The Ringing Doorbell and a War Widow's Heartbreak
By Veronica Ortiz Rivera
When your husband is killed in action, the questions from family and friends—and even from strangers—are almost more than you can take.
What was it like when you got the knock on the door?
Did they come in uniform?
Was it like the movies or that episode of Army Wives?
If I didn’t know the answers, I’d ask these things too. These questions don’t bother me anymore.
My husband, Staff Sergeant Javier Ortiz Rivera, deployed to Afghanistan on September 3, 2010, with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He did his best to call me via satellite phone once or twice a week.
Monday, November 15, 2010
He called four times. We talked for 56 minutes the last time we spoke. He told me he would call me again the next day. “I love you more” were his last words before he hung up.
I felt on top of the world—more in love than ever. I couldn’t wait for the next day so I could hear his voice again. I planned to say, “I love you times infinity. I win!”
I pictured him smiling. Thinking of his smile melted my heart. I wanted the hours to rush by so I could hear his voice again.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
I woke up from a very deep sleep at 5:28 a.m. My first thought was of him. I looked at my phone to see if I had missed his call. I hadn’t, so I closed my eyes and had the best sleep ever. I woke up again at 7. Dressed, I went to have breakfast with my friends. We talked about Javier, deployments and, ironically, about what happens when a Marine is killed in action. Sheets of rain began pouring down as I left. I’ll never forget how ugly it was outside.
As I drove home, I remember thinking that if this was a movie or a book, the rain would foreshadow something awful. At a red light, I texted Javier’s sister and checked my email. As I entered the base, I sang. I loved living on base.
I was waiting for Javier’s phone call.
Life was good with the exception of Javier being deployed. I was happy—happier than ever. I planned to tell Javier just that. His phone call would come at any minute.
It was still raining when I got home, but I was determined to have a productive day. I realized I had three boxes of Javier’s Christmas presents that needed to be shipped. I had wrapped and packed them the night before. I told myself to hurry and get to the post office and back because he would be calling soon.
My doorbell rang.
“Who in the world is that?”
Without getting up, I looked out the storm door and couldn’t see anyone. For some reason, I thought it was a child playing with the doorbell.
It rang again.
This time I went to the door and saw three men standing just to the left. Two were wearing Marine uniforms, the other a Navy uniform. The man in the Navy uniform was older and wore a cross on his uniform—a Navy chaplain. I opened the door only wide enough for them to talk to me.
“Mrs. Ortiz Rivera?” asked one of the Marines.
“Yes,” I answered. “What are you doing here?”
“We need to speak with you regarding your husband. Can we come inside?”
I felt my heart drop and all my blood rush to my feet. I started feeling dizzy, scared and nervous. I wanted to slam the door in their faces.
They insisted on speaking with me inside. When I let them in, I noticed that the chaplain had a look of pity on his face, and that annoyed me.
I don’t remember what they were saying. It sounded like echoes. I looked up, waved my hands in the air and demanded, “Just tell me.”
I knew what they were going to tell me, I just needed them to hurry up and say it. I focused on one of the Marines’ eyes. I saw sorrow and pity. I focused so hard that the color of his eyes is etched into my memory forever.
As he began to speak, the only words I really heard and remember are, “Your husband passed away this morning.”
I heard him, but it felt like a dream—a nightmare, actually. In shock and disbelief, I couldn’t cry.
A million thoughts raced through my mind.
He promised me. He didn’t die. It’s a mistake. There is no way!
They were there and gone in a millisecond.
The captain informed me it was not a mistake. Javier had passed away. His choice of words made me mad. If it was true that my husband was dead, he certainly didn’t pass away. People pass away when they are sick or of old age.
He shook his head and told me that my husband was killed in action.
My next question was, “How?”
His answer came in a broken voice, “Improvised explosive device.”
I began asking questions. I wanted to know if anyone else had been killed or hurt. I asked about the condition of his body. The captain wouldn’t tell me the details. He wanted to spare me more heartache. At that point, I took the casualty report from his hand and read it. The details made me sick to my stomach.
I felt as though someone had ripped my heart out of my chest. I could no longer stand, so I sat on my stairs and started to cry. The men were silent. They didn’t know what to say. When they did speak, it was echoes again. Their faces were blurry through my tears.
I had just received the most devastating news of my life and was surrounded by strangers. The captain knelt beside me. I think he was going to hug me but my body language told him to stay away. I wanted to punch him. I wanted them out of my house. I wanted to go to my room and scream and cry. I told them to leave, but they wouldn’t leave me home alone.
So here I was on my stairs, on the verge of passing out. I had just received the worst news of my life and they wouldn’t let me call Javier’s family because they hadn’t yet been officially informed. I just had to sit there—alone. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. They refused to leave.
Since I couldn’t be left alone, I called my friend. She got there in less than five minutes. She thought someone was playing an awful joke on me. I’ll never forget how she ran up the sidewalk, barged in and stopped in her tracks when she saw the men in uniform. She grabbed me in a hug. I hugged back. I wanted to focus on something besides what was happening to me.
The Marines had me sign paperwork. I just signed so they would leave. I wanted to fold laundry like I had planned.
Truth be told, I vaguely remember the face of the chaplain—the face of the man who ripped my heart out and changed my life forever.
Eventually, they left.
My three children had been at school and day care when the men came to the door. I was terrified to tell them. I didn’t know how I would do it or what I would say, and I was still holding out hope that it was all a big mistake. I didn’t tell them until the next day, just before I left to meet the casket at Dover.
That first night, I laid down to try to sleep. I thought about what had happened—all that was about to happen. The ring of the doorbell echoed in my mind. Suddenly I remembered what I’d read in the casualty report. Javier’s time of death was reported as 5:26 a.m. I woke up at 5:28 a.m.
That is when it truly hit me. Javier was no longer with me. I would never see him again. My hopes and dreams were shattered.
So, to answer the questions:
They didn’t knock. They rang the doorbell.
Yes, they came in uniform.
No, it wasn’t like that episode of Army Wives.
–Veronica Ortiz Rivera is the widow of Marine Staff Sergeant Javier Ortiz Rivera. She first chronicled her story of loss on her blog at lifeafterjoor.wordpress.com.
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