Friday, May 14, 2010

A story of a military widow


Taryn Davis represents a new generation of young war widows. Her husband, Army Cpl. Michael W. Davis, was killed in action by a roadside bomb in Baghdad Iraq on May 21, 2007. Taryn’s story will be featured in this year’s NATIONAL MEMORIAL DAY CONCERT which airs on PBS Sunday, May 30, 2010 from 8:00 to 9:30 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Q: How did your life change when you learned that you had become a military widow?

TARYN DAVIS: It changed my life in ways that I really could have never foreseen. It was eleven thirty at night when two men walked up to me on my patio and notified me that my husband, Corporal Michael Davis, wasn’t coming home. I had that Johnny Cash/June Carter ideal about our love so I thought I was going to die as soon as I heard them say Michael’s name; it was surreal. Within 24 hours, I was sitting in my living room picking out an urn for his ashes, writing his eulogy and obituary. I think that there was stigma and a connotation when you hear the word “widow,” you think of an old woman knitting in black. You certainly don’t think of a 21-year-old who is attending college. I googled “widow” and the response was, ‘do you mean “window”?’ That’s when it hit me that this was a title that not a lot of people spoke about and that more people needed to learn about. I went online and one evening, about two months after Michael was killed, I introduced myself in a chat room. I didn’t get much response except for one email from a 60-something Vietnam widow. I knew she’d lost her husband, but that was forty years ago so I wondered what she could tell me.

Q: You’re referring to Glenda Carter, a Vietnam War widow whose story will also be featured in the NATIONAL MEMORIAL DAY CONCERT. Though separated by many years, what common bonds do you share with Glenda and what have you learned from her experience?

DAVIS: Glenda was 19 when she lost her husband. She went back to work and burned every letter she ever wrote to her husband in the hopes that it would take away the silent pain that she was holding inside of herself. But when she emailed me, she said something that really resonated. She said, “Taryn, you have to be able to talk about what’s happened to you and to Michael. You need to be able to put a face and a voice to your generation. You can’t be scared of what people will think by sharing Michael’s demise and where your life is now.” I had come to that little Y in the road where everybody was telling me what I needed to do with my life. I was so weak and just wanted to feel normal again. Luckily, through Glenda and the other widows I’ve met, I chose to follow my heart. It’s made all the difference. Glenda has taught me a lot about her generation and how even though it was more difficult since they weren’t able to talk about their husbands’ sacrifices or their lives as military widows, they definitely have paved the way for our generation. We’re trying to do the same thing that Glenda and her generation did and that’s to make it a little bit easier for those to come.

Q: What’s different about being a widow in the 21st first century than those who lost loved ones in previous wars?

DAVIS: The big difference is that as a military wife now, we have a whole new form of communication. Back in Vietnam, you’d write a letter and you’d get one back maybe once a month. Our communication has taken leaps and strides since then. We have the ability to talk to each other almost on a daily basis using instant messaging, Skype, web cam and social networks like Face book and My Space.

Q: Your story will be featured as part of the NATIONAL MEMORIAL DAY CONCERT on PBS this year. What do you hope that other young widows or those who have lost loved ones will take away from hearing your story?

DAVIS: I hope that they take away a sense of empowerment. Even to this day, I meet widows who say that they hate that word “widow.” But from the get-go, I’ve thought of that title as signifying not only our husband’s sacrifice but it also symbolizes our survival and will to carry on with our lives. In addition, I think it represents our husband’s legacies and how we let them live through our actions as we move forward. When I was lying on the couch after Michael died, I wasn’t the person that Michael fell in love with. I was letting the grief and bereavement take over.

Someone recently asked me if I like that people think “widow” when they think of me. I said that I couldn’t think of a more proud thing to be because when I go to a restaurant with a widow friend, we’re probably the ones smiling the most, laughing the most and enjoying life the most because we do understand the sacrifices that are made to enjoy that life.

Q: After you lost Michael, you traveled the country and found other young women who had experienced a similar loss to yours. What impact did that journey have on your life?

DAVIS: I started filming a documentary four months after Michael was killed. The first woman I interviewed was a widow whose husband was actually sitting behind Michael and was killed with him. When I called her I said, ‘I don’t know you but I want to come to Georgia and ask you all the questions that people stopped asking me.’ I wanted to know how she fell in love with her husband, what it was like when she found out he was getting deployed, and when she was notified that her husband had been killed. I wanted to know how she told her son and what she’s doing with her life now to pick up the pieces. Then I told her I wanted to share the video with other widows. I also wondered how I was going to find other women who’d be willing to share their stories but, luckily I found five other widows willing to be interviewed. Through my organization, the American Widow Project, we’ve reached out to more than 400 widows so far. But from this current conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are about 2,500 widows. Through each conversation, I’ve found out more about my grief and pain. But there’s also commonality between each one of us because even though we have different stories, we all loved someone in the military whose life was taken abruptly.

Q: You’ve described this connection with other widows that you’ve met as being like a “band of sisters.” How have some of these friendships helped you?

DAVIS: When I made those connections with these widows, it helped me feel normal. When you’re with them, you don’t have to sugar-coat things or feel obligated to have to leave your husband’s name out of a sentence because you know it makes people feel awkward. You are free to be yourself and it’s very liberating. Even when you’re not around the other widows, you feel more empowered to say to the world, ‘I’m a military widow and I’m surviving. Life can be good. Just because my husband was killed in a really horrible way, that doesn’t define his life. He was so much more than a man in a uniform.’ I hope to be a living example of what Michael instilled in me. I don’t know what my life would be if I didn’t talk to a widow every day. I’m so grateful that they’re in my life. They’ve taught me that love is eternal and that life can be amazing.

Q: You started a nonprofit called the American Widow Project as a result of your experiences. What kind of impact do you think this organization has had so far and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

DAVIS: Beyond the documentary, I knew I needed to have another portal for widows to share their stories and for others to heal from those stories. That’s when I decided to start the American Widow Project. I like to say that we’re “structurally unstructured” because each of these widows has helped pour a symbolic slab to build an amazing house where other women can go and feel normal. We don’t have seminars and it’s not a classroom setting. I realized early on that the only way I could survive was if I learned how to live again and I knew I couldn’t learn how to live again sitting at a table. I wanted to go out and feel the wind against my face and laugh and smile and not feel bad about it because if I paused for a moment I would look around and see twelve to fifteen other widows doing the same thing. That’s really what the organization has become through the website, our events, and our outreach. The widows involved in this project are more amazing than I could have ever fathomed.

Fifty years from now if I’m not here, I hope the American Widow Project will still be here and that people will think of it as an organization that isn’t going to tell you how to grieve or how to cry. It’s going to tell you how to live and help you understand that it’s hard to balance carrying a huge legacy of your husband while also trying to learn how to get up every morning and breathe.

If there’s a military widow out there who hears this story, I hope she knows that she’s not alone. I felt alone for four months, my best friend felt alone for two years and I just met a widow who didn’t meet another widow her age for five years!

At one of our events, a widow put it perfectly when she said, “I don’t feel like I came here and made twelve friends. I feel like I made 24 friends because I feel like I know your husbands as well.”

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