Unremarried Widow: A Memoir
By Artis Henderson
Simon & Schuster
242 pages, $25
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Artis Henderson’s grief becomes our gift in her piercingly beautiful memoir, “Unremarried Widow” – or “URW,” as the Army categorized Henderson following the helicopter crash that killed her aviator husband, Miles, in Iraq, just over seven years ago.
She describes the moment she knew Miles was gone:
“I swept my eyes across the room: my mother in a dining chair in the middle of the living room, nowhere near where it should be; the living room lights turned off; two soldiers in dress uniform filling the space … If I stayed on the far side of the door, the soldiers could not tell me what they had come there to say. If they didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be true …”
Wounded, to her core, Henderson in time finds the words to bring us into her suddenly shattered world – recalling her wedding day (“I let myself believe we were safe.”) and the day Miles and his fellow soldiers left for Iraq (“I thought to myself, Not all of them will come home. I hoped it would not be anyone I knew.”)
Henderson’s is a moving and timeless tale – both as old as the hills and uniquely of our times. It is exceptional both because Henderson is a fine, spare and unsentimental writer – and because many if not most of us are never this close to the sorrow and upheaval a military loss brings.
Henderson is political only occasionally here, choosing to focus on the personal. Miles, for example, died when his Apache helicopter went down in a sandstorm – and Henderson remembers the day he asked her, “Want to see an Apache? They’re having an exhibition. They’ve got Black Hawks, a Chinook. One of the guys from class told me he took his wife. You can climb up in it and everything.”
Henderson recalls hesitating: “When the U.S. invaded Iraq the year before, I was vehemently, vocally against the war. I was angry about the politics of it and angry at the lives lost – on both sides. I understood why Miles had joined the Army. After September 11 he felt like it was his duty. He said he wanted to step up so that someone else would not have to. I respected that and I was proud of him. But I struggled with the realities of the Apache. The Army calls them gunships; the pilots call what they do hunting. I looked at Miles beside me and his face was radiant. ‘Let’s go,’ I said.”
“Unremarried Widow” is a love story, of course, as well as a tribute to Miles, a chronicle of young loss and a tale of growth through pain – but Henderson’s memoir is also a window into the uncertainty military families face every hour of every day, particularly military spouses like Henderson who deferred her own decisions and dreams against the day Miles would come home.
She describes a game played at a gathering of military wives wherein you asked a question, any question, of the group. You did it anonymously, by writing your query on a slip of paper and adding it to others in a jar:
“So I wrote what I worried about every day. I wrote the question that I thought about when I woke up in the morning and that pressed me into sleep at night: What if you love someone with all your heart but you’re afraid that being with him means giving up the life you imagined for yourself?” (A seasoned Army spouse will later tell Henderson, “You figure out how to make it work. That’s what marriage is.”)
Henderson exhibits her style and sense of place throughout her memoir – noting, for instance, that “the city of Fayetteville lived and breathed Fort Bragg. Most of the businesses in town catered to a military lifestyle. Barbers, laundromats, boot repair shops. Storage units where men locked away their lives while they headed overseas to fight in battles whose political under layers they could not always explain … But on the base itself, none of this existed. No pawnshops, no (topless) bars, no used-car hucksters. Everything was neat and organized, the grass cut short, the streets clean. Even the soldiers themselves looked fresh with their trimmed hair and polished boots. There was such vitality about them, it was easy to forget they traded in war.”
Henderson sugarcoats nothing and doesn’t spare herself when recollecting how she sometimes sparred with Miles when he called from Iraq (over issues big and small). She also shares, unflinchingly, some of her most intimate thoughts as she threads through the mire Miles’ death throws before her.
It is a mire compounded by the statistically improbable fact that she is also a survivor of a plane crash that killed her pilot father when she was 5 years old – a tragedy that rendered her mother an early widow as well. It is her mother she is angry at after Miles dies:
“My mother, who knew exactly how I was feeling. Who had also lost a husband. Who I rarely saw cry after my father’s death, and who had done such an effective job of erasing him from our lives that he had been lost to me. My mother, who never remarried. Who was permanently, unpardonably alone. Who I had tried my entire life not to become and whose fate, despite my best efforts, I now shared …”
Henderson comes to understand her mother here. She also puts a spotlight on the military as it both helps and obfuscates her path through her grief – a time we learn is known, in military speak, as living “right of the boom.”
There is some intrigue as Teresa, the widow of the other pilot aboard Miles’ copter, probes deeper into the crash – but Henderson wants no part of this: “They’re gone. It doesn’t matter how it happened.”
Married four months, a widow in her 20s, Henderson is faced with the rest of her life – a life without Miles but perhaps because of him. For in what seems a remarkably short time, Henderson pursues a writing dream, working for Florida weeklies before being accepted by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (she and I share this alma mater) – and becoming an award-winning journalist, essayist and now memoirist.
“Unremarried Widow” is Henderson’s first book –and a worthy one it is, a searing tale told by a poet brave enough to share such thoughts as, “It occurred to me that someday I will be an old woman carrying a photo of the boy I love.”
Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.