When the doorbell rang on the eve of New Year four years ago, I knew something was wrong. It was 9 pm I was alone. I opened the door to three men in uniform. It was something I had imagined many times before, even though, in my vision, they wore the army blues instead of the grays of the El Paso County sheriff's deputies.
My husband, Major Christopher Thomas, left that morning. snowshoe in the mountains west of Denver. When he did not come back after dark, I started to wait for the worst. He had been trained as an outdoor guide and had gone to the peaks of Mount McKinley, Mount Rainier and Colorado's many high peaks. However, the sun was down and he had not answered my phone calls or SMS all day.
Chris and I were both in the army. Between us, we had six deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. We met in 2000 as cadets at West Point. Previously, he had served in the army and was two years ahead of me at school. We went to our first meeting a few days before the attacks of September 11: a picnic during a concert of the group of the Academy on Labor Day. He brought a blanket, sandwiches and a beautiful smile on a sophisticated chin. After Chris graduated in December, we maintained a distance relationship, including writing letters in 2003 during the invasion and first occupation of Iraq. Chris sent a marriage proposal in one of those letters, in which he wrote: "We do not need a lavish affair, but simply a ceremony that allows us to tell the world how we feel for each other and that our family can come together to celebrate with us. . Then he jokingly offered to exchange greetings at home at Fenway Park in Massachusetts, where I grew up. He did not show his emotions often; I cherished his words of love.
After graduation and our marriage in 2004, I served in the army as an officer of the medical corps, electing to give up my faculty of medicine for can be deployed as a physician supervisor. . During my first visit to Taji, Iraq, I volunteered every opportunity to go out of the confines of the base of operations to join my soldiers in community health awareness missions. It was in 2006, a particularly dangerous period of war. Our missions have often been targeted by roadside bombs; my convoys were hit twice. During our career, Chris has always been a job or a rank in front of me. and as he was an enlisted soldier, I asked him for advice, especially during this deployment, during which we were assigned to the same base. Once, when I went out with his battalion and my vehicle was hit by an ICD, he waited in the area of my company to comfort me after my return. He followed the action on the radio and wanted to be there first, with open arms, and listen to the treatment of my shock.
Two years later, during my second deployment to Iraq, this time. as a medical company commander, my job was much less risky. I went by helicopter to visit my soldiers on different bases. Chris, as an armored officer at the head of soldiers in combat, lost several of his friends. His four deployments with the 4th Infantry Division had detrimental consequences, and he became more detached with every adjustment. I had trouble understanding his changes because they did not fit what I understood to be the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was neither angry nor nervous, and he had no nightmares. But he became more withdrawn and contemplative, even wondering if he could engender a child and assume the responsibility of creating a new life in this world.
In 2014, Chris decided to move to the reserves and return to school to become a teacher and work as an outdoor guide. Although I was skeptical that he was giving up a retirement pension, which he would only be entitled to in four years, I could see that his affinity for nature gave him peace of mind. mind. It's not that he's become an adrenaline junkie or a reckless mountaineer; on the contrary, he has always been careful and respectful of nature. He became thinner and stronger and trained me in his new activities, encouraging me to try my first climb in several points.
Then he went out on a snowshoe on the eve of the New Year and he was not answering my calls. My mind has apologized. Maybe his phone was dead. Sometimes there was no signal in the mountains. When I sat down for dinner, I consulted the local news and saw a report about a man who died in an avalanche that day. The details did not seem to fit Chris's plans; if only I could remember exactly where he had said that he was going. The news announced that the victim had died around 10:30 am. Would not I know if it was Chris?
More questions were formed. Was there a car accident? Should I call hospitals? I could not report his disappearance for 24 hours, is not it? I might be able to know if the family of the man killed in the avalanche had been notified of his death and had the assurance that it was not my husband. Having been in the army for 10 years, I was familiar with death notification procedures. After a death in Iraq, our internet would be cut off and the call centers closed until families at home were visited personally and told the terrible news. Dark rumors travel fast. The military has taken steps to rule out the possibility of a spouse, children or parents discovering it informally, through social media or via email.
I called the police and communicated with the County Dispatch Office. where the avalanche had occurred. The dispatcher asked for my husband's name. I told him. "Wait a minute," she said. She came back to the line. "Well, we do not have her name here," she said. "I will ask the coroner to call you in one way or another." That should have been my clue. Either she did not want to tell me or she was not allowed to broadcast the news.
The doorbell rings. I opened the door to the sheriff's three deputies. I managed to speak first. "It was him, is not it?" My voice was barely a squeak. My tears began when they asked if they could come in. One of them was a chaplain, who sat on the couch and confirmed my fears. Many after, it's blurry. Many other phone calls were made to a friend who would come so that I would not be alone; to my parents, who would fly away the next day to be with me. The conversation with the deputy ministers informed Chris's mother. She was in Kentucky. One of them called in Lexington. Police were busy celebrating New Year's Eve. The deputy minister called a fire chief, who said he did not feel comfortable with this task. I remained.
It was almost midnight when Chris's mother was living. I was wondering: should I wait until the morning? I dreaded to cause him the pain that I knew was coming. The miserable scream that my own mother had heard a few minutes ago would certainly be multiplied by a hundred. For a moment, I thought that if I could wait until the morning, I might think of the right words. There are many gaps in my memories of this night. I remember a comment: "I am a father," said one of the deputies. "I would like to know now." I called. I told him that, yes, his body had been found and communicated to the coroner's details. She reacted with tears and devastation and shared my disbelief about the reality of this moment.
Chris's desire to travel to the mountains was tied to his post-war adjustments and had become essential to his regeneration and health. But I did not blame the war for his death. His desire to pursue his passions outside of his first career has encouraged me to do the same. Six months after his death, I left the army, crossed the country and started my medical studies. Becoming a doctor requires years of intensive practice and study and, at the very beginning of my career, I should be more concerned about learning the drug names or the proper amount of liquid boluses. Yet it is the sharing of bad news with patients and their families that I often meditate. I arrived at the Faculty of Medicine after serving against violence and trauma and having already received and given a death notification. I learned that the worst moments of life can be a fog with few distinct memories. In these moments, what you say is less important than the way you say it. People with pain remember compassion, like the members who sat on the couch with me and did not leave until I was alone.
I try to apply this lesson when I'm Chris's. For example, knowing that as an emergency physician, it is inevitable that I notify families of the death of a loved one. I do not consider it a dreaded duty. It's part of being human and connecting with others. I want to convey this knowledge.