Beach widows: War, death and the battles of those left behind

I remember when the headstone finally arrived. I could see it from the street as I pulled into the cemetery, a grey rectangle above a patch of red clay.

My chest tightened as I walked up to his grave, the tiny American flags I had placed around it months before waving in the wind.

I sat next to the grave and watched ants march into a hole I imagined led straight to my husband. It made me think of disappearing, of his lifeless body, of the time that had passed since I buried him, and of the effect time has on bodies. I winced.

I began reading the words etched in granite, the same ones I struggled to write on the headstone paperwork months before. His first name, his middle name, his last, a sigh of relief. And then, my relief turned to disappointment. “Persian Gulf”, it read instead of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. His Purple Heart had not been mentioned, either. I was devastated.

Neglect, I believe, is what killed my husband, and he was continuing to be neglected even after his death.

The bomb and the pain meds
My husband was born to a hardworking family, a pull your bootstraps up family, a God-fearing family.

His mama worked at Dollar General for as long as he could remember and loved him, her firstborn, more than anything in the world. His daddy was a truck driver and gone a lot to make ends meet. A quiet and kind man, he liked to remind us all how proud he was of his oldest son.

It is true that my husband, one of four children, was proud to join the Marine Corps after high school. It gave him purpose – great pride, even – to serve his country. But it is also true that, born poor, he was not given many options in life. The military had insurance, scholarships, decent pay, a steady home – things he was not used to having. The Marine Corps made sense for him.

Three years before he would sign his life away, the United States went to war with Afghanistan. And a year after that, he would go to war in Iraq. A bomb took his leg on his second deployment. The pain meds took his life. He was 25 years old when his body was found.

The headstone
I am unsure why I ever felt attached to that headstone. I remember the nerve it took to fill out the proper paperwork to get the headstone in the first place. I was 24, and the first question on the form read: “NAME OF DECEASED TO BE INSCRIBED ON HEADSTONE OR MARKER.”

I imagined my husband’s name, 22 symbols that formed three words meant to represent him. I imagined his face when I first met him, a 13-year-old boy born and raised in the same small town his daddy was, a gap-toothed smile, a Southpark t-shirt with one of the cartoon’s main characters, Cartman, on the front and the words “I’m Not Fat, I’m Big Boned!”

I wrote his name on the line, and it was official. He was dead. I was a widow.

Maybe I had been attached to the headstone before it even arrived. It took months if I remember correctly, and it felt like torture.

Day after day I visited only to find a blank grave. It looked so unloved. I hated myself for not filling out the paperwork sooner.

He had been buried for months before I had gathered enough nerve to even print it out. Then I had to read the questions. Then answer them. Then find a fax machine. Fax it. I could hardly feed myself after planning his funeral and burying him. It was all too much.

So when the paperwork was finally sent, it felt like a major accomplishment, something I could be proud of. I returned home, drew a bath, cried in it until the water went cold.

Maybe it is that his name was so permanently scrawled into stone, and that means something somehow. Doesn’t it? His name, a cluster of words that hardly exist in the world any more, exist so permanently on this otherwise meaningless artefact and somehow, somehow, somehow it brings him into existence again, too. Maybe? I know its weight like I know his hands on my cheeks before he would kiss me. I know the coolness of its stone-like I knew the warmth of his skin. The bright grey, the hard edges, his prominent nose, his deep, brown eyes. They are connected somehow.

The widows
I had to fill out the same damned paperwork I dreaded doing the first time. Print. Read. Answer. Fax. Wait. It was even more excruciating the second time, my sadness and dread now met with rage. Again, it took months for the new headstone to arrive.

I visited him as often as I could, each time hoping to find a new stone with the correct war on it. But then, when it finally arrived, there was no moment of relief, because the new error was immediately obvious: It had been placed at the foot of his grave, the original one still at the head. Now, he looked unloved, I thought.

I thought about the senseless war that led us here, about every doctor that ignored me when I said I thought he might be addicted to the pain medications they had prescribed him, about finally being told about his death almost 24 hours after they found his body.

Distressed or enraged or somewhere in between, I called the only two people I was certain would get it, Tara and Kristin, whose names I have changed for privacy.

I had met them on a retreat for military widows only months after my husband died. I had just turned 25, and they were both years younger.

We all went to New Orleans with a nonprofit called The American Widow Project. It was a “give back retreat” where we helped rebuild a house that had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. We put up drywall, we painted, we sanded and scraped, whatever we could with the limited carpentry knowledge we had.

We were very young women who had experienced great loss in a city that had experienced so much more of it. In New Orleans, I learned that helping others and finding a community are powerful when navigating immense sadness. We were there to rebuild a home for a stranger but, in the process, we also built bonds that would help us survive our own grief.

Though the widows in the group were from all over the country, Tara, Kristin, and I lived within an hour of each other so we not only stayed in contact but became very close. We gave ourselves a name – the beach widows – for our proximity to the Gulf Coast.

My husband’s honour
I felt nobody understood me like they did and nobody ever would. We shared something sacred: An understanding of the world that most would not learn until they were aged or, at least, until their brains were fully developed. We had buried our beloveds. We had had to say final goodbyes to our most important people then learn to navigate the majority of our lives without them.

“I need your help,” I told the beach widows. When I explained the problem with the dual headstones, they met my sadness and rage with their own and I suddenly felt powerful.

We would be like Valkyrie in the night sent by Odin to protect warriors and guide the worthy slain to Valhalla. If nobody else would protect my husband’s honour, if nobody else would fight for his peaceful rest, we would. “When are we gonna do this?” they said.

I arrived at the cemetery early. I wanted to spend some time alone with my husband. We took shots: One for me, then one poured over his grave.

An older woman walked by and nodded with a stiff smile. I watched her and wondered if she was there to see her husband, too, but instead of stopping at a grave, she just walked slowly along each row of them, reading about the people buried there. By the time the beach widows arrived, the woman was gone. Tara swung open her car door. “I have wine,” she said and I popped open my boot.

Trust and control
We sat around his grave, sipping Cabernet from red Solo cups, waiting for night to fall. We watched the sun set behind the pines, watched the pines transform from their familiar three-dimensional forms into smooth, black silhouettes, into ghosts. When only a glow was left on the horizon and we were certain it was dark enough that people driving by could not see us from the road, we got on all fours and felt around the gritty dirt for the bottom edges of the headstone. It was deeper than it looked and the dry clay proved difficult to penetrate with bare fingers.

“I should’ve brought a shovel,” I said, certain we had been defeated.

Tara, without flinching, pulled a wine bottle opener out of her back pocket as if she had done this before, as if this was exactly why she had brought it.

“Screw this,” she said, plunging the metal into the clay, removing one tiny shovel-full at a time – pieces of chestnut hair sticking to the sweat of her forehead – until we were able to fit our fingers underneath.

“On three,” I said. The widows nodded, then: “One, two, lift!”

It took all three of us to carry the headstone to my car. As usual, it was a mess, especially my boot, so I had had to push aside shoes and bills and purses and beach gear to make room. We stared at the headstone, our hands on our hips, Kid Cudi’s Day ‘N Nite playing so loud my car vibrated to the beat.

Seeing the block of stone with my husband’s name on it inside the boot of my car surrounded by so many of my ridiculous things felt wrong as if we had thrown his body back there. But it also felt powerful. For the first time after my husband’s death, I felt like I had gained some control over my grief.

Not only that, but I had trusted these women and they did not disappoint. I had been let down so many times that I was not sure I could trust anyone. I had felt alone for so long. I realised that night that I had just needed to find the right people. With the beach widows, I was not alone.

Widow humour
I carried the headstone with me for six years. I could not imagine it alone in a rubbish bin, alone in the woods, alone as I imagined him in that hole in the ground.

Instead, it stayed in my home, usually on the back porch next to a couple of plastic chairs the last owner of the place had left behind.

I made sure to keep it somewhere visible. I liked the weirdness of it. It made me feel safe, like admitting a flaw before someone calls you out on it.

When the beach widows came over, we would take turns making jokes about what I could do with it.

“I think it would make a great coffee table,” Kristin offered once. “I mean, what a conversation starter.”

“I say put it at your front door. F**k welcome mats. It’ll scare away the people you don’t like anyway,” Tara said. “It’s perfect.”

We all laughed. We called this “widow humour” and we mostly kept it to ourselves, only using it on others when we wanted them to feel uncomfortable or leave us alone.

It is true, too, that the headstone made me feel more normal. For so long, grief ran my life. I could hardly drive without having to pull over so the tears could dry up.

Everything reminded me of my husband, and sometimes the sadness was so vast I felt lost in it, like floating in infinite space, flailing for something solid to hold onto only there was nothing.

Everyone continued living their lives after his death, the Earth continued to orbit the sun, and I was stuck in a world of suffering and sadness.

Seeing that headstone weighted to the ground like an anchor, reminded me that my suffering was real. My husband did die. I did have a reason to be sad. It made me feel grounded, so I held onto it.

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