October 8, 1990 was the day my life was split in two; before and after. That was the day my beautiful oldest son Timothy Romei, a corporal in the US Marine Corps, was lost in a helicopter collision over the Gulf of Oman with seven other young men during Operation Desert Shield. I can remember the moment as if it were yesterday. Below is a piece I wrote several years ago just to stop it from running so constantly through my brain; it so clearly describes what it was like.
It’s Monday morning, October 8, 1990. Rudy and I are sleeping in. Two more days of vacation before I go back to work. The phone rings. It’s my sister. She asks if I’ve watched Good Morning America. I tell her no, I’m still sleeping. She said they announced that two helicopters from the USS Okinawa, Tim’s ship, have crashed. Eight killed. I tell her it’s not Tim. There are lots of helicopters on the ship and I would have heard anyhow. I hang up and try to go back to sleep. I can’t go back to sleep. I begin to feel uneasy. Rudy gets up too. The cats start meowing; we’re out of cat food. Rudy says he’ll go to the store to get some.
The uneasiness increases. I decide to call Camp Pendleton. They tell me nothing. Tim shipped out of Tustin; try there. They say they don’t know anything about a crash. I say how can you not know if it’s on television? They say I have to talk to a public affairs person. I hang up. I get dressed. The uneasiness has now become anxiety. I try calling Tustin again. I’m getting rude to the young man on the phone. Suddenly Rudy comes running into the bedroom, a small brown bag with the cat food in his hand. “They’re here!,” he shouts. “The Marines are here! It’s Tim!” Just like in the movies. I scream into the phone: “It’s my son!”
I run to the living room window and see two young Marine officers in uniform. I know why they’ve come. I think, “If I run out the back door they can’t find me and then they can’t say what they’ve come to say and I’ll be safe and my life won’t be changed forever.” They knock on the door. I open it. The youngest one looks scared and nervous; he’s being trained. The older one is more self-assured. After they introduce themselves I don’t let them speak. The house is a mess. I pick up newspapers from the sofa so they can sit, ashtrays to empty, glasses to take to the kitchen. “Mrs. Reber! Sit down!” This is the older one. I sit.
He tells me that two helicopters have collided over the Gulf of Oman. One of them is Tim’s. I tell him I’m sure Tim is all right. He says, no, there is nothing left. A huge fireball was seen from another ship. There is hardly even any debris, no remains. I say, “How can you know? This just happened!” He reminds of the time difference; it actually happened yesterday, Sunday. A training mission gone wrong.
I sit. It’s a beautiful fall day. The windows are open. At the park across the street people are playing tennis. I think, “How can they act like it’s a normal day? How can they be playing tennis? Don’t they know that Tim is dead?” I hear the sound of tennis balls, a strange sound on this day.
I get up to go into the kitchen. At the dining room I stop dead in my tracks (an appropriate word, dead). Then I’m enveloped with a sense of awe. Tim knows now! He knows what we all struggle to know during our lives. For the first time in my life I know without a doubt there is a god. (A parting gift from Tim, some say.) The moment of awe quickly vanishes. There is only devastation now.
The day passes; I remember very little about the rest of it. The next day I go to the window in the living room and discover that each one of the huge, old palm trees that line our street is wrapped with a wide yellow ribbon tied in a huge bow. There must be a dozen of them, each tied at exactly the same height as the others. It looks like large yellow butterflies have decided to rest on our street. They come down after the funeral. I never know who put them there or who took them down.
I will always hate the sound of tennis balls.
It was clearly the worst moment of my life. And yet, it was the moment that changed me forever and gave me the courage to survive, to be open, and to tell the people I love that I do (I thank God that my last words to Tim were “I love you”). Tim always thought I was more than I am (as probably do all my children) and after his death I tried and continue to try to be the person he thought I was. He was the big brother my other children knew they could talk to and he would listen. He was easy-going and loving, and when home on leave would come over just to wash my car. He loved telling me, with a big grin, things he had done when he was a little guy that I never knew about, just to watch my hair turn gray right in front of him, I suppose! One day he visited me at work and laughed and joked with my co-workers, teasing me unmercifully but with love. He was proud of me, of his dad, his step-dad and of his siblings. This is not to try to make some sort of saint out of Tim, he was definitely not that. He was slow to anger but when he did, holy cow! However, it never lasted long and his beautiful smile was never far below the surface.
The day after he died and the week following my house began to fill with people, wonderful people bringing huge bouquets of kindness! Food, the offer of a cleaning lady before the reception our home, my work place offering to cater the reception, hugs, tears, support, and encouragement of the kind I had never known. My sister and her husband came and stayed a week, which I needed like water. One of my oldest friends flew out to California for the memorial service from Connecticut, having been given the mileage points from someone who knew she needed to be there and didn’t have the money. Kids were there constantly, kids that knew Tim, some I had never met, all who told me things he had done for them or said to them, the fun they had had, the pranks I never knew about (good thing!), and how he had touched their lives. The same was true in the letters I received from his commanding officer, that Tim was the person the others went to when they needed support or encouragement and that he was always there to offer help if asked. In my home that week so many young people cried openly and hugged one another, boys and girls, boys and boys, and girls and girls. Believe me when I tell you I was NEVER that kind of person. I was much more reserved and tried very hard to keep my emotions in check when in public. But since Tim’s death I’m not ashamed to cry and I’ve become a big hugger! I smile more, laugh louder, and have tried to become the person Tim believed me to be.
Tim’s life and death gave me the courage to show up in my own life, to be brave at times I’d rather hide, and to risk being vulnerable. Even my little blog, which is still scary, is something Tim would have applauded and said “Go for it, Mom!” He really believed I could do anything I wanted. There’s never a day that I don’t think of him and miss him terribly. Not only was Tim my sweet son, he was and is my greatest teacher.
Although I still hate the sound of tennis balls.