Reflections From An Air Force Widow

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This post is not meant to upstage anyone who is struggling this Memorial Day due to the loss of a loved one or with PTSD of lost airmen, soldiers, and sailors. This can be a difficult holiday for so many reasons.

Memorial Day has crept up and taken me by surprise. I do not presume to understand the type of grief that comes with losing a spouse in the line of duty. I do, however, know that I owe most every aspect of my life to Keith’s years as an airman.

Keith passed away just days after seeing patients, soon after becoming the medical director for the Andrews AFB Family Medicine Clinic, and just months before being promoted to Major. The Air Force provided Keith with a safe and challenging environment to sharpen his clinical skills and become the doctor he was always meant to be. I have lost count of the friendships I have made because of our moves with the Air Force and am so grateful for the Air Force family that has taken care of us over the years and continues to care for us now.

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I have been reflecting on the memorial service we had in Connecticut. For the most part, Keith made it easy for me: years ago, after a family funeral, he wrote out exactly what he wanted to happen when it was his turn. The one thing I added was a traditional flag folding ceremony, performed by the Hanscom AFB Honor Guard and passed by several of Keith’s closest military friends. Keith never wanted his role as an Air Force officer to be a part of his identity: the military was a means to an end to pay for medical school and provide for our family. But, as our friend Andrew expressed in his eulogy, Keith exemplified what it means to be part of the Air Force: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in everything. Without meaning to, Keith set a standard for serving as an Air Force doctor; countless doctors, nurses, PAs, and techs have told me as such and the Air Force posthumously awarded him with the Air Force Commendation Medal.

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I hesitate to include all that information for risk of bragging. Keith certainly would have made me take it all out. But it’s an important part of my grief to process our life as a military family.

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Many of you who were not able to attend the memorial service in Connecticut have asked to read my eulogy for that service. I have not known the best way in which to share it and now seems most appropriate.

I may not be observing this Memorial Day as a widow whose husband was killed in action, but I am spending reflecting on the ways that Keith’s role in supporting the mission of the Air Force as a physician has affected many lives, including my own. I am thankful for the gift of time to process and grieve with Keith and the privilege of spending the last months, days, and moments of his life by his side.

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The following is the eulogy I shared with so many of you as we celebrated Keith’s life on February 28, 2015:

It has been an overwhelmingly wonderful experience to be loved on and prayed for by everyone here and others across the country and around the world. I laugh because of the irony that Keith was adamant that he did not have many friends and his insistence that his life had very little impact. As I said at the reception we had in Maryland, he would be mortified by the number of people who truly cared for him.

Many of you here knew Keith as a child, so you would not be surprised to hear that, even as an adult, Keith was feisty. We laughed together a lot and he was one of the only people who could make me laugh so hard I could barely breath. One of the ways we handled the stress of his illness was to laugh together. At some point a couple years ago, I started a Twitter account to keep track of all the crazy and silly things Keith said and did and on the bored, tired, and hard days we would read through them and laugh all over again. At one point, before we even knew how sick he was, Keith was so proud of his “Tweeter” account and he suggested that one day I share some of the tweets at his memorial service.

“I’m in a generation all by myself.”

“If I were a congressman, I’d be part of the hot chocolate party.”

“I’m not obnoxious, I prefer to think of myself as playful.”

“It’s only when I eat broccoli that I open up to people.”

And the tweet that started it all: “Rhianna: a dangerous fish in Brazil.”

I think it was in that moment that he decided he should probably be slightly more aware of pop culture. My favorite of his pop culture faux pas was when we were watching the Bachelorette (a favorite of his because it was the first time that he realized people aren’t always as kind and honorable as he was); the date was taking place at Dollywood and Keith started getting really agitated. He finally asked me why the Dali Lama had his own amusement park and I think we both laughed until we cried as we realized he thought Dolly Parton and the Dali Lama were the same person. He was so unashamed of himself that he was happy to be goofy in order to make me laugh. We laughed together a lot!

One thing I really loved about Keith was his love of family. Extended vacation time was always spent with family and we considered each others’ families our own, not just in-laws. When we were dating, he worked hard to get to know my sister since he knew what it was like to be the younger sibling. The first summer he came to the Jersey shore with my family, he was determined to dig a giant hole in the beach. He ended up getting yelled at by the lifeguards, getting a lobster red sunburn, and gaining the love and admiration of all my cousins. Keith was an incredible dad. He got Caleb’s first laugh and they never stopped laughing together. Keith is still the only person Caleb has said “I love you” to (when anyone else says “I love you,” he responds with “yea”). The last few months of his life, Keith was chiefly concerned that Caleb feel loved, cared for, and that life was “normal.”

I can appreciate that many of you are still in shock over all that has occurred in our lives over the last few months. Keith started feeling sick in October and only got a tentative diagnosis just before Christmas. We had no idea how sick he really was even when he was admitted to Walter Reed. Even still, Keith was committed to handling his illness purposefully.

Keith and I had a lot of “what if Keith’s cancer comes back again” kind of conversations after my dad went to Heaven.  Keith was far enough in remission to be considered cancer-free, but we knew from experience that life and medicine don’t always work in linear and predictable ways. When we realized that Keith was definitely experiencing something more than a simple virus or infection this fall, we had many hard, but important conversations. We talked about the emotional and practical implications of his cancer coming back, how much treatment he would be willing to handle if his prognosis wasn’t good, and, if the worst were to happen, how the kids and I would move forward without him. Taking the time to discuss those things before they were reality took the pressure off of me having to think through decisions before and after Keith’s death.

Upon realizing that he was dealing with an adenocarcinoma that had an extremely poor prognosis (we were hoping for up to a year), we spent a lot of time crying and praying together. This certainly was not how we had pictured life, but we chose not to be in denial so we could savor however many months and years we had together. The number of procedures and testing he underwent became a blessing because it meant many more hours and days spent together than we would have had otherwise. We approached each day asking God to heal Keith (and knowing that He could), but also remembered that, whether God chose to heal Keith here or in heaven, God is still big and God is still good.

I consider the brevity of Keith’s illness to be a huge gift. God was gracious in allowing Keith to transition to heaven without undergoing chemo or any other painful or debilitating treatment. Keith was able to see patients the morning before he was admitted to the hospital. Caleb was able to visit Keith several times in the hospital. Keith was truly able to live until he died and he chose to die with intention as well.

Keith was the bravest person I’ve ever met. He made it clear through his illness (and especially during his inpatient stay at Walter Reed) that dying was scary (even terrifying), but the prospect of death was not. Over and over again he would repeat the verse we chose to put on our Christmas card this year:

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

He kept his focus on what was good and true even as he prayed for healing through desperate tears. When the end came, he looked at me and said, “I want to go home to heaven. I’m so so sorry and I love you so much.” There were no other words to be said and I consider it the greatest honor to have been able to sit with him and hold his hand as he died.

Keith was a good man, but he was not a saint and he did not believe in God without wrestling with the questions of why and how things happened the way they happened. At times he was angry with God and other times confused. And yet, he chose to trust that the God that had delivered us from trouble before was still big and still in charge.

As I went through some of the verses that were significant to him during the last few months, Psalm 46:1-3 stood out to me as the perfect illustration of how Keith chose to approach this unique, challenging time:

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1-3)

Keith knew without a doubt (and from experience) that the world may fall apart, but that God was still a constant source of strength and comfort. As his favorite verse says, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and always.” (Hebrews 13:8)

As I move forward and learn to live life without Keith by my side, I am comforted by the story of Elisha and the servant (found in 2 Kings chapter 6). This passage became really profound for me as I stood by Keith in his suffering and is even more real to me now. Elisha was a prophet in the Old Testament who was often consulted on by kings. In this particular instance, he had counseled the king that there was an enemy army in a location where the king wanted to set up camp. When one of the servants looked outside and saw the army surrounding the city, he, understandably, panicked. Elisha prayed for God to open the servant’s eyes and the man saw that the hills were covered with armies of angels; God was already fighting the battle in ways he could not see.

The same is true now. The battle of grief and living well is difficult and intimidating. It is exhausting and debilitating. But I find freedom in knowing that God is fighting an unseen battle for me. I am not alone.

Another story that has become significant in my grief journey has come from Exodus 17. While the Israelites were fighting a raging battle in the valley, God instructed Moses to stand on a hill and keep his hands in the air. As he got tired and lowered his arms, the Israelites began to lose the battle, so Aaron and Hur had to help Moses by holding his arms up for him; as long as Moses’s arms were high, the Israelites would win the battle. As I watch the battle of grief in front of me, I am so thankful for the people around me who are holding up my arms. You have held me up in prayer and encouraged me through notes and emails. You have loved on us with gifts and visits, hugs and play dates. I would not be able to move forward on this journey without your support. Words cannot describe the love that I feel from all of you who are sharing the burden of grief with me and cannot imagine this season of grief without journeying together with some incredible friends.

I encourage you to learn two things from Keith’s life:

  1. Live well. Don’t take yourself or your situation too seriously. Be ready to laugh and enjoy the moments you have with the people you love. Put aside any notions of who you “should” be or how you “should” act and just be authentic. If there is a challenge in your way, face it head on.
  2. Contemplate what it means to die well. It is important to have meaningful (if not difficult) conversations with the people who mean the most to you. More than anything, be confident in the reality of heaven and the God who wants to walk along side you through the difficulties and celebrations in life. Keith always said that if his memorial service could accomplish one thing, it would be to encourage people to investigate who Jesus is and how he wants to change your life.

I also encourage you to think about two things that I have been learning:

  1. The importance of relationships. I have no regrets from the time Keith and I had together: even when we fought, we considered it significant that we were fighting together. We enjoyed each other’s company and couldn’t imagine being a husband and wife team with anyone else. Treasure the moments you have together. Find a community and surround yourself with people who will encourage you, cheer you on, and challenge you. Choose to be authentic with those people and be willing to share the dirty, awful parts of life as much as the celebrations.
  2. Learn to believe and trust that God heals. One of the many ways to describe God is Jehovah Rapha: the God who heals and restores. I know that in the midst of grief, healing feels nearly impossible. Life can feel as if it will never be good again. But I get glimpses of how God is restoring my life. I see it in Caleb’s giggle and in Libby’s sleepy newborn smiles. I feel it in the moments of “normal” when I’m changing a diaper or tackling Caleb for a tickle fight. I know from experience that the sun rises and sets each day and with each 24 hour cycle, the grief changes. As our Christmas card said, “great is God’s faithfulness.”

Thank you for being a part of Keith’s life and continuing to be a part of my, Caleb, and Libby’s lives. Our families are so thankful for your love and and encouragement.

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(A special thank you to the friend who took these photos during the service and for the gift of having such a special way to remember and share with Caleb and Libby in the future)

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5 Comments

  1. m on May 23, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    You amaze me with everything you write Becky. You are a true blessing to so many. xx Mo

    • Becky M on May 24, 2015 at 9:20 am

      Thanks for the encouragement, Mo.

  2. Kim Stirtan on May 24, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Your amazing ability to write and express yourself is a gift. The pictures that drew my attention was your smiles and your Mom’s protective arm behind you 🙂
    Love you,
    Kim

  3. Megan on May 25, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Beautiful, Becky. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there in person.

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