On November 16, 2010, my doorbell rang and three men in uniform informed me that my husband had been killed in action. November 18th, I attended a dignified transfer in Dover, DE as my husband’s body arrived from Afghanistan back to American soil. November 21st, we held a memorial service for him at our church in Jacksonville, NC. November 23rd, his body arrived in Rochester, NY and we held a wake for him. It was now, November 24, 2010, and his funeral service would be held at 7pm. Exhausted did not even begin to describe how I felt. I was emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. I was running on adrenaline and God’s strength. When I woke up the morning of November 24th, I felt too tired to feel anything. I was just going through the motions. My sister, Monica, and Javi’s sister, Glory, told me I should take a shower and start getting dressed. There would be more calling hours at the church until 6pm. The funeral service would start at 7pm. To be honest, I didn’t want to sit through more calling hours. While I appreciated the hundreds of people that were coming to pay their respects, each one had an extreme look of pity when they realized I was Javier’s wife. The response was always the same, “Oh my God! You’re his widow. My goodness! You are sooo young…and the kids….our hearts break for you and the kids.” His widow…I truly hate that title!
I was not ready to be referred to as a widow. I hate that term. I found it unfair that not only did I lose my husband, I was stripped of my title as a wife. Everyone else in his life did not lose their title. Nobody else stopped being his son, daughter, mom, dad, brother, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, cousin, or friend. However, I stopped being his wife. It seemed very unfair to me. I didn’t want to stop being a wife. I didn’t want to be a widow. In my heart and mind I was very much his wife, not a widow. Being called his widow was just another slap of reality. I lost my husband, my life in the Marine Corps, and my title of being Javier’s wife. Javier would say, “My wife…this is my wife…let me ask my wife…my wife said…my wife likes…my wife bought me this…my wife can cook really good…my WIFE!” He never referred to me as “my widow”. Sitting in the church during calling hours and being introduced as Javier’s widow felt like a stab in the heart every time. I had already endured that for many long hours the day before. I didn’t want to do it all over again for a second day in a row. However, I had no choice.
I got dressed as Glory told me to do. Lourdes fixed my hair. She reminded me that I would be in front of a lot of people and on the news. She told me not to embarrass Javier or the family by showing up to his funeral looking a hot mess. I agreed and did my best to look presentable. Orlando and I headed to the church before everyone else because there were people who were waiting for me to arrive so that they could meet me. Most of them had something they wanted to give me. I was presented with a plaque from Javier’s high school. The American Red Cross gave me a photo album which contained pictures of Javier in it from when he volunteered with them. Random strangers gave me monetary donations, teddy bears and blankets for the kids, flowers and business cards offering their assistance. People were opening their hearts to me and the kids and showing us love and support in any way they could. I knew God was opening the windows of heaven and Him and Javi were pouring out their love for me and showing me how much they love me through people on earth. I felt comfort in this.
However, moments of comfort always seemed to be followed by a moments of extreme heartache. As I was receiving hand shakes and hugs from the people who came to pay their respects, Orlando came to my side and informed me that him and Benji needed to see me. He walked me to a room toward the back of the church. I was nervous. When I walked in the room, my CACO officer (The Captain) and Benji were already in the room. Orlando asked me to sit down. I sat down at the table. He stood next to me. I looked up at Benji. He seemed nervous. Orlando put his hand on my shoulder. Benji began to speak. He said, “Vero, when I was at Dover, they gave me something that was recovered from Javi’s body. They told me to give it to you.” I got excited. I had been praying that his wedding ring would be recovered, and in my mind, I was sure that that was what he was going to give me. I also had hopes that they would give me his watch, the dog tags he wore around his neck, the name tapes off his cammies, his staff sergeant chevrons off the collar of his cammies, and anything else that could have been recovered. I felt anticipation as I watched Benji open up a folder with an envelope in it. I thought to myself, “Well, that envelope is awfully small. It can’t hold much in it. Maybe his stuff is in a bigger bag.” Benji proceeded to open the envelope and took out a dog tag. He said, “Vero, this is all they gave me. This is all they were able to recover.” I immediately let out a screaming sob. I cried uncontrollably. I looked up at Benji and said, “A dog tag?!!! A FUCKING DOG TAG???!!!! That’s all I get back? That’s it?! This can’t be it, Benji!!! A DOG TAG!!!” Orlando rubbed my back and attempted to calm me down. I felt an anger rise within me that I could not control. I wanted to hit something or someone. I couldn’t believe that a dog tag was all I got back. Benji told me that it was probably the dog tag that was recovered from his boot. I wiped my tears and took the time to actually look at this dog tag. It was shiny, very shiny. Anger filled my heart again. Why had they cleaned it and shined it?! I wanted it just as it was when he died. I didn’t want his blood wiped off of it. I didn’t want it clean. I wanted it with the blood and dirt and burn marks that it had endured in the blast that killed my husband. That dog tag rested on my husband’s foot as he died. I held that dog tag to my heart and had no choice but to accept. I forced myself to regain my composure. I walked out of that room with a lot of questions though. What happened to Javi’s dog tags that he wore around his neck? Had they hurt him that badly that they couldn’t recover anything else? His wedding ring…it was gone. The symbol of our love, our marriage vows, our devotion to each other, remained lost in a land that held nothing but hostility for him. The symbol of marriage vows remained in a land that hurt him, killed him, and took him from me forever. That ring, that was a symbol of our love, was lost in a country that I hate, never to be seen again. My heart hurt…it still hurts. I will never, ever be able to find any peace or acceptance in that.
I forced myself to regain my composure and went back out to greet people. I felt sick and weak. My feet hurt, my head hurt, my heart hurt. At around 5:30 PM, all the family went down to the basement of the church and ate dinner. It was the first meal I had really eaten since we had arrived in Rochester. It felt good to be able to eat something. When I was finished eating, I headed back upstairs and ran into Glory on my way up. She told me to go touch up my make-up because the funeral would be starting soon. I remember going up to the restroom, looking at myself in the mirror, and thinking to myself, “Wow! I can’t believe my mascara has held up all day. I must write a thank you letter to Maybeline!” I touched up my eye-liner, reapplied a coat of mascara, put on some lip gloss, readjusted my hair pins, and cleaned my glasses. I looked at myself and told myself, “You can do this. Do it for Javi. Make him proud!” I said a quick prayer and headed back down.
When I walked into the church, it was packed. There were hundreds of people there. The very front row was reserved for the immediate family. Glory sat next to me. She held my hand. The service was a traditional Catholic service. There were many beautiful words said about Javier. Orlando read the letter that was read at the memorial in Jacksonville, and I read my response. Glory spoke. She told everyone how proud she was of Javi, how much she loved him, and she publicly pronounced her love for Me and the kids. She also asked the congregation to pray for the safe return of all of Javi’s platoon. Lourdes spoke as well. She told everyone what a great cousin Javi was and how he saved our lives from a jelly fish attack. She also explained to everyone that Javi was a self proclaimed king. Our friend, SSgt. Marques Farmer then spoke about Javi. He told everyone that Javi was the hardest working man he had ever met. He said Javi put his heart into everything he did. He then read the poem, “The Final Inspection”. SSgt. Sean Salome spoke about what a great friend Javi was. He said he was proud of him. He even told the congregation about the many nights he stayed on our couch, and how he was sure I hated him. It made us laugh. Although sadness and sorrow could be felt all around, there were moments of laughter.
The service proceeded with the traditional Catholic rituals. Once communion had been taken, the priest announced that, at my request, Javier’s favorite song would be played for everyone to hear. “Trading My Sorrows” came over the speakers. To be honest, it felt bizarre to have this song played in such a devoutly Catholic congregation. For the first minute of the song, everyone sat there and listened. I took in the words and let them touch my heart. Before I knew it, I could hear clapping. The Catholic priests were clapping too! Then, without hesitation, we ALL stood up and continued clapping. It was a moment I will never forget. I looked back to take it all in. I thought to myself, “Only Javier could get a devoutly Catholic congregation to stand up and worship in a very non-denominational way such as this.” It made me smile.
When the song was over, the white veil that had been covering the casket was removed. I had not seen the bare casket. There had always been a flag or the veil over it. It was a feeling that caught me completely by surprise. As soon as I saw the casket bare like this, I lost it. The choir was singing, so my sobs weren’t so noticeable. Mama approached the casket first. She laid her head on it and sobbed. Me, Papa, Orlando, and Glory all approached the casket as well. We kissed it and cried. I leaned my upper body over it, put my forehead over the top of the casket and kissed it over and over again. I wept. I didn’t want to let it go. Orlando and Glory had to come and gently pull me away. As I walked back to my seat, I noticed that our daughter, Alyssa, had approached the casket and was leaned over it sobbing. She had a tight grip on it, and would not let go. I was surprised. She had not approached the casket much since it had arrived. It broke my heart into a million pieces to see her in so much pain. I wanted to approach her and comfort her, but I could not physically move my feet. I felt beyond weak. I felt as though I was going to faint. One of the priests had to hold me up. Orlando and Glory comforted Alyssa and gently helped her to walk back to her seat. In that moment, I realized how much my daughter was truly hurting. She was a mess. I felt helpless. I closed my eyes and prayed. I demanded that God comfort her. I asked God to take her pain and let me feel it, let me take all the pain for her.
The Marines then took the stage and presented me and Javier’s parents with the Purple Heart that Javier had earned for the wounds he’d received in action. I was having a very hard time maintaining my composure. The priest that was standing next to me, told Orlando he would need to come hold me up because he was afraid I was going to faint. Orlando had to hold me up as I accepted the Purple Heart. I looked across the pews and saw that Papa was not doing good at all. He looked like he was on the verge of a heart attack. Glory walked over to him and helped him sit down. She stayed by his side and comforted him. Mama, Papa, and I were a mess.
Since Javi was going to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the decision was made that flags would be presented, a 21 gun salute would be done, and Taps would be played for all those who would not be able to make it to the burial. So, after the Purple Heart was presented to Javi’s parents and I, the flag that had been draped over Javi’s casket was folded neatly into a triangle. It was then handed to The Captain. He walked toward me. As soon as he stood in front of me with the flag in his hands, I let out a very loud sob. The same man that looked me in the eyes and told me that my husband was dead, was now standing in front of me ready to present me with a flag. I attempted to look him in the eyes, except that this time, he couldn’t look at me. He looked up and fought back tears. He struggled as he said, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and Corps.” I could not hold back the tears or remain composed. I sobbed very loudly. He handed me that flag and I continued to cry. I held it up against my chest and gripped it tightly. It hurt my heart to hold that flag. That flag represented everything that I never wanted for Javier, myself, or the kids. That flag had been draped over the transfer case that he first arrived in at Dover. It had been draped over his casket every moment since. That flag…that American flag represented heartache, disappointment, broken dreams…death. I was overwhelmed with sorrow. I wanted to fall apart and die of a broken heart. I didn’t have a moment to regain composure. The 21 gun salute was done and was immediately followed by the playing of Taps. I felt as though I was living pure hell on earth. I wanted to be in that casket with Javi and die with him. Reality was slapping me, yet again and each time it did, the blows felt harder than before. Orlando had been holding me up so that I didn’t fall because my legs felt physically weak, but the casket was now being moved out to be put in the hearse. I told him I was ok to walk on my own.
I held that flag tightly to my chest and walked directly behind my husband’s casket as it was carried out of the church. When we were outside, I heard the church bells ringing, but what caught me completely by surprise was that the street was solemnly quiet. The street had been blocked off and there were police cars lining the streets with their lights on. Patriot Guard riders had been standing outside in the bitter, bitter cold holding American flags in Javier’s honor. It was a sight to remember. Javier was being recognized like the hero that he was and is in every way, shape, and form. The city of Rochester, NY went all out to show him honor and respect. As I stood there and took it all in, I could hear Javi’s voice echo in mind saying, “I the king…”. He had proclaimed himself the king of our house, he was the king of my heart, but he was truly being honored and given a funeral fit for a king. I couldn’t help but smile.
As Javi’s casket was put into the hearse, our son, Andrew attempted to follow it. Glory held him back. She held him in her arms and told him, “You can’t go with him. Wave bye to Papi, Andrew.” My son, watched as his father’s casket was put into the hearse, and he waved goodbye. Again, my heart broke, not only because my husband was dead, but my heart ached and broke for my kids. Every bit of this was unfair.
We stood in the street until the hearse could no longer be seen. I walked back into the church feeling defeated. I had never felt more sad in my entire life. I had relied on God for my strength, and even though I had moments of extreme weakness that day, the fact that I was still standing, the fact that I was able to smile when I was asked to take a picture was living proof that God was still by my side.
That night, I laid down in bed and held the flag that was presented to me tightly to my chest. The next day would be Thanksgiving. I kept thinking to myself, “What in the world do I have to be grateful for?!” As I closed my eyes, I thanked God for the strength he had given me to endure such a hard day. I pleaded with God to give me strength to endure the days ahead, as we waited for the burial in Arlington, and last, for the first time since Javier had died, I begged God to give me a sign that Javi was with me.
I pleaded for something that would give me hope. I ended my prayer and as I laid there with my eyes closed, I thought about Javi and how much I missed him. I hadn’t heard his voice in nine days. I thought about how he would always blow me a kiss over the phone. My heart ached. I wanted a kiss from my husband, even if it was in my dreams. As I laid in bed, with the flag clutched tightly to my chest, I began to drift off to sleep as I begged God to send me a kiss from my husband. In those moments in between awake and asleep, I felt a kiss on my cheek and I heard Glory say, “I love you.” Some may call it coincidence, some may say it’s crazy, but as for me, I believe that kiss was an answered prayer…a kiss given to me from Javi, through his sister, Glory. And not only did God and Javi use Glory to give me the kiss I desperately wanted and needed…they also used Glory to tell me they love me. I fell into a deep and peaceful sleep for the first time since November 16th. I needed rest, Javier’s burial was still ahead of us. Although it seemed as though my heartache had been going on forever, the heartache was truly just beginning…