This morning I went up in the attic, looking for Autumn decorations in storage bins that are poorly labeled (organization has never been my strong suit). As I opened one of the bins, I noticed a plastic trash bag inside, also not labeled. I soon saw the box next to it containing “memorabilia” from my husband’s jet crash that nearly took his life almost nine years ago, and immediately knew the contents of the plastic bag.
This particular moment is etched into my memory with remarkable clarity, and I’ve never taken the time to write it down. I want to share it in hopes that others who may be going through extremely tough times might find some encouragement that one day, by the grace of God, you will be able to breath again.
“Are you Mrs. Smith” a young sailor hesitantly asked. “I’m Mrs. Smith,” I responded, with just enough breath to be audible. “This is for you,” he responded, as he handed me a heavy trash bag. “Ummm…” I said, but before I had the opportunity to inquire at to what it was, he had left the room.
Nine months pregnant, I slowly ambled back to the hospital lobby chair, waiting to find out my husband’s prognosis – bag in hand. I was curious as to what the guy had just handed me, a welcome diversion from the sense of shock that had robbed me of a full breath of air just twelve hours prior.
“It was heavy…what was inside?”
As I began to open the bag, still puzzled, I caught a glimpse of green fabric, the kind that carries with it a familiarity of both deep joy and heartache. Though it was familiar, it was not as it should be–it took me a moment to realize what it was– his flight suit, ragged and torn, and then neatly cut in some places. It was heavy, drenched in sea water, with one peculiarly unscathed detail…
The sight of his name stole the last little bit of breath from my lungs and I froze. A rush of emotion welled up inside with no way to escape. I swallowed the tears that were too big to express… I was numb.
In disbelief, I began pulling more items from the plastic bag. His shirt and boxers, neatly cut from top to bottom. A torn sock. Finally a combat boot– only one– with the bottom partially ripped off. It was heavy.
“He’s alive,” I kept thinking… “he’s alive”… and yet I still couldn’t seem to catch my breath.
All of that water, some lost blood, and actualized fears were contained in that bag. It was a bag I wasn’t supposed to have received, the contents of which were intended to be evidence for the investigation that was already underway. I gave up on trying to take full breaths, it was a futile cause anyway.
I closed the bag. It was too heavy.
Today, nearly nine years after this event, the contents of that bag still carry a weightiness, bringing back a flood of memories from that uncertain time. The “what if?” still haunts me from time to time. The thought of why he survived when so many others in similar circumstances did not still makes my head spin. The fact that he fully recovered, fought to get back up in the jet, and has gone on to have a successful aviation career– while almost miraculous– means that the same danger is ever-present. It’s not entirely in the past.
Yet now, when I see those clothes, that patch, the titanium rod (which we keep as a memento of my husband’s transition to semi-bionic limbs!), that spent nearly a year in his leg before being replaced during yet another surgery, my fears give way to an underlying sense of hope.
The sea water that once weighed the bag down has long since dried up, the wounds have healed, and new patches have replaced the old.
My breath returned, although it took much longer than expected. Only scars remain, reminding me of a time when the load was too heavy, too big, too much to bear…a time when I was carried through by grace.
This post is part of a series called The Strongest Generation. These words offer insights into the souls of those touched by America’s longest war.