I was to walk down the aisle of the First United Methodist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, on November 6, 2004. I did walk down the aisle of this beautiful stone-clad church, only it was 9 months earlier and not as I dreamed. Instead of donning my plain, yet elegant, Jim Hjelm wedding dress and carrying calla lilies as I planned, I walked down the aisle wearing black following my fiancé's flag-draped casket.
February 19, 2004, is a day that will never forget. I will never forget the gorgeous blue skies, the uncharacteristic spring weather, the clothes I was wearing, and the look in my parents' eyes when they told me that my fiancé had been killed hours earlier by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. The unfathomable news that I had lost my soulmate of five years brought me to my knees. My hopes and dreams came crashing down all around me. The future that I was yearning to start had ended in seconds.
“It’s hard to deal with the pain of losing you everywhere I go, but I’m doing it. It’s hard to force that smile when I see our old friends and I’m alone. Still harder getting up, getting dressed, living with this regret. But I know if I could do it over, I would trade give away all the words that I saved in my heart that I left unspoken.” --Rascal Flatts
Yes, my life changed. But I slowly learned and accepted that my life wasn’t over. I had to live... make new memories... take on new adventures... I had to dance.
“I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance... Never settle for the path of least resistance. Living might mean taking chances, but they’re worth taking. Loving might be a mistake, but it’s worth making. Don’t let some Hellbent heart leave you bitter. When you come close to selling out, reconsider. Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance. And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance... I hope you dance.” --Lee Ann Womack
No matter how much time passes since Jeff's death, I still have never ending stories and memories to share because there was never a dull moment around Jeffrey. Ever. And I share these stories because I want Jeff to be remembered for his million dollar Crest smile and magical charisma... not just a number that scrolls along the bottom of CNN.
I can still hear him doing his best Will Ferrell impersonation from Saturday Night Live by screaming “I drive a Dodge Stratus!” And he was quick to point out that it was a Sports Edition. In his Dodge Stratus Sports Edition, he would never adjust his clock for daylight savings time... and this drove me crazy bonkers. He said that it was a waste of time because he would just have to change it back in six months. Well, I missed class one day because of this... so after a very animated conversation with him, I changed his clock to the correct time. The next day, he had changed it back to the wrong time... he said it confused him having it the right time. Whaaa??? It confuses you having the RIGHT time?? Only Jeffrey and that’s why I loved him.
And then there was a time where I couldn’t walk for a week due to our stubborn competitiveness. We were very active together, but everything was a contest... and Jeff did not have the “I’ll let the girl win” mentality. He wanted to win... and win by a lot. So one day when I was running my mouth, I challenged him to a lunge contest (Jeff was the most un-flexible person ever and lunges were impossible for him, so I thought I could actually beat him at something). I might have had the book smarts, but he definitely had the street smarts. During our lunge-out, I was stunned when we were at lunge number 200ish and he was still going. I was so absorbed in my own lunge pain that I was totally blind to the fact that he had figured out a way to brace himself with his own weight. I finally screamed “UNCLE!” and he was once again the victor. The butthead finally revealed his cheating once I was able to walk the next week, but he did so over the phone so that he wouldn’t have a black eye.
I know the “stadium seating” and “bracket on the wall” stories have been told ad nauseum, but they are such classic stories that I have to share them for the billionth time. I mean, who creates stadium seating in their college apartment and draws a larger than life tournament bracket covering their entire wall? Jeff sure knew how to put his degree in civil engineering to good use: stadium seating was epically constructed in apartment 215 at the Royal Lexington apartment complex during March Madness. It started out on a small scale with only two measly levels, but quickly grew to four levels. Yes, four levels. Furniture from all the surrounding apartments was borrowed (sorry apartments 115, 214, and 216 for not having any furniture during the month of March). Love seats were placed on top of coffee tables for level two... sofas were placed on short dressers for level three and tall dressers for level four. The maintenance staff threatened that putting excessive amounts of furniture in one apartment was a fire code violation. Well, for Jeff, that went in one ear and out the other. On game days, forty people were successfully crammed in his apartment, each with a seat on a couch. I’m actually surprised the floor didn’t cave in.
So how do you top four levels of stadium seating? Well, after I returned home from a spring break trip to Jamaica, Jeff picked me up at the airport. He had his signature mischievous grin and I knew he was up to something when he told me he had a surprise for me. I was scared to walk into his apartment not knowing what to expect. You can imagine the look on my face when I saw the NCAA tournament bracket drawn in black permanent marker, covering an ENTIRE wall in his living room. Are. You. Kidding. Me. Those were the only words that stumbled out of my mouth. His apartment soon became a tourist attraction. Everyone had to see it. It was pretty amazing, but again, Jeff never did anything unless it was going to blow you away.
Jeffrey had a larger than life personality, and even after death he managed to transmit that personality in “heavenly messages”... the strongest and most touching centered around our Cosmopolitan article. Months after his death, Cosmopolitan magazine contacted me about writing a feature article on our relationship using the letters and emails we shared while he was deployed (in their research, they came across an article about Jeff in our local paper and that is what started their interest). One of the last letters I sent Jeff was a cheesy card... on the cover of the card there was an open pea pod with two peas... the inside said “We are two peas in a pod.” In Jeff’s last letter to me, he had commented on how corny the card was but appreciated my attempt at humor. The Cosmo article was written by a free-lance writer, who covered the war for the New York Times. His article was apparently too PG for the Cosmo editors’ liking, so they tried their best to rewrite the article by adding every sexual comment we made to each other, attempting to make it as close to “Fifty Shades of Grey” as they could. Fast forward to the magazine release. I was really nervous about the article and probably read it 100 times before I noticed the “sign.” On the page after the article, there was a Glad Wrap ad. With only a picture of a huge pea pod taking up the whole page. I still can’t figure out what Glad Wrap has to do with a pea pod, but I can’t help but think that was Jeffrey telling me that everything was okay... in his over-the-top way. Does heaven have credit cards? Because no telling how much a full page ad in Cosmo costs.
And that is what has helped me through the past eight years. Memorial Day is celebrated with barbecues and pool openings. My birthday also falls over this weekend, so I always considered it “my birthday weekend” growing up. Now I also consider it “my hero’s weekend.” Losing the person you love most in this world can completely change your outlook on life... but I know that Jeff has been the shining stars at night to guide me in the right direction and the butterflies and ladybugs during the day to give me hope. Jeff’s story is only one of thousands... so as you sit down this weekend with your family and friends with a cold beer in hand, just remember the sacrifices that were made so you can enjoy this long weekend.
“I thank God for my life and for the Stars and Stripes. May freedom forever fly... let it ring. Salute the ones who died... the ones that give their lives... So we don’t have to sacrifice all the things we love.” --Zac Brown Band