. The pain I felt for them is something indescribable. They didn’t know yet. You see, the day before, I made the decision not to tell them. I still had a small bit of hope that I would be told it was a mistake. Now, that last bit of hope I had was gone. And on top of having to break my children’s little hearts, I had a lot to do in just a few short hours. The captain would be coming over for me to sign more paperwork. By 1:00 PM I would be boarding a plane for Dover, Delaware. I would go receive my husband’s body. Javier’s brother, Orlando, sister-in-law, Nene, and his cousin Lourdes were on their way to my house from New York. Orlando would be arriving first because he was going with me and the captain to Delaware. Nene and Lourdes would be staying with the kids. Orlando had agreed that he would help me tell the kids. I laid in my bed before getting up to face the reality that awaited me, and for the first time, I made the decision to pray.
I didn’t really want to pray. I was really mad with God. What I really wanted to tell God was, “screw you! I hate you!” How could God let this happen? I thought to myself, “What happened to all that crap about Javi being covered by the blood of Jesus? Why didn’t God save him?” I knew these were questions that I wouldn’t get an answer to. I was at the lowest of lows and I needed to believe in something bigger than myself. I decided to pray, despite my anger. I prayed for guidance. I prayed for comfort. I prayed for strength. I asked God to help me carry myself with self-control, dignity, and grace. I asked God to give me the courage and strength to get out of bed and face what was to come. I prayed with angry expectations and told Him to show Himself to me, to prove Himself real! When I was done praying, I got out of bed, but I was exhausted and I felt like I had been beat up by life. I tried to remember everything Pastor Ron had said to me the day before. I told myself Javi was in a better place. I told myself that he would watch over me and the kids. The thought of Javi watching over me made me feel weird…uncomfortable. It was a new concept for me. So, as I got in the shower that morning, I felt self-conscious about my weight. I wasn’t comfortable with Javier being able to see every defect on my body. I made sure to scrub myself really well and brushed my teeth for an extra long amount of time. I didn’t want Javi looking down on me and thinking I was a dirtball. The thought that Javier could see me from heaven was overwhelming and it made me kind of nervous.
By the time I was finished getting dressed, the captain was at my house. I had more paperwork to sign. I was still waiting for Orlando to get there so we could tell the kids. Then, Orlando called and said his flight was delayed. Time was ticking. I couldn’t wait for him to get here. If I did, I might not have time to tell my kids until after I got back from Dover. I coud not wait until then. I had to tell them before I left. I decided I would tell them on my own. I would tell them at the school with the counselors present so that they could step in if needed. I was very nervous. I was afraid that they would hate me and be angry with me like I was angry with the captain. I didn’t feel strong enough to go through with it. I began to pray. I prayed that God would give me the words to tell my children. I prayed that God would guide me and show me what the best approach would be. I told God that I was really mad at Him. My prayer included something like this, “Yo, I’m so mad at you. I don’t even know if I believe in your goodness anymore. You let this happen. So, now as a mother I am demanding that you comfort my children. Ease the pain for them. You want me to keep believing in your goodness…show yourself.” As awful and disrespectful as that prayer sounds, that’s about all the faith I could muster.
Joann went with me to the school. I only had one chance. I didn’t want to mess it up. Breaking the news to the kids was a daunting task. It would set the tone for their feelings, their emotions, their reaction, their thoughts, most importantly, their grief. I was not only preparing to break their little hearts, I was setting the tone for the weeks and months to come. You see, I knew if I walked in there showing my anger they would feel it and be angry too. If I walked in there a complete basket case, they would be afraid. Whatever my words were, whatever my actions and reactions were, it would set the example and they would feed off of it. I pleaded with God to give my babies comfort. To touch their hearts with His own hand and lessen the pain.
I had one of two choices. I could either pick up the kids and tell them all together, or I could tell them individually. The easy thing for me, would have been to tell them all at once. However, that was not what was best for them. I decided to tell them individually because I wanted them to have my undivided attention. I wanted to focus on each one of them and hug them individually. They were all different ages and at different stages in their psychological development. Therefore, they needed to be told in different ways with words that they would understand. (I am so grateful that I paid attention in my psychology classes).
I went to Andrew’s school first. I waited for him in the counselor’s office. His face lit up when he saw me. He said, “Mommy!” I wanted to run out of the room and go back home and cry. I wanted the counselor to tell him for me. I forced myself to maintain my composure, but on the inside, I was dying. Again, I prayed that God would speak for me. That whatever my child needed to hear, would be exactly what would come out of my mouth. I asked my son to sit next to me. I was very nervous, and it did not help that I had an audience (the counselor, his teacher, Joann, and another girl). He sat close to me, and I began to speak. I can’t even explain what happened next. My mouth was moving, words were coming out of my mouth, tears were rolling down my face, but God was in control of my mouth. I could hear what I was saying, and in my mind I was surprised with myself. I said things that I never would have thought of on my own. I told my son that Papi died. When he asked how, I was vague with the details. I didn’t want to focus on the how. I told him that it was ok to feel sad, hurt, angry, disappointed. I reassured him that he could scream, yell, or cry. I told him that I was here for him and wouldn’t leave him. I reminded him that we were still a family. I told him Papi was now an angel in heaven that looked down on him. I told him Papi lives in his heart every day, every second. Andrew didn’t cry. He took it all in and seemed to be ok. When I hugged him, for the first time since this all started, I felt the urge to completely fall apart, but I didn’t. Instead, as I hugged my child, I again prayed, no I told God to help me be strong. It was Andrew who should fall apart if he needed to, and it was my job to be strong. He hugged me and told me he wanted to go back to class. I was surprised, but I let him do what he chose. His teacher reassured me that she would keep an eye on him. I watched my son walk away. As he did, he looked back and smiled at me. One down, two to go.
Alyssa was next. When she saw me at her school, in the counselor’s office, she looked scared. She knew right away something was wrong. I asked her to sit next to me. I could see her eyes beginning to water. I told her that Papi was killed in Afghanistan. Sadness came over her face. She shook her head no very slowly. I could see the confusion in her eyes. Her eyes filled with tears. She looked at me and couldn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. I could read her thoughts just by looking at her. Her eyes pleaded with me to tell her that it wasn’t true. I told her it was ok to cry, it was ok to be sad and mad. I told her that all her feelings were ok. She simply said, “He promised me” in a tone that was so low I could barely hear her. I hugged my child, and again I felt as though I was going to lose my mind with grief and sorrow. I felt extremely weak, and I felt like I was going to pass out. The room was spinning as I held her. I told myself to get it together. The last thing my daughter needed was to see her mother falling apart. She must have sensed my weakness, because she said, “It’s gonna be ok Mommy. I will help you. We still have eachother.” Amazing how the words of a child can give you so much perspective. In that moment, I realized that all hope was not lost. I still had a lot to live for. I was not alone. I still had my children. They needed me. I would be strong for them. I would fight to overcome for them. Alyssa didn’t stay at school, she came home with me. To be honest, I believe she came home mostly because she wanted to make sure I was gonna be ok. Two down, one to go.
I picked up Anthony from the daycare. He was only three. How do you explain death to a three year old? I was at a loss for words. On our way back to the car, I held him close to me. He laid his head on my shoulder. I said, “Anthony, look at me baby.” He looked at me, and I began to cry. He grabbed my face with both hands and said, “why you cwying, Mommy?” I simply said, “Papi died baby. The bad guys killed him” He said, “oh, the dwagons and the bears killed him?” I couldn’t talk. I shook my head yes and hugged him tight. He hugged me back and said, “I love you Mommy.” I said, “I love you more. I love you times infinity, Anthony Javier!” Again, the words of my children comforted me. When I heard him say he loved me, it reminded me that I may have lost the love of my life, but I hadn’t lost all the love in my life. My kids loved me, and I loved them. That love would help me overcome this.
I went back home feeling grateful to God. He had certainly spoken for me, and He had spoken to me through my children. Even though God had shown himself to me, I was still devastated and weak. I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in more than twenty-four hours. I was exhausted. I wanted to fall apart and have a complete break down, but I didn’t want to break down in front of anyone. I told myself to get it together and not to be weak and embarrassing. Just then, Joann called. She had picked up Javi’s brother from the airport and was on her way to my house. That meant it was time to go to Dover and receive the body. The thought of Javi as just a body and no longer a living person was too overwhelming for me. I fought back tears. I fought the urge to start throwing things. I fought the urge to get in the car and drive away. This was real. He was dead. I didn’t want my husband to be dead. I wanted Orlando, Nene, and Lourdes to be in New York. I wanted my life to go back to what it was before this awful nightmare began. I didn’t want any of what was happening. I felt like reality was bitch slapping me at every turn. I was consumed with thoughts and feelings. That’s when I looked up and saw Orlando walking up to the door.
I attempted to walk to the door and greet him, but halfway to the door my legs gave out and I felt too weak to walk. I felt dizzy. THIS was as real as it got. Seeing Orlando at my house, on a Wednesday, in the middle of November, without Nene, and without Javi, was too much for me. The fact that Orlando was here meant that this was not a dream. It was most certainly real, and my life really was falling apart. I couldn’t be strong anymore. I couldn’t hold it all in anymore. In that moment I felt weaker than I had ever felt in my entire life. Reality bitch slapped me, yet again, and this time a million times harder than before. Orlando walked in the house and hugged me. I fell apart. I cried…no, I yelled, I screamed, I said things that probably couldn’t be understood. Everything that I had been holding in was coming out. I told myself to stop. Shut up. Get it together, but I couldn’t. My heart felt an unimaginable and indescribable pain. He let me cry. He cried too. The pain was overwhelming. I had never in my life felt such pain. My heart hurt and felt like it was literally broken. I truly felt I would die of a broken heart. I pleaded with God, “God please help me. I just want to die with him. Please help me, God! Please!” and He did. In the midst of my breakdown, I calmed down long enough to realize that I had literally cried all the tears I had left in me. There were no tears rolling down my face, and yet I was crying…dehydration was setting in. I stopped my ugly display of emotions and told myself, “go drink some water before you get sick, you idiot!” I went to the bathroom, washed my face, and when I looked in the mirror, I shook my head and laughed a little…I looked a hot mess!
Perfect timing, just as I had regained my composure, the captain arrived. It was time to leave to Dover…