We got married when we found out she was pregnant. My parents were very nasty about it. They felt I'd somehow taken advantage of her. Good as raped her. Her parents were wonderful. They hosted the wedding, Ed and I wore our dress blues, and took an oath that meant even more than the one we swore to our nation.
Tiger was born just a few months after that. Ed's four year contract was finished, so she found us a little house near the base. She found a job, and she raised Tiger, almost by herself, while I ran PT, stood firewatch, crawled the obstacle courses, fired my rifle, shipped out on West Pac, and came home. I wrote to her and Tiger every day while I was gone. She was true to me. I was worried about that, even though I never told her. I wanted to trust her, but I had to worry. She's a beautiful woman.
Soon as my contract was up, I found a job; nothing great, but it helped. And we moved out to be closer to Ed's family. My parents still couldn't get their heads around the idea that I'd got a girl pregnant when I was just nineteen, and that it wasn't to do with drugs, and that I was doing right by her, taking care of her. Really, she was taking care of me. And Tiger.
Tiger was already three by the time I left the Marines. Summer birthday, just missed the fourth of July. He was four when his baby sister was born. We named her Natalie.
And for about a year that was my world. And I've never been happier.
Then... everything changed. Terrorists attacked our nation. The nation we loved and had sworn to defend. I was horrified, and outraged, but Ed took it to a whole new level. She told us she was going back to the Marines. She wanted to fight back; she knew we would retaliate, we couldn't afford not to. She wanted to be in that first wave.
It scared me to death. I knew I couldn't support the kids with the job I had. Natalie was just a baby, just eighteen months old. Tiger was coming into his own and testing all the limits. He had another six months or so before we could send him to kindergarten. I couldn't take care of them, and work to support us. I told Ed so. I was only covering up the real reasons. I didn't want to lose her.
She just smiled at me. "Rome, honey, I'll be fine. And you can handle it."
I couldn't talk her down, I wouldn't tell her she couldn't go. It's her right. And her duty. I felt it too; just not as strong as the duty to my family.
The day she shipped out, we spent most of it wrapped up in each other's arms. I did not want to let her go. I think Tiger was embarassed.
I told her, "This is all backwards, Ed. I'm s'posed to go away to war, while you cry over me at home with the kids."
She laughed. "Roman, if you cry today, I will kick your ass."
She wrote to us every day. I found a better job. We moved again. Our new neighbor sweet lady, retired teacher watched the kids for me while I was at work. I had nightmares about Ed dying over there. I scared myself awake and cried myself back to sleep.
When it happened for real... I just shut down. It's maybe stupid, sentimental, but I knew. I had a dream about Ed; she was sitting beside me on the bed, singing softly. For most of the night, she sat there and sang to me. And then just before morning she leaned over and kissed me. "I have to go. Stay strong for me, Marine."
I slept better that morning than I had in months. When I woke up, I just knew, in my heart, she was gone. I just felt empty.
I tried to give Tiger and Natalie one more normal Saturday. We watched cartoons. Then Tiger 'helped' me clean up the yard. We planted daffodils for next spring. We mulched Ed's lilac. Then we all played in the yard until dark.
The contact team arrived just after supper. With two uniformed Marines standing in our living room, I hugged my kids and told them as carefully as I could that Mom wasn't coming home. I didn't cry. I wanted to, but it wouldn't come. I called Ed's mom.
"Hi, Roman," that sweet midwest accent, and that tone, like she was always glad to hear from me.
"Mom..." she is my Mom, since my parents basically wrote me off. "Ed's gone."
"She's dead." I came so close to crying, right there. My throat ached, my chest got tight.
"No..." She went quiet for a long time. I could picture her struggling with it. Finally she came back; "How are you handling it, Rome?" That woman is a saint, worrying about me, when her little girl was dead.
I couldn't speak. Just saying it out loud felt like somebody stabbed me. I forgot to breathe.
"What do I do?" It was just a whisper.
Very quietly, very firmly she told me; "You hug your babies like you'll never let go. And you hunker down 'til I get there."
Tiger and Nat and me huddled up on the couch. I asked the Marines of the contact team to stay with us, at least until Mom got there. I don't think the kids understood it yet. But they knew I was broken up and scared and they stayed, cuddled up with me. Nat fell asleep on my chest. Then I fell asleep under her.
Six hours later, Tiger was shaking me awake, and the contact team was welcoming Ed's mom into the house, carrying the suitcase inside for her. I laid Nat down in her crib so she could finish her sleep.
Mom caught me in the hallway outside the kitchen and hugged me so tight I thought she'd crack my ribs. It wasn't tight enough. I came real close again right there. My eyes stung. I hugged her back.
She kissed my face. "It will be all right, Rome."
I just nodded. I couldn't speak.
"Dad will be here tomorrow," she told me. "Let's make some coffee."
It gave me something to do, keep my hands busy. I made coffee, she finally put Tiger to bed, hours past when he should have been asleep. I poured coffee for her, and myself, and the Marines. At some point we all sat down together, and Mom asked the question I couldn't.
"How did she die?"
They didn't have details, but they understood it had been an RPG, fired on Ed's vehicle convoy. I shut my eyes, unable to get past the image of her beautiful, sleek body, her sweet face, all mangled and bloody in the dirt. I felt sick, and enraged. I went outside to be alone.
In the morning I left the kids with Ed's mom and drove into town by myself. First stop I made was at the barber, got myself a proper high-and-tight. Somehow it was comforting. I went into the pharmacy and bought a lilac scented soap, her favorite. I went to the grocery and paced the aisles for too long. I bought bread, peanut butter, milk, eggs, carrot sticks, orange juice, toilet paper, cereal, oatmeal, bananas, pears, broccoli, celery, cheese, hotdogs, bologna, pickles and mustard. I got my heart set on watermelon, but it was out of season. I bought a six-pack of Sprite; a six-pack of beer. I drove myself home, very slowly.
I washed my hands with the soap, and the lilac smell was comforting. I hugged Ed's dad; he had arrived while I was out. And I found myself apologizing to him. He looked hurt. "It's not your fault, Rome."
We sat outside and drank a beer each, while we warmed up the grill for hotdogs. The contact team was still there. I liked having them around. They made me feel secure. I think even then I was thinking about going back to the Marines.
The funeral was so hard. I didn't have that sleek dark uniform to draw strength from anymore. I felt fragile and empty. I finally cried a little; but it just scared the kids.
It was difficult for me to adjust. Ed's letters kept arriving in the mail for days after the funeral. It was like touching a ghost. But after they stopped, it was worse.
I took as much time from work as I could. I stayed at home with the kids. I drove Tiger to school, and picked him up, played sports with him after school, took him to movies. I played with Natalie, and prepped her meals, changed diapers, gave her her naps, nursed her through a fever. I read her stories, and taught her new words.
My babies. I felt so torn. I wanted to be there with them, always, but I also wanted to fight! I wanted to go over there and take some back for Ed! I wanted to finish what she started.
I talked with Ed's parents, told them what I was feeling. "I want to go back to the Marines. I need to finish this. For Ed."
Dad was dead against it. "You can't do that to your kids, Roman. They've already lost their mother."
"I know..." It was like a killing pain in my chest. I hated the thought of leaving them at all. And leaving them to go risk my life; to go and die in the desert half-way around the world... that was even worse. But I couldn't shut it down. I still had that need.
Mom was more open. "You're a fighter, Roman, always have been. You're a protector. I understand why you feel you need to do this."
I felt like she'd articulated something I'd been feeling for months, but couldn't put into words. I wanted so passionately to fight back because I felt that if I'd been there I could have protected Ed. It was stupid, but it was extremely powerful, and I couldn't shake it.
"Mom..." even if she wasn't mine, I'd call her that. "I feel really strongly that if I do this... I won't come back." My voice was deathly soft. It scared me badly. "But I feel like I have to do this."
The sadness in her eyes; it broke my heart! But she just hugged me. "I can't stop you, Roman. It's your right. It's your life."
"If I go... it's not like I'm abandoning my kids..."
"Hush. I know that, honey."
"I don't want them to hate me."
"Roman! Don't talk like that." But she didn't know what nasty things Tiger was saying about his mother lately. That she left us on purpose, that she hated him and Nat. That killed me.
So before I went too far, I tried to explain it to Tiger. He immediately resisted the idea. As soon as I told him he pulled away from me. "You're gonna leave us too?"
"Tiger, it's not like that."
"Why do you have to go?! Why can't you stay here with us?!"
"I want to, but if we don't fight, the terrorists could attack us again. They could hurt more innocent people."
That made him quiet for a minute. "Is that why Mom left? To fight the terrorists?"
"Yes." It shocked me that I could have neglected something so important. Didn't we ever explain to him why his mother was going to war?
"But she didn't win."
"No. Sometimes... sometimes the bad guys win." Seven years worth of Saturday-morning-cartoon feel-good logic out the window. Sometimes people really do get hurt. Sometimes the enemy wins. Sometimes mothers and fathers don't come home.
He stares at me, very serious, maybe a little afraid, but not as horrified and hateful as I'd braced myself for. "Who's gonna take care of us?"
"Gram and Grampa, and maybe Mrs. Silver. Would you like that?"
"Maybe. I think so." So cautious. "What if you don't come back?"
What if I don't come back? What if I die over there? Those questions haunted me for weeks. I felt very powerfully that I was going to my death. "Tiger. If I don't come back... that means I'm with Mom."
"Mom hates us."
Tears burned my eyes. "Don't ever say that." I hugged him tight, and after a minute he relaxed and hugged me back. "Your mother loves you so much. If there was any way she could come back to us she would. But they took her away from us."
"And you have to go and hurt them, because they took her."
"Yes." Maybe it was that stupid and simple. I wanted payback on those sick bastards.
Tiger is seven. Natalie is three. I'm twenty-seven, and foolish. Today I ship out to war. I hug my babies like I'll never let go. But I don't cry.
I can hear Ed laughing. "Roman. If you cry today, I'll kick your ass."