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‘The Letter’: Pat Tillman's wife opens up about her loss

In "The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss & Life," Marie Tillman discusses her heartbreaking story of love and bereavement in the wake of the death of her husband. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In "The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss & Life," Marie Tillman discusses her heartbreaking story of love and bereavement in the wake of the death of her husband. Here's an excerpt.

I leaned back in my office chair, staring at the account board and talking to my coworker Jessica about the day’s business. We worked together at a consulting firm in downtown Seattle. At the end of every day, Jess and I would catch up and compare notes about clients and current projects. I liked her. She had a quick wit and a foul mouth—not to mention two perfectly placed tattoos: the first, about the size of a quarter, a series of concentric circles on the inside of her left wrist; the second, a row of alienlike dots that crawled up her spine, just high enough to peek out from behind a dress shirt collar. Jess was edgy but lighthearted, and made working in a somewhat uptight corporate office more enjoyable. After almost a year of working together, we had become close friends.

We sat there contemplating the idea of getting a drink downstairs to wait out the rush hour traffic, as we had done many nights before. Jess’s drink of choice, Corona, no fruit; mine, a glass of red wine. The receptionist Ted suddenly leaned into my workspace. He looked at me and then let his eyes fall to the ground. It’s an image I’ll never forget—that pause as he looked for words.

“Um, Marie?” he said. “There are some people here to see you in the conference room . . . up front.”

I didn’t ask him who they were. I somehow knew. Ted was a big teddy bear of a guy who served as our gatekeeper, screening calls, protecting us. But this time I wanted to protect him. I didn’t want him to have to tell me; I wanted to spare him. Or maybe I was trying to spare myself, give myself a few more moments before the inevitable. There was something in his voice and body language, or something waiting in the fear that is with you constantly when your loved one is in a war zone.

A chaplain and three soldiers in full dress Army uniforms were standing in the conference room when I entered. They did not have to say a word. I knew instantly that Pat had been killed. They had prepared us for this at the Family Readiness meeting a few months back. Class A dress uniform—killed. BDU, or battle dress uniform— injured. My mind registered their appearance.

Class A.

“We’re sorry to inform you . . .” The words had no logical place to go in my head and ricocheted somewhere between hearing and understanding. The men stared straight at me, watching for my reaction—ready to catch me, I suppose. The chaplain pressed forward and took my hand. He started to pray but I cut him off. I needed to think, not pray.

Call. Call. I had to call my parents. I went over to the phone and dialed their number. My mom answered and I gave her the news. I shocked myself by how direct the words came out. There was no easy way to say it; the world as I knew it had ended. Pat was dead. Mom took it in for a few seconds.

“We’re on our way,” she said, and simply hung up. I knew this would be her response. I didn’t have to ask; I knew they would drop everything and come. That’s why I called her.

I walked back to my desk in the stone-cold numbness of emotional shock. I picked up my purse and avoided eye contact with any of my coworkers. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I needed to get out of there.

Without saying much, the chaplain took my keys and got in the driver’s seat while I walked to the passenger side. The soldiers walked to their cars to follow us home. They were all professionals. They had done this before.

As the chaplain drove, I stared out the car window, watching the scenery without seeing anything. It had been less than three weeks since Pat left for Afghanistan. As an Army spouse, you’re given a rough idea of when deployments will happen, but the exact dates are never set in stone, and the schedule often changes. I had taken the day before Pat left off of work, expecting him to deploy that evening, but things got pushed and Pat and his brother Kevin, who had enlisted at the same time and lived with us, were headed out the following night. I had taken a lot of time off work and remembered thinking I couldn’t reasonably take another day. Since they’d be leaving in the evening, it seemed sensible to go in to work for a few hours and come back in the late afternoon to see them off. Pat always tried to maintain a sense of calm before he left, never giving any indication that he might not come back or that our time together was limited. I woke up that morning and got in the shower, readying myself for a day of work. Once in the shower, I panicked. I didn’t want to leave. What was I thinking? I didn’t really care about this job. I couldn’t leave Pat. So I called in sick and crawled back into bed, hair still moist. I woke Pat up as I snuggled back in, and he put his arms around me. He noticed my wet hair.

“What are you doing?” he asked sleepily.

“I’m not going in to work.”

“Good,” he said, and we went back to sleep for another couple of hours.

Now I closed my eyes as the chaplain drove the car south, from downtown Seattle to the little cottage Pat, Kevin, and I had rented in University Place. Snug on a hill overlooking the water of the Tacoma Narrows, it had been the perfect retreat between their training missions and deployments—a short drive from Fort Lewis but a world away.

The regulation twenty-four-hour cushion between notifying the family and releasing the information to the press had broken down, the officers had warned me. News of Pat’s death had already leaked. I couldn’t let his parents hear it first on TV or radio. I had to get in touch with them. I also didn’t want Pat’s mom, Dannie, to be alone when I broke the news. So with the chaplain driving, I made calls to family in the hopes that someone could get to Dannie’s house and call me from there.

Just as I got home, my phone rang. I froze, looking at the caller ID. It was Dannie. This wasn’t the plan; I knew no one was with her yet. I picked up and said hello. She was hesitant on the other end. “Marie, is everything okay?” No matter how hard my brain tried, my mouth wouldn’t form the words. My throat closed up and refused to cooperate. Finally I just blurted out the words “He’s dead.” It was too harsh, but there was no gentle way to tell her. For a moment there was silence. The phone dropped to the ground and from a muffled, helpless distance I heard the shock of the news I had delivered play out. The most agonizing scream from deep inside drew out Dannie’s next-door neighbors and I listened, unable to hang up, as Syd and Peggy rushed to console her. Finally Syd picked up the phone and assured me he would stay there with her. The worst part of my day was over.

I was still on automatic. I inherited my mother’s blue eyes, fair skin, and long fingers, but from my father I gained the ability to maintain calm in a crisis. In my family, my dad was the chief master of levelheadedness; my sister came in a close second; then I took third. You would think we’d get our cool nature from my mother’s Swedish ancestors, not my father’s Italian, but sometimes cultures get confused. When a situation becomes increasingly emotional or tumultuous, for some reason I become increasingly calm.

More men in uniform started to fill the house. I didn’t recognize any of the faces until finally Jess and another work friend, Megan, walked in.

Jessica and Megan were the two closest friends I had made in Seattle. The wives of the other soldiers were quite a bit younger than me, as Pat had been a much older enlistee than most. I found much more in common with coworkers, like Jess and Megan, and I was grateful on that day that I had them there with me.

Megan walked up and gave me a big hug. Without  saying a word, she took charge of the houseful of soldiers.

So many men were in our house that night, talking in hushed tones, their boots echoing off the hardwood floors. I didn’t know any of them. Whenever they spoke to me, I just stared at their mouths, trying to decipher their words—jumbled streams that made no sense. I played my role, nodding and agreeing.

The strangers shifted uncomfortably, looking around at photos on the walls and books on the shelves, aware they were uninvited guests in our home. Our sacred space, so carefully constructed and protected, was being invaded. I felt like the walls were coming in on me. I wanted to scream at them. I needed to leave.

It was late April but the night air still held its winter bite. I was dressed in a thin black sweater and pants, and the chill slapped my cheeks, making me conscious of the moment for the first time. The last several hours had been a blur of logistics and phone calls. Finally there was nothing left to do but wait. Jess sat down on the front porch and stretched her long legs on the stairs. She pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered me one. I wasn’t ordinarily a smoker but this was no ordinary day. I took one from the crumpled pack and tried to steady my shaking hand as I lit it. I sat down next to her, and in silence we watched our smoke drift up into the trees and twilight.

We looked over the watery narrows between the Tacoma mainland and Fox Island. Pat and I loved our cottage’s location because the light on the water shifted through the morning, afternoon, and evening. It looked like a series of Monet paintings.

As the sky darkened, the islands and the Olympic Peninsula became purple cutouts against a red-stained sky. Passing boats left dark-ribbed wakes and silver trails.

The silhouetted spruce trees around us merged with the purple-and-charcoal evening.

It seemed like Jess and I had been sitting there for only a moment when I heard the rumble of a car turning into the drive. My parents and my sister, Christine, had arrived. Back in San Jose, they had scrambled to pack their bags, make arrangements for my sister’s kids, and rush to the airport for the flight up the rugged coast. Now here they were. I hadn’t even spoken to my sister that day yet wasn’t surprised at all to see her arrive with my parents. Of course she would come, and of course I’d known she would. She put her arms around me and did not let go. Mom and Dad followed. The thing I remember most about their arrival was that almost no words were spoken. There was no need. Their mere presence had a way of putting me at ease.

With my family there, the soldiers’ job was done. They could leave knowing I was in good hands. They filed one by one out into the night.

Then it was quiet.

I took in the silence for a few moments, staring at the door, which had finally closed for the evening. My parents settled into the second bedroom—the room used between deployments by Kevin, who would soon be rushing home from Afghanistan. My sister fell asleep on the couch. I went to my room, finally alone—deeply, finally alone.

I recounted the events of the day but could not put them into any logical sequence. Everything was still unreal. Things I had heard or seen but hadn’t registered were coming back to me now that I was able to reflect quietly. Had the officers in the conference room really told me that Pat had been shot in the head or had I imagined that?

I still was trying too hard to function, to be logical, to cope. I had not broken yet. I hadn’t even cried.

Wrapped in a thick comforter in our bed, I lay awake, curled on my side, staring at the wall. A small crack in the blinds let in a faint beam of light from the streetlamp below, and Mc, our orange-and-white tabby, flopped up on the bed, looking for a warm place to sleep. He circled himself twice, then nestled into the crook behind my knees and began kneading the blanket and purring softly. If I closed my eyes, I could pretend it was like any other night, but I couldn’t close my eyes. I was trying to make some sense of anything. I gave up on sleep and switched on the small bedside lamp, which cast a warm glow on the room. I pulled my feet from under the covers, barely disturbing Mc, and quietly went to the dresser across the room.

Under a stack of old receipts and cards, I found the slim white envelope that Pat had set there “just in case.” It had smoldered there for almost a year. He had written it hurriedly during an earlier deployment, in Iraq, in a moment when he had thought he might not come home—a good-bye letter—and placed it on the dresser without ceremony during his break between Iraq and Afghanistan. I had noticed my name written neatly on the envelope and had asked him what it was. When he told me, in an offhand way, I wondered for a moment if I should open it then. After all, he had come back from that deployment. But his enlistment was far from over, and the subject just felt too big even to have a conversation about. So it had remained stashed in a pile without another comment from either of us. But we always knew it was there.

I held the letter in my hands and stared at it. It looked like so many letters I had anxiously awaited from Pat since he had enlisted, but I knew this one was different.

Nothing about the day seemed real except for this letter that I could touch and feel. It was both precious and awful—the last communication I’d ever have with Pat. I sat holding it for many minutes. Then I carefully opened the seal. My breath caught, and I paused another moment with my eyes closed.

I slowly flattened the letter on my lap. It had been so carefully folded. I pictured the slow, childlike way his oversized hands moved when put to a delicate task. It was one of the traits I loved most about him. The imposing exterior masking the most gentle soul. I recognized his familiar scrawl and smiled. I was ready.

I heard his voice as I read silently: “It’s difficult to summarize ten years together, my love for you, my hopes for your future, and pretend to be dead all at the same time . . . I simply can not put all this into words, I’m not ready, willing or able.”

The words turned my head inside out: If he couldn’t imagine dying, it must mean he was coming back alive. My heart lifted. Crazy logic overwhelmed me.

The page was a mess of ink and scribbles, of words and sentences crossed out. Rather than throw the letter away, he’d saved it, his thought process transparent. I could see his mind wrestling, and even if it wasn’t some perfect piece of prose, I liked it much better this way. Not perfect, but real.

Among the scribbling stood these sudden words:

Through the years I’ve asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask. I ask that you live.

The tears I’d held tightly all day finally found their escape and flowed so fast I couldn’t breathe. I found myself heaving with choking sobs, my body shaking uncontrollably. Like a child, I crawled into the corner, resting my back against the walls of my bedroom to make it stop. I tucked my knees into my chest for comfort, the rest of my body curling itself into a ball. I waited for the sobs to subside but they kept coming. I didn’t want a world without Pat. I just wanted him back.

I ask that you live.” His words burned in my head as I read them again. How could he ask this? I wondered. I don’t want to live. I want to die, I can’t do it without you, you know that, you’re the strong one, not me! I silently pleaded with him just to come back.

He knew what he was doing when he wrote those words. He knew that my instinct would be to give up, that sometimes I needed a gentle or not so gentle push. He had challenged and pushed me over the course of our relationship, seen strength in me when I sometimes didn’t see it myself.

I both cursed and thanked him, and in the end he won. As I sat huddled in the corner of my room, knees at my chin, sweatpants soaked in tears, I gave him this last request. I promised to live. I knew it would be the most difficult thing I would ever agree to do.

It was many years before I realized this final request was a gift.

Excerpted from The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss & Life by Marie Tillman. Copyright © 2012 by Marie Tillman. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.