I just watched the movie Charlie St. Cloud starring Zac Efron, and while I don’t think either Jessie or my mother-in-law Debbie appreciated it as much as I did, it was good for my soul….a “God Wink” as Debbie calls them.
On May 24th I will have lived in this area of Ohio for ten years and by the last weekend of this coming August I will have known Jason for ten years……Chris and I were only together through dating, engagement, and marriage for nine and a half years…..it was a sobering realization to realize that not only has he been gone for twelve years, but very shortly my life will be made up of more “Jason years” than “Chris years”…..but that is as God has chosen it for when the good die young those who have been left behind must plod along until God calls us to our own heavenly reward…..
The Charlie St. Cloud movie brought back my own memories of the way I felt Chris with me as soon as he died. I realized that while many of my older friends know the stories from the first few years after Chris died that now my own children do not-if they remember hearing them when they were little they have forgotten them to the back of their subconscious….so for my yearly tribute to Lt. Christopher T. Starkweather I now record them here on my blog:
Looking back at my life I can truly see how God was preparing me for Chris’ death, and how Chris prepared things as well. For instance: Chris died in his mid-twenties….he had THREE life insurance policies. Even though he was in the military and transitioning into a more dangerous role of flying in an airplane each day, I can assure you that most young naval flight officers have one life insurance policy, not three. In fact when he took out the third life insurance policy we had a strong discussion about whether he should get an extra policy taken out on me instead….not to mention that I wanted a king size bed and/or double stroller for walking the babies……those life insurance policies helped me buy a king size bed two months after Chris’ death when friends finally convinced me to stop sleeping on the floor with Joey and Jessie. (I couldn’t emotionally sleep on our bed without him.) I also got a double stroller.
May 8th, 2002 started out just like an ordinary day. I had been up late the night before with my late owl baby, Jessie, so Chris got up with the always early bird Joey and actually went grocery shopping, providing Joey with food in those days after the plane collision. I woke up to the sound of them giggling on the couch after their return. I then played a “knocking game” with them on the wall since our bedroom wall was also the wall for the living room. I would tap, then they would tap, and eventually I “tapped” a song rhythm which made them both laugh really hard. I heard Chris say to Joey, “Your mommy is SO funny.” (I still cry when I think of this moment because I can still hear the amazing laugh that Chris had and the love in his voice as he said that to Joey.) I then got up and started the day.
The flight on that day was really important to Chris. They were reflying a pattern that he had not scored well on the first time. He was worried about passing-he was worried that he would be cut from the flight program. For that reason, and because I was an anxious wife with two young toddlers, I asked him what time he was scheduled to fly at and about how long it would be until he landed, debriefed, etc. (We actually only had one cell phone, which we had just gotten the month before, and this was in the days before texting, so trying to get an estimated time of when he would return was my mission every day.) Chris kissed me in the rocking chair while I was nursing Jessie, said good-bye to Joey, but then stopped suddenly at the front door. He turned around and looked so intently at the three of us-he just stood there really, really looking at us-like he was “soaking us into his heart.” He then said, “I love you” one more time and walked out the door to go to work-to complete his mission for that day.
What I have never told anyone before though is that “his good-bye” struck my heart…I stopped nursing Jessie, carried her in my arms and followed him out the door, so I actually tried to make him laugh again as he got into his black Dodge Stratus. I said some corny “yank and bank/good luck” thing…..and I actually watched him drive away…..which is why I didn’t bring his car home for five months. That stupid car coming home without him meant he was truly gone….the squadron asked me to bring it home a few weeks later and thankfully one of Chris’ squadron buddies kept it at his place until he had to move away…..that stupid wonderful black Dodge Stratus….the one he bought after he was commissioned-just a month before we decided to elope-the one he refused to refinance-whose “$329 monthly car payment to have it paid off in three years” became my first reality check of frugal living within a marriage…..he drove away in it and I never saw him again.
Yet, when it came home, Chris was there. When I finally did sit in the driver’s seat I looked down and in between the seat buckle and the middle console was “The Golden Book of Prayer”….. I began sobbing and pulled out the prayer book. You see, back when we were stationed at STRATCOM, in Bellevue, NE, I would occasionally pray on Saturday mornings with Joey in front of the abortion clinic, and that was the prayer book they used. Chris always went running on Saturday mornings and one Saturday in February it was truly bitter cold. Chris informed me that I wasn’t going to go pray with Joey, but that he was going to go running….I informed him that if it wasn’t too cold to go running it wasn’t too cold to pray in front of the abortion clinic. (See my running jealousy coming out?) Chris then informed me that he would go pray instead of running….That Saturday was the only Saturday he ever did that. Later that afternoon he told me that at the end of the prayers an older lady came up and asked him what his name was. He said, “Chris Starkweather.” She started to ask, “Are you related to…..” when Chris cut her off, “NO, I am NOT related to Charles Starkweather the infamous mass murderer.” (You see whenever there seems to be a murder that involves more than one person in the Omaha, NE area every news story always seems to connect Charles Starkweather to the current murder. I think they use it as standard column inch filler for murder stories. Chris would randomly find news clippings taped to his computers or left on his desk by other military co-workers.) Chris was one of the politest people I ever met, but I guess he really went off on her about the Charles Starkweather connection. The lady politely listened to his vent and after he was finished, replied, “I was going to ask you if you are related to Stephanie Starkweather?” To which Chris hung his head and said, “Yes, she’s my wife.” Flash forward seven months later and 9-11 happened. It would take several hours to be able to get on base after those attacks. After a couple of days Chris asked me where that specific prayer book was. He said that he was tired of listening to the radio while he waited in the long inspection lines….so he began praying those prayers instead. When he died that following May there really weren’t long inspection lines anymore at the military gates….but he still had that prayer book tucked in by his seat belt. I have now since passed the prayer book on to one of Chris’ relatives who I felt he might like to have it…..but at that moment, when I was still struggling with my new role as a single mother, I was once again struck by the depth of my late husband’s faith….how many of us actually spent those long hours waiting to get on the military base PRAYING for others??? I certainly never did.
At around 2:30 on the afternoon of May 8th, I laid down to nurse Jessie to sleep (Joey took his nap as well.) I dozed off, but I woke up the most AMAZING warm session-it started at my head and then went down through my entire body…I can’t describe it except that it was the most peaceful sensation I ever felt in my life. I just laid there, not wanting it to end, but then Joey rolled over and hit my arm and I was so saddened because the sensation was gone. I rolled over and the alarm clock said, “3:30,” which is approximately when the planes collided and Chris died. About an hour later I went to turn on the tv to start a video for Joey so I could cook supper….the tv came on with “Breaking news: Two Navy planes have crashed off of Pensacola at approximately 3:30 pm today”…..and I knew….deep down I knew my husband was dead. I knew that the warm sensation I felt pulsing through my body was Chris saying good-bye to me.
I called the squadron, identified myself as Lt. Christopher Starkweather’s wife and told them I wanted to know when my husband’s plane landed. I heard the poor flight student forget to put me on hold and say to the officer standing next to him, “It’s Lt. Starkweather’s wife, what do I say?”…..And I knew…..I called the only other military student wife I knew and asked her and her husband to come to my house…..and God bless them, they did. They all knew Chris was dead, but they came and didn’t say a word since the military officials hadn’t showed up to tell me…..I called Chris’ mom to tell her that there had been a plane crash-she later said that I was so calm when I was telling her that I didn’t know if it was Chris or not…..at approximately 6:30 pm I asked two of the flight students to take me to the squadron so that I could get answers. We passed two military officials and a military wife in a car on the street, so we turned around and came back to the house. They informed me that a “mishap” had occurred and that the Navy was currently performing “search and rescue…” so even though I knew that those stupid T-39 Sabreliners didn’t have ejection seats….really who trains flight students without ejection seats…..I began to have hope, maybe Chris was alive….maybe they would find him clinging to part of the airplane….but still deep down, I knew……Chris was gone and my life would never be the same. (It took the military so long to get to my house because they were trying to find a Catholic chaplain to help break the news. Chris had asked for that on some paperwork. I now tell military wives not to click that box. If something happens you just want to know as soon as possible.)
May 8th was a Wednesday……flash forward to Saturday afternoon….Jessie was sleeping and I had the baby monitor on to hear her when she woke up….several people were at our house and the baby monitor began to make a low squawking sound that it had never made before that day or ever since that day. After a few minutes one of the flight students asked why it was making that sound, to which I again calmly reply, “It’s Chris talking to Jessie.” I now fondly remember how he looked at this “crazy woman” telling him that…I say fondly because he’s the ONE flight student who has kept contact with me for these twelve years….he began trying to figure out what was “interfering” with the baby monitor-maybe someone was flying a remote control airplane outside, etc., etc., but approximately twenty minutes later the low squawking noise stopped and Jessie woke up crying……at the time I believe that knowledge came from God-I had such peace about that event.
About two weeks later, after having survived the three memorial services for Chris, I was crying one afternoon when Joey-who wasn’t even two yet-came up to me and said, “Dada in bathroom.” He then pulled me down the hall to the bathroom and pointed inside saying, “Dada.” I stood there for several minutes, not actually sure what to do. I couldn’t ask Joey to ask Chris any questions-he was a little too young for that…..so I just stood there and eventually said, “I love you Chris” before walking away….but I know that event brought me some comfort for the day. Flash forward about three weeks later. We were at a beach with another family when I see and hear Joey start jumping up and down, saying “Daddy, daddy, daddy!” I watch him standing on the beach looking down as if Chris were crouched in front of him talking to him the way Chris would always get down on the ground at his eye level. There wasn’t any person in front of Joey-no man or anything….just sand directly where Joey was looking. The male friend we were with was convinced that Joey saw someone who looked like Chris, but I knew he was seeing Chris, because it was the exact position that I had seen Chris talk to him a million times….in fact it was the position that I had seen them crouched a few weeks before Chris died when I had actually had a premonition that Chris would die and I had asked God, “How will I survive without him?” But I had “shrugged off” the premonition convincing myself that if it did happen it would be when he was deployed-NOT when he was training at a squadron that had just celebrated 25 years without a single plane accident.
About one month later I was in crisis mode again…..the church we attended did not have a cry room and it was a struggle to take both babies to church by myself…I cried…they cried….we were a mess at every mass. I was once again crying in church, praying about what to do…should I stay at that church, should I come without my children since people had offered to watch the babies so I could come by myself, should I go to a different church that did have a cry room….at the moment of consecration, Joey grabbed my hand, pointed at the altar and said, “Daddy!” I asked him, “What did you say?” He said, “Daddy is kneeling up there!” and he pointed at the altar in front of the priest. “Daddy is kneeling up there!”….oh, to have the faith and eyes of a child-to be able to see the veil between heaven and earth opened…to see that truly during the mass heaven and earth are joined as we worship God in heaven….that the saints in heaven are worshipping as we are worshipping our God! Oh, how sweet an answered prayer can be!
That answered prayer gave me strength, especially when several times after that people would offer to “watch the kids at home” for me so I could go to mass alone….eventually after I had replied, “No, they will come because Joey has seen his father kneeling on the altar during consecration” we were adopted by a family who tried their best to help me…but of course Joey and Jessie both just wanted to be held by mommy.
Now we flash forward approximately 16 months later….outside of several “our songs” coming on the car radio when I would be praying about one crisis or another nothing else unusual has happened supernaturally. I am driving home from working in Tallahassee for the day and I am a wreck….I have only a few months to decide to move somewhere….Normally a military widow has to move within a year of her husband’s death in order for the military to pay for it. (It’s only six months if you are “fortunate” enough to live in military housing…..or if you were the wife of the Saudi Arabian military officer that died in the same plane collision with my husband it was less than one week. I still can’t believe that they moved her and her five children back to Saudi Arabia to her father’s house in less than one week. Yep, just one more reason I am glad to be American.) I had applied and been granted an extension to my military move-I now have to move by the second anniversary of Chris’ death….I had thought I was going to move to one place, but that had fallen through……and I began to realize that I don’t know WHO on earth I am…..who actually is Stephanie Starkweather without Chris Starkweather? I can’t breathe when I am in Pensacola-the sound of every Navy jet, especially those Blue Angels whose flight paths went over our rental house every day pierce my heart…..I have already painfully decided that I can’t go home to Fort Atkinson…..that I couldn’t live in our wonderful home town where we had first fallen in love….So, where does one go if you can’t go home to your family?....Where do you attempt to go find yourself when you are a single mom with two children? How do I begin to attempt to start providing for the kids? Do I try to find another theater administration job? But then what kind of life is that for my kids? I couldn’t be a “soccer mom” then-people go to the theater on weekends and evenings….do I go back to school like everyone has been encouraging me to do? What do I go to school for? All these questions are pushing through my brain as I try to calmly drive the three hours home to Pensacola…..Joey, now 3 ½ says, “Mommy, daddy is here in the van with us.”……and I start to cry…… “Mommy, daddy is here in the van with us.”….. “Where is he Joey?” “He’s here, next to my car seat.” I don’t ask any more questions….apply to grad school for my masters it is then……And I once again thank Chris and tell him I love him.
So, you would think that I would have it under control right? With all these signs of God’s providence and Chris’ intercession in our life? No, I don’t….I still continue to have crisis after crisis. Flash forward to the month before I am to leave Pensacola for the oasis of Steubenville, Ohio and I am in crisis mode again. I have now returned from a massive ten day road trip with my Pensacola best friend….her, me, a rental van, her two kids plus my two kids and one teenage sister-in-law road trip to Steubenville and back….I am now in the process of closing on a house that I bought while in Steubenville for less than three days and I am FREAKING out…..the reality of what I am about to take on is hitting me because Joey and Jessie are both sick, which means they can’t go to the military in home day care provider I have….what will happen when they get sick and I am in grad school? Why am I moving to a place where the only people I sort of know is my realtor and the famous Kimberly and Scott Hahn, who recommended the realtor to me, but with whom I only talked to for less than ten minutes at an event? Why am I feeling like God is calling me to study theology? Why study theology in Ohio instead of in Wisconsin at Marquette? How am I going to pass grad school for a field that I never studied in undergrad as a single mom with two kids?
Joey and Jessie were finally well enough to go to the day care and I head to mass. I go to a church that I had never attended before in Pensacola. After mass I pull out a St. Padre Pio rosary to pray with….as I grab it out of my purse I think to myself that I should get rid of this rosary because it was given to me by someone who had just hurt me very badly and whenever I grab the rosary I think about them and I feel the pain all over again….I begin to cry though about all those questions listed above that I am stressing over….I also once again pray that God will give me a sign when Chris is no longer in purgatory. (I will not defend nor explain the Catholic Church’s teachings on purgatory. Go to one of the Catholic apologetic blogs to find out more. I am simply telling my story and this prayer is a big part of it.) I had prayed that prayer about wanting a sign almost daily since Chris had died. I notice a woman who keeps looking over at me, but I figure that’s because I am crying. As I later began to leave the church this woman comes running back through the doors and says, “Oh thank God you are still here!”
She then tells me that she has a message from me from St. Padre Pio. She begins looking over my should as if St. Padre Pio (and Chris) were standing behind me….she says, “Do you know someone who died that was in the military?” I say, “Yes, my husband was in the Navy and he died.” She looks back over my shoulder and says, “Father wants you to know that he is holding your husband’s hand.” (She called “Padre Pio” father because he was a priest-that was his title.) She tells me some other things-mostly that everything is going to be okay-I think my brain mostly turned off once I realized that she was telling me that Chris was in heaven, that he was no longer in purgatory.
I am overjoyed, but most family members (and probably my friends) just think I am plain crazy….most likely because they don’t believe in purgatory. A few weeks later I go to start packing up the most important stuff I own-all of our pictures that I am going to take in our van and not let the movers touch…..I go to the top drawer of Chris’ dresser…The drawer that I had placed the memorial flag in that was given to me at the huge memorial service that thousands of people had attended in Pensacola…..the drawer that I had occasionally opened, but never emptied or touched since May 15th, 2002….I lift the folded flag out of the drawer and underneath it is a St. Padre Pio prayer card!....at that moment I see myself almost two years earlier opening that drawer, moving Chris’ stuff out of the way and briefly see the prayer card, but I just shove that flag into the drawer….that flag where they say, “On behalf of a grateful nation”…that flag that means the end of my husband and his military career dream that we had shared, suffered and worked for……under that painful patriotic flag is a prayer card for a saint that I didn’t know Chris had a devotion/relationship with….you see, unlike most Catholics, Chris didn’t have a lot of religious objects. He had one bible, one crucifix and one rosary. He didn’t own a catechism until the year I came into the church, and that “Golden Book of Prayers” was the only book of prayers we owned until after he died…..he was a minimalist Catholic, but his faith was strong and deep....in fact that St. Padre Pio prayer card was the only one I found among his things….so someone I met after Chris died gave me a rosary that had a saint medal on it for the one saint that Chris had a devotion to….and that is the saint who sends me a message via a woman I had never seen at mass before nor ever saw again…..
Oh, how I wish that I could tell you that I am one of those “blessed” spiritual children of Padre Pio, the ones who say that they smell the scent of flowers after asking for his prayers in heaven….that I have never experienced….and I have never had anyone else ever come to tell me a message directly while seeing Padre Pio again….but I do have my Katie, who was finally conceived after a friend, who did not know the above story, give me her prescious Padre Pio medal to pin under my bed pillow-she reminded me to ask for Padre Pio to pray to God that Jason and I would finally conceive a baby after sixteen months of negative pregnancy results….and we conceived Katie that same month!
The last thing that I can tell you is that in special blessed moments though, I can feel my late hubby with me. I was terrified that I would lose that when I left Pensacola….because I could still “feel” Chris presence in that rental home. I had actually offered to buy the house twice, but was denied both times, even after I said they could name their price…..When I was having a panic attack about leaving the house, my “Pensacola best friend” asked me, “Steph, where do you feel Chris in this house?” Now, Colleen had NEVER met my hubby, we met after his death. “I feel him when I sit in the rocking chair where he said, ‘Good-bye’ and I feel him when I look out our kitchen window to where he would crouch down and talk to Joey while he played with him in the back yard. I feel him when I step over the baby gate in our house.” Colleen begins to tear up and she says, “I didn’t know Chris, but those are the places that I feel him as well. I have felt him when I have babysat your kids and I don’t believe that you are going to lose that when you move.”…..and she was right. I can still feel him at times when I sit in the blue rocking chair he bought when he found out I was pregnant with Joey…..and I can feel him/see him crouched down looking at the kids sometimes….and Joey and Jessie both have contagious laughs like Chris did…..I feel my hubby all around my kids.
And so for all these reasons it’s okay that May 8th means more to me than it does to my children…..it means that I have made the goal I set for myself after Chris died…..that I did not want my kids walking around with a chip on their shoulder because their dad died…..that it would be an event in their life, but not THE event that shaped what their lives became…so it’s okay that whenever I say, “Tomorrow is May 8th” and the kids start naming off one of the five extended family member’s May birthdays or Jason says, “Oh, it’s this or that feast day?”….it’s okay…and I just look at them intently and say, “It’s May 8th” and they all then go, “Oh, it’s Chris day.”….it’s okay…..I did my job just fine….the fact that they don’t make a fuss about having to attend daily mass that day where I will cry or that I need some “quiet time” like playing at a park amidst all the end of the year activities is okay….the fact that the littles are starting to try to understand that Joey and Jessie had a different daddy in heaven is okay…..hopefully the long term impression will be made on all the kids though that they will try to remember the day I die…but it’s okay if they don’t, because I know that life doesn’t end when we die…I’ll be there helping to guide them towards heaven…..reaching out through whichever song they connect with me on the radio or whatever mystical ways God decides to use…..
May you all feel the sweetness of God’s peace in your life,