My husband was killed in action on Tuesday, November 16th, it was now Sunday, November 21st. In a span of six days, I had received the most devastating news of my life, flown to Dover, DE to receive my husbands body from Afghanistan, and now we were leaving a memorial service which was held at our church in Jacksonville, NC. I was still in awe of how our friends and church family had poured their hearts into honoring Javier. It was certainly amazing and heart warming. We were on our way home and there was no time to rest. We had an eleven hour road trip to New York ahead of us. The heartache seemed never ending. Javier’s body would be arriving in New York on Tuesday, his funeral service would be on Wednesday, and Thursday would be Thanksgiving day. We were still awaiting word from Arlington National Cemetery about a burial date. I was exhausted. I’m sure we all were.
We left Jacksonville at around 6 pm. Orlando, Lourdes, the kids, and I all drove in one vehicle to New York. Marques and Nicole and the Madrid family followed in separate cars. I was thankful that they were going. We drove straight through the night. What I will never forget is that the entire way to New York, the moon shone brighter than I had ever seen in my life. I could feel Javi watching over us. It gave me comfort to think that he wasn’t completely gone, that he hadn’t stopped existing. He was still with us.
I attempted to stay awake so I could help Orlando and Lourdes stay awake during the drive, but I was exhausted. I fell asleep in the last two hours of the trip. When I opened my eyes, we were driving down the streets of Rochester, NY. Oddly enough, the first thing I saw was an American flag, flying at half mast. I was slapped with reality, yet again. That flag, and every other flag in the state of New York were ordered to be lowered to half mast by the governor, in honor of Javier. I wanted to cry. I attempted to start crying, but I couldn’t. I was exhausted, and crying seemed to take a lot more energy than I had. Instead, I sat there and felt an unimaginable pain in my heart. Reality kept slapping me every chance it got. I was beginning to feel too weak to go on another minute. I had not yet seen Javier’s parents or his sister, Glory. It broke my heart to think about it. It was an awful feeling to be in Rochester, NY, without my husband. This was his hometown. I never in a million years would have imagined coming to Rochester without him. As we drove, certain streets brought back memories. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t go on another minute. When we got to Orlando and Nene’s house, I decided to sleep for a few hours. I was exhausted, but more than anything, I didn’t want to face what laid ahead. I needed an escape. Sleep seemed to be the only way to escape it, even if it was just for a few hours.
I slept for a few hours. When I woke up, Orlando told me that we had to go to Mama’s (Javier’s mom) house. He also told me that my sister was on her way and that Nene would pick her up at the airport and they would meet us at Mama’s house. I got myself and the kids dressed. When we arrived at Mama’s house, I walked in the door and immediately, I felt an overwhelming pain in my heart! Mama was in the dining room talking to the priest that would speak at Javier’s funeral service. When she saw me, we walked toward each other and fell into each other’s arms. She sobbed. She kept saying, “Vero, Vero! Ayyyy Veroooo, me lo mataron! Vero, me duele tanto!” (Vero, they killed him. It hurts me so bad.) I wanted to be strong for her, but I couldn’t. I sobbed with her. Although our pain was different, it was an overwhelming pain for both of us. We were both heart broken. I couldn’t speak. I just hugged her and cried with her. I saw Glory out of the corner of my eye. She was crying too. Glory hugged me and although I knew she was also in unimaginable pain, there was a strength about her that caught me completely by surprise. Glory looked exhausted, but there was strength and comfort in her presence. She reminded me of Javi more than ever. When I was done hugging Mama and Glory, and I had calmed down a little, my sister, Monica walked in. When we looked at each other, and we sobbed. She hugged me. She kept telling me, “I’m so sorry, Sissy!” I forced myself to get it together. The priest was there and we needed to go over the preparations for Javier’s wake and funeral. I had no time to break down or lose it. Mama went over everything with me. I told her she could plan the funeral however she wanted. The only thing I asked is that the song, “Trading My Sorrows” be played at some point during the service. This was Javier’s favorite song. As long as they played that song, that’s all that mattered to me. The priest and Mama said that it was a good idea and they would make sure to play it. Then, Orlando told me it was time to go to Papa’s (Javier’s dad) house. I thought to myself, “I can’t do this! It’s too much. My heart hurts for myself, but it also hurts to see the kids, Mama, Papa, Glory, Landito, and everyone else hurting too!!” I prayed. I asked God to help me be strong. I could feel myself on the verge of a break down.
We arrived at Papa’s house and simply pulling up the drive way hurt. Papa’s house was where Javi, me, and the kids had stayed just three months before on Javi’s last visit to Rochester. Every part of that house held a memory of him. I wanted to turn around and run, but Papa was already outside. His family had come all the way from Puerto Rico and they were also waiting to greet us. I got off the car and walked toward Papa. He cried as soon as he saw me. He hugged me, then he rubbed my head and said, “Tu no estas sola. Tu y los nenes todavia nos tienes a nosotros y ustedes son lo unico que me queda de Javier. Por favor no te olvides de eso nunca.” (You are not alone. You and the kids still have us, and you and the kids are all I have left of Javier. Please don’t ever forget that.) I hugged him and promised him that I would never forget it. We walked inside the house. It was full of family from New York City and Puerto Rico. Everyone was preparing for the next day. The next day would be Tuesday and Javier’s body would be arriving.
I sat on Papa’s couch. There were newspapers on the couch. Javier was on the front page. One said in big, black, bold letters, “Local Marine Dies in Afghan Combat” It had a picture of Javier, me, and the kids right above it. Another one had a picture of Javier’s body when it arrived at Dover and it was captioned in big, black, bold letters that said, “Fallen Marine Returns To U.S.” I thought to myself, “fallen marine…fallen marine…fallen marine.” That term hurt. I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest. Reality was slapping me in the face all over again. He really was dead. There was no turning back. He was on the news and on the front page of the newspaper. I wanted to give up on life and die with him. I wanted to run away from all of this and not feel anything anymore. Glory must have sensed that I was not ok, because she came and sat with me. She began telling me how much Javier loved me. She said, “I had never seen my brother so in love like he was with you. Never. I can’t even explain it. He was all about you and the kids. You and the kids were everything to him.” I was surprised to hear her say that. Her words were comforting. Her presence was comforting. She was displaying a strength that I never expected. In the car ride to New York, I thought about her and how devastated she must feel. She was the baby of the family. I had also taken it upon myself to baby her and treat her as a little sister. I fully expected her to be a complete and total mess. I knew how much she adored her brothers and how close she was to both of them. I was certain she would be the one that I would need to be strong for. I was wrong. She was the one that helped me be strong. She was the one that first showed me it was ok to make inappropriate jokes and laugh, even in the moments when there was absolutely nothing in the world to laugh about. She didn’t allow me to sit in misery. She pulled me off the couch and told me to eat. Then she told me we were going to Walmart to buy flags and poster board so the kids could make welcome home signs for Javi. That night, I went to bed exhausted. Glory slept with me. She hugged me until I fell asleep. My sister slept with the kids and made sure they were taken care of. I was beyond grateful to have Javi’s sister and my sister at my side.
When morning came, I opened my eyes and dreaded facing the day. Although I had already seen Javier’s arrival on U.S soil, I was not allowed to approach the flag draped transfer case or even touch it. Today, I would be able to touch it. I would be able to kiss it. I would be able to stand next to it as long as I wanted or needed. I was nervous. I was worried about my kids. What would they say? How would they react? This would be the day that reality came and slapped them in the face, and harder than ever before. What would I say if they asked me to open the casket? How would I explain it to them? I had so many thoughts running through my mind. I pushed them all aside and got dressed. My sister and Glory, yet again were a lot of help. Monica got the kids dressed. Glory made sure the welcome home signs were finished. Orlando dealt with speaking to the CACO officer and Nene helped in whatever way she could as well. Everyone was doing all that they could to help make things go as smoothly as possible.
Javier’s body would be arriving on a private charter plane. Everyone who was going to be present for his arrival was told to meet at Mama’s house, and then we would have a police escort all the way to the airport. When we arrived at Mama’s house, I was surprised to see so many people. I was quiet. There wasn’t much I really wanted to talk about. I greeted people and attempted to smile, but truth of the matter is that my heart was extremely heavy, my mind was flooded with thoughts, and my body felt physically weak. When it was time to get in the cars and head out to the airport, I was surprised that they put my car at the very beginning of the procession. I looked out the window as Orlando drove. I saw a man on the street with an American flag in his left hand and his right hand over his heart. It was raining, and it was cold, but he was still standing outside. The freeway was shut down for us. American flags were still flying at half mast all over the state. I remember thinking to myself, “I bet Javi is really feeling himself right now. They actually blocked off the freeway for him!”
When we arrived at the airport, I attempted to maintain my composure. On my way to the room where we were going to wait, I began to cry. I could not keep it together. Nene came and hugged me and then I really lost it. I started sobbing and I told her that I didn’t want my husband to come back to me like this. I wanted him to be alive. I told her that this wasn’t how things were supposed to be. She stayed strong and held back tears. She hugged me tight. My sister hugged me too. When I opened my eyes long enough to see what was around me, I noticed my kids were watching me cry. Alyssa was looking at me with a very scared and heart broken look on her face. Anthony looked confused. Andrew seemed out of it. I got mad and frustrated with myself. I didn’t want my kids to see me like this. I had done very good about not breaking down in front of them and right now I could tell that they were really concerned and starting to get nervous and scared. They were feeding off of my emotions, my actions, and my reactions. In a very frustrated tone, I told my sister, “Get my kids. Stay with my kids. Be strong for my kids!” I don’t think she fully understood my frustration in that moment. I was mad at myself. I felt like I was letting my kids down by letting them see me like this. I wanted to shield them from this and I couldn’t.
After what seemed like forever, everyone came out and the plane that was carrying Javier’s body landed. We were all lined along the runway. I was standing next to Papa. Glory and Orlando were near Mama. My sister was standing next to my kids. I looked back and I could see a look of fright on everyone’s faces. The door to the airplane opened and the first thing I saw was Sgt. Benjamin Maldonado (Benji) sitting on a seat of the plane. Directly behind him was a silver casket with an American flag draped over it. Benji unbuckled his seat belt and came off the plane. I wanted to run to him, but Papa was holding me back. Javi’s Marine friends, who were also his pall bearers began marching toward the plane. When the casket was moved out of the plane and in full view for everyone to see, it was almost as if someone had flipped the switch on and activated everyone’s tears and sobs. I sobbed. Papa screamed. Mama screamed. Everyone cried. Although Papa was probably assigned the task of holding me back in case I attempted to dart toward the casket as the Marines walked by, it was I who held him back. He kept screaming, “Javier! Javier! My hero! Javier!” I hugged him tight and wouldn’t let him go. To the side of me, I could hear Mama crying and screaming, “Let me go! Javier! Let me go, I wanna see Javier! Let me go! I wanna touch it!” Orlando and Glory tried to comfort her and calm her down. while her husband restrained her. I could also see the pain in Javi’s Marine friends’ eyes. They were not deaf. They could hear us cry, scream, and yell as they passed by with Javi’s casket. Their jaws were clenched tight. There was focus in their eyes. They were doing everything they possibly could to maintain their composure and put Javi’s casket on the hearse without missing a step or letting a single tear roll down their face. When Javi’s casket was inside of the hearse, I ran to Benji. He hugged me. I looked up at him with my face drenched in tears. I sobbed and yelled as I told him, “Thank you so much for being his escort. Thank you for not leaving him. Thank you Benji. Did you tell him everything I told you to tell him? Did you tell him how much I love him?! Did you tell him?! Benji, they killed him!!!! They killed my husband Benji! He’s dead Benji. He’s really dead!” Benji tried very hard not to break down and cry, but tears rolled down his face, and he said, “I told him Vero. I’m so sorry mama. I’m so sorry this happened.” He hugged me again. It was time to head to the church for calling hours.
Again, the freeway was blocked off as Javier’s hearse made its way to the church. The hearse parked in front of the church. There was a huge American Flag held up by two fire truck ladders and there were police cars and Patriot Guard Riders lining the streets with big American Flags. I was in awe! I asked myself, “When was all of this planned?! I had no idea!” Javier’s pall bearers slowly took the casket out of the hearse and carried it inside of the church. The priest was already waiting. I was walking directly behind it with Glory and the kids. Mama, Papa, Orlando, Nene, and few others were behind us. We requested that everyone else wait outside so that we could have a few private moments. The priest said a few words and then a white cloth was placed over the casket, as part of Catholic ritual. The American flag was draped over the white cloth. The Marines moved the casket toward the front of the church. We all stood behind them. I could not wait to be able to touch it. When they had finished moving it. They all stood at attention. I asked Nicole, “Can I approach it?” She told me that I could.
I approached my husband’s casket slowly. Everyone else stood back and watched. Then, when I got close enough to touch it, I threw my upper body over it and hugged it. I screamed, “Noooooo, Javier! NOOOO, BABE! I need you! I just want to die with you, Babe! I love you! I can’t live without you, Javier! NO! Please, Babe! NOOOO! Come back to me, Babe!!! PLEASE!” I wept, and I laid my head on top of the casket with tears rolling down my face. I whispered to him, “I’m proud of you JOOR. I love you times infinity. I win.” I’m not sure how long I laid over it alone. When I looked up, the rest of the family had approached his casket. They were crying. All I could hear were heart breaking sobs. I had to walk away. I felt like I was going to lose my mind with sorrow. When a little bit of time had gone by, I decided to take the kids up to the casket one at a time. I took Andrew to it first. He smiled and said, “Papi! He’s in a treasure box! Papi, you kicked the clouds away, cause the sun came out after you got here! I love you so much, Papi!” Andrew’s words made me smile. I then grabbed Anthony and carried him to the casket. I told him, “Look, Anthony, Papi is inside of this treasure box.” Anthony looked at it, and without hesitation, he laid his head on it. Then he reached over and laid his whole body on top of it. As he laid on top of the casket, he said, “Papi, I’m here! Come out and see me, Papi! Please, Papi, come out!” I forced myself to stay strong. As much as I wanted to break down and cry, I didn’t. I let my child lay on the casket for as long as he needed. He said things that broke my heart a million times over. He kept begging his dad to come out. In his three year old little voice, he kept saying, “Papi, please come out. I wanna see you. I miss you.” Anthony, then looked up at me and said, “Papi not coming out, Mommy. He sleeping?” I hugged him. I didn’t have the strength to say anything. He hugged me back and told me he loved me too. Then, he told me to put him down and went to play. I asked Alyssa if she wanted to go up to the casket. She looked at me and with tears in her eyes, she said, “No. I don’t want this. I don’t want him dead. I can’t.” I didn’t push her. I told her it was ok, but told her that I wanted her to have some time with her dad. So it was ok for now, but she would need to face it soon. She looked at me with pain in her eyes, and said, “Ok.”
I went and sat down in a chair near Javi’s casket. I felt like I was in a dream. Everything felt surreal. I was consumed with a million different thoughts. My head hurt from crying, my legs felt weak, and my heart felt as though it was literally broken. I wanted to be inside of the casket with my husband. I didn’t want life without him. I was staring off into space and I was consumed by my own thoughts. Then, I looked over at Javi’s casket and I saw Javier’s Marine brothers were at his side. They were crying. My heart hurt for them. It is truly sobering to see grown men…Marines, in tears. When they were finished, one of them came to where I was sitting. He kneeled down beside me. He laid his face in my lap and sobbed. I cried with him. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes. He attempted to say something, but he couldn’t speak. He lowered his head and stood up. He gave me a hug and walked away. I sat there and stared at Javi’s casket. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally drained. I felt extremely weak and I didn’t know how I would be able to endure more of this. As I sat there, I realized I had not really prayed all day. I could certainly tell a huge difference between trying to find the strength within myself and when I allowed God to strengthen me. I told myself not to ever again forget to ask God to be my strength. God’s strength would be the only way I would be able to endure. There was still a lot of painful moments ahead of me. I obviously could not do it alone or by my own strength.
When night time came, I kissed Javier’s casket for the millionth time that day and forced myself to walk away from it. It was time to leave the church. I needed to get some rest. I was exhausted. The next day was Javier’s funeral service…