Thursdays and the Holidays

I am too mindful of dates and I wish it would go away. Whenever I see one, my mind instantly thinks about whether you were alive or dead when each event occurred. It’s making me feel like a bit crazy. The same is true with Thursdays. Every Thursday marks one more week that you’ve been gone.

I knew the holidays would be difficult and I’m in the middle of them. I tried, but I just couldn’t pull out the many boxes of memories and decorate. I couldn’t hang the hand-made ornaments your loving little hands made over the years. I can’t hang your stocking that I joyfully stuffed with your favorite things 21 years in a row. I want everything to be okay; I really do, but it’s not. You’re not here. You won’t be coming through the door on Christmas, bringing that special joy that only you can bring.

You died on Thursday, Thanksgiving is on a Thursday and now Christmas and New Years are both on Thursdays. I’ll get through Christmas, and then I’ll be faced with the most difficult thing; starting a new year in which you were not alive. You were still alive in 2014. I saw you, I hugged you, I spoke with you and I spent time with you in 2014, but that will not be true for 2015. I don’t want a fresh new year to arrive. I don’t want to exist in a new year without you.

I am grateful for the wonderful memories I have of so many holidays with you and the laughter you consistently blessed us with. You have been my joy and I can actually smile when I day dream of these special times, but sometimes I just can’t bear the thought of no more new memories. I suppose those will happen later on in the next life, but until then, thank you Jake for the love and laughter you always brought with you wherever you went. I know you continue to bless others every single day. You are such a bright light in my life, and forever and always I will miss you every moment until I see you again.

My last Christmas with you…

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The Pilots

I’ve been praying to find closure in hearing from the pilots. I had hoped to know that they were okay and that maybe my letter might have helped them find peace in some way. I received a second response from someone in charge first:

Ms Katzenbach,

My name is XXX XXX and I am the Battalion Commander for 2-158th Assault Helicopter Battalion.  XXX and XXX are pilots under my command here in garrison. I was commanding in another location of Afghanistan at the time of the accident, but the events have affected us all very deeply. I am truly sorry for your loss and appreciate the note reaching out to my pilots.  I will ensure the crew sees the note and provide them your contact information.  Your strength and compassion is compelling and will greatly assist with the healing process.  If I can be of any assistance to you my contact information is below.

Very Respectfully,
XXX

But, later today, I finally heard from one of the two pilots:

Dear Ms. Heidi Katzenbach,

I recently received your email regarding your Son, Jacob, and the pilots involved in the helicopter accident.  My name is XXX XXX.  I am unfortunate to say I was one of the helicopter pilots the evening this tragedy occurred.  I cannot express to you enough my sincere condolences, from the bottom of my heart, but foremost I want to tell you I am so sorry.  I am sorry for so many reasons.  For someone to leave us at such an early part of their life, I can’t begin to imagine the pain and suffering that you have been through.  I know this has affected many others as well, Jacob’s family, friends, his Infantry unit, the flight crew, and our Aviation unit.  

 When I first read your email the other day it actually brought tears to my eyes just knowing that you have expressed concern for our health.  I want you to know I am ok, but have some injuries that will be with me forever.  I can actually say that my injuries will allow me to never forget that night.  

 I can’t say that I knew Jacob personally but often think of him and wish I did.  He has not been forgotten.  Occassionally, XXX and I will have lunch and converse about the accident, about Jacob, and all the “what if’s” that quite possibly may have changed the outcome.  It is only natural for one to feel responsible for this.  That is part of being human and part of who I am.  Thank you for your comforting words and prayers, which have brought me some peace.  That means so much to not only me, but my wife, my children, and my family. 

Very Respectfully, XXX XXX

My heart breaks to think how many people this accident has affected. At times I cannot bear thinking of the various struggles, regrets, sadness and responsibility so many feel, and no matter what I do or say, I cannot take away that burden. I don’t know if this will ever end, but I will continue hoping and praying it will get better with time. I hope there is such a thing as closure, but it seems there is always someone with an open wound somewhere.

Good Stuff

buddyB

Hi Jake,

In our last conversation, I said, “Hi Buddy” and asked if you minded that I still call you “Buddy” even though you’re a grown man and you said, “No, I don’t mind”. That was the day of the helicopter crash. I’m moving on to dogs now, but keep listening because there is a purpose. I’m sure there is nobody who loves dogs the same way we do. We always found the same things cute or funny about them and it seemed that nobody else enjoyed them in this same way. We would giggle at how Molly would stand or how Max had such slim hips… After you died, I asked Ray if we could name our next dog, “Buddy” after you. Guess what? We now have Buddy! He makes me so happy and whenever I see something cute about his anatomy I smile all by myself, but I know you are there smiling with me, because I don’t think you leave me alone for long. I wish you could run and play with us at the park. I wish you could snuggle on the floor with “Buddy” and watch TV. I miss that sight. I miss having you under my roof where I could always keep you safe and happy. Don’t worry Jake, I know you’re happy and I know you are doing something magnificent. I just miss having you here with me for so many reasons. Our love for dogs is just one of my favorite!

dewittC

Speaking of cute… we have a friend who was just baptized this past week at 95 years old! He never married, so he has no children or grandchildren, but tells us this is something he has always longed for. I wonder why we all live such different lives. I wonder why some of us live so long and others, like you only need to be here a short time. I think much is a result of our choices, but I know that God does with us what he needs to for his purposes as well. How grateful I am for this knowledge. How grateful I am to believe you were needed for a greater purpose. I always knew you were special, but after losing you, I now know that I was blessed to be the mother of someone truly magnificent! I love you more than ever!

Look out for this sweet man. I love him, and I think he will be there soon!

A Huge Task Accomplished!

After Jake died, it didn’t take me long to figure out that serving others calms the grief more than anything. I wish I could tell all Gold Star family members to give it a try! For me, it’s the answer, and I know it makes Jake smile, as he cared so much for the people around him his entire life.

As I’ve said before, I’ve had a need to be in contact with Jake’s brothers who were with him on the helicopter as they recovered, and also the others who were in the shadow bird; first responding to the wounded and then caring for and transporting Jake. It’s always a good day when I’m privileged to have a conversation or a quick text with any of them. I know Jake lives on in them and I feel a strong connection to my boy through them.

I had a passionate desire to connect with the families of the two other casualties from Jake’s unit. They died together as a result of an IED about 6 weeks after Jake’s death and with the news of it, my heart re-broke. I have met one set of parents of the soldier from Nebraska, and I fly out Thursday to meet the other in California! I am so grateful for the opportunity to love them and help them feel less alone.

I spent some time with Jake’s recruiter last month, and had the opportunity to assure him that nobody is responsible for Jake’s death, and certainly not him.

Last night, I finally made my last contact that has weighed so heavy on my mind since Jake’s death. I finally tracked down the email for the commander of the pilots and sent him this letter:

Dear Colonel XXX,

I am the Gold Star Mother of PFC Jacob H Wykstra who was killed on May 28th of this year in Maruf, Afghanistan. He was the only casualty resulting from a Black Hawk crash. I have worked to find contact information for the pilots who were flying the helicopter that night, but my long-time friend, Colonel Andrew XXX thought it best that I first communicate to them through you, their commander.

The pilots flying that night were CW2 Adam XXX and CW2 Josh XXX. I have prayed for them for 6 months now and I hope they are recovering and doing well. I feel a need to contact them because I cannot bear the thought of anyone believing they are responsible for my son’s death. I don’t know this to be the case, but I can only imagine the load they bare.

My family and I realize that war zones can be chaotic and that accidents happen. Jake also knew the risks that come with being a member of the infantry. Jake had a gift. He was always an extremely forgiving and loving person, and he would not want his death to affect anyone in a negative way. What we would like to see, and I feel confident in speaking for my son, is healing and the ability to move forward in a positive way to live good lives for ourselves and for Jake. I know none of us affected by this tragedy will ever forget, and we should not, but I pray that we will be able to accept that Jake’s time was up, the Lord took him mercifully, he has a job to do elsewhere and that we will all see him again.

If I could make this situation better for anyone I would do it, but there is nothing I can do except hope and pray that my words might give comfort to these pilots. My son died for a cause he believed in; freedom for all people around the world, and I am grateful that I raised a son willing to die for that cause. I know he died well in the eyes of God and I don’t worry about him. I do worry about those who are still living and struggling.

I am so proud of Jake and his commitment to serving others, and I am grateful for the pilots and for all of you who serve our nation, as well as  other nations that rely on assistance from our armed forces. I could never express my gratitude enough.

Please respond to let me know you received this letter and please pass it on. I hope the pilots will take a moment to respond, and I pray that I might bring them some peace.

I was surprised to receive such a quick and wonderful response:

Ms. Katzenbach, 

     I too have prayed for many months concerning the crash that took Jake’s life.  I have of course prayed often for the physical healing of all those injured in the crash and even more fervently for Jake’s soul and some manner of peace and comfort for your family.  I did not know from what you drew strength in such times but from your email, I have inferred a number of things.  I believe now we share a faith in the Lord and I note your comment about us living His plan.  I have never been tested with such a tragic loss as yours and truly hope when I am tested that I can be as strong in faith and character as you seem to be.  Your concern for others – whom you’ve never met – and initiative to bring them comfort is humbling.

      You are perceptive also to suspect there may be folks in our formation who feel some responsibility for the suffering and loss.  I know how I feel and I saw some of the crews’ emotion when they learned of Jake’s death.  Our Army Profession is based on trust in all things and our unit speaks much about always protecting the sacred bond with our customers (that’s usually the Infantry).  So, as professionals, any aviation event that results in injury or loss prompts us into a lot of self-examination and what-ifs.  Too much of this is likely unhealthy and could prevent the emotional peace you spoke of in your email and that you wish for Josh and Adam.  We will continue to monitor how the aircrew and others are doing emotionally.  I will share your email with these folks and I’ll help them determine the best next step.  I think they will find your strength as inspiring as I do.

      I think of your son often, especially in the last few weeks as we have just recently returned home and now have time to reflect on the deployment.  Reflection sparked by ceremonies, senior leader visits, and other events that often cause us to think through our best days and our worst days of the deployment.  The day of Jake’s death was certainly our worst – but even that day had me offer a prayer of thanks as there could have been so many other lives lost.  I hope that makes some kind of sense.

      I am grateful for you reaching out to me and for your concern about our folks.  I intended to write you after we had been home for a bit – I like to think I would have followed through.  However, your email has forced me to action now and I am grateful for that too.  I owe you some feedback about the aircrew.  Much of the force started post deployment leave this week and we’re spread all around but I will get your words to them in very short order.

God Bless,

Colonel XXX

I have felt a weight on my shoulder for six months, and today I feel as though I have accomplished my goal; to bring a little peace and comfort to others affected by Jake’s death. It has taken awhile, as the Army is not willing to give out private information, but my words have been heard by those I wanted so badly to comfort.

 

Surviving Over Time

Today’s FB post: My sweet son, Six months ago today was the last time we got to tell you we love you. You left on a late night mission to help others and your life here on Earth ended. What I have learned in the last 6 months is how well-loved you are, and that you only influenced others for good. Your real mission in this life was to bring happiness and laughter to everyone you knew. Know how loved and missed you are, and how very proud we are of the selfless man you grew to be. I dream of the day when I will see you again, and even though you probably don’t need it, I will always pray for you! Forever your mom.

So I went to bed an hour ago and had to get up. I tried reading for distraction, but I can’t sleep because I keep thinking about this night 6 months ago. That night, I went to sleep completely unaware of what I would wake to. I don’t want to think about it because I’d rather be sleeping, but it keeps coming to my mind. Six months feels like forever, yet at times I can hardly believe it’s been this long. Time is strange that way.

Good news: I survived Thanksgiving just fine. I did shed some tears in the morning as I prepared the turkey, but the rest of the day was good. I learned from your birthday to make a plan ahead of time and to serve others. I had initially planned to cook for and serve the homeless veterans in Des Moines, but that project fell apart. A couple of Sundays ago, I noticed that the missionaries had no place to eat for Thanksgiving so I signed up immediately, knowing if I serve them I will feel better, and it worked. I had 5 young missionaries here for dinner, games and a movie. They didn’t completely fill the void, but it was a little less-empty. I’m happy that nobody can fill the void, because that space in my heart was made just for you. Feel free to reside there whenever and however you can and I will always feel you.

Thanksgiving week

It’s Tuesday. I got the grocery shopping done and I’ll be ready to bake tomorrow. I invited people over because I thought it would be a distraction, but I think I made a big mistake. The shopping was more difficult than I had expected, and for the rest of the day I was exhausted with grief. I really do want to have a good holiday and enjoy my time, but I just keep thinking, “I don’t want Thanksgiving without Jake”.

A good friend called when I was grief-stricken. I answered because I thought, surely she’ll understand because she loves me. She has five grown kids, she’s compassionate and kind… Well, she tried, but said nothing I needed to hear. She basically told me that I should just enjoy the holiday and focus on the people around me. It’s clear that all of her children are living because she simply didn’t get it. I think that once the dead are buried and we’ve had a month or two to mourn, society expects us to “get on with it”. But, when someone loses a child; an actual part of that person, there is no “getting on with it”. For the rest of this life, I will feel alone in my grief because I am. I ask for comfort from my Father in Heaven and He sends small blessings to let me know He’s there, but the only thing that could make this all better is Jake, and that will never happen.

Jake, this is for you:

A Picture of You
I only have a picture now,
A frozen piece of time,
To remind me of how it was,
When you were here, and mine.

I see your smiling eyes,
Each morning when I wake,
I talk to you, and place a kiss,
Upon your lovely face.

How much I miss you being here,
I really cannot say,
The ache is deep inside my heart,
And never goes away.

I hear it mentioned often,
That time will heal the pain,
But if I’m being honest,
I hope it will remain.

I need to feel you constantly,
To get me through the day,
I loved you so very much,
Why did you go away?

The angels came and took you,
That really wasn’t fair,
They took my one and only Son,
My future life. My heir.

If only they had asked me,
If I would take your place,
I would have done so willingly,
Leaving you this world to grace.

You should have had so many years,
To watch your life unfold,
And in the mist of this,
Watch me, your Mom grow old!

I hope you’re watching from above,
At the daily tasks I do,
And let there be no doubt at all,
I really do love you.

 

 

Too much

Jake, I don’t know what to do! Your Brigade is reorganizing and has invited the families of it’s fallen to be a part of it, along with ceremonies, tours of the base… I just got back from Colorado and I already have a trip planned to go visit Aunt Laura that same week and I can’t change the tickets. I just can’t get over the feeling that I’m letting you down. After 22 years of doing anything I could for you, I suddenly can’t do anything and it breaks my heart. How do I know if this is important to you? How do I decide if I should change my plans and attend? Why can’t I just call you and ask how important this is to you? Jake! I miss talking to you. I miss be able to pick up the phone and ask a simple question.

I’ve talked to two other Gold Star Moms and they both said that they’ve learned that we just can’t attend everything. There is so much to honor you and that makes me happy, but are you aware of this? Does it matter to you or have you moved on to bigger and better things? I feel guilt because I’ve already missed so much because I don’t live in Colorado anymore. It seems so much guilt comes with motherhood and I should probably just stop it!

Reminders of you are still everywhere. In fact, I might be more aware of them than I was in the past. When I was in the Denver airport, waiting to board, I watched a young dad sitting on the floor with his toddler son looking out the window at the airplanes. The little boy was so excited that the dad couldn’t get him to eat his dinner. I watched them and dreamed of what a great dad you would have been. I could see the sweetness in their relationship and felt the pain, knowing I’ll never get to see you experience that.

There’s a deli that Ray and I like to go to and every time we’re there we seem to be sitting near a mother and a son having dinner together. Not the same mother and son, but there is always a mom enjoying a meal with her boy. This brings back so many sweet memories with you. From when you were little and we would drop Hannah off at kindergarten and go out to breakfast, to eating dinner at the mall while holiday shopping. I am so grateful for these memories and so happy that we had such a good relationship. We shared so much and I need to remember everything I can. It’s just hard to accept that we will never again make any new memories in this life.

Yesterday, I was in the grocery store and holiday music was playing. It’s not even Thanksgiving and the Christmas music is upon us. I saw those chocolate oranges that are your favorite. Remember when I would buy them up after Christmas when they were on sale and randomly give them to you during the spring? It always surprised you so much. I love nothing more than to see the joy on your face from such simple things. Jake, you loved life so much and I miss that kind of excitement enthusiasm that so few of us have. You’re the only one I’ve ever been able to thrill so easily, and you’re the only one in my life who could make me laugh even when things were difficult. I wish you were here now to comfort me with your humor, enthusiasm and silliness. I lost that part of me when I lost you, but I will keep trying to get some of it back.

Colorado

I haven’t written in awhile for a couple of reasons. First, I can finally go a few days without the need to write, or cry or even experience that deep sadness I am so familiar with. I am finally able to focus on the life in front of me. It lasts a couple of days and then the grief returns, but there is a definite improvement.

I was able to spend a week in Colorado, and finally met the portion of Jake’s platoon that was with him during his life in Afghanistan, and with him when he died; the men that he called his brothers. These are the men who removed him from the desert floor and brought him to the Apache FOB where he was declared dead before escorting him to Kandahar for his long journey home. I have so much love and gratitude for each and every one of them, and I pray that I have been able to articulate this to them. We had a night out where we remembered Jake, shared stories, pictures and videos and laughed. It was perfect. The only thing missing was Jake.

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While in Colorado, I had a lunch date with Jake’s recruiters, Sgt. Babb and Sgt. Stickler. I had first met Sgt. Stickler exactly two years ago on election day. I was an election judge at a local polling place and he had been placed in a long line he didn’t need to be in. Because he was in uniform, I pulled him from the queue to expedite things. I told him my son had been interested in joining the Army and he gave me his card. He just happened to be a recruiter, and he was the one to teach and prepare my son for basic training. We met last Tuesday, which just happened to be election day again! I am so grateful for the time I had to spend with him in particular because he was carrying a burden. I had embraced him at Jake’s funeral and told him how happy I was to see him. At lunch, he shared that he considered not attending the service because he didn’t know what to say to me, and he felt so much guilt. I feel greatly blessed to have had the opportunity to tell him that I hold nobody accountable for Jake’s death, not even the pilots. I know in my heart that it was Jake’s time to go, and the Lord took him regardless of anything any of us could have done. I cannot bear to think that any of these wonderful and giving men would hold themselves responsible for Jake’s death in any way. War is ugly and anything can happen. I am just grateful that I raised a son willing to serve and I’m grateful that Jake had the opportunity to create bonds with others just as noble, brave and valiant as he is!

Jake's recruiters

Five Months

Five months ago today, I was unaware that I would wake the next morning to learn that you were gone; to learn a pain I never knew existed; to learn that my life would never be the same again. As the months have passed, I am learning to live again. The process is slow, but I am trying my best to live as you would have me live. I am noticing the blessings in life and trying to find purpose for the remainder of my time here. Sometimes I feel trapped here, but I know that there is still much for me to accomplish. How did you accomplish what you needed to do so quickly? I always knew you were special but I never knew it like the Lord did!

I posted this on my facebook wall today:

“I realized I no longer count my time in Thursdays, but have moved on to months, now counting them by the 28ths. Five months ago today, you texted me for the last time, “I love you, mom”, left on a late night mission and the Lord brought you home to Him. I am noticing that I remember you living more than I remember you dying, and for that I am grateful. All of your family and friends love and miss you. You taught us about happiness and joy better than anyone I know, and I promise to try to live the happy life you would want for all of us. With tears in my eyes, I will still smile and know that you live on and anticipate your joyous reunions with each of us. Jake, you are so very loved. Forever and ever!”

Jake, I will do my best to love those you loved. I will follow your example and try to serve those who are less fortunate than me. I am grateful for reminders like this photo that allow me to reach out to those suffering through thought and prayer. I know how you felt about the people you served in Afghanistan and your compassion makes me want to be a better person and to do more. The world around us is full of suffering, much like you saw in the middle east. It continues, Jake and seems to get worse with each day. In the back of my mind, I often wonder if we’re getting close to the Savior’s return.

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That Last Picture

me & jake

I was dumping the pictures from my camera and came across a photo I had completely forgotten about. It was early in the morning on January 26, and I had gotten up to cook my boy one last meal before he headed to Fort Carson for his deployment. The snow was falling heavily and he was so nervous about his two hour drive to the base. I kept telling him to eat something and he kept telling me that he needed to hurry up and go. I didn’t make him eat much, but I did force two things on him; a real hug and a photograph. I have thought about that last hug over and over again, but somehow I forgot about this photo I insisted we take. It seems he was braver than me. He was genuinely smiling and I remember trying to muster one up, but this was the best I could do.

Oh Jake, I didn’t know I wouldn’t see you again. I didn’t know this would be the last breakfast I would cook you, the last hug I’d force on you or the last image taken of us ever again on this Earth. What I would give to touch you again, to hear your voice, to have a simple conversation… I miss you so much, my lovely son. I miss every single thing about you.