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CJ Heck

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From Bride to Widow
By CJ Heck
Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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Your whole world can change in a moment ...

The Day I Went from Bride to Widow

"There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken. There is a shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable. There is a sorrow beyond all grief, which leads to joy. And a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength. There is a hollow space too vast for words through which we pass with each loss, out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being"
- Bri Maya Tiwari

The worst day of my life was September 13, 1969. Actually, there were many more than just that one day, but that's the one day I can talk about, at least for right now.
I was living at my childhood home in Ohio with my parents at the time. I had recently married my high school sweetheart, Doug Kempf, in January of 1969. Though in our hearts we were still newlyweds, Uncle Sam had other plans and in May, Doug was sent to Vietnam, where he wore a different hat. In Vietnam, Doug would be an Army combat medic.

Doug and I shared a good life from January to May, during those months before he went to Vietnam. We were military-poor and living in a trailer on base at Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, NC, but we didn't care. We were together and we were happy. There, we loved and laughed and planned our future for when he returned. We decided one day we would buy an old Victorian with lots of bedrooms, oak woodwork, a huge kitchen so we could entertain family and friends, and a large front porch with a wooden swing where we could watch thunder storms and cuddle.

We wanted three children, two boys and then a little girl. That would be perfect. Our sons would be tall and handsome with their daddy's bowed legs, legs that loved to dance, and they would have his sense of humor and infectious laugh. They would grow up to be good men, and looked up to for their strength of character. Like their father, they would be smart, kind and gentle husbands, loving and playful fathers, as well as proud and fiercely patriotic.

Doug decided our little girl would be, in his words, "Pretty like her mommy, with big blue eyes and just a touch of tomboy to defend herself from her big brothers." In my heart, I knew she would always be her daddy's little girl.

Saying goodbye at the Columbus Airport in May, was soul-crushing. I promised myself I wouldn't cry, but it was a foolish promise, and one I wasn't able keep. One thing I can truthfully say, it never once occurred to me that Doug wouldn't return home safe and sound.

Our letters were happy and full of love. The intimate moments we had shared and memorized were whispered of and yearned for and always included in the letters between us. But what we wanted most, and what we actually had, broke my heart and I counted the days to our Hawaiian R&R, which was never to be.

On September 13, 1969, my world stopped. I was working as a secretary in the office of a manufacturing company a few of blocks from my parents' home. That afternoon, mother called me at work. "Honey, you'd better come home. There are some officers here from the Army and they need to talk to you. It's about Doug."

I couldn't say a word. I dropped the phone and, with my heart in my throat, I ran out of the building and up the street. I didn't stop running until four blocks later, when I got to the house I grew up in, the home where I had always felt so safe and loved.

Parked in front of the house and looking out of place, was a large black car with something printed on the side. I raced by without reading it, ran up the front steps and in the front door. Just inside the foyer stood two uniformed men locked to attention, their hands behind their backs, and their hats were tucked under their arms. Their faces were somber. Daddy and mama stood nearby. Daddy had his arm around mama's waist and she was crying quietly.

[No. No. No. Dear God, why are they here? No, wait, I don't want to know. Go away! Please, just go away.]

"Mrs. Kempf, we regret to inform you that your husband, Sp4 Douglas S. Kempf, was killed in action while performing his duty in Vietnam on September 5 ..."

I didn't hear the rest of what the man had to say. Daddy said I fainted where I stood, just inside the front door in the foyer. When I came around, I was lying on the couch in my parents' living room -- and then I remembered. Oh my God, I remembered. I remembered, and I wanted to die, too. I was devoid of all feeling, except soul numbing grief.

My whole world had turned upside down in one heartbeat. How could everything still look so normal? The sun still shined through the front windows. The birds still sang outside in the gnarled apple tree, and I could hear a neighbor somewhere mowing his lawn. Only a few minutes ago, that had all been real. This clashed with my new reality and I suddenly felt I was losing my mind. Why? Why? Why?

Then I focused hard, until only the couch was real. I was on the couch where Doug and I first held hands and hugged; the couch where we had our first disagreement, then kissed and made up. It was the same couch where I often sat in front of him on the floor between his knees, leaning back against him while we watched TV and he ran his fingers gently through my hair. The same couch where he asked me to be his wife.

No, nothing would ever be the same again. My life was changed forever and I felt so completely alone, even though I was surrounded by people who cared and who also grieved like I did. All I could do was cry, and I remember fighting a growing anger, as well. God, how could You do this! Why would You reach down inside me and rip out my heart? And always the question: Why?

There was so much grief and hurt and I went through the following weeks and months and even years in a fog. There are some things about that time that I can't remember at all, but oddly, there's one thing I will never forget. That was the first and only time I ever saw my father cry.

That day in 1969 was the worst day of my life. But, in the years since, that day has also carried me through some really bad times, too. There have been things that have happened since then, when I've said, "This hurts. Yeah, this really hurts. It hurts like bloody hell! But I will survive, because I can tell you something about what real hurt is." For the rest of your life, that day becomes your yardstick for measuring pain. You know with a final certainty that nothing else can, or ever will, hurt you quite that bad again.

When I look up into the night sky, I pray that it isn't stars I see, but actually little openings in heaven's floor where the love of my lost one pours through and shines down to let me know he is happy ...

[In memory of Douglas Scott Kempf, who earned the Bronze Star with first Oak Leaf Cluster, The Purple Heart and five other medals posthumously: SP4; RA; HHC, 4th BN, 12th INF, 199th LIB.]

       Web Site: Memoirs From Nam

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Reviewed by Patrick Granfors 6/16/2011
This put a lot of things into perspective and emphasizes the true price of our national excursions. Patrick
Reviewed by Mark Lichterman 6/12/2011
Oh, C.J., I recently wrote a poem regarding the words we as writers write and that so much of what we write comes from within the events, good or bad, happy or sad, that have shaped our lives, and, by the way, gave us something to write about... But I also said that sometimes what we write are just words, words to make a story. I am rather sure that this is not the case here, but I so hope, my new friend, I so hope that these are just words.
Reviewed by Janice Scott 6/12/2011
You make me weep, CJ. Such a moving story, and so full of pain. Thank you.
Reviewed by J Howard 6/12/2011
Lovely story. So many pieces that I love and even...pictured myself in...the measure of a talented author-for my money. Life is indeed one layer on top of the other, as you say, "...for the rest of your life, something like this becomes your yardstick for measuring heartache." Thanks for sharing.
very well done.

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