"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Sunday, October 10, 2010

From Bride to Widow: by CJ Heck

Doug and I on our Wedding Day
The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief -- but the pain of grief is only a shadow compared to the pain of not risking to love at all.

The worst day of my life was September 13, 1969. Actually, there were more than that one day, but that's the one day I can talk about, at least for now.

I was living at my childhood home in Ohio with my parents at the time. I had married my high school sweetheart, Doug Kempf, in January, and though in our hearts we were still newlyweds, Uncle Sam had other plans and in May, he sent Doug to Vietnam.

In Vietnam, he wore a different hat. There, he was a combat medic: SP4; RA; HHC, 4th BN, 12th INF, 199th LIB.

Doug and I shared a good life from January to May in 1969. 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 dreamed and loved and planned our future for when he returned.

We would have an old Victorian with lots of bedrooms, oak woodwork, a huge kitchen to entertain family and friends, and a large front porch with a wooden swing where we could cuddle, read a book, or watch thunder storms together, something we loved to do.

We had decided on three children -- two boys and a girl. The boys would be tall, handsome, and have their dad's slightly bowed legs, legs that loved to dance, and his infectious laugh and sense of humor. They would grow up to be good men with strength of character. Like their father, they would be smart, and kind, gentle husbands, loving and playful fathers, as well as proud and fiercely patriotic.

Our little girl would be (in Doug's words) "Pretty, like her mommy, with big blue eyes and just a touch of tomboy to defend herself from her big brothers ... but always 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 say with certainty, it never occurred to me that Doug wouldn't return home.

Our letters were happy and full of love. The intimate moments we'd shared were written about and yearned for in the letters between us. But what we wanted most, and what we actually had, was breaking my heart and I counted the days to our 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 blocks from my parents' home. That afternoon, mother called me at work. "Honey, you'd better come home. There are some men 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 on my desk and with my heart in my throat, I ran out of the building. I didn't stop running until four blocks later, in front of the house I grew up in, the home where I had always felt safe and loved.

I was filled with fear and dread. Parked in front of the house and looking out of place, was a large black car with something printed along the side. I gathered my courage and climbed the front steps and opened the front door.

Just inside the foyer stood two uniformed men locked to attention, their hands behind their backs, hat tucked under an arm. Their faces were somber. Daddy and mama stood nearby. Daddy had his arm around mama's waist and she was crying softly.

[No. No. No. Dear God, why are they here? No, wait, I don't want to know. Go away. Please, 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 God, 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 and sound so normal? The sun still shined through the front windows with Mama's white curtains swaying in a light breeze. The birds still sang outside in the gnarled old apple tree I used to climb as a child -- and where Doug and I had carved our initials inside a heart. A neighbor somewhere was mowing his lawn, and I could hear children laughing and playing in their yard.

Only a few minutes ago, that had still been real. Now it clashed with a 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. 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 nervously asked me to be his wife and I accepted.

No, nothing would ever be the same again. My life was changed forever and I felt helpless and so completely alone, even though I was surrounded by people who cared and who also grieved. 

All I could do was cry, and I remember fighting a growing anger at God. How could You do this? Why would You reach down inside me and rip out my heart? And always, there was the question, Why?

There was so much grief and hurt and I went through the following weeks and months and years in a fog. There are some things about that time that I can't remember at all, but there is 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 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.  And the reason is, because I know what real hurt is." 

For the rest of your life, that one 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 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 ...

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

You are invited to add an opinion, thought, or comment, about this post. Or, write about anything you want to share and send it to me in an e-mail and I will post it for you.  E-mail CJ

Memoirs From Nam is YOUR blog.


  1. From Facebook:

    Jan Hoffman
    Tears streaming ~ Thank you sooooo much for sharing this, Cathy. I can only imagine how heart-wrenching this must have been for you, even now. (standing ovation & clapping)

  2. CJ Heck
    It was a difficult piece for me to write, Jan, (so close to my heart) and I thank you for reading it and for your caring warmth in commenting on it.

  3. From Facebook:

    Brandy Jo Broadwater
    Thank you very much for sharing! As a military wife that is one of the worst things most of us can imagine. Big hugs to you!

  4. CJ Heck
    I'm sure you do understand, Brandy, only too well. Thank you so much for reading and for taking time to so thoughtfully comment.
    A big hug back.

  5. From Facebook:

    Dawn Harsh Fitch
    And you were just a kid, so was he. You will see him again some day! But for now, hugs coming your way. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. CJ Heck
    Thank you, Dawn! I know you're right.

  7. From Facebook:

    Gabby Streck
    Love the story but could not even finish it. It was heartbreaking. I feel for you for what you had to go through.
    {Hugs} Gabby

  8. CJ Heck
    Thank you for trying, Gabby. That means a lot to me -- Memoirs is becoming a real community now, I think because more and more are contributing and sharing parts of themselves and it's allowing others to open up too. Every now and then I will write something.

    It's hard for me to write about that time, but no harder for me than for these vets and their families ... God bless them all. I have a wonderful story for today's blog -- the woman saw yesterday's blog and was inspired. It's happening, my friend, and I couldn't feel more honored ... thanks again, Gabby.
    Hugs to you,

  9. Thank you for sharing this. Very courageous and real, it took me back all those years and, oddly enough, it gave me a new appreciation for what my mother went through. I was single when I went to Vietnam, but my departure for war must have put mom's heart through a wringer. I'm sorry for your loss, and thanks again for sharing the story.

    1. Thank you, Byron. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.


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