Just before she fell asleep, she realized that those were the words she had been searching for. She was filled with joy . . . pure, undiluted, uninhibited, unspoiled joy. There was simply no better word to describe the culmination of the past few days. Now, lying here in the dark, in the loving arms of her husband, she felt her unborn child kick inside her as the man she loved breathed softly on her neck while he slept quietly, the three of them entwined. And she knew that she would always remember this as the sweetest, most joyful day of her life.
The past five days were just a bad nightmare now.
When she responded to the doorbell and saw the two men standing on the front step, she instantly knew that they did not belong there. It was a mistake. A terrible mistake. If Jeff had been killed, she would have known. Because of the strong connection they shared, she would have sensed the moment that his spirit left his body. She tried to explain that to the officer and chaplain who came to her house that Sunday morning to deliver the news. When she refused to believe them, they asked who they could call to come and be with her. So she gave them her parents’ telephone number, and they arrived at the house just a few minutes later.
For the next five days, she went through the motions, doing what was expected of her. She finally gave up trying to tell her parents, Jeff’s parents, who had arrived from their home in New Hampshire, her friends . . . no one would listen to her. They just put their arms around her, tried to convince her that she was in shock, and suggested that she rest. “Honey, you have to focus on the baby now,” her mother told her gently.
The kitchen was full of food, but she couldn’t bring herself to eat any of it. When other wives from the base stopped by to express their condolences, she saw the mixture of fear and relief in their eyes. She understood exactly how they felt, and why. But she did not need their pity. Jeff was not dead. She knew that. And soon enough, so would everyone else.
She had not cried. She would not cry. She would simply wait until the Army discovered its mistake, and sent the polite officer and chaplain back to the house to offer sheepish apologies. Jeff wasn’t answering emails or his cell phone because he was dispatched to a remote area of Afghanistan where there was no connection or reception, she told herself. When he returned to his base camp, he would find all the frantic emails and voice mail messages, and call to assure her and the rest of his family that he was indeed fine.
So when her parents and Jeff’s urged her to plan a memorial service, she complied, but the effort was only half-hearted because she, unlike them, knew the truth.
Which made this day — this glorious, joyous day — even sweeter and more satisfying. When the doorbell rang, she assumed it was simply another delivery person bringing more flowers or food. Too weary from it all, she allowed Jeff’s mother to answer the door, but was not prepared for her mother-in-law’s screams. When she ran to the living room and saw Jeff standing there hugging his incredulous mother, she was overcome by feelings of relief, vindication, and the joy she now found herself attempting to put into words. The tears came, but they were not the tears of grief and loss her family and Jeff’s had been watching for.
Realizing its mistake, the Army had immediately terminated Jeff’s deployment and sent him back to the States to spend time with his family. His commanding officer informed him that his family would be notified of the error, apologize for the agonizing pain they had needlessly suffered, and apprise them of his scheduled arrival time. But Jeff begged his commander to allow him to arrive unannounced, arguing that the magnitude of the Army’s mistake must surely entitle him — and his family — to handle the situation in the manner he requested. After several torturous hours, his commander finally reported that his superiors had reluctantly agreed.
And now, after the day-long celebration, they were finally alone. Exhausted, Jeff slept peacefully, but for her, sleep would not yet come. She was thinking about their child and how she would describe this incredible day for him or her when she relayed the story. She determined to write in her pregnancy journal first thing in the morning, tears of happiness softly running down her cheeks and onto her pillow as she snuggled even closer to Jeff and softly whispered the words “pure joy, baby. That’s what you give me. Pure joy,” as she finally dozed off.
The sun was just beginning to creep into her bedroom when she awoke. She had slept soundly and peacefully. So still, in fact, that she had barely moved all night and was still lying on her left side, as she had been when she finally drifted off. She lay there for a few moments, her eyes closed before rolling over onto her back and instinctively reaching out with her right hand for Jeff. He wasn’t there, but it was no cause for alarm. Even having just returned from overseas, Jeff would be up at or before dawn for his morning run. Jogging was like a religion for him and he ran first thing every morning, rain or shine.
She continued relaxing there for a few more minutes, enjoying the quiet and feeling the baby begin stirring within her. A few moments passed before she realized that something was not quite right. She turned her head to the right and finally looked at the other side of the bed. The blankets and sheet were pulled up over the pillow. It appeared that only one side of the bed had been turned down the night before. Jeff had obviously tidied up his side of the bed before going out.
And then she saw it. The black dress was hanging on the door frame of the closet, just where her mother had put it the day before.
Panicked, she sat up suddenly, rubbed her eyes, and put her head in her hands, elbows on her knees, trying to remember why there was a dress she had never worn hanging on her closet.
She turned back to her left then, toward her nightstand. There, right where she had placed them yesterday, was the small black volume — the New Testament — the Army chaplain had left with her when he came with the other officer to notify her of Jeff’s fate. And on top of it lay the gold chain onto which she had slipped Jeff’s wedding band when the funeral home director gave it, along with a small bag of his other belongings, to her during her meeting with him in his office. She had demanded to see Jeff, but the funeral director assured her that would be a mistake, nodding his head “no” at her parents and in-laws in search of support for his refusal.
And then she heard the scream. It sounded as though it came from far, far away and was a mournful, plaintive cry born of previously unreleased pain. It startled her, but she was unable to react because, before she knew it, her mother and mother-in-law were both in the room with her, one on each side of the bed wrapping her in their arms and softly repeating, “O.k., baby, let it out . . . let it go . . . ”
At that moment, she remembered it all in painstaking detail. And began the long, agonizing journey of acceptance and mourning. The pure joy she had wanted to memorialize in her pregnancy journal for Jeff’s unborn son or daughter was but a dream.
The story of Lance Corporals Mark D. Juarez and Mark A. Juarez, both of whom served their country with honor.