By Kimberly Hall
I had a big undertaking before me. If you’ve ever had to pack up a home, you understand how stressful it can be. I’d lived in this home for over 16 years, so I had years of furniture, household goods, and personal belongings that needed to be sorted through, organized, and boxed up. These items would then be transported to my new home, where I would start a new chapter in my life.
While going through my attic, I found a box that stopped my breath. It was 12 inches tall, 13 inches deep, and 11 inches wide. The return address: Department of the Navy, Commander, Naval Safety Center, OFFICIAL BUSINESS. I took a deep breath and opened the box for the first time in almost 10 years, this time not with tears but with a sense of calm.
The first page amongst thousands of papers and envelopes in this box, dated August 24, 2007, was typed in black font on official Navy letterhead:
Dear Mrs. Hall:
On November 29, 2001 you wrote a letter pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) asking for a copy of the aviation mishap investigation report regarding a T-34 aircraft mishap involving your husband on June 8, 2001.
I stopped reading there. I felt the need to move to the brown envelopes that once haunted me so much I couldn’t open them. I looked at the first envelope, thankful they all had notes on the front so you knew what information was inside. The label on the first brown envelope read,
CAUTION: THIS ENVELOPE CONTAINS GRAPHIC AUTOPSY AND MEDICAL INFORMATION.
I fleetingly thought, Kim, you are stronger now. It’s been 17 years since the accident. Maybe you should open these envelopes. I quickly came back to reality and asked myself, Why would I open this envelope? What good would it do? Opening the envelope wouldn’t bring back the person I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with. I wanted to remember his bright eyes, his big goofy smile, his long eyelashes, his smooth brown skin. Everything about my last vision of him was absolutely perfect, and I wanted it to stay that way. Why would I ruin it by looking at a graphic autopsy report? For years I had wanted closure. I had wanted to say goodbye, not just in my journal and in my prayers: I needed to know he was truly gone from Earth. The Navy was only able to recover 40 percent of his remains, so there was no body for me to say goodbye to. In my mind, somehow, he still felt alive. (It took so many years to realize that he was alive— in my heart and in my spirit.) If I’m honest with myself, since then, I’ve never quite opened my heart to love deeply and completely.
I took a deep breath, closed the box with eyes full of tears, and told myself, “It’s time to start a new chapter in my life.” He would want me to be happy, in love, and living life to the fullest. I smiled to myself and said, “He would be proud of the woman I’ve become. He would be damn proud! It’s time to close this box and exhale.” Closing the box not only meant taping it up and moving it, but giving myself permission to truly love again.