In a matter of two days my life had changed drastically. I was in the midst of absolute chaos. I had been informed my husband was killed in action, was forced to give my children the awful news, and my husband returned to me from Afghanistan in a flag draped box. I was overwhelmed, to say the least.
When I think back about that time, I ask myself, “How was I able to endure it?” What comes to mind, is all of the people that were praying for me. It was amazing how many people reached out to me just to let me know they were lifting us up in prayer. I’ve always heard that God is closest to those who are broken hearted. To be honest, I always thought that was stupid. How could God be close to someone who is broken hearted? It would seem as though He’s nowhere near them. If He was close to those whose hearts are broken, they wouldn’t be broken hearted in the first place. As I look back, I can say that now, I understand.
My life, as I knew it, had come to an end. Death paid me a surprise visit and took the person I loved most in this world. I was heartbroken and extremely grief stricken. However, in the midst of heartache, chaos, grief, and sorrow, God never left my side. He continuously gave me what I need to keep going. He was closer to me than ever. How do I know? Well, have you ever heard of angels on earth? I really believe God sent an angel to me in human form to give me advice when I needed it most.
Let me explain. As I said before, I left Dover feeling a renewed strength. The pride that I felt in Javier pushed me to keep going. I was still very sad and scared about what awaited me when I got home, but I didn’t feel completely alone anymore. I realized I had Orlando and the captain to help me with the logistics of a memorial, funeral, and burial. I also had family in NY and TX who were also ready, willing, and able to help in whatever way they could. More importantly, I had people all around the country praying for me and my family. I was grateful for this. I was beginning to accept that I didn’t have to endure this alone.
The captain, Orlando, and I headed back to Jacksonville. On our first flight from Philadelphia to Charlotte, our seat assignments were not together. I did not want to sit alone. I was beginning to grow dependant on the presence of a familiar face, at all times. I had not been truly alone since receiving the news. The captain tried to switch our seats with other passengers so that I could sit next to at least one of them. The passengers were not willing to trade. Orlando also made an attempt. He asked the lady who was seated next to the seat I was assigned if she would be willing to switch seats with him so that he could sit next to me. She said no. I was upset. I watched Orlando and the captain walk away and take their seats. I felt alone all over again. I began to cry. I was angry with the lady because she wouldn’t switch seats. I was angry at everything and everyone. I could feel her looking at me. She was watching me cry, and although I was mad at her, there was something about her that made me want to be in her presence. It was unexplainable. I didn’t know her. I had never met her before in my life. I looked up at her with tears in my eyes. She smiled at me and said, “It’s going to be ok, Sweetheart. Your heart hurts right now, but you are not alone.” I was surprised. I began to cry even more. I told her that my husband had just been killed in Afghanistan. She said she was very sorry for my loss, but she didn’t seem surprised. She grabbed my hand. She asked me if I wanted to tell her about my husband. I told her that I had just received his body. I told her that I was very proud. I told her that I was very sad and that I was very afraid to live life without him. She listened. Then she said, “You know, my son died.” Her voice was sweet and comforting. When she had finished telling me about her son, she looked at me and smiled. I told her that I wasn’t sure if my emotions were normal. I explained that one minute the pain was so overwhelming that I preferred to die and the next I found myself wanting to laugh. She told me that this was normal. She told me that my emotional roller coaster had just begun. She said, “Every smile, every laugh, every moment in which you feel as though the pain is not overwhelming you is God comforting you. Embrace it.” She looked me in the eyes and said, “God loves you so very much. He will never leave you nor forsake you. You’re angry with God. You don’t understand why this happened. You feel as though He let you down. God told me He understands your anger. He loves you. Your anger does not push him away. He hears your cries.” I was surprised. I asked her how she was able to overcome the death of her son. She told me that God gave her signs, He gave her exactly what she needed, when she needed it. She said, “Listen, God will speak to you through others. He will show you how much he loves you, through others. Pay attention. Listen.” Everything that she said to me, was exactly what I needed to hear. We talked the entire plane ride. When we landed, I told her thank you. She looked at me and said, “This was a divine appointment.” I didn’t really have the time to process those words. I was too excited to tell Orlando and the captain about her. She smiled at me as I walked away and winked at me. When I turned back around, she was gone. I tried to look around to point her out to Orlando, but just like that, she was gone. Some may say it was coincidence, some may say it’s wishful thinking. I know how I felt in her presence. I know how comforting her words were. To me, she was an angel sent to help me and tell me everything God wanted me to know. I told myself to remember her words, not to forget them. I knew that I still had very difficult days ahead of me. I told myself to pay attention and listen.
We arrived in Jacksonville, and the captain dropped Orlando and I off at my house. As soon as I walked through the door, Nene and Lourdes were holding a welcome home sign that the kids made for me. They had cleaned my house. It was spotless. The laundry was done and put away. People from my church had dropped off cards, flowers, and food. I remembered what the lady on the plane told me. God was showing me how much he loves me through people on Earth. I was still very tired, very sad, and my heart ached beyond words, but in the midst of all of it, I felt moments of peace and comfort. I embraced these moments.
Those moments of comfort were helping me to endure the reality of Javi’s death. There was so much going on. I was beginning to forget which way was up. Remember, the door bell rang on Tuesday, I told the kids on Wednesday, I received his body on Thursday, and now it was Friday morning. I was making every effort to stay strong and keep my spirits up. I was trying to stay focused on all that needed to be done. I had decided that I wanted to have a memorial service for Javier, here in Jacksonville. After all, this had been our home all these years. All of our friends were here. Discovery Church Intl. was our home church. Discovery was where Javi and I had made the decision to allow God into our hearts and live with Him in our lives. I needed to have a memorial service with all the people who had been a part of our daily lives. I felt that our friends needed a service to honor Javier too, so that they could have a sense of closure. So, Friday, November 19th I was gathering the strength to plan a memorial service, when the door bell rang again. I went to the door and it was the FedEx man. He had a package for me. I was surprised. I signed for the package and walked back inside.
I sat at the dining room table and opened it. To my complete surprise, it was a Purple Heart medal along with the certificate. There was also another certificate for honorable service. It read, “In grateful memory of, SSgt. Javier Ortiz Rivera, who died in the service of our country, as a member of the United States Marine Corps.” Reality slapped me in the face, for the third day in a row. My heart hurt when I saw that Purple Heart. Had Javier’s life been in exchange for this Purple Heart and a stupid certificate? Looking at that medal made me think about how Javier died. It reminded me of the wounds inflicted to him. It made me wonder if he experienced any pain. I cried. We all cried. It was real. No matter how many moments of comfort I had experienced, at the end of the day, reality remained the same. Javier was dead. The pain that accompanied that reality was far greater than the moments of comfort. If my heart was broken into a million pieces before, receiving the Purple Heart broke it into two million pieces.
Somehow, I was able to regain my composure and I continued thinking about Javier’s memorial service. Lourdes drove me around town, trying to get things done. We only had two days to get everything ready. Javier’s memorial would be that Sunday. I was allowing myself to get wrapped up in the small details of the planning. I needed to focus on something other than the details of the death. Lourdes knew that the sadness was too overwhelming for me and did everything that she could to make me laugh. I was again, starting to feel comfort. I was distracted. Then, the phone rang. It was the old, ugly, heartless mortician from Dover. He said to me, very matter of factly and with no compassion whatsoever, “I just went in to take a look at your husband. He is in really bad shape. There is absolutely nothing that can be done. He will be a full body wrap, closed casket.” Yet again, another blow. To think of my husband wrapped completely in gauze as he lay in a casket was too much. I couldn’t even cry. If my heart was broken into two million pieces after receiving his Purple Heart, it was now broken into three million pieces. The term heartbroken could never explain or describe the pain that I felt. My husband was, no, IS the most handsome man I have ever seen in my life. To me, he was more handsome than any movie star, athlete, or musician. To think that his face…his body was destroyed beyond repair made me angry. To think that I wouldn’t at least be given the opportunity to see him or kiss him one last time filled my heart with pain, anger, disappointment, and misery. I wanted to break down. I wanted to lose my mind. The strange part is, despite my efforts to release the emotions by crying, screaming, yelling, or maybe even cursing…I couldn’t. I was exhausted. I had received blow, after blow, after blow, after blow and I was to the point where I couldn’t even react. I told the mortician, “Ok. Thank you for letting me know.” Then, I called Orlando and told him the news. He said to me, “Well, God does things for a reason. Maybe, it’s not meant for us to see Javier like that so we can always remember him alive. Maybe seeing him dead will tarnish our memories because when we think about him, we will only remember the last image of him and not what he looked like before.” His words made me mad. They didn’t make sense. I really wanted to tell Orlando that his calm demeanor was getting on my nerves. How could he be so accepting of this? Why was he not freaking out? I think I just wanted someone else to be a basket case with me. I probably wanted to feel justified in my anger and feel like I wasn’t crazy, but I was too tired to argue or say anything. I sat in the car, while Lourdes drove and I looked out the window. I didn’t know what to think. Then my phone rang, again. It was Javier’s friend Chris.
Chris had just received the news and was calling to find out if it was true. I don’t remember much from the conversation. I remember he was crying. To be quite honest, I didn’t feel like talking to him. If I’m being completely honest, I wanted Lourdes to get out of the car so I could drive myself into on coming traffic. The pain was unbearable again. I just wanted the pain to stop. I could not bear another second. Then, I heard Chris say, “I think God allowed this to happen because Javi was ready. He was right with God. He is in heaven, with God, Vero. There is no doubt about that.” I heard that loud and clear. Those words comforted me as I thought about the condition of Javier’s body. They reminded me that Javier’s earthly body may have been damaged, but he was in heaven now, and God had given him a new, glorified body. I thought about the lady on the plane. She told me that God would speak to me through unexpected people. She was right.
I felt broken, but I didn’t feel beyond repair. Despite the loss, despite the heartache, despite the exhaustion, God was giving me the words I needed to hear, the love I needed to feel, and most importantly, the strength I needed in order to keep going. There was still a lot to be done and a lot more heartache to face, but God was closer to me than ever.
I took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, and told Lourdes to drive me to the mall. If Javier’s casket was going to be closed, that meant he wouldn’t be able to show off his much earned Purple Heart medal, nor any other ribbons or medals that he had earned throughout his career. It was important to me for people to see what a decorated, outstanding marine he was. His accomplishments would be seen. They would be displayed. They would be present. His little boys would wear the uniform for him. His boys would show our friends, our family, and everyone else everything that their dad accomplished. In that moment, I decided that Javier’s memorial service, his funeral, and his burial would be special. I decided that I would do my part in giving Javier a farewell that was fit for a king. I wanted to do everything that I could to show people how extraordinary and amazing SSgt. Javier Ortiz Rivera truly was…