The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss and Life
Many people in my life were surprised to hear I was writing a book about my experiences. The person I was in 2004, when my husband, Pat Tillman, was killed, would be more surprised than anyone.
When Pat died, the media and the public at large became fascinated with his story. His image was everywhere. His biography was told and retold; clips from his college and NFL careers were broadcast again and again.
So much of his life was out in public, and the things that were mine -- the details of our life together, and how I was coping with the loss of him -- I wanted to keep close. I wanted to keep something for myself.
Slowly with time I was able to go out into the world and connect with people again. I started to talk about my experiences after Pat died, and I found that other people took comfort in hearing what I’d been through. And it was healing for me, too—both to share finally and to know my story was helping someone else.
When Pat died, we had been in each others lives for almost 11 years. We were high school sweethearts and best friends. He was the person I turned to first. Without him I felt completely lost.
While he was adventurous and took risks he also had a practical side and while we rarely spoke about the “what if’s” of military life, he had left behind a gift, a last letter just in case.
I remember the night Pat died, after all of the men in army uniforms had cleared out of our home and my parents and sister, who had rushed to Seattle to be by my side, had settled into bed. Alone, I pulled out this letter that he had placed safely on the dresser in our bedroom tucked beside my jewelry box.
I was terrified to open it, knowing it would somehow make the days events more real. I slowly unfolded the note he had put together with such care. On the paper was a mess of crossed out words and sentences. He had started and stopped unable to fully grasp the thought of not coming back. But he had wanted to leave me something.
My mind was struggling with the new reality that he wasn’t coming home and it felt right that he would have struggled with this notion too. But as I looked at this sheet of paper through the scribbled out sentences and half finished thoughts something jumped out.
Through the years I’ve asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you
little that I have a favor to ask.
I ask that you live.
It was such a simple request but in that moment I wanted to die. I had no idea how to live without him and had really no desire to try. Yet this was his last request of me. So sitting there clutching his last letter, with tears streaming down my face, I made a promise to Pat. I promised I would live.
Now eight years later, Pat’s last letter to me is tucked away, among many letters we wrote to each other, in a shoebox in the closet of my house. I haven’t pulled it out in a long time, but I’ve long since memorized it.
I’ve come far since those days after I first read the letter. In many ways I’m a different person—stronger, independent, more self-assured.
I can travel alone. I can make decisions alone. I can kick myself out of a funk, and I can contribute of my own volition to the world.
I’ve learned that I can move forward without leaving Pat behind. I could carry him with me in the memories of our life together, the interactions that have left a permanent imprint on my soul.
Loving and losing Pat changed me. And while I wish he were still here, I don’t want to turn back the clock and be who I was when he was alive.
I like who I am now. I am finally happy with the work I’m doing, the mark I’m striving to make. Spending my days helping others feels worthwhile and meaningful, and I’ve met countless wonderful people along the way.
As I consider this chapter in my life and move forward to the next, I find myself thinking about Pat’s final letter to me and how the familiar words have now taken on new meaning.
In the military, it’s fairly common to write a “just in case” letter like the one Pat left for me, just as it’s common for critically ill people to leave words and messages behind for those they love.
It’s like wrapping the people you care about in a warm winter coat when you know you can’t be there personally to protect them from next season’s cold spells. Since Pat died, I’ve thought a lot about what people leave behind, the mark we all make just by being here; big or small, it’s up to us.
When Pat asked me to live, he didn’t mean just that I should travel and have fun, although that was certainly part of it. He also meant that there’s a weight to all of our lives, and he didn’t want me to be frivolous with mine.
It was a tragedy that Pat’s life -- while lived fully -- was cut short. But it’s also a tragedy to live a long life that isn’t meaningful.
Our lives should have depth, which means pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones and not taking the easy way out all the time.
That is the only way to really live.
It has taken years, but I am at that point now. I am truly, deeply living.
Marie Tillman is the founder of the Pat Tillman Foundation which inspires others to create positive social change through its leadership programs and scholarships for veterans, active service members, their families, and college students across the country. She lives in California.