On Wednesday, November 24, 2010, my husband’s funeral service was held in Rochester, NY. I woke up the next day feeling exhausted and with too many emotions to make sense of any of them. It was Thanksgiving Day, and I was not feeling the least bit grateful. I woke up angry. I hated my circumstances. Although it had only been one week and two days since my husband had been killed in Afghanistan, I felt like I had been going through the heartache of this nightmare forever. And although I kept getting slapped with reality at every turn, every day I woke up and my very first thoughts were, “Is this really happening? Did he really die?” I still could not comprehend how Javi could be dead. The fact that I would not be hearing my husband’s voice for Thanksgiving was something I could not fathom. The thought of him being dead was a thought that didn’t fit in my head. As I lay there, alone with my thoughts, I heard my kid’s voices. Orlando was playing with them. I could hear them giggling. The sound of their laughter was comforting. I couldn’t believe that after all they had been through in the past week, they were still able to laugh. For this I was grateful.
I then began to think about everything Monica, Orlando, Nene, Glory, Benji, Nicole, Marques, and so many others were doing for me and the kids. I was grateful for this as well. That led me to start thinking about all the people in Rochester, Jacksonville, and around the country that were praying for us. I was grateful for their prayers. Thinking about everyone’s prayers made me think about the power of prayer. It made me realize that God was listening. I thought about everything that we had been through in just one week. The fact that I hadn’t lost my mind, hadn’t had a nervous break down, or killed myself yet was living proof of God’s answered prayers. Not only had God heard and answered everyone’s prayers, he went above and beyond for me. He not only gave me the strength to endure every difficult moment, he helped me carry myself with dignity and grace. It was in these moments that I realized that although I had a lot to be sad about, I still had stuff to be grateful for. I chose to hold onto every blessing and forced myself to have an attitude of gratitude. I got up and faced the day. Although we were all in mourning and we were all extremely sad, as a family, we did the best that we could to make it a good Thanksgiving. Javier’s aunts still cooked Thanksgiving dinner and we spent it together.
By this point, Arlington National Cemetery had already given us a burial date of December 2nd. That seemed so far away. What would I do with myself while I waited? Since Tuesday, November 16th, I had been living in a whirlwind of events. I hadn’t had a chance to really take a moment to stop and rest, much less take it all in. These days of waiting for the burial were pure torture. I had nothing but time to sit and think about everything.
I thought a lot about the last conversation I had with my husband. He called me at least four times the day before he died. “Hey Baby!” echoed in my mind. “I love you more!” echoed in my mind. We spoke for 56 minutes the last time we talked. The call did not drop once. We talked about our plans for when he came home. He told me that he missed me, and when I replied with, “I miss you too.” He asked, “Do you? How much?” I had to take a deep breath and swallow tears in order to be able to say, “A lot! Too much. I miss you so much it hurts.” I also thought about the last time I saw him. The days leading up to his deployment kept playing over and over in my head like a movie.
Javi had been given an estimated deployment date of August 25, 2010. At the end of July we made a trip to New York to visit family. Then we took our kids to Disney World. Then, Javi’s family came to visit us in Jacksonville. Everyone booked their flights to go back to New York on August 26th in hopes of being able to be there when he left. Although I was grateful for the time spent with family, all the traveling and having visitors was exhausting and overwhelming. I felt as though I was sharing my husband with his marines, his family, our kids, his friends, and everyone else. I wanted just a moment with him, where I could have him all to myself. I think God listened to the prayers in my heart. Javi’s flight was pushed to September 2nd. It truly made me sad that his family wouldn’t be there to see him off, but I was grateful to have been given another week with him.
I had hopes that we would be able to spend quality time together. No such luck. Javier was very busy making sure that his platoon was ready for the deployment. He would go over rosters with his Marines names over and over again, making sure they had everything they needed. He would text and call Lt. Jason non-stop. He would email SSgt. Reyes, who was already in Afghanistan to ask him questions about the conditions out there. And every time Reyes would reply to his emails, Javi would say the same thing…”You see, I can always count on Reyes!” He was also busy getting his gear ready and packing for the deployment. What little time we did spend together, we spent it going to the uniform store, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and numerous other stores buying stuff Javier wanted or needed for his deployment. On September 1st, we went to bed exhausted. Javier was leaving the next day. As we lay in bed, Javi turned to me and said, “I’m so sorry Babe. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to spend with you. One day, these will all be over and we won’t have to worry about deployments anymore. I’m sorry I have to leave you guys like this. If it was up to me, I would never leave.” I choked back tears. I couldn’t speak. So, instead I hugged him really tight.
On the morning of September 2nd, we got up and turned on the news like we always did. There was a hurricane warning for eastern North Carolina. Hurricane Earl was headed our way. Javi was still scheduled to leave. So, he put his sea bags in the car and we drove to the company office. Hundreds of Marines were already there. There were piles and piles of sea bags lined up. Wives, kids, parents, girlfriends, and friends were there to see their Marines off to war. It was a sight that was truly overwhelming. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
While at the company office, I realized how far my husband had advanced in rank since I had first met him. Marines would walk by and acknowledge him by saying, “Aye, Staff Sergeant.” If he asked them to come to him, they did so. He would give them instructions, and they would say, “Yes, Staff Sergeant.” They spoke to him with respect and most of his Marines looked at him with admiration in their eyes. I was extremely proud of him.
We stood around waiting for a few hours. Then, all of a sudden, we got word that flights had been cancelled due to Hurricane Earl. All Marines were being sent home. It was only two o’clock in the afternoon! We were told that Marines had to report back the next day at six in the morning. Javier had the biggest smile on his face. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it. He said, “Let’s go home, Baby.” God heard the prayers in my heart…again.
When we got home, I started cleaning. He told me to stop. He asked me to go sit on the couch with him and watch tv. So, I did. We didn’t do anything except spend time together. I didn’t even cook. He went to pick up pizza. It was a Thursday and Javi was happy he got to watch one more episode of Jersey Shore. Although the weather was ugly outside, Javi and I were relaxed and enjoyed every minute of being together. That night, when we went to sleep, he said, “Ven aca, la Nena de Papi.” I normally would have told him to shut up and stop talking to me like I’m a little girl. This time, I didn’t. I laid my head on his chest. I cried silently. When he asked me why I was crying, I told him I wasn’t. He laughed and said, “I can feel your tears on my chest, Babe.” I couldn’t speak. My heart hurt too much. He said, “I know. I’m going to miss you too, Baby. Don’t cry. It hurts Papi when you cry.” He wiped my tears, like he always did, and told me he loved me. I fell asleep to the sound of his heartbeat.
As much as I didn’t want the next day to come, it came anyway. We woke up very early and got ready to go back to the 1/8 barracks where Javi had to report to. Javi went around the house to every room. When he got to the front door, he looked around and said, “I’ll be back in 7 months.” I watched him as he put his sea bag on his back and walked out of our house. I felt an awful pain in my heart. My heart sank.
We arrived at the barracks and after several hours of waiting, the buses pulled up. First Sergeant Robertson said, “Ok, Marines, say your final goodbyes.” Marines began to say goodbye to their loved ones. Each Marine made himself strong while their loved ones hugged them tightly and cried. I watched closely to see if any Marines were crying. I hadn’t seen any cry yet. I asked myself, “How do they do it?!” Javi started saying goodbye to each of the kids. I felt an unexplainable urge to take pictures as he told them to be good. He told them he would call as much as he could. He said, “Behave, ok? Help Mommy. Don’t forget about Papi! They hugged him. Alyssa cried. Andrew hugged one of his legs, while Anthony hugged his other leg. He hugged them tight and told them he loved them. He then hugged me. And when he did, he buried his face in my neck and began to sob. I was caught off guard. Javier NEVER cried. It was almost unbelievable. He tried to speak, but couldn’t. He was hugging me really tight. The only thing I could think to say was, “We’re gonna be ok, Babe. Don’t worry about us.” Then I told him, “Javier, you have to come back to us. Our family doesn’t work without you. We need you!” I cried as said it. His exact words to me were, “I know, Babe. I will. I promise.” The minute he said it, I got that awful sinking feeling through every part of my heart…again. I put my arms around his neck and hugged him as tight as I could. I didn’t want to let go.
I watched him walk away. As he walked away, he turned back to me and signaled a number two with his fingers. He pointed to the buses. He kept pointing and signaling for me to find bus number two and meet him there. I didn’t want to. I was on the verge of a break down and I didn’t know if I could endure saying another goodbye. I walked with the kids to the buses and found bus number two anyway. He was already there. He was counting his Marines as they were getting on. He looked at me and said, in a low voice, “Ballard and Lt. Jason didn’t have any family come see them off. Give them a hug and tell them you’re gonna pray for them.” I was surprised by my husband’s thoughtfulness. It warmed my heart. As Lance Cpl. Ballard got on the bus, I gave him a hug, told him to stay safe, and told him he was in my prayers. I found Lt. Jason and did the same. Javi looked at me and said in a low voice, “Thank you, Babe.” Javier was the last person on the buses that day. He waited until all his Marines were on the bus before he said another goodbye to us. Alyssa was sobbing. He hugged her tightly and choked back tears as he told her, “Don’t cry, Mami.” He gave each of the kids one more hug and kissed each of them. Then he hugged me and kissed me one last time. As he turned to get on the bus, he told me, “Take good care of my kids. Take good care of my wife. I love you more.” That made me laugh. He smiled at me and got on the bus. I had my camera in my hand. I felt that unexplainable urge to snap a picture of him as he got on the bus. Instantly, I felt that awful sinking feeling in my heart…again. Maybe my heart was beginning to feel what was to come.
In the days that I waited for Javi’s burial, I thought a lot about our life together. We went through a lot together and survived it all. Everything played over and over in my head. I thought about the deployment. I thought about all the letters we sent to each other and all the phone calls. I thought about all the care packages I had sent sent him. Although the thoughts were consuming me alive, and my heart was completely broken, this time gave me the opportunity to reflect on everything. It was in these moments that I came to the realization that I had no regrets. God listened to the prayers in my heart, even when I didn’t have the words to ask. God gave Javi and I the time we needed together before he left. The memories gave me comfort. Knowing that I did everything I could to show him I love him, and I said everything I possibly could have to let him know how I felt about him, gave me the strength to endure the thought of burying the love of my life. There was nothing left unsaid between us.
As the burial date drew nearer, I told myself over and over again, “Only his body is being buried, not my love for him. I never have to bury my love or my memories!” I told myself I was as ready as I possibly could be to face the burial….