What Finally Pushed Me Over the Edge
Author: Michelle West
Moving forward through grief and fear
Ever since March 11, 2008, I have been teetering on the edge. On that day I received the heartbreaking news that my husband Staff Sergeant Laurent J. West was killed while serving in Iraq. The resulting days pushed me right to the edge, always balancing between keeping it together and falling apart.
The knock on the door that evening came one hour after I had received the news that my beloved grandmother had passed away. Grandma Whyte had been suffering from Alzheimer’s and I saw her death as a comfort since she would no longer be in mental or physical pain. Little did I know that when she entered Heaven my young, healthy husband was there to greet her.
In the hour between learning about my grandmother’s death and having the chaplain knock on my door, I emailed Laurent to inform him of the news. I reassured him not to worry about me since he would be home in a few weeks for R&R after nine long months of being deployed. Just as I finished, my sister called. I was sharing fond memories of our grandmother when I heard knocking on the front door.
As I peeked through the blinds to see the impolite intruder, all I could see was a piece of uniform. My first thought was that Laurent had come home early and wanted to surprise me. As I threw open the door I was struck with a sadness so fierce that nothing has been the same since. I knew the impossible had happened. The man who was larger than life was no longer alive.
The next twenty days included flying to Colorado and realizing I was not strong enough to attend my grandma's funeral, trying to celebrate the success of our oldest daughter graduating from college, and then coming home for one day before flying to Washington D.C. for Laurent's funeral.
The following eleven months and eleven days would test me even further. I attribute my ability to get through the year to Laurent's strong hands keeping me up and his loving words reminding me I could get through this. The saying that God never gives you anything you can't handle had me convinced that God had me confused with someone else.
That year tested me with all of the firsts to be faced without my better half. Our wedding anniversary was the 4th of July. We had picked the date due to our love for our country. Laurent could never forget our special day, and we would always have fireworks for our anniversary. July 4, 2008 was the first time in my life I did not celebrate this wonderful day. No picnic, no parade, and no fireworks.
Thanksgiving was even harder because it was Laurent's favorite day. That man could eat! And he was always grateful for all we were blessed with. Though my age had never bothered me before, there was just something depressing about turning 40 and being a widow. Each holiday presented me with a reminder of all the days we wouldn't be sharing together.
The first year also brought challenges I never imagined. Green Ramp was one of the hardest. In Fort Bragg, Green Ramp is the airfield where returning soldiers come home from deployments. I decided to attend the homecoming, both to prove to myself that Laurent really wasn't coming home and to sincerely welcome all the soldiers who had made it back safely.
One test I didn't expect was being treated as if widowhood were contagious. Those who should have been there for me were often the cruelest, ignoring me at the PX or not returning my calls. It seemed as though I had lost not only my husband but my support network as well.
I had the bittersweet joy of buying our first home, made possible because of the sacrifice Laurent made for all of us. I felt guilty anytime I was happy and tried my best not to cry, because I knew how much Laurent hated seeing me sad. Seeing his grave or calling myself a widow could make my heart stop. Giving up would have been easy but every time I was close to it, I would get a sign from Laurent that I should continue to stay strong.
By early December I started to think of how I would handle the first anniversary of Laurent’s death. The options included going to Arlington and crying beside a cold stone, locking myself away from the world, or staying strong and being the woman Laurent loved. As a family, the girls and I decided that every March 11th would be “What Would Laurent Do Day.” This would be a day to celebrate something Laurent would want to do.
Since 2009 would be the first annual celebration, I had to make sure it was spectacular. It occurred to me that I should jump out of an airplane. I figured it would be an amazing way to honor Laurent and the 82nd Airborne as well as doing something that my husband loved. One small problem: I was terrified of flying. Since Laurent's passing I had been on five different trips and always wore his first airborne wings with pride. They provided comfort and reassurance and actually had me enjoying flying. Still, jumping out of a perfectly good plane was something I swore I would never do, and I thought Laurent was crazy for enjoying it. I decided that participating in a tandem jump would be the perfect way to face my personal fear and celebrate my husband.
On March 11, 2009 in Raeford, North Carolina, the weather provided me with the perfect jump day. All day people kept asking two questions, "Are you really going to jump?" and "Are you nervous?" Every time I would answer "Of course" and "Not at all." When I found out I had the honor of jumping with the Golden Knight who jumped with George Bush, Sr. on his 80th birthday, I had no doubt I was in good hands.
I received my jump instructions, signed the paperwork, and suited up. They told me to remember three things: breathe, arch, and have fun. I saw the tiny plane and all the seasoned jumpers, and I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins. We were the last to jump, and I had plenty of time to reconsider. I didn't though, because I was proudly wearing Laurent's wings.
Looking down 13,000 feet with my toes over the edge was the first time I got nervous. But at that moment I could hear Laurent telling me it was fine. This edge represented the love I have for Laurent and the love he has for me. This fall would not weaken me but bring me strength. This edge was not “giving up” but “moving forward.” It was this thought (and a swift kick from Laurent) that finally pushed me over the edge.
The second I was out of the plane I had as many emotions going through me as the number of feet I was falling. I finally understood why Laurent loved being a paratrooper. What a rush of joy and fear all in one! The most important part was the empowerment I gained. That jump made me realize that there is nothing I cannot handle with Laurent's love motivating me. It was an incredible fall.
Upon landing I knew Laurent had been with me every second of the jump. And I now know that he will be with me as my guardian angel telling me to be strong (and giving me a swift kick when I need it) for the rest of my life.
By Michelle J. West, surviving spouse of Staff Sergeant Laurent J. West