first, a little story: two years ago, I hosted my first ever giveaway on tulips & flightsuits. it was exciting on a lot of levels, but it was especially exciting because someone I didn’t know won, a girl named claudia! (it has always been amazing to me that people other than my mom actually read this blog!) so, I emailed claudia to congratulate her. what happened next I could have never imagined: claudia wrote me the most enthusiastic, heartfelt, amazing email back. it felt like we were old friends. she said her husband, tommy, had been really confused when she started jumping around saying, “I won! I won!” (it’s hard to imagine how excited some of us get over calligraphy return address stamps!) she also said she was a new military wife & felt like we had a similar outlook on life. I couldn’t have agreed more.
& so began a cross-country email exchange. her husband was stationed in washington state, mine in virginia. we were pregnant around the same time, and welcomed brayden (her amazing son) and ellie into our lives. earlier this year, we learned our husbands would be deploying, and coming home, around the same time. claudia & tommy had already been through a few deployments. her perspective, honesty & strength completely inspired me. she was so consistent about emailing me & encouraging me through out the deployment. so many of her emails struck such a chord, at just the right moment, with what I was feeling. we talked honestly about how much our babies had change since tommy & ryan had deployed, how much we anticipated seeing brayden and ellie reunited with their dads, all the amazing people who had surrounded us & how excited we were to have the boys home.
then one night, a few days before claudia was anticipating tommy’s arrival and a few weeks before ryan was to get home, I received this email:
“Mary, I know we've never met in person but I feel that connection to you as a military wife, and as a mother. Yesterday afternoon I found out that our sweet Tommy was killed in action. I was told that it was instant and he was in no pain and for that I am grateful. Our escort, Brayden and I are on our way to see him back on US soil as he comes off the aircraft along with his chosen escort and dear friend Jacob. Tommy's parents will be meeting us there. We have had amazing support in WA and will likely continue on to CA from Delaware. I'll talk to you soon friend. xo Claudia”
the impact this email and my friendship with Claudia have had on my life, our family and my thoughts on being a military wife are hard to put into words. what was really interesting to me was how much I learned reading the incredible coverage of tommy’s life. the thing is, claudia and I talked like wives and mothers – we talked about tommy and ryan as devoted husbands, brayden and ellie as constantly changing, growing children – I didn’t know much about where tommy was deployed or what he did in the military. I certainly didn’t know he’d deployed five times and all the incredible accolades he’d earned as an army ranger (read more here, here & here).
what was also powerful to me is that as I processed this news in claudia’s life, I could only do so through imagining myself in her shoes. after I read her email, I spent the rest of the night trying to imagine how I would possibly fly with a 17 month old, across the country, to receive my husband’s body. the thing is, all military wives have filled out the forms with their husbands, the ones that go into incredible detail about what should happen should they die in the line of duty. we’ve all had to seriously consider this possibility. but now, this sweet friend of mine was living it. when ryan returned home a few weeks later, I was even more present, even more grateful, even more intentional – because it was so incredibly real to me that homecomings are not promised. not every wife who endures a deployment gets to welcome her husband home. to put it in stark numbers, over 6500 service members have been killed in iraq & afghanistan since 2001. they were husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, daughters, sons, dear friends.
I am so incredibly blessed to know the macpherson family – to know tommy’s story and to see claudia and braydens strength.
claudia & I have been emailing, and even spoke on the phone (it felt like old friends so quickly) over the past few weeks. I am so very moved by her devotion as a wife and mother. she has taken such incredible care of brayden, designed an incredibly intentional program for the memorial service and spoke beautifully with her son in her arms at the service for tommy. ryan & I have constantly thought of this family & are so honored to be a part of the team that plans on surrounding them with love for the long road ahead. I can hardly wait for brayden & ellie to meet. I am so excited to share many lattes with claudia.
I’ll leave you with part of an email I sent to claudia a few weeks ago that says so much of what I feel:
“…last night, I was spending time with one of my dear friends, a military wife, with two boys. we were talking about discussing with kids what really makes a superhero or a soldier really special is that he is brave AND kind. that bravery means nothing without kindness and kindness means nothing without bravery. there's no point in being super brave and strong if there's nothing to protect -- and to really protect something, you must really love it. similarly, you can't really love something unless you are willing to protect it. more often, if you have a son, you have to really talk with him about the kindness part -- the world tells boys to be strong/brave and that's what matters, so it takes more effort to show them kindness is just as important. & on the flip side, ellie is going to be told her whole life to be nice/kind, but she needs to know if she really loves something or cares about it, she must be willing to defend it in some way.
so this is all to say, we're both heartbroken for you and aching and wishing we could do more. but we were also were reflecting last night that tommy's life has already touched the next generation. it has because we can talk to our kids and about a man who was brave and kind. we don’t have to tell them about fictional superheroes – your husband’s story is way better. we can tell them about tommy because he clearly died being brave, and lived a life that required him to be brave on a daily basis in ways that most people are never asked to be. but when you emailed me, you didn't call him brave tommy, you called him “sweet tommy” -- because you and brayden are the ones he loved. you felt that love & kindness every day. you are so much of why he decided to serve -- the ones who he loved enough to be willing to protect.
i cannot wait to tell ellie about tommy. & i know brayden's whole life will be touched by his dad and how he lived. i have to confess i've been googling tommy's name & when i read the articles and what the men who knew him said about him in combat, i was just so moved. i'm not sure i've known a braver man (and you know what they say, behind every brave man is an even braver woman --- and you are my dear!).
we’re here for the long haul – a part of the enormous tribe that will see you & brayden through the days ahead. our guest room awaits, my phone is always on & if there is any role ryan can play in brayden’s life, at any point down the road, count him in. sending you so much love tonight – xo, mary”
and now for some truly stunning images.
claudia is so incredibly strong and thoughtful -- in the midst of all of this, she thought to have her friend and incredibly talented photographer, tegyn friedman, come and capture the day tommy was laid to rest. given brayden isn't old enough to really remember this & how much this day matters in the life of this family, these images are so incredibly important. they truly move me.
claudia, i can't thank you enough for allowing me to share your story. sweet readers, claudia has a blog of her own that you should wander over to. and tegyn, thank you so, so much for allowing me to share your stunning images. readers, you can see more images of claudia, brayden and a day to honor tommy right on her blog here. and if you're in southern california, look at more of tegyn's work.
finally readers, i hope this post has given you a chance to tell someone you know about a man who was brave & kind, and the incredible family who stood by his side. claudia is a sweet reader of this blog, so if you want to leave her & brayden some love in the comments section, i know she'd love to hear from you. xo