A/N: Tissue Warning! This story deals with the immediate aftermath of Jeremy's suicide and follows Denise and Frank through those first difficult days.
Thanks to Jan for proofing and Paula for helping with some of the tougher scenes. I look forward to your comments.
When Was the Day?
Roland Burton rushed into the ER waiting area of Mercer Army Medical Center with Sara Elizabeth strapped to his back. He couldn't believe it when Claudia Joy had called and told him Jeremy had tried to kill himself. He knew as a psychiatrist that losing a friend in combat was trying for any soldier, but for a kid on his first tour who'd been struggling with emotional and anger issues anyway, it was far worse than normal. Still, he'd spoken to Denise about it privately and she'd assured him Jeremy was okay, that he only needed time to heal.
Claudia Joy was already there along with Roxy and Michael, but he didn't see Pamela. Roland went over to the trio. "Where are they? Do you know anything?"
"Denise went to find Frank. He went to get some air a few minutes ago and she took off after him," Roxy explained. "I offered to run and get her a change of clothes but she wasn't interested in that at all. She didn't even seem to hear me."
"And Frank?" Roland prompted, his instincts telling him the paternal figure would take this harder than the maternal one.
"He's just as saturated with blood as Denise is. He's not talking to anyone," Claudia Joy replied. "Frank was the first one in there."
"He's seen…things like that before though, right? You can't be in the Army and…" Roxy began.
"Yes, but it's different when it's one of your children," Michael said his voice tight. "I remember with Amanda, and it wasn't as gruesome as this must have been but I still see it."
Claudia Joy leaned on Michael just a bit as he struggled with the memory of their dead daughter. "This is going to destroy Denise. He's their only child and from what I understand he's the only child Denise was able to carry."
"Denise is strong, she'll come through it," Roland offered. "It's Frank I'm more worried about."
Denise found Frank pacing in front of the trauma room where the doctors were working on Jeremy. He stopped when she approached him and reached his arms out to her. She stepped into them and held on tight. "I'm so sorry, Dee," he whispered into her hair. "I'm so sorry. I thought it was okay, I thought he was okay."
"I know you did," Denise soothed. "I know you did. It's okay."
"God, Dee, this mess is a lot of things, but one thing it isn't is okay," Frank snapped and pulled away from his wife. "Our son is dying. Do you get that?"
"Yes," Denise replied. "I was the one doing CPR the whole way over here. I definitely, "get it.""
"Then how can you say it's going to be okay, huh?" Frank asked his throat quivering as he fought to hold back the tears threatening to spill over his eyes. "How can you say…?"
"Because I have to believe that, Frank, because if I stop believing that for one second I won't be able to breathe," Denise declared, her chest heaving up and down trying to suppress the panic and the fear rising from her stomach. "I know what a wound like that can do and I know that even if he survives this, he'll never be Jeremy anymore, he'll never be our Jeremy ever again. Y…We wanted him to join the Army to make himself a better man…now he might never get a chance to be a man at all."
With those words Denise broke. She raised her hands over her face to hide her eyes from view and sobbed with every ounce of strength she had inside of her. If not for Frank's arms firmly encircling her waist she'd have collapsed to the floor in a puddle of maternal torment.
Pamela practically flew through the hospital doors and quickly located the group of friends she'd come to know better than her own family. She didn't see Denise or Frank but everyone else was there huddled together in a small group.
"Hey, I came as soon as I got the message. What happened? Does anyone know?" Pamela asked, accepting the wave of hugs that came her way.
"Nothing for sure," Claudia Joy replied. "Frank called Michael and told him Jeremy had been shot and Denise was asking for all of us to come. Michael told Frank to go be with Denise and asked me to call the rest of you."
"Denise didn't call on her own?" Pamela's tone conveyed her surprise.
"No, Frank called," Michael confirmed. "And if the sound of his voice didn't tell me something awful had happened, him calling me Michael instead of 'Sir' would have."
"For Frank to breach protocol like that it must have been bad," Roland sighed. He knew Frank Sherwood well; he was the most proper soldier on the entire post. "Did he say anything more than that?"
"Yeah, he told me he was worried for Denise, that she wasn't acting right just then. He was afraid she was heading for shock but she seemed to have pulled it together by the time we got here. Frank's the one who's a mess."
"What made him think she was in shock?" Roxy was curious. She tended to ask more questions than Michael cared for but she was a good friend to him and to Claudia Joy. He smiled and obliged her with an answer. "Well, it seems…"
Earlier That Night
"He's been down almost fourteen minutes," Denise told the trauma team that greeted her and two other medics at the doors of Mercer Army Hospital. "CPR started within a minute, blood loss estimated at six to seven units, entry wound packed and field dressed at the scene, no exit wound."Thank you, Mrs. Sherwood. We'll take it from here," one of the trauma nurses Denise barely remembered told her, trying to push her back from the gurney.
"But…" Denise tried to protest, but Frank pulled her back.
"Dee, come on, Baby," he whispered softly. "Come one, let them do their jobs"
"But I know what to do. I know what he needs, I…" Denise stammered, protesting and fighting Frank's increasingly strong hold on her upper arms.
"I know you do. I know you do, but not now, Sweetheart. Not now…" Frank tried to reason and get through to his wife.
Denise kept fighting Frank's grip until she was pushing so hard he was afraid he'd hurt her if he held on any tighter. Still, he had to keep her out of that room. He knew what was going to happen in there and he didn't want his wife's final memories of their son to be of his dead body. He'd failed her enough already, he was the reason this had happened. If he couldn't protect Jeremy from the pain of losing a friend or his wife from losing her child he had to protect her from watching it happen. If the tables were turned and it was Denise trying to restrain him she'd know exactly what to say, it seemed he never knew what to say to her or to Jeremy.
"Help me," Frank prayed, still fighting to maintain his grip on Denise's arms. "God, please help me."
The minute Frank completed that prayer Denise stopped struggling and turned in his arms so she was facing him. A minute after that her hands were on his face and she was speaking to him. "With what honey?" she asked. "Tell me how. I'm here. I'm right here, just tell me. Did you get hurt?"
Frank pulled back to look into his wife's eyes. "What? No! Dee, Baby you aren't making any sense."
"You said, "Help me," Frank," Denise replied. "You asked me to help you, and I will, I promise I will if you'll tell me…"
Frank realized then he must have said the words out loud. Denise's eagerness to help and do something for someone was the answer to his prayer. He went with that and followed his instincts, needing to do anything he could to keep her out of the trauma room and under control.
"Come on with me and sit down, uh, I need…You know what's going on in there, what they're doing. Help me understand what's going on with our boy. Please?"
It actually worked because not even a full minute later Denise and Frank were sitting side by side in the ER waiting area holding each other's hands as she explained the various treatments that were being used to help Jeremy survive.
As Denise completed her dissertation, an ER nurse appeared from the restricted area. "Colonel, Mrs. Sherwood, we're taking your son up to the OR to try and repair the damage and get a better idea of the severity of this and an accurate prognosis, but by the look of things…"
"We should call our family and friends and prepare for the worst," Denise parroted. "The Chaplain is available if we need him so let you know if we'd like to speak with him, I know the speech. I've delivered it a hundred times myself. I always knew it was a load of crap, just something to say to keep the hysterical family members from disrupting the routine, but I didn't realize how insulting it is until right now. "
Denise ended her tirade by turning her body into Frank's. The ER nurse retreated quickly saying, "Someone will be out shortly to discuss your son's case in more detail," over her shoulder as she disappeared beyond the automatic doors.
"Dee, she's only trying to help," Frank comforted stroking her hair. "No one knows what to say. I don't know what to say…"
"Say you'll go call Claudia Joy and the others. I need them here, I need them here with me," Denise cried biting back her sobs.
Her words cut Frank like a knife. He was here with her, their marriage was good, stronger than ever, but she was still crying out for other people. That didn't make sense, but none of this did. With a tight hug and a tender kiss on her forehead Frank assured her, "I'll go do that right now. Just sit tight and I'll get it done."
"The next thing we know was our phone started ringing and Frank was telling me about Jeremy," Michael concluded.
"By the time we got here I think Frank had been able to get Denise calmed down but now that she was okay for the moment, he didn't know how to handle it," Claudia Joy theorized. "Once I got here for Denise, he took off. Michael went after him but Frank was a clam."
"Denise was definitely worried about him," Roxy added. "I think that's why she was so spaced out."
"She's afraid of losing them both," Roland finished the thought Roxy had let hang in the balance.
"Why won't they tell us anything?" Frank demanded as he paced in front of the OR. "I mean, we're the kid's parents, if anyone has the right to know what's going on it should be us."
"They'll tell us when they have something to tell us," Denise said gently. "Just like the Army. When your chopper crashed, I wanted to know everything right then, how you were, where you were, if you were hurt or if you needed me…I wanted to fly to Iraq. Did Jeremy tell you that?"
Frank shook his head, "No, but I'd have skinned that boy if he'd let you leave the house. I'd have tied you up and shoved in you in a closet before I'd let you go over there."
"Yeah," Denise sighed. "I'd have done the same before I'd let Jeremy go over there too but I didn't have a choice in that and if word had come back that you were hurt nothing anyone could have done would have kept me from going to you."
Frank stopped his pacing and went to hold Denise in his arms. He rocked side to side with his face buried in her hair. "I know you would have. I wonder if Michael every told Claudia Joy about the night that bar you all hung at…Bump…"
"The Hump Bar," Denise supplied. "I don't think they remember much about that night."
"I got word through a Delta fighter that you were there; I was moving heaven and earth trying to get home to you, to be there when you needed me. I wasn't there though, again, you had to deal with your grief and Jeremy's and everyone's alone, without your husband, you know?"
"It's what my mother did, your mother, and their mothers…" Denise reasoned.
"Different times then, Baby," Frank sighed. "Thinking back on it like I have, I wasn't there when you needed me. I wasn't there when…Annie…died, I wasn't there when Jeremy got sick that first time, I wasn't there when you lost your Daddy, or when Jeremy was…was hurting you…I promised you I'd be there and I never was, was I?"
"Frank, you were and are a wonderful husband to me and father to Jeremy…"
Frank's shoulders began to shake when Denise said that and he held on tighter. "Oh God, Baby how did I screw this up so bad? How did I do this? Huh? If I'm such a wonderful husband and father why did I nearly lose you? Why is our boy in surgery for…How did we get here?"
"I don't know," Denise soothed. "I don't know but I do know it has nothing to do with what kind of father you are or what kind of man. I raised Jeremy mostly on my own, you're right, so if anyone should be asking themselves "how" it should be me. You warned me too, don't coddle him, but I did it anyway. He was our only baby, the only one I could have and I had so much love to give…"
"That whole baby thing was selfish of me, too, Denise," Frank sighed. "I was so afraid of what might happen that I robbed you and Jeremy and myself of another child for us, a little brother or sister for Jeremy."
"I was so sick with both pregnancies, it was the right thing to do, especially with you deployed so much, you didn't need that kind of distraction," Denise absolved. "And he's quite a man now, so much like you and nothing like you all at the same time."
Frank and Denise held each other a little while longer then he pulled back. "Your friends are all here by now I'm sure. Why don't you go sit with them for awhile? I know you need to be around other mothers and I…I want to be alone for a little bit."
"No, I mean yes, I want to see my friends, but I don't want to leave you in case…" Denise began.
"I won't be ten minutes behind you," Frank assured her. "I just need some time."
Leaning over to kiss Frank's lips Denise nodded, "Okay. I'll send for you if anything comes up before you get back, okay? I love you."
"I love you, too," Frank replied. "I'll be quick."
Only he wasn't.
Denise arrived in the waiting area and was quickly surrounded by hugs and well wishes.
Inside the hug Denise spoke, "Thank you so much for this. I'm not sure we'd make it through this without you."
"You'd do the same for me," Claudia Joy replied. "You did do the same for me. Now, why don't you let Roxy and Pamela go over to your place and get some clean clothes and other things you'll need."
Denise agreed this time and wrote out a short list of the items they needed and assured Roland she'd call the minute they knew something so that he could take a fussy Sarah Elizabeth home. Soon the only people in the room were Michael, Claudia Joy, and Denise.
"How are you holding up, Sweetheart?" Claudia Joy asked her best friend.
"I'm okay," Denise replied. "For now anyway. I know Jeremy is getting the best care available for him and I have to trust the doctors to know how to help him."
"And Frank?" Michael asked. "How's he? Where is he anyhow?"
"He said he wanted to be alone for a few minutes but that was more than a few minutes ago," Denise sighed. "I'd better go look for him. He's battling, he's blaming himself."
"It's hard not to do that," Claudia Joy admitted. "I went over it every day for a while, what if I'd just kept driving? And the answer is, we'll never know but I had Emmalin and Michael, and all of you who needed me to be focused and strong and continue living my life and eventually I realized I stopped that day because that's what I do, that's who I am, and the biggest gift I gave my daughters was to teach them to be true to themselves. Frank will realize that too."
Michael spoke up, "Probably around the same time my father did. When he was standing with me outside the nursery after Emmalin was born. He didn't want his son to go into the Army, he wanted anything but and for a long time he held himself responsible for my joining the service and missing the things that I missed in my marriage and Amanda's life. That's when he told me the single most important piece of advice I think I ever heard from anyone, he said, "Teach her to be who she is by showing her who you are." I never forgot that."
Denise offered Michael a weak smile. "There's one huge difference there, Michael. Your father got to see you grow up." Denise rose, "I really need to go look for Frank."
"Why don't you let me do that?" Michael asked just as one of the surgeons working on Jeremy appeared in the waiting room.
Michael paused and watched as the doctor approached. He'd been on this side of the nightmare before not too long ago and he could tell by the stance of this medical professional that the news was not good. "Mrs. Sherwood, Lt. Col…Where is Lt. Colonel Sherwood?" the doctor asked.
"He, uh…" Michael began but Frank called out as he approached.
"I'm right here," he said as he hurried to Denise's side. "I'm here. How's our boy?"
"It's not good," the doctor sighed. "The brain stem was significantly damaged by the impact of the bullet when it entered the skull and while for the time being we are able to keep your son alive using artificial means, it's highly unlikely he'll survive the night and if he does, it will be in a persistent vegetative state."
"So what you're saying is, he isn't dead but he might as well be. Did I get that right?" Frank asked for clarity. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Why the Hell didn't you just let him go then? What purpose did putting him and us through that operation serve?"
"We had every reason to suspect that…" the doctor began.
"That's bull!" Frank spat. "That is bull. You didn't think you could help him from the moment we came in here but you just had to go rooting around in his head, couldn't leave well enough alone and let the boy die in peace? Could you?" Frank waited for a beat then it dawned on him. "It's cause of his organ donor card, isn't it? That's why you aren't helping him. Because someone else's son needs my son's heart or lungs? That's why, isn't it? Well, might as well get back to work because I'm not signing a damned thing!"
"Frank," Denise broke in. "Frank, sweetheart, that's not true, honey. They were doing their jobs, they did all they could. Trust me, they did all they could. It's done now and there's nothing we can do to change it. Let's not waste the time Jeremy has left down here arguing. Let's go be with our son."
Frank backed off and took Denise's hand and together they walked to the SICU. On their way to the room where their son was Frank turned to Denise, "I'm not signing anything. He's not going to be someone else's cutting board, no way so don't even think about trying to talk me into it, Dee. The answer is no."
Denise knew the only acceptable answer right now was to nod her head.
Jeremy's bed was in the very back of the room and Denise knew from experience that this is where they put the cases deemed hopeless by the experts. They were never wrong.
As badly as Denise wanted to maintain a clinical detachment, she wasn't able to do that when she saw her only child lying pale as death on an ICU bed attached to an assortment of medical technology, technology that was the only thing keeping him alive. She began to cry when it hit her that without that tube and pressure system pushing air into Jeremy's lungs he'd be dead. With a sob she turned toward Frank and buried herself in his arms.
Frank held Denise as tight as he could and ran his hands up and down her back trying to soothe her. As he held her close to his heart he remembered another time he'd held onto her in a hospital in much this same manner, ten hours into her labor with Jeremy.
Ft. Hood Medical Center
Near Killeen, Texas
"Denise, baby," Frank sighed. "You should be doing this in bed. We don't want the kid being born upside down."
"Yes we do," Denise argued. "They are supposed to come out head first."
"I know that, angel, but…" Frank sighed. "I don't see how this little dance here is doing anything to help you have the baby any faster."
"It's not, but it'll probably keep it from being an only child," Denise snapped. "This is the only position I can stand to be in. The pain is unbearable in that bed."
"There's always the drugs, baby," Frank sighed. "You don't have to do it like this, you can…"
"Shut up!" Denise hissed. "I'm not having drugs that might hurt our baby because you don't want to be seen with a fat lady with the biggest ankles known to man! This is your fault so stand there and help me or get away from me."
Frank held her a little tighter, "Okay, sweetheart. I'm sorry you're hurting so badly. I love you and I am so proud of you for doing this even after…"
"Aaah…:" Denise cried out. "Oh…it hurts…"
"Don't hold your breath, remember to breathe deeply," Frank coached. "Like we learned in that class."
"We…you weren't even there for half…" Denise cried out again and doubled over in pain the only thing keeping her on her feet was Frank's strength.
Just like now…
Mercer Army Medical Center
Ft. Marshall, South Carolina
When Denise pulled back she could see the tears hovering inside Frank's eyes. Two spilled over as he asked, "How long will it be before…"
"It won't uh, happen with the machines," Denise replied. "When we turn them off probably it'll be only a couple minutes. He isn't in pain; we can take our time saying goodbye."
"I'm not saying goodbye," Frank said firmly. "This isn't it for our boy. He's a fighter; he's always been a fighter. He's not going out like this, I won't let him and I won't let anyone tell me different."
With that Frank turned and quickly headed for the door leaving Denise staring after him.
Michael tore after Frank while Claudia Joy grabbed hold of Denise to keep her from following her husband. "Let Michael talk to him, Denise," she whispered into her friend's ear. "Frank needs to talk to another father, let Michael talk to him."
"This is hard enough without Frank taking off and insisting on things that can never be," Denise sighed. "Jeremy is brain dead, that's what those lines on the EEG machine mean, he is gone, the thing that made him our son is gone and nothing will bring it back at this point, the time for fixing this has been and gone and from where we are now there's nothing we can do except watch him die."
Michael caught up with Frank as he reached the elevator. "Frank, hold up."
"I'm sorry, Sir, I have to get out of here," Frank argued and punched the button on the elevator.
"I know this is hard," Michael began.
"With all due respect, for you and your loss, you don't know anything about this! Okay?" Frank snapped not caring anymore about rank or protocol.
"Okay, maybe I don't know what it was like for you to go into your house, your home and see your only child with a bullet in his skull, but I do know what it's like to feel like you failed," Michael countered. "I do know what it's like to ask yourself every minute of every day was there something I could have done differently. I know you are asking yourself that now."
"I'm asking myself how his own mother could give up on him like that," Frank argued. "He's not gone, my boy is not gone!"
"No, he's not gone but soon he will be and what are you going to do then? I'll tell you, you are going to ask yourself why on earth it was more important to you to fight the truth than to accept it and be with your son when he dies," Michael said desperate to reach his friend and colleague through the haze of grief.
"He's not going to die," Frank argued. "Denise said as long as he's hooked up like he is, he's not going to die, well no one is taking him off those machines. If anyone wants to they'll have to get through me first."
"Frank, it's hopeless. Do you hear yourself?" Michael asked. "His brain is gone; the thing that made him who he was is gone. His body is just a shell now."
The words hadn't left Michael's mouth before Frank was in his face. "You don't know that. Since when are you a doctor, telling me that? If I remember, you were the one that told me my boy wouldn't pull through the first time around when he got sick as a two year old. I remember sitting with you in theater praying to hear anything from Denise and you telling me my son probably wasn't gonna make it! But he did and he's here, alive and warm in that room!"
"Do you remember what else we talked about that night, Frank?" Michael asked his long time friend. "We talked about Denise and how much you wished you were there for her so you could help her through that. You have that chance now, to be there for her and help her and you're running away."
"I've never run away from a fight in my life," Frank shot back forgetting Michael was his superior officer. "I'm not going to start…That's what you're saying isn't it? There's nothing to fight for, is there?"
Michael shook his head. "No more fighting, Frank. It's time to stand down, man up, and be there for Denise. We are fathers and we love our children, but she's his mother, just think of what this is doing to her. She carried him inside of her for nine months, she fought with every ounce of strength in her to bring him into this world, she nursed him at her breast, she raised him when you were here and when you weren't. She needs her husband, she needs her friend."
Back in Jeremy's ICU cube Denise was staring at her son watching the machine breath air into his lungs. She kept turning towards the door watching for Frank's return. She was worried about him, he'd changed so much when it came to Jeremy but she knew somehow he'd blame himself for what had happened. The sad thing was it wasn't his fault, but hers.
Denise touched Jeremy's hand. "Do you think Michael can get through to him?" she asked Claudia Joy. "Frank can be pretty unreasonable when he wants to be. "
Claudia Joy smiled just a bit, "Who? Frank Sherwood? Never. I'm sure if anyone is getting through it's Michael. If not, he can order him to come back and listen to reason."
"Oh, no," Denise shook her head. "Frank doesn't take orders well in hospital rooms. I remember when Jeremy was born; my labor with him was so hard and long…over 30 hours…"
Ft. Hood Medical Center
Near Killen, Texas
"Lt. Sherwood," the OBGYN in charge of Denise's care said to the worried young husband. "A word please."
Frank lifted Denise's hand and kissed it. It was nearly limp in his grasp. She'd been pushing for over an hour and was getting very tired. Gently he laid her hand on her tummy, "I'll be right back baby."
Frank followed the doctor outside. "What's going on with her, doc?"
"She's getting weak, Lieutenant," the doctor replied. "She's been at this for hours and it's taking its toll on her. I'm not sure how much more we can put her through. Right now it looks like her labor is stalled and I'd like to err on the side of caution, go in now and get the baby out."
"Is the baby in danger?" Frank asked. "Is my wife in danger?"
"Not yet, but she's weakening," the doctor replied. "This is for the best."
"All right, I'll talk to her about it," Frank agreed. "We'll do whatever she wants. Our first baby, she delivered her early, a C-section and the baby died. Denise might not want another surgery, but I'll talk to her."
Frank went back to Denise's side. She was half asleep but opened her eyes when she felt him near her. He sat down next to her and held her hand, "Dee, I'm know you're getting really tired, sweetheart. Looks like this baby is going to have my temperament, but uh, your doctors think it's a good idea to go get the baby."
Denise shook her head, "No. No, I want to deliver myself. I can do it, Frank. I can."
"I know you can, love," Frank assured her. "But, anybody can see how tired you are. If this goes on too much longer you might not have the energy to get the baby out by yourself."
Through her exhaustion and fear for her unborn child, Denise began to cry. Frank reached out to brush away her tears. "I don't want it Frank. I don't want it, no surgery; I want to have our baby. Please."
Frank could never stand to see Denise cry even when she was being entirely unreasonable so he gave in for the time being, "Okay, Baby. We'll try a little longer; I'll help you, all right? I love you both so much."
Mercer Army Medical Center
Ft. Marshall, SC
"When the doctor came back in Frank told him in no uncertain terms that a C-section was out of the question unless it was down to no and never unless I asked for one," Denise recalled smiling at the memory. "I had to fight him even harder later when I still couldn't get Jeremy out, he almost overruled me, I'm not sure if he did it because he thought it was right or if he thought it would tick me off even to get me pushing. You know Frank, once he gets an idea in his head, it sticks like superglue and you have to work twice as hard to pry it loose and you did to get it into his thick skull in the first place."
"Calling me 'predictable' again?" Frank asked as he entered the room.
"No, I was calling you stubborn and thick headed," Denise sighed. "I was thinking about when Jer…"
Frank silenced Denise with a shake of his head. "Dee, come here a minute," Frank requested. Denise immediately followed him.
"Baby, I know you don't want to leave the hospital but I…I have to think and I need some time to just not be here, with everyone. Can we go home, just for a little bit? So we can decide how to handle this? Please, baby."
Denise looked back at her son lying so still on the ICU bed. He was dying, and she knew it and she couldn't stop it. She looked back at her husband and met his eyes, he was dying too, dying from the inside out, this she could stop or at least she could try to ease his pain. She nodded, "Okay. Okay, let's go home."
Denise quietly explained Frank's request to Michael and Claudia Joy who in turn intervened when Roxy and Pamela began to search for their friends. They knew it was important for Frank and Denise to have this time alone.
Frank didn't let go of Denise's hand the entire ride home. He was afraid if he stopped supporting her he'd break down. He kept his arms wrapped around her the entire way to the house then froze at the door.
He slowly brought his hand to the door knob and opened it, there right in front of their faces was what they both wished had been a scene from a horrible nightmare, their son's blood was soaked into the white carpet in the living room. He slowly made his way in but realized Denise wasn't beside him, he looked back and saw her standing frozen solid in the doorway "Dee, are you okay? " he asked, his voice shaking slightly. Instead of responding she turned and ran back toward the driveway.
Once outside Denise took a deep breath and, turned on her heel and walked back toward the house. "Fine, Frank," she replied walking into the house and past the blood bath as if she saw that scene every day of her life.
He knew she was lying he could see it in her eyes. She was heartbroken but was trying to be strong for the both of them. He followed where she had gone and found her in their son's room sitting staring blankly at the floor.
"Why don't you get a shower? You have blood all over you. It's hard to get used to that feeling, I'm used to it, hands smelling like metal, but you..." Denise sighed. "Or I could run you a bath if you want."
"No honey. It's okay; let's sit for a little while. I think we need to talk," he said trying to get her to talk about it. "No really, I'm okay let me run you a bath you need to get that blood off you," she said and left the room before he could respond.
Denise ran the hot water into their tub and added a bit of the sandalwood wash Frank used when his back was bothering him. When it was ready she went to find him. He was standing in the living room next to the blood staring at the gun box. He looked up at her with tears in his eyes, "It was my gun, Dee. He tried to kill himself with my gun."
"Oh Frank, don't go there, and don't even think of going there. This wasn't your fault. I hope you aren't going down that road because let me tell you something, you love him Frank. Everyone knew that including him," she said in a firm but comforting voice to try and reassure him that none of this was his fault
"No...No, he didn't Dee. If he did he'd never have done the things he did. He'd never have hurt you if he knew I loved him, it was me he was hitting, he admitted that. He'd never have done this, Denise, if he knew," Frank's voice was starting to crack as he fought tears.
She walked over beside him placing her hand on his back "Frank you can't do this to yourself. It's only going to make you feel worse. Jeremy may have been angry at you for a lot of things but he loved you. You were his father Frank," she said trying to get him to believe this had nothing to do with him.
"I am, I am his father, and as his father I was supposed to teach him to be a man, to teach him to respect his mother, respect himself, but he didn't. I failed him, Dee, and I failed you. And there isn't a day that goes by that I don't ask myself when it was? When was the day that I did whatever I did that made him how he was?" At that Frank broke and let his entire body drop to the floor like his heart dropped to his feet when he'd heard that gun go off.
Denise walked over and sat beside Frank and put her arms around him trying to comfort him "Shh, it's okay, Frank. You didn't fail me or him, he made those decisions on his own and as far as me, you have done nothing to fail me, I love you Frank don't ever forget that I love you more than life itself," she told him.
"He's dying, Dee," Frank sobbed into her chest. "Our baby is dying and I can't stop it. If I'd been faster, if I wasn't...maybe it would have been different, maybe he would have shot..."
Denise hung on even tighter if it were possible, "No! No, don't say that, don't even think it. If he had…I'd have lost you both, I'd have lost you and then he'd have turned that gun on himself and I would've lost him too. I can't lose you, Frank. I can't."
"You might anyway," Frank said still in Denise's arms. "I'm not sure I have it in me, Denise. I'm not sure I have it in me to bury another child. How can you be so calm about this? Huh?"
"I have to be," Denise replied. "If I'm not, not detached, if I look too close I won't be able to do what I have to do, which is to get us through this."
"That's my job to get you…You're his mother…" Frank replied.
Denise nodded, "I am his mother, and that's how I know that as sad and frightened as he was when he pulled that trigger, he's happy and safe now, he's with Annie and Amanda, and my father. It aches so much to see you so upset and to know that tomorrow we'll go to that hospital and make a choice that will cause us to lose our son, but inside I know he'll have peace, that's all he's ever really wanted, just peace."
"God, Denise, I wish I could feel that way, I wish I could be there for you," Frank said sniffling and finally getting some control over his emotions.
"You are here for me," Denise told him with a kiss on his temple. "You're my best friend and you've never let me down, not ever."
Frank offered her a tiny smile, "What do you say we both get cleaned up, that tub is big enough for two and I don't want to let you go right now."
With a nod, Denise took Frank's hand and led him to their bathroom to clean their son's blood off their hands and their hearts.
"I want to be the one to do it, Dee," Frank told Denise as they drove back toward the hospital the next morning. "I want to be the one who signs that paper, the one that says they can take him upstairs and get what he's got to give. I thought about what Jeremy said when he told me he signed the OD card in the sandbox, he said, 'That way my death would be worth something'. He deserves that, and I'd be selfish to deny him that. I want to set him free and I want it to be by someone who loves him, cares about him," Frank explained. "I just don't know if I'll have the strength to sign on that line, I just don't know, Dee."
"We'll do it together," Denise whispered. "We'll be each other's strength, just like always."
Frank nodded but didn't say anything; he just continued to drive to the hospital in silence. Denise was silent as well. She was thinking of what was going to happen when they arrived at the hospital and how she was going to find the courage to see Frank and herself through the ultimate in parental nightmares.
They walked into the hospital hand in hand and approached the ICU the same way. Denise spoke with Jeremy's doctors and told them of the decision she and Frank had made regarding Jeremy's life support and organ donation. There was a ticking clock on this, as Jeremy matched a young girl right on the post in need of both a new heart and new lungs, but professional courtesy for Denise and respect for Frank allowed them some time to say what needed to be said to their only child.
They walked into the room and Frank froze just inside the door. "I can't do this," he said to Denise after a moment. "I want to get out of here."
"You can't, Frank. We have to do this, it will be over soon, honey," she whispered, remembering a time when Frank had said those same words to her.
Ft. Hood Medical Center
Near Killeen, TX
Denise had been pushing for four hours and she was getting more exhausted with each push. Frank had been by her side the entire labor even though he'd been opposed to it at first when Denise needed him he was there whenever he could be. After another unsuccessful push, Denise collapsed against Frank breathless. She licked her lips, "I can't do this. I want to go home."
He brushed her hair off her sweaty forehead, "You can't go home, sweetheart, at least not until we have our baby to take home with us. You have to do this, it'll be over soon honey, just keep pushing," he told her, trying to be encouraging.
"You have the baby, I'll coach," she moaned. "I am soooo tired." She leaned into him farther and closed her eyes. On the next contraction, she didn't push even with Frank and the nurses encouraging her.
"Lieutenant, she can't take much more of this. Too much longer and she won't be able to maintain consciousness. We have to go in and get the baby."
"Okay, let me try and convince her to let you do it," he told them, knowing in his gut this was the only way to save them both.
He leaned down close to Denise's ear. "Dee, honey, they need to go in and get the baby. You're too tired to keep this up, you have to let them help you, "he told her trying to keep her calm and get her to understand that the surgery had to be done.
"No," Denise gasped her voice so weak Frank could hardly hear her. "No, don't let them. Don't let them hurt my baby. I can do this, I'll try harder." She pleaded then started to cry.
"Denise, honey, calm down, we can try a little longer, but after that if there is no change, they have to go in and get him." Frank was hoping she'd listen to reason or at least hear his words.
As another contraction came and went with very little effort from Denise her doctor spoke, "She can't do this. This is ridiculous. Lieutenant, this baby is not going to be born the old fashioned way."
"Just give her a few more minutes; she is scared of the idea of surgery. If she doesn't make progress in a few minutes, I'll convince her to change her mind, but let her be for a minute. You're scaring her," Frank fired at the doctor who he blamed for some of his wife's distress.
"Let's not waste these contractions," Denise's OB nurse advised her. "Lieutenant, help me lift your wife's knees up near her chin. Denise, focus on Frank's face and PUSH!"
Denise tried for a few short moments but then gave up. "I can't do this, Frank. I'm so tired," she gasped, beginning to fade into unconsciousness.
"Lieutenant, you have to make this call," the doctor pressed. "She needs to have this baby NOW, her heart rate is declining, but the baby is still okay. The time is NOW."
"Do the surgery," Frank said in a rush. He knew Denise's fears but his were far more likely to become a reality.
"No," Denise moaned her head lolling from side to side. "No, Frank, don't let them. Don't let them do it. I'll try; I'll work harder, please."
"Dee no, they have to get the baby, it's too dangerous, you've tried hard but you're exhausted. Enough is enough," he declared drawing his line in the sand.
She continued to speak almost incoherently. "Don't let them. Don't do this, please. Promise me you won't let them do this. Promise me." She reached weakly for his hand and held on with all her waning strength. "Promise me."
By now he had tears in his eyes "Dee I can't promise you that. This is the only way, come on now, I am going to be right here, and they won't hurt the baby," he offered as reassurance although for all he knew he was lying to her.
"They did before," Denise sobbed. "I can do it, I can. Promise me you won't let him, don't let him." She begged and pushed in vain with her next contraction without Frank or the nurse's support.
The nurse brought the consent form for Frank to sign. Denise held his gaze, "Don't, promise me."
"Lieutenant, you need to sign this form NOW," the doctor told him. "We could lose them both if we don't move RIGHT NOW."
Frank took one look at Denise with tears streaming down a face that was normally a beautiful and healthy shade but had turned into a mask of total fatigue. As much as he wanted to give in and stop her tears the rational side of his brain knew the doctor was right. "I'm sorry baby, I can't take the chance." He took the pen and signed the form.
"No," Denise protested. "Frank, no…We'll lose our baby. Don't let them do this. I don't want this, please, Frank. I'll divorce you, I'll sue him and I'll divorce you, don't do this to me, don't make me do this again."
Frank looked her in the eye desperate to make her see this was the right thing to do. "Denise, you can't do this on your own, you have to let them do this; I won't lose you because you are being stubborn. I won't let you die on me Dee," he told her giving the doctor back the forms and the pen after signing.
"You'll lose me anyway," Denise snapped with more strength than she had in hours. "Promise you won't let them, Frank. I won't lose this baby."
As Denise was gripped by another contraction Frank took charge, seeing his wife's spirit recharged by her battle of wills, he grabbed her shoulders and leaned against her back. "Push, Denise," the OB nurse encouraged as her doctor took his place to check progress.
Denise pushed with all her might all the way through the contraction. Fifteen minutes later with Frank's help and Denise's resilience, Jeremy Branch Sherwood came into the world with a lusty wail. His mother collapsed against the bed with her eyes tightly closed, lying deathly still. Still she murmured incoherent questions about her baby.
Frank tried to interpret her meaning and provide any answers she needed to be able to relax and let her body rest. "The baby is here, Dee. I am so proud of you, Baby," Frank told her kissing her head.
"Okay?" she asked licking her lips. "Baby…boy?"
"Yeah, Dee, we've got a healthy baby boy who looks just like his momma," he told her smiling from ear to ear.
"Go to him, go to our son," Denise encouraged. "Go..."
"Okay, get some rest. I love you, he told her kissing her head before leaving her side to watch over their newborn son.
Mercer Army Medical Center
Ft. Marshall, SC
"Go to him, go to our son," Denise said pushing Frank a bit from behind. "It's important for him and for you to have a proper goodbye."
Frank looked at her, eyebrows crossed with confusion that Denise could see any propriety in this whatsoever. "How do I do that, Denise? The only way this is right is if it's the other way around."
Still, in spite of his comments, Frank walked slowly to Jeremy's bed. Denise gave him his space; she knew he needed this time with Jeremy to be able to do what needed to be done. She watched as Frank sat beside their little boy and took his hand. He sat silently for a few minutes before he softly began to speak.
"Seems like yesterday when I'd come into your room and sit with you like this after you woke your mother and me with a nightmare. Mom would want to put you in our bed and snuggle the daylights out of you but I always told her no, that she shouldn't coddle you, that it would get you killed one day." Frank swallowed the tears in his throat. "Guess I was wrong, a little coddling then might have kept you from doing this. I remember one night when you were about 4, you had a nightmare about something happening to your Mommy and came in our bedroom crying. That was the only time I ever let you crawl in between us when you had a bad dream. Your mother wanted to scoop you right up and cuddle the daylights out of you, but except that once, I never let her. I wish I'd let her pick you up and squish you in between us so we could keep you safe from the demons in your dreams, but I never did that.
"I remember taking you by the hand and walking you back to your room, putting you in bed, and sitting down on the edge like I am now. I told you to keep your head down and your eyes opened and nothing bad could get at you. I told you the Army would teach you all you needed to know about life, about being a man...I was wrong. That was my job, it was my job to show you how to tie your shoes, to ride a bike, to drive a 4 speed stick, to respect women, and you know I wasn't around to do that, I was off protecting someone else's son or daughter or wife when my own child and wife were hurting right under my nose.
"Still, all the things I wish I'd taught you, I think the biggest one was I wish I'd taught you to come to me, Jeremy, I wish I'd taught you to trust me. I'd have helped you, boy. I'd have helped you and it would have been okay, you'd have been okay. I wish I'd shown you enough times that no matter what you could count on me, right or wrong, I'd have been there, but I didn't do that either and you and your mother are paying for those mistakes. The one thing I wish most was that I'd shown you how much I love you, because I do, Jeremy. I love you and now it's tearing me apart to know I'm never going to get a chance to prove it because I wasn't strong enough to say it when it mattered. I'm sorry for that, Jeremy. I'm just so damn sorry."
Denise could sense by the curve of her husband's back and the slump of his shoulders that he was finished with his goodbye to their son, so she approached him and slid her arms around his back. "I love you," she whispered into his ear and kissed his cheek.
"Do you, uh, want to have some time?" Frank asked.
"I've said my goodbyes," Denise sighed. "Last night. We can do this whenever you're ready."
He waited a beat then nodded his head swallowing tears. "Tell them to bring the papers."
Denise left Frank for a moment and told the nurse they were ready to sign the consent forms and let the surgeons begin to harvest Jeremy's organs. Frank signed the documents with a flourish and watched as the nurses and transporters unhooked Jeremy from the stationary machines. For a moment they beeped signaling they were no longer receiving information. It was the same sound they'd make if they'd terminated Jeremy's life support instead of donating his organs. Frank couldn't take that. He bit his lip and fought back sobs.
Once they'd wheeled Jeremy away, Frank and Denise were left standing alone inside the empty room with nothing but total silence surrounding them. Denise reached out for Frank but instead of taking her into his arms, he turned away from her and headed for the door, trying to put as much distance between himself and the site of his son's death as he possibly could. He moved so quickly Denise barely noticed what he was doing until he was halfway out the door.
He heard Denise call out after him, "Frank, don't do this, you have to face the fact, our son is gone and running off and getting mad isn't going to change that," she told him.
He turned to face her wanting to run from this sickening place, but he was no longer sure his legs would work. He reached out towards Denise but didn't move.
She walked up to him and put her arms around his back. "Do you want to go home?" she asked him as he looked at his the place where their son had been lying lifeless only moments ago. Frank couldn't say anything; he just stood there looking at Jeremy's cubicle as if he could picture their boy's body being cut open by the skilled hands of the Army transplant surgeons. Before either of them knew it, a tear slipped down his cheek, one he didn't even try to hide.
Denise pulled him into a hug and he began to sob harder than she'd ever seen him before in their marriage, it was harder than when she'd told him about Annie; even harder than a few nights after he'd disowned Jeremy for hitting her, when he'd realized Jeremy had gotten his temper and his anger from him. Denise's heart broke for him. "He's really gone," he said through his tears. Denise held onto him with all her might. "I know, Honey. I miss him too," she said stroking his hair and back. "I miss him too. Let it out. Just let it out, I'm here. I've got you."
Denise didn't know how long they stayed there like that, Frank crying into her chest and her rocking him like she had Jeremy so many times. Finally Frank spoke, "I can't stay here; I want to get out of here. I can't…I keep seeing him lying there," Frank said when his voice returned and he was able to breathe easier.
"Okay, let's go home," she said leading the way out the door toward the exit. The ride home was silent and when they got home Frank headed straight for Jeremy's room leaving Denise standing at the door.
Frank was always one to need time to deal with his emotions, whether it was anger, fear, love, or in this case likely the worst pain and grief he'd ever experienced. Denise gave him some of that time while she changed her clothes and washed her face, and then she went into the bedroom. Frank was lying on Jeremy's bed with one arm across the pillow he used when he was home. She'd seen him do that a few other times in Jeremy's life, when he was having a bad dream and once when he was sick. Denise carefully approached and stretched out beside Frank sliding her arms around him. He stiffened at her touch.
"Come to bed with me, neither of us slept much and it's been a long day," she said trying to get him out of Jeremy's room.
"You go. I want to stay here, I want to be here for a little while," Frank said mumbling into his son's pillow trying to remember him lying in his bed as a boy needing his father to chase away the monsters under the bed.
"Frank I don't want to leave you alone," she said trying to get him to look at her.
"I want to be alone for a while, Dee," Frank told her. "I want to be with our boy. Go to sleep, I'll be in in awhile. I promise."
Denise sighed and slid off the bed. "Okay," she whispered and left the room kissing Frank's cheek. "I love you."
Denise tried to wait up for Frank. She wanted to be there when he came to bed to hold him if that was what he needed, to be held by him, because that was definitely what she needed. At some point while she waited, she must have fallen asleep because when she woke up the next morning and turned to snuggle up to Frank there was nothing on his side of their bed but cold smooth sheets.
She got out of bed and went in search of him "Frank," she called out sleepily but got no reply. She checked the bathroom and it was empty. She went into the kitchen and found him sitting at the counter with various bills and other documents scattered around him, including his Will. He looked exhausted and she knew he hadn't much if he'd slept at all.
"What are you doing, Sweetheart?" Denise asked sitting beside Frank. "Did you sleep at all?"
He looked at her, "Not much, a few hours maybe," he said looking back at the papers around him.
"What are you doing?" Denise asked starting coffee. "I'm going to go and arrange things today with the funeral home. Do you want to come?"
"No I think I'll just stay here and finish up all this paperwork," he responded absently, never even looking up from what he was doing.
"I could use you there with me Frank," Denise tried to reason with him. "What is all this anyway?"
"Just some papers that need to be filled out," he said, noticing her looking at his Will. She noticed he'd made changes to it with a black pen. Jeremy's name was crossed out on every line it appeared on while Michael Holden's name was written in the exact same places. Denise knew what he was doing but she wanted to hear it from his lips.
"Frank why do you have your Will out?" She asked him handing him a cup of coffee.
"Oh, just looking at it," he told her taking a sip from the mug.
"Frank you don't just look at your Will for no reason. What's going on? Tell me," she pressed.
Frank snapped and threw the mug across the room; it hit the wall and shattered. Denise jumped as Frank exploded at her, "Damn it, Dee! I said it's nothing, can you just go so I can have some privacy here. You're giving me a headache."
"Frank, I'm worried about you. This isn't right, it's not like you," Denise tried to get him to talk to her. She reached for him and grabbed him by the arms but he overpowered her easily.
"Get away from me!" Frank ordered and pushed her backwards into the kitchen counter hard enough to make her lose her balance. She stumbled backwards and fell to the floor, hitting her head on a chair as she went down.
Frank was mortified by what he'd just done. He'd just put his hands on his wife in anger less than a day after their son had died. He couldn't believe it, he was completely in shock. Instead of going to her he turned and bolted out of the room and went to his son's room. How could he hit his wife? He had done the same thing his son had done not long ago, he'd hurt her, and she didn't deserve that from him, no woman ever did.
Denise climbed off the floor and took a deep breath. She knew Frank wasn't himself, he didn't mean to push her or for her to fall. She went straight to Jeremy's room and tried the door. "Frank!" she called knocking as she called to him. "Frank, open this door. We need to talk."
She heard him moving but he didn't' come near the door. She called again, "Frank, I need to talk to you. I need you to be with me, please. This hurts so much and I need you to hold me, to help me with this, please, please," she begged but to no avail.
After nearly an hour of knocking and calling out, Denise's knuckles were raw and her voice hoarse. She went to her own bedroom and picked up the phone dialing the number of the one person she knew would always be there for her, she hoped.
Claudia Joy watched wearily as Michael soothed a sobbing Emmalin She'd cared for Jeremy deeply death was hard on her. She'd barely come to terms with Amanda's death and now this. When their phone rang, Claudia Joy reached out to grab it as not to disturb her daughter's grief. "Holden Residence." She heard nothing but sobs. "Hello, hello?"
"Claudia Joy, I'm so sorry to bother you but I need you and Michael to come over here. It's Frank, he's taking this hard and he's scaring me," Denise sobbed into the handset.
"What's happened, Denise?" Claudia Joy asked giving Michael a sign he was likely needed elsewhere. "Is he home? Did he take off? What?"
"No, he's home. He spent the night in Jeremy's room, he won't go to the funeral home with me, and now he's locked himself in Jeremy's room and won't come to the door, he won't even answer me. I've tried for over an hour. He's taking this so hard, he's blaming himself and I'm scared. I'm so scared," Denise cried. "He's really lost it this time, he's throwing things, he's changing his Will, I'm scared, Claudia Joy."
"I'm coming now. I'll call Roland for Emmalin and Michael will be right behind me," Claudia Joy assured Denise. "Are you trying to get through to him?"
"I've been trying but he won't listen to me. I'll keep at it until Michael comes," Denise said finally calming down now that help was coming.
Claudia Joy texted Roland asking him to come over and stay with Emmalin. She was just finishing when Michael caught up with her.
"That was Denise," Claudia Joy explained. "Frank's locked himself in Jeremy's room, he won't come out, she says he's throwing things and not acting like himself. She's afraid."
Michael nodded; he understood some of Frank's feelings and wanted nothing more than to help his friends.
Twenty minutes later Michael and Claudia Joy reached Denise's house. She was standing in front of Jeremy's door calling to Frank over and over again, begging him to open the door.
They walked in and she went over to them. "He won't come out, I've tried everything," she told them, then remembered the bruises that had already begun forming on her arms. She hoped they wouldn't notice, she didn't want anyone to know how far over the line Frank had gone in his grief.
Michael went to the locked door, "Frank. It's Michael, open the door."
Frank didn't say anything and didn't open the door; he stayed sitting on his son's bed perfectly still.
Michael tried again for several minutes before he used the only approach he knew would work for sure with this grieving father, "Colonel Sherwood, open this door immediately. That's an order!" Hearing Michael say those words, Denise sobbed against Claudia Joy with relief. She knew Frank would obey an order; he had to obey it that was who he was.
Frank stood immediately and opened the door standing at attention like he had been taught to do with his superiors.
"As you were," Michael said gently. "I'm not hear as a commander, I'm here as a friend. I said what I said to get you to open the door. Denise is worried about you; she's so upset she's making herself sick."
"I don't know if that's why she's sick," Frank said softly. "She fell in the kitchen; she hit her head on the side of one of the chairs."
Michael didn't want to leave Frank alone for a minute before they talked but he felt duty bound to check on Denise. "Do not lock this door, Frank. I mean it."
Michael went quickly to the living room. He saw Denise crying on Claudia Joy's shoulder while Claudia Joy held an ice pack against Denise's temple. She'd told Claudia Joy about her fall, he saw she was being taken care of so he turned his attention back to Frank.
"Claudia Joy has ice on it," Michael assured him. "How did Denise fall, Frank?"
"She was trying to help me, to talk to me and what did I do, I pushed her, I yelled at her, and I pushed her away so hard she fell," Frank confessed. "I hurt my own wife the morning after her only son died. Michael I can't stand this, my boy is dead and I feel like it's my fault," he told his friend. "And I can't be here for Denise when I can't even control myself."
"She needs you, Frank," Michael reiterated. "She's scared; she needs you to be there for her. She was terrified for you when she called Claudia Joy. You have to focus on getting her through, I know where you are right now, Frank, and I know it isn't a pretty place to be."
Frank was off Jeremy's bed like a shot. "You have no idea where I am right now, so don't pretend for one minute that you do. You lost your daughter because some lunatic blew himself up in a bar; I lost my son because he thought he was a disappointment and an embarrassment to me and his mother. I know losing Amanda hurt you, I cried for her too, but she's not gone because you did or didn't do something and my boy is! I declared him dead, did you know that? The day I found out about him hurting Denise, I told her he was dead in my eyes. Looks like God's punishing me for being so hard on Jeremy for something I did to him, I just don't understand why Denise has to be hurt too. It should be me getting put in the ground on Saturday, it should be me."
Frank stopped talking and sat down on Jeremy's bed. He buried his face in his hands and started to cry, his broad shoulders heaving with the agony he was holding inside of him. Michael didn't know what to do besides sit besides his long time friend and wrap his arms around him, so that was exactly what he did until Frank was exhausted, emotionally spent, and fast asleep in his best friend's arms.
Michael stayed where he was so a long time until he was sure Frank was in a deep sleep. Carefully he moved his friend so he was on the bed and covered him with the comforter that was thrown over a chair. He slipped out of the room and went to talk to Denise and Claudia Joy.
"How is he?" Denise asked the moment she saw Michael.
"He's asleep," Michael replied. "Let's sit down and talk. He told me something that bothered me quite a bit. He told me how angry he was with you this morning. That is hurting him more than anything right now."
"I don't care about that," Denise said firmly. "It was the pain talking, I know that, I've done some pretty irrational things myself when I was hurting. I'm fine; I don't even have a bump. I'm worried about him. He was changing his Will this morning."
"He can't wrap his head around this," Michael said sadly. "I don't have to tell you how regimented Frank is. It's black OR it's white, there is not a lot of grey there. In Frank's world parents die before their children, and twice that's happened in the wrong order. He's about trying to make that right."
"He can't," Denise said with tears choking her throat. "He can't bring him back, he can't undo it, and he can't fix it. He might have had a chance before when Jeremy called us, he was reaching out to his father when he told us about Rison, he wanted Frank to empathize with him but I learned a long time ago that when it came to Jeremy Frank isn't about empathy. He's about strength. Jeremy never understood that and now he never will."
No one spoke for a long time they all just sat and sipped at coffee keeping each other company in the still silence. After a while Denise looked at Michael, "It would mean the world to Frank and to me if you could allow Jeremy a military funeral. I know suicide isn't very…"
"I fully intended to permit that for Jeremy, Denise," Michael assured her. "I will deliver his eulogy myself unless Frank decides he wants to do it. It's only right that I should do that for a boy I loved like a son."
For the first time in days a real smile spread across Denise's face. "Thank you, Michael. I know Frank will appreciate it too. I know that goes for your help as well. Frank has always been there for me, thick and thin, maybe not in body but in spirit and in mind and I've been there for him. There was nothing in the world we couldn't do together, no matter what we got each other through and now in the worst moments of our lives, when he's hurt and he's lost and he needs me the most, I don't know how to help him."
"You can't help him right now, Denise," Claudia Joy said softly. "You just have to let him grieve in his own way and make sure he knows you are there for him when he's ready to grieve with you. That's all anyone can do now."
Denise knew Claudia Joy was right, but her heart still ached at the memory of Frank's pain and tears over the last few days. All she wanted to do was make his world right, make it all make sense, that was what he needed and it was the one thing she couldn't give him or do for him.
Claudia Joy took Denise to the funeral home to select the lining of Jeremy's casket and bring over the uniform she wanted him to be buried in along with clean under clothing and other requests Denise had meticulously written out on a piece of stationary. Michael sat with Frank hoping to have a chance to talk to his friend again when he awoke.
Denise slipped into Jeremy's room when she arrived home from making the arrangements with Claudia Joy's help. Frank was cuddled around one of Jeremy's pillows finally asleep. Michael reported he still hadn't eaten anything but finally appeared to be resting. He was, he was also dreaming.
"I can't believe I get to have you home for three whole months," Denise said softly from her position in Frank's arms.
"Yeah I know, I'm so glad to be home," he told her kissing her gently. This was interrupted by soft cries heard from Jeremy's room.
Denise went to move from the bed at the sound of her little boy's tears, "Mommy's coming baby," she called in case he'd hear her. She looked at Frank, "He's had so many nightmares lately."
"Yeah, I know, I wonder what's going on with him," Frank replied, getting up to go with his wife to check on their toddler.
Before Denise was able to get out of the room the door opened and Jeremy came in dragging his security blanket made from his father's old shirts behind him. He didn't say anything just stood in his parents' room straight like Frank had taught him shaking like a leaf.
"Son, what's the matter, did you have another nightmare?" Frank asked him.
He shook his head, he wanted to brave but it wasn't working. Frank knew that.
"Okay son come on up here," Frank told him gently reaching to take his hand. "Come up here with me and Mommy," Frank told him.
Jeremy ran to his father and jumped into his arms crying and mumbling all sorts of things about monsters and something hurting him and his mommy. Denise wanted to run to her baby and rock him back to sleep but she wanted to watch this moment between her husband and their son even more.
"Shh, it's okay, Jeremy. You are okay, nobody is going to hurt you or Mommy, I would never let that happen," he told him gently rocking him to calm him down.
"You weren't here," the little boy sniffled. "I tried Daddy. I tried real good but they got us."
"It's all right son. It was just a dream, nobody got Mommy. See she's right there," Frank soothed pointing to Denise who was watching the scene before her.
Jeremy peeked out from Frank's arms. "I know but I'm still scared."
"I know, that's okay, you can sleep with Mommy and me tonight, right in the middle. We may even squish you like a bug," Frank said tickling him trying to get him to laugh.
Jeremy smiled and slept cuddled up to his father and mother. He hadn't had that bad dream again.
Frank smiled in his sleep, remembering Jeremy as a young boy.
As the dream dissipated Frank started to stir. He moaned softly in his sleep and reached out for Denise. "Dee!" he called out. Though not fully awake he was seeking her softness and warmth.
She walked over and sat on the bed next to him, "Hey handsome," she said smiling as he slowly opened his eyes.
Frank slowly opened his eyes. "Tell me it was all a nightmare."
Denise looked at him sadly "I wish I could Frank, you have no idea how much I wish this was all a bad dream," she told him, trying to keep her composure.
"You make the arrangements with Claudia Joy?" he asked. "I know it won't be on Post..."
"Yeah they are all taken care of, don't worry," she told him.
"On Post?" Frank asked hoping but not sure.
"Yeah, it will be on post," she told him gently.
Frank sighed with relief and pulled her to him. "You know we have to call my parents and sisters and tell them what happened."
"Yeah, I know," she said dreading calling his parents, especially his father.
"We really should do it now, get it over with," Frank sighed. "Grab me a can of cola and the phone, Love?"
"Sure," she said handing him the phone and going to get him a cola and bringing it to him.
Frank took a long sip of the drink then dialed his parents' number. His father answered the phone. "Hello, Sir?" he greeted.
"Hello son," his father greeted in a tone reserved for his officers.
"Mom home?" he asked. Denise could see her husband's jaw clenching with tension. She stayed close and rubbed his back soothingly.
"Yes, she is cleaning the kitchen," he replied.
"Can you have her pick up? I have something to say I don't want to say more than once," Frank said his voice cracking at the thought of what he had to tell his parents.
"Okay, hold on," Dennis replied leaving for a moment only to return saying "We're both here. Now, what is it you have to tell us?" Dennis asked.
"Well, uh, Denise and I are going to need you to come out for a couple days. We...something...Jeremy's dead," he managed before the tears started running down his cheeks again.
"What do you mean he's dead?" Dennis asked recovering first as his wife began to cry silently.
"Not too many ways to mean that, Dennis," Frank's mother, Brenda, spoke up.
"I mean what the Hell happened, Brenda," Dennis snapped. "Kids don't just up and die for no reason."
"He died last night, a gunshot wound," Frank continued. "The funeral is on Sunday and Denise and I would..." Frank had to stop. He couldn't continue talking. He looked at Denise for help.
She took the phone. "The funeral is on Sunday and we would like you both to come," she said getting choked up herself.
"You taking over for Frank?" Dennis asked. "He crying?" It was not acceptable in Dennis Sherwood's world for a man to cry or to let his wife do any job deemed "man's work."
"No," she lied. "He got a call from command. So will you all be here on Sunday?"She asked quickly losing patience with the man on the other end of the phone.
"We'll be on the first flight out in the morning," Brenda told her. Dennis was already looking at flights. "You'll need us more than one day. We'll call Barbara and Cliff. I am so, so sorry Denise. Give Frank a hug from me."
"I will, we'll see you tomorrow," she said hanging up the phone and putting her arm around Frank. "You okay, honey?"
"I heard myself, Dee," Frank said taking her into his arms. "I heard myself talking to Jeremy; it was just like Dad just spoke to me. No wonder he killed himself."
"No, Frank, don't go there, this is not your fault," she told him in a stern but gentle tone.
"His best friend died and I asked him if he got the sniper? What kind of a parent does that? Dennis Sherwood that's who," Frank said angrily getting off the bed and pacing. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. My father acted like a drill master raising me, so I did the same with Jeremy. I was too stupid to realize I was doing it wrong."
"Frank listen to me, Jeremy loved you and he knew you loved him, and yes, your father was hard on you, but look who you are today, a respected, caring man and a wonderful husband," she told him getting up and pulling him close wrapping her arms around his waist. "Frank none of this is your fault, I swear to you, you are not to blame for this," she told him.
"What about before? When I hurt you? Who's fault was that?" he asked still so angry at himself for Jeremy's death and Denise being hurt.
"Frank that was an accident, you didn't mean to and I know that, you were upset," she said...
"I didn't mean it, Dee," Frank said gently. "And I'm sorry. I love you, Baby."
"I love you too, Frank, so much, and I know you didn't mean to do it," she told him laying her head on his chest hugging him tightly.
Frank and Denise left around noon the next day to pick up his parents. They arrived at the airport, not long after they saw Brenda and Dennis coming toward them.
Brenda wrapped her daughter-in-law in a hug, "Oh Denise I am so sorry," she told her trying not to get choked up. "You too Frank," she added looking at her son, letting go of Denise and hugging her son.
Dennis came up. "Frank, Denise," he greeted them emotionlessly.
Denise embraced her father-in-law, "Thanks for coming, Dennis. I know Frank appreciates it as well." She looked at Frank who was still in his mother's arms. She felt a stab of pain knowing she'd never hold Jeremy again.
"We wanted to be here Denise, he was our grandson," he said embracing her slightly but letting go quickly.
Frank shook his father's hand then wrapped his arm around Denise. "Let's get your bags. General and Mrs. Holden have invited us for lunch at the O Club. We accepted on your behalf."
They all made their way to the car and climbed in; they all made small talk except Denise who stayed mostly silent only nodding occasionally. She couldn't believe this, her son, her baby was really gone, and he wasn't coming back.
Frank carried the bags into the house and showed his parents where they could freshen up. He then found Denise, "I don't want them to know it was suicide."
"Okay, we can leave that part out," she told him. "Man, this is crazy, I can't believe he is really gone, our son, our baby is gone and he never coming back," she said tearing up, but turning away from him so he wouldn't see the tears, she quickly tried swiping them away.
Frank slid his arms around her, "It's okay to cry for him, Denise."
"I miss him Frank, I miss my baby," she said breaking down and sobbing.
Frank wrapped his arms around Denise and held her until their phone rang. Frank reached for it, "Sherwood."
"Sir, this is Al Ferlenghetti. My son worked with your wife," the caller said in his soft spoken manner.
"Mr. Ferlenghetti. Hello, what can I do for you?" he said politely.
"I heard about your son's death, it was in the paper. I wanted to say how sorry I was for your loss. I do understand, what it feels like when your child dies before you do," Al said. "Denise was a help to me when Chris died, I want to repay that however I can. That's all I wanted to say. I'd like to pay my respects at the funeral if you don't mind."
Frank paused for a moment then replied, "Not at all sir. It will be Sunday. We will see you there."
"Anything you need, an ear, a drink. Call me," Al offered. "You are in my prayers."
"Thank you sir, I appreciate that, and thank you. We will see you Sunday," Frank said hanging up the phone.
Denise looked at Frank."Who was that?"
"Al Ferlenghetti. He called to send his apologies, he will be at the funeral Sunday," he told her.
At the mention of the name Denise started to cry again, hard. She buried her face in Frank's chest, "I wish he were still here." Frank knew she didn't mean Jeremy.
Frank was shocked, he never in a million years thought he would hear her say that. "What do you mean Dee?" he asked
"Getti, I wish he was still alive," Denise told him. "He'd have saved him. He'd have saved our baby. He would have."
Frank let out a breath he had been holding since her first statement, he was relieved. "Yeah honey, he might have been able to save him," he said still holding her close
"I better clean up; we have to meet...the Holden's..." Denise started to move but got dizzy and sagged against Frank.
"Dee, are you okay?" he asked putting his arm around her waist to hold her up.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm so dizzy," she said leaning against Frank as his parents came into the kitchen.
"Denise, are you all right, Sweetie?" Brenda asked coming to stand beside Frank.
"Yeah, I'm a little dizzy. Neither Frank or I have eaten much since...I just have low blood sugar," Denise said digging deep for strength.
"Well here, sit down," she said, pulling out a chair for Denise.
Frank led her to the chair and helped her sit. "Thanks," she said looking at Frank weakly.
"You're welcome baby," he said bending down to kiss the top of her head. Frank's father saw the interaction and though it was disgusting. Frank was babying this woman, he had raised his son to be firm, to rule his house with an iron hand, not to coddle and baby the life out of his wife; that was her job.
Brenda got Denise a glass of juice and soon she felt better but struggled with nausea all through the lunch. Frank was distracted but Brenda caught the number of trips she made to the bathroom and followed her on the third one in an hour. "How far along are you?" Brenda asked.
"Excuse me? I'm not pregnant," she told Brenda confused
"Oh, yes you are. I thought maybe but this bit confirmed it. You are pregnant," Brenda said. "I was pregnant five times, I know. Frank will be scared."
"Oh lord, what am I going to do if I am? Frank has enough to worry about and with Jeremy just dying. He is going to be so upset," she told her mother-in-law, becoming upset herself just thinking of the possibility.
"Let's test first," Brenda said trying to calm Denise. "Can you make it through lunch?"
"Yeah" Denise replied quietly, going back to where the group was sitting.
Denise managed to hide her exhaustion from Frank and Dennis until the drive home. Brenda made an excuse about having to stop at the PX to get some panty hose for the wake. She got two pregnancy tests for Denise as well and hid them in her purse until she got back to the house.
Forty minutes later they had the verdict. Denise was pregnant. Denise was scared to death to tell Frank "Brenda, what am I going to do? Frank won't be happy with this. They told us when I was pregnant with Jeremy we shouldn't try to have any more children. This is going to upset him so much," Denise cried, tears streaming down her face.
"He won't be upset, he'll be afraid. My boy loves you," Brenda soothed. "I'll get him."
Frank came into their room a minute later. Denise was crying and sitting on the bed with the test in her hand.
"Denise? Honey, what's wrong? Are you okay?" he asked going to sit beside her.
She didn't speak, she just handed him the test.
Frank looked at the test. "Dee, is this what I think it is?" he asked her, she nodded, he looked at it again and noticed the tiny pink plus sign. "You're pregnant?" he asked, making sure he was reading it right.
"Yeah. I didn't know, I swear I didn't know," Denise told him. "Your mom guessed."
"Okay calm down, I know you didn't know. Oh wow, you're pregnant," he said still shocked.
"I don't know how far I am or anything. I know it can't be too far, I only started getting sick," she sighed. "I'm sorry, Frank. I know you don't need this now."
"Dee, don't be sorry," he told her, but in the back of his mind he couldn't help but go back to the pregnancies when they'd lost the babies. He didn't want that to happen again. He didn't want any of the events from Denise's previous pregnancies to happen again. He didn't want to be called from work and hear their baby had been born early and had died before she left her mother's womb. He didn't want to come home from a tour and find his wife in their bathroom vomiting nothing but blood and bile. He didn't want to have to take her back and forth to the hospital for IVs to try and keep her strong enough to deliver and he certainly didn't want to have to watch her fight for her own life while trying to give birth to their baby. In spite of all of that though, Frank couldn't help but feel a touch of pride.
"At Fort Hood Dr. Alma suggested if we did, I should not proceed with the pregnancy," Denise reminded him.
"Yeah I remember. What do you want to do?" he asked her.
"I don't know," Denise sighed. "Being held by my husband is all I want right now."
"Come here honey," he said wrapping her in his arms and kissed her head "Don't worry, we'll figure this out," he told her.
Meanwhile Dennis and Brenda were talking. "What's the matter with Denise?" he asked.
She stayed quiet for a moment; Dennis did not like to be denied knowledge of anything he felt was pertinent. With a breath Brenda replied, "I think they should tell you," she told her husband.
"She's not pregnant, is she?" Dennis asked, he'd always wanted more grandchildren and had disagreed with Frank's decision not to try for more children after Jeremy. He was certain Frank's decision was only a result of Denise playing on his emotions.
"Um, okay, yes, but don't say anything, let them tell you when they're ready," she told him smiling. "Denise is a nervous wreck; she's up there telling him right now."
"It was Frank's choice not to have any more kids," Dennis reminded her. "But only because she carried on so much. Pregnant women throw up, it's part of life."
"Denise was so sick with Jeremy and with Annie. I remember her being pregnant with them; she threw up the entire 9 months. With Jeremy, she was 8 pounds lighter when she delivered that she was before she got pregnant, that was why Frank made that decision. I hope she has it easier with this one," she said sympathizing with Denise.
"She was a big baby with Jeremy and Frank let her..." Dennis began.
"She was hospitalized over 30 times between Annie and Jeremy, Dad," Frank broke in. "That wasn't her fault. I don't want you saying anything to upset her now."
"I'm not, all I am saying is you baby her way too much, especially when she's pregnant," he said.
"Dad, when you come home from a war zone to find your wife on the floor bleeding from the mouth because she ruptured veins in her throat from the vomiting, then we'll talk," Frank said firmly. "She could have died."
"She exaggerated son, she's such a drama queen. You know that, she always has been," he told his son.
"She didn't exaggerate a river of blood coming out of her mouth," Frank retorted. "I didn't even know she was pregnant. She didn't meet me at the airfield and I know something was wrong, and when I got home..."
Post Officer Housing
"Denise!" Frank called opening their door. "Denise!!" Her car was there so where was she?
Denise couldn't talk, she was far too weak, not to mention the blood coming from her mouth, she tried to answer him but it only came out as a weak moan, but Frank heard it and hurried to see what was up.
"Denise!!" he called following the sound to the small bathroom in their base quarters. "Dee?" When he saw her his heart nearly stopped. She was skin and bones, at least 15 pounds lighter than when he left except for the small rounding of her stomach. She was leaning over the commode; it was filled with blood and vomit. She was whiter than a ghost and had blood running down her cheeks.
"Oh my GOD Dee, what's wrong honey? Why are you throwing up blood? What happened?" he asked her, frantically trying to clean the blood from her cheeks and mouth.
The spasm passed and she leaned against Frank. "I'm sorry, I forgot your plane came in today." She managed weakly. She took his hand and put it on her belly, "Our son has his daddy's temperament."
"Son? What do you mean? Are you pregnant?" he asked her shock written all over his face.
"Almost six months," she whispered. That whisper had been her normal voice for weeks.
"Honey I am not a doctor, but if you are pregnant, shouldn't you gain weight and not lose it? Dee, you are skin and bone, Baby," he told her gently.
"The morning sickness is..." She paused and leaned over the toilet as another bout of vomiting began.
Frank stood by her side rubbing her back soothingly, he had never seen so much vomit come from something so little.
"I took her to the hospital after that, her file was so thick from the other trips...That's why her labor was so hard; she went into it weaker than a kitten. I won't do that again," Frank said firmly. "I promised myself."
"Okay fine, but like I said she's a drama queen. She loves the attention," Dennis said flatly
"Answer this, if that is true, why didn't I know until I got home she was even carrying Jeremy?" Frank asked. He knew his father was smart enough to back off when Frank dared challenge him.
"Okay son I get it," he said, backing down for the time being.
Frank nodded, "Denise is coming down in a minute. You owe her congratulations. Mom, could you help her with supper?"
'Of course I'll cook. She needs to rest," Brenda said smiling "How is she feeling?"
"All right for now, she wants to cook, but help her out as much as you can," Frank told him mom giving her a slight hug. "I have to work on Jeremy's eulogy. I'll be in the office."
"Okay, I'll help her," Brenda said as Frank went to his office to work on the eulogy.
Today was the day of Jeremy's funeral; everyone had come to pay their respects to the young man. The "Tribe" were all sitting up front while everyone else found seats in various places behind them. Frank sat beside Denise holding her hand and offering any support he could. His father sat beside him and his mother on the end beside Dennis, both ladies were dabbing at their eyes with tissues as tears poured from them. Michael came over and shook Frank's hand and hugged Denise, giving his condolences to the couple along with Claudia Joy and the rest of their family.
To Frank's surprise, the father of one of his fallen soldiers came to pay his respects. "I'm so sorry for your loss," Mr. Craddock said to Frank. "I'm sure Kevin is taking care of your boy for you, like you took care of him for me when he was dying."
"I sure hope so, Sir. Your son was a fine boy," he replied to Mr. Craddock.
Mr. Craddock moved on, a few more soldiers passed by then Al Ferlenghetti appeared. He looked at Frank, saw the pain, and embraced the younger man in the way Frank wished his own father would.
"Colonel Sherwood, I am truly sorry for your loss, nobody can imagine that pain unless they have been there," he said to Frank.
"No, they can't," Frank agreed. "Denise was saying she believed your son could have saved our boy. No doubt he is looking after him now, given how close Dee was to your son."
"Yes, I'm sure he is, they are both smiling down on us this very minute, I guarantee it," Al said smiling.
Frank nodded and watched as Denise greeted her former friend's father. Finally it was time for the Chaplain to begin.
"We are here today to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of Jeremy Branch Sherwood. Jeremy was born to Frank Stanton Sherwood and Denise Branch Sherwood on October 8, 1990. He was their only son, the apple of his father's eye and the joy of his mother's heart.
"Jeremy grew up in the Army, proudly following his family from Post to Post, then enlisting at age 18 to follow in his father's footsteps. He served one tour in Iraq with honor and was decorated for his leadership and heroism under fire. He died as he had lived, as a hero, donating his heart and lungs to a young girl right on this post. He donated his kidneys to two patients in Raleigh, and his liver to a recipient in New York. The world was a better and brighter place with Jeremy Sherwood in it and is a safer place now that he watches over all those who loved him.
"Let us now pray for Jeremy's soul and his parent's hearts as they heal from this terrible loss."
The service progressed as Claudia Joy and Roland read from the Bible, little Katie Moran sang a song beautifully, and then Frank rose to speak of his only child. Only Denise could see how badly he was shaking as he stood in front of all those who had come to show their support. She prayed he'd get through this eulogy.
"Denise and I would like to thank everyone for coming today, the outpouring of support for us in this difficult time has touched us both in ways we'll never be able to express, and while this is the hardest thing she or I have ever done, it would be much harder without our families and our friends behind us.
When you join the Army you accept death as a part of life. You and your family know that at any given moment anyone's life can be extinguished. Life can be like a fire, burning hot and bright one moment, and then snuffed out the next. You live your life by the day, you make sure every night that just in case tomorrow doesn't come, all is well. You accept that for yourself and your wife, but when the time comes for your child to follow you, to serve with you, you don't accept it anymore, you become just like everyone else, you tell yourself "not my boy."
I'd seen a lot of death in my career, most of those men were my contemporaries, but one death stands out for me more than the rest of them do. We were flying over a combat zone in Iraq when our Blackhawk crashed in the desert. Four of the men on board with me were killed on impact, three others and I survived and hid out in a cave until Delta units were able to come and extract us. While we were in there, the youngest man in my command, Private First Class Kevin Craddock died of his injuries. He was only nineteen years old. He was only a year older than Jeremy was at the time. I remember sitting on the floor of that cave holding the image of my wife's face and son's smile in my heart to get through it and holding Kevin in my arms as he fought like the Devil to keep himself alive. When he died, I was cradling him in my arms like I did with Jeremy when he was a little baby, I was making sure he knew he was safe and that someone cared. I didn't get the chance to do that with my son, by the time I got to him he was already near death, and I never got the chance to hold him close and make sure he knew I cared.
My wife will tell you I am the most predictable guy she's ever met, she might even go so far as to say I'm inflexible, and she'd be right. My own father and the Army taught me there is a right way or a wrong way, none of this gray area stuff that is so commonplace today. Maybe that's why this is so hard for me to accept. The death of a child, any child, is against the order of things; it is NOT in accordance with God's normal plan. The child isn't supposed to die first, Jeremy should be standing up here now giving my eulogy, it shouldn't be this way, it just isn't the way it works, and yet I can look out over this crowd and say with absolute certainty at least four men sitting among you have buried their child, those four people do know the pain in my heart and their wives know the anguish in Denise's heart. That makes very little sense to me, children bury parents, parents are not supposed to bury their children.
Denise lost her parents not long after we married, she described that pain like a bullet through her rib cage, quick, agonizing, shocking, then slowly the wound healed and the pain dwindled until there is only the briefest reminder that it ever existed, an ache when lifting a heavy box, a twinge when it rains, but it's not constant. She told me once it was because as she grew into an adult and became a parent she realized one day she her parents would die and no longer be with her in the physical sense. Their deaths, as hard as they were for her happened in the natural order.
As parents, our deaths would be hard on our children, the person who loved you and cared for you is suddenly gone and you are really on your own in this life, but over time the memories of the things we'd shared and enjoyed would replace the sadness and the grief our children are feeling with warmth and nostalgia, because when we die as parents, we have lived our lives. We have given love and known love, we have married, had children, raised those children, and hopefully watched them fall in love, get married, and have their own children. But, when a child dies, even an older child like Jeremy, it is the death of an unfulfilled life.
The pain of a child's death is not like a bullet inside you, but many, many knife wounds. One knife stab in the heart; another piercing stab next to the first one; a stab in the stomach, another in the back; another stab in the middle of the chest, another in the back, and another in the stomach, and more and more stabs, until there is nothing left of you to stab and pierce. With each knife stab, a little of your life is gone. The promise of things to come is gone. It is deep, painful, and it hurts beyond any words of description.
The longer a child is with his family, the more painful his departure becomes. I can say this with total certainty because Denise and I did lose our first born, a baby daughter. She was stillborn, but we never thought of her as anything other than our baby, and while we still ache from her loss, Jeremy's death is even more hurtful because at the age of 20 we could talk to Jeremy, we could listen to Jeremy, he was our son but he was also becoming our friend. He could listen to our thoughts, give us advice, and he did for me more than once, and it was good advice, very good advice. I was so proud of him then, he was showing me the man he was becoming and my heart just swelled with pride.
Jeremy was our only living child, he was a man of 20, but in our eyes still our baby, because a child no matter what the age is still, in the eyes of parents, their baby. Jeremy was a part of Denise and I who was separate and distinct, he was independent and with a mind of his own, but nevertheless he was a living manifestation of the love and bond between Denise and me. He was the best and worst parts of each of us in one person, but he was still part of us.
When Denise and I looked at Jeremy, we saw in him an image of ourselves, whom we could talk to, share opinions with, and do things with, which is what life is all about. All the potential in him, that he'd shown to us as he matured and that had appeared as he grew and learned the lessons of this life are now all gone.
We saw him, saw his intelligence, his spirit, his physical attributes and we were proud of him in spite of his shortcomings and his mistakes. Jeremy wasn't perfect, he made mistakes, some big ones too, but we always forgave those mistakes. Sitting down to write this last night I tried to remember Jeremy's mistakes, but none of them seem very important now that he is gone, all I see are the mistakes I made, all I see are the ways I failed him as his father, the biggest one was probably not making sure every minute of every day that he knew I loved him and that no matter what he did I'd always be there. I might have been angry, I might have said things I didn't mean, but I would be there. I never took the time to tell him that, he didn't know that I loved him without conditions, and that cost me my son.
I've always considered myself a God fearing man, so I know Jeremy is God's child too. God chose to give him to Denise and I and now he chose to take him back, but the fear that perhaps we, as Jeremy's parents, didn't take good enough care of him lingers in our hearts and haunts our minds. The thought that we failed to cherish the life entrusted to us is difficult to bear and the thought of my failure as Jeremy's father to keep him safe and show him love is crushing me. This is not the time to tell your children you love them, it won't do you any good to stand on a podium and declare your love your dead child and it sure won't do your child any good either. Part of training for a war zone is visualization, putting yourself in that place mentally before you deploy so you are prepared when you arrive for anything that comes, so I ask all the parents even those who someday wish to be parents to visualize it, visualize our child leaving you and returned to God before his life is lived like Jeremy did and thank God it is only a visualization, but I promise you that thought will give you a much higher appreciation of the existence of your child, it will make you more forgiving of your child's shortcomings, and make you more open in your expressions of love to your child because you don't know, you don't know if right now, this minute, is your last chance.
Denise and I have a nightly routine, whether I'm at home or away, we either tell each other or write to each other how we feel, something to let the other know he or she is loved and cared for just in case that is the last time we get to say it. Denise keeps those notes in a jar and sends them in my care packages; I keep hers with my gear to make sure they go home with me if something bad happened. We accept that from each other, the reality that life is not certain, that we don't know what the next day will bring, but I never accepted it for Jeremy and I should have. I should have told him how proud I was of him; I should have told him how much I loved him. I'll leave you with this one piece of advice, whether you are a parent, a child, a sibling, a husband, a wife, a friend…say it, whatever it is, the time to say it is now, don't wait until it's too late. If you fear, say it, if you hope, say it, and if you love, say it.
With that final though Frank turned to Jeremy's casket and lifted his hand in salute before descending the tiny staging area to return to Denise's side. She had cried silently through the entire eulogy and all he wanted to do was take her into his arms.
The rest of the service passed by quickly, the military honor guard folded Jeremy's flag and Michael presented it to Denise and Frank just before the gun salute was fired and Taps was played. "I'm so proud of you," Denise whispered to Frank. He'd gotten through the whole service without losing his composure.
Frank was beginning to lose control of his composure, and thanked God it was only a few more minutes before everyone would depart and he could have a few minutes alone with Denise and Jeremy before having to greet the guests at the luncheon. People were beginning to leave their seats; after all, Taps was the ending of the service, so everyone was surprised when the Chaplain spoke.
"At this time Miss Emmalin Jane Holden wishes to share some final parts of the last conversation she had with Private Sherwood," the Chaplain announced and a tearful Emmalin rose and stood by the microphone. She looked right at Frank and Denise. "I knew Jeremy Sherwood since I was 7 years old and in so many ways he was like a brother, just like his father Lt. Colonel Frank Sherwood was like a father to Amanda and me when our dad was away. They both dried my tears, taught me how to stand up for myself and I'll never forget that. Before he died Jeremy was lost, really lost, he wrote me an email the day it happened and there is just one part I want to read. "The CD in your mailbox is for my dad. I know I've failed to be the son he wanted, but he was and always will be my hero. Make sure he knows that. I listened to the song and I knew I'd never be able to say what Jeremy wanted in words, so I'll let the music speak for him."
Emmalin turned on the CD and Josh Groban's You Raise Me Up filled the air.
Frank listened to the music; the words were like a knife in his heart. The song was about a person saying thank you to someone they counted on and idolized, he didn't deserve that from Jeremy. He'd failed him. He'd failed Denise. The longer the music played the harder it was for Frank to keep his composure, he felt his chest ache and dropped Denise's hand to cover his heart with both hands, physically trying to keep it from shattering and dull the pain.
Denise looked at him, tears streaming down her face, "Frank, are you okay?" she whispered.
He leaned forward breathing faster trying to keep the sobs from bursting out of his chest. He reached for his wife's leg and squeezed her knee trying to tell her he needed her.
"Frank, honey, what's wrong? Are you okay?" she whispered again. She rubbed his back hoping her touch would help him calm until after everyone left, she knew he didn't want to cry at the funeral. "Honey, try and breathe," she said quietly trying not to cause a disruption.
Frank lifted his face and looked at Denise. He was fighting such a war with himself he couldn't hold off anything. "It hurts," he managed to say through tears and sobs and gasps for air. "It hurts, Dee."
"I know Frank. Honey, try and breathe. Can you do that?" she asked him, hoping he would be able to get through this with her help.
Denise wrapped her arms around Frank, and held him hoping her love would soothe his pain but the more she held on the harder it was for him. Michael appeared from nowhere and knelt near his friend as Denise struggled to keep control of her own emotions.
Michael looked at Denise with a silent query.
"Michael, he can't breathe. I can't calm him down," she whispered to the General.
Michael understood Frank's actions; he was trying to keep his control in the presence of his men. "It doesn't matter Frank," Michael whispered into his friend's ear. "It's just me and Denise here."
That's all it took for Frank to let go of his hard won control. He put his head in his hands and let the sobs he's been trying to choke down come out. He needed this, he needed to cry, he'd held everything in since his father arrived and hearing Jeremy's final message to him had everything erupting faster than he could handle.
Brenda couldn't sit by and watch her baby crying, she stood and moved to hold him against her as she did when he was little. Claudia Joy nudged Roxy and Pamela and soon the three women had joined the small group encircling Frank and Denise. Al and Mr. Craddock were next, joined finally by Roland and Trevor until one part of each person's body was touching Frank or Denise if not both.
With Frank surrounded by support he should have been feeling better but if anything he was getting worse. He was pushing the hands and cheeks off of his body clinging only to Denise or his mother, but still he was looking for something.
Denise broke off and moved to Dennis, "It's you he needs," she said to the former soldier. "He needs his father. It was too late for Frank to tell Jeremy he was there for him; it's not too late for you."
Dennis didn't give it another thought, as tough as he was, he couldn't take seeing his son like this not with Frank's words during Jeremy's eulogy fresh in his mind.
Dennis went over to his son and hugged him. "I am so sorry son, for everything, I am so sorry I haven't been here for you, I know this is hard but we are all here; we will get through this," he told his son breaking from the hug once Frank showed signs of becoming calm.
One by one the friends left leaving only Denise and Frank at Jeremy's casket. Frank was holding onto the flag he'd been given. "Denise...I'm sorry."
"There is nothing to be sorry about Frank," Denise said gently giving him a hug. "You're hurting too; you have the right to grieve."
He nodded. "My chest hurts, it actually hurts. And now we have this new baby to think about..." Frank sighed and knelt by Jeremy's grave.
"I know because I feel the same way, and I know the baby will be here soon, but we can do this honey, we can make it through this, all we have to do is lean on each other, and our friends," she said kneeling down beside him.
"If I lose you Denise, I won't make it. I know that, but I can't ask you to end this pregnancy, not after this."
"Okay Frank we can keep him. I was actually hoping you would want to keep her, and don't worry I will take all precautions, I will do all I can to be here for you and this baby, the way you have always been for me," she said getting up and pulling him to his feet and hugging him.
Frank returned the embrace knowing in his heart Denise meant every word she said.
Epilogue to follow – Thanks for reading.