By Sarah Kemp
I was more nervous standing in the middle of a race expo at a convention center than I had been two days earlier during a rocket attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was the day before the Soldier Marathon, and I was going to meet the family of the soldier — the reason I would be running that day.
1LT Daren M. Hidalgo was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan on February 20, 2011. Four months earlier on Halloween night, I met, talked to, laughed at, and fell in love with that same soldier. We were only on the same base for a few weeks, but that was enough to know he was spectacular.
When faced with his death, I felt trapped. I was still working in Afghanistan. I couldn’t make it to his funeral, nor did I feel it was my place to. I wondered if his family knew that we had been close, or even that I existed.
In May, I visited West Point where he was buried. Overcome with emotion, I wanted to leave some memento that I was there. So I took a bracelet off my wrist and placed it next to his temporary wooden grave marker.
During one of his visits, Daren had requested that I make him a parachute cord bracelet. He picked the navy blue and camo colors and I measured his wrist. Then I crafted the bracelet. On the night he was killed, I attended the ramp ceremony where a fallen hero is loaded on to a plane to begin the journey home. As USO staff, we send at least one person to attend every single ceremony to represent the American people and honor the fallen hero every step of the way home. We know we are the first people to say their final goodbyes and their first prayers for the fallen. I didn’t know I was attending a ceremony for Daren until they called his name.
In the hours that followed, I had a secret to keep that I couldn’t imagine in my worst dreams. I knew it would take time to notify his friends and family back in the States. So to calm my idle hands, I made myself a bracelet in the same colors and using the same cord that I used to make Daren’s bracelet mere months before. I put it on my wrist and didn’t take it off until I placed it on his grave three months later. It gave me comfort every time I looked down and saw a reminder of him. It lasted through countless miles of sweat, heat, and tears while I ran to train for the marathon in his honor. It helped me through the months of having no connection to him other than his sweet fellow soldiers.
In November, I returned to the States to run the Soldier Marathon with a group of Daren’s family and friends to honor him. With hands shaking, I entered the race expo. No sooner had I walked in the room than a man with the same huge dimples as Daren came barreling toward me. “SARAH!” he yelled. Daren’s father wrapped me in a big bear hug, and began introducing me to Daren’s brothers and sisters.
He brought me over to a table and introduced me to Daren’s mother. I greeted her nervously, and then I saw it on her wrist: my bracelet. It was the one I had crafted during the darkest hour of my life to remember the man I loved and had left on his grave. I told myself it was a coincidence, and she must have received it from somewhere else. Yet I could hear my heart pounding in my ears and my voice trembling when I asked her where she got the bracelet.
She told me that after Daren died, she had a Killed in Action (KIA) bracelet, but it created too much attention. It made her uncomfortable that everyone from a dentist to a stranger asked about her son who was killed. She wanted a way to remember him, but not have it displayed for all. Then she visited his grave. She saw the bracelet lying there and knew it was the answer to her prayers. It was a way to honor him, but not have everyone ask her about its meaning. She had worn it since that day. It gave her comfort.
With tears welling in my eyes, I whispered, “I made that bracelet. I wore it every minute of every day from the moment I found out he was killed.”
Continents and oceans apart, we both found comfort from the same bracelet to honor the same man. I wasn’t sure Daren’s family would even know who I was, and suddenly I was sobbing and hugging his mother. I felt the thick cord of the bracelet wrapped around my back as her hands pressed into me, and her heart unloaded the love she had.
Four years later, when I was turning thirty, I received a package in the mail. It contained a lovely card and a picture in a magnet frame from Daren’s mother. It was a picture of her holding Daren’s baby niece, and her arm was cradling the sweet baby’s face with that same bracelet.
Daren couldn’t be there to wish me a happy birthday, but I’m still receiving the gift of his love.
From the book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Military Families by Amy Newmark. Copyright 2017 by Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Published by Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Chicken Soup for the Soul is a registered trademark of Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.