On April 22, 2004, when Marie Tillman, 27, was informed that her husband, Pat Tillman — the former professional football star who walked away from his lucrative NFL career to join the Army after 9/11 — was killed in Afghanistan: she no longer wanted to live.
"In that moment I wanted to die," Tillman's widow told the Open Field Network
about that time. "I had no idea how to live without him and had really no desire to try."
But in 2003, while serving in Iraq, the former hard-hitting safety for the Arizona Cardinals seemed to have anticipated his bride's reaction in a "just in case" letter he penned for Marie in the event of his death. Having returned home safely from Iraq and before heading to Afghanistan, Pat left the letter with Marie for safekeeping. It was a letter she hoped to never open. Now, it was a letter she couldn't take her eyes from. It said in part:
"Through the years I've asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask," the letter read. "I ask that you live."
I ask that you live
His voice echoed inside her head as she sobbed. After a while, she vowed to honor it. “I made a promise to Pat," Tillman writes, chocking back tears, "I promised I would live."
Because Tillman honored her husband's request eight years ago, now Tillman has honored us with her story in her courageous new memoir The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss and Life
(Grand Central Publishing
,256 pp, $23.99).
In it, Tillman not only opens up for the first time about her 11 year relationship to the former NFL star, but shares how his "just in case" letter helped in her grief to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other and, more than that, how his words helped her come to terms with his death as she struggled to remake her life.
By now, most readers are familiar with Pat Tillman
's story: how he walked away from a $3.6 million NFL contract to join the elite Army Rangers Special Operations unit following the Sept. 11 attacks; how he was killed in the Taliban-infested mountains of southeastern Afghanistan on April 22, 2004; how Army officials initially lied to his grieving family and American public saying he was shot by the Taliban, when they knew differently; how one month later Army officials
let the truth be known: he had been mistakenly gunned down by members of his own platoon; and how after seven investigations into his death high level military officials escaped accountability, leaving questions to this very day. He was 27 years old.
opens on April 22, 2004, the devastating day when Tillman learns her husband had been killed. Tillman does an excellent job giving the reader a palatable sense of how the body and mind reacts to traumatic news, making this one of the best chapters in the book.
Emotional shock, for example, can be a part of the survivor's reaction: after Army officials informed her that Pat was dead, Tillman wonders if her mind is playing tricks on her. "Had the officers in the conference room really told me that Pat had been shot in the head or had I imagined that?" she asks.
Holding conversations also seemed impossible: "I just stared at their mouths, trying to decipher their words—jumbled streams that made no sense. I played my role, nodding and agreeing," she writes.
One theme in The Letter
is the loneliness of grief. On the evidence that Tillman presents, many well wishers were well-meaning but sometimes oblivious to her grief, offering empty condolences and platitudes.
As a result, Tillman often felt disconnected and isolated from the world around her. It is a view echoed, at least in part, by such books as Joan Didion's 2005 best seller The Year of Magical Thinking
, a memoir about the death of Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne and Illness as Metaphor
by the late Susan Sontag.
While sick with breast cancer in 1978, Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor
partly arguing that if a culture views certain illnesses as a mystery or if the illness evokes fear those who are afflicted can be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious. add greatly to the suffering of patients:
Thus, a surprisingly large number of people with cancer find themselves being shunned by relatives and friends and are the object of practices of decontamination by members of their household, as if cancer, like TB, were an infectious disease. The very names of such diseases are felt to have a magic power. In Stendhal's Armance (1827), the hero's mother refuses to say "tuberculosis," for fear that pronouncing the word will hasten the course of her son's malady.
In a similar way, Tillman says after her husband's death, for example, she quickly realized that most of her “happy and young” friends avoided her. Among them she was seen as the "tragic figure." They didn't want to “face the reality that something could happen to them, too. Somehow, acknowledging that something can happen seems to increase the probability that it will, and you don't want to jinx yourself.”
So cast off to what she calls the “island of grief” she opened up herself to books. "Reading other people's accounts of loss make me feel less alone, more connected," she writes. "I could read from the safety of my room where I could cry, without fear that someone would hear or see or want to intervene."
While mainly an exploration through the rugged terrain of grief, The Letter
it is also an exploration of identity, a search for self. The Letter
shows that sudden loss, including death of a person, job, social status, etc., can unleash an identity crisis. "Not only had I lost Pat," she writes. "I'd lost the identity of who I'd been as Pat's wife." Therefore, Tillman's portrait of the couples' 11 year relationship is essential in understanding the author herself. “I knew exactly who I was when I was with Pat,” she adds. It is almost as if when her husband died, so did she.
So Tillman takes the reader back to Pat and Marie's childhood. “From the time he was a little kid,” Tillman writes. “Pat was always the guy in control.” By the time he reached high school, Pat was a football player with “cool self-confidence” and "self-possession" and the gift for gab who would talk to anyone. On the other hand, Marie describes her younger self as a painfully shy people pleaser filled with self-doubt whose afraid to raise her hand in class. ("[ Her older sister] was bossy when we were kids, but I was easygoing and happy to do whatever she wanted me to, so it all worked out.") The more time they spent together, the more she wanted his fearlessness to rub off on her. (What must it feel like, Tillman asks, not to care quite so much about what people thought?)
Although some of the information is familiar from newspapers and books such as Jon Krakauer's best seller Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
and Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman
by Pat Tillman's mother,Mary Tillman
, The Letter
adds new information not previously revealed for those readers who have followed the Tillman case.
She writes about her personal meeting with Sgt. Greg Baker, who was the squad leader in the vehicle that opened fire on Pat. (“He wasn't able to finish his sentence, and started to cry.”) She writes in detail about the tense discussions she and Pat had for him to leave the NFL and serve the country. She writes about her upsetting experience with the military Casualty Assistance Officer. (I was furious,"Why don't you leave?" she told the Officer.)
Overall, the book accomplishes Tillman's mission: that those in the wake of a loss will "feel a little more connected.” Hopefully, The Letter
, will find its way into the hands of those, who at this very moment, feel alone in their pain; they’ll find the comfort of shared experience here. For others, the stories in The Letter
will give insight on how to better support the suffering that loved ones shoulder in the wake of sudden loss.
If you would like to read a 12 page excerpt of 'The Letter' by Marie Tillman click here