on January 7, 2014
In 2004, in a club in Tallahassee, 24-year-old Artis Chester met 23-year-old Miles Henderson. He was thin and wiry, handsome "with blue eyes that reminded me of the Gulf in winter." She was, she says, "not the kind of girl that men pick up." But he was, to her delight, employed -- he'd stayed in school in Colorado only until his ski lift ticket expired. They danced. She let him kiss her. And she revised her opinion. "I am that kind of girl."
Nine months before he deployed to Iraq, Miles dreamed of his death. He shared his dream with Artis: "Our helicopter crashed. We floated above the helicopter while it burned to the ground." But although she took the dream as a warning, she knew how to neutralize it: "If I loved him well enough, he would come home."
On July 1, 2006, they got married.
Three weeks later, Miles deployed to Iraq.
Four months and five days later, Miles died in a helicopter crash.
"Everything will be okay." Those are her first words when two soldiers come to tell her of her husband's death. But it won't be okay. It may never be. Eight years later, she is still, to use the official Army term, an "unremarried widow."
Artis Henderson's book is easily the best memoir I read last year. It's one of those books you pick up and don't put down until you're done. And, believe me, you are done. Henderson underwrites every scene, and, because her writing is so clean and controlled, each sentence tightens her grip on your heart. When she releases you, expect to be blinded by tears.
But loss is not the only takeaway. Miles is so decent, their marriage is so promising and Artis is so compelling that "Unremarried Widow" has an unexpected effect -- it's a completely fulfilling, exhilarating reading experience.
Artis Henderson said she was willing to answer a few questions. Mine were tough, and one of them -- the last -- was outright brutal. She never flinched or dissembled.
JK: The "grief memoir" is now a publishing commodity. I responded to yours because it seemed different -- it doesn't have literary pretensions. I read it as if it were a letter you wrote to me, just to me. Did you have a memoir you used as a model? How did you decide on a form that seems un-crafted?
AH: I'm glad to hear the book doesn't have literary pretensions. I think it's because I don't have any. I'm pretty insecure about my literary pedigree. I don't have an MFA, I didn't study literature in college. Growing up, I loved to read--but I liked books and authors that were more popular than literary: Stephen King, James Clavell, Jean M. Auel.
The form of the book was more intuitive than deliberate. At the very beginning, when the proposal sold but I hadn't started to write -- when I was in a general panic -- I asked a mentor where to begin. "Just tell the story," he said. And that's what I did.
JK: When you were five years old, your father -- a former commercial pilot -- took you for a ride in his Piper Cub. It crashed. He died. It took doctors six weeks to repair your spine. Months of recovery followed. Two decades later, you met an Army helicopter pilot. If I had been in that situation, I like to think I'd run the other way. You married Miles. How was his risky job not an issue for you?
AH: You wouldn't have run the other way.
I've met many guys in my life, plenty of nice guys, lots of smart guys. I've met men who will listen, who will talk, who will make me laugh. But there was something about Miles, an ease, a genuineness, an unquestionable self-assurance, that let me know he was worth looking past his risky job.
JK: As Miles is about to board the bus with his unit, you write: "Fear filled me then, hot and raw, and swept through my body, leaving me shaken and hollowed." Did you expect that he would be killed?
AH: No. Other than the moment before Miles boarded the bus, I never thought for a second that he would be killed. It was inconceivable to me, largely because of my father. I had this idea that my family had paid its dues in tragedy and that it was too improbable for both my father and my husband to die in avian crashes. When the soldiers came to notify me, other than disbelief, I was sure it must have been an IED blast or a sniper shot.
JK: You write that you were "all hurt." You "wail." You say: "It would have hurt less if I had been cleaved in two." And more like that, much more. What was it like to type those sentences?
AH: It was a rough experience to write the book. I wept a lot. When I was near the end, my mother made a comment in passing about me having a nervous breakdown. I thought she was joking, but when I looked at her I could tell she was serious. I think I may have lost my mind in a sort of low-grade way during the writing. Or maybe I lost my mind when Miles died, and writing the book was my way of putting it back together.
JK: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has described five stages of grief. What's your experience?
AH: I think she got it right, even when we can't see it for ourselves. I remember saying about a year in that I had skipped the anger stage, and my mother just looked at me. Two or three years later, I realized that I had been angry all the time. Not at Miles, but at everyone else.
JK: After Miles dies, there's knocking in your house at night. The microwave turns on by itself. The lights go dim. Your thoughts?
AH: What can I say? I was haunted. One thing I left out of the book -- when Jimmy Hyde came for a visit, the microwave went crazy. I finally had to unplug it. When Miles's mother came for a visit, too. I let go of a lot of rational thoughts after Miles died.
JK: On the first anniversary of your marriage, you remove your ring. This, it strikes me, is the bottom. You begged for help, chanted a wordless prayer, felt "pure grief." And then?
AH: And then, God damn it, I had to get on with living my life. I kept thinking I would strike some unbelievably low point and the heavens would open up and Miles would come back. Or I would be taken away. This was the moment when I realized that was never going to happen.
JK: After his death, you wrote to Miles: "I'm afraid I didn't love you enough to save you." What would "loving you enough" have involved?
AH: I wish I knew. On some deep and hurtful level I try not to examine too often, I still believe his death was a personal failure. If only I had done something -- what? -- I could have saved him.
JK: Are you still unremarried? If so, could you describe your current interest -- or lack of -- in being a wife again?
AH: I haven't remarried. Being a wife takes certain life compromises, and I'm not sure if I still have that in me. For a while after Miles died I fantasized about remarrying and starting a family. Now I wonder if perhaps that just isn't in my cards.
JK: You mention that you opposed the Iraq War. But you don't go on to say what I would have: "The war was a fraud. At the ultimate level, George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are responsible for my husband's death. My husband died for nothing." Is that what you think? If so, why didn't you say that in the book?
AH: This is an important -- and difficult -- question. If I say the war was for nothing, then I dismiss the sacrifices of the men and women who fought and those who died. Miles didn't think the war was based on deceit. Most of the soldiers I've talked to didn't, either. In fact, many of them were strong Bush supporters. Some have said to me that we can never know the complex reasons for going to war and that there were benefits to the Iraq conflict that most of us will never see. I have to believe this. Because if I don't, if I let myself say that the war was a mistake, that my husband's death served no purpose, that men who had no real concept of combat sent soldiers to fight and die for a cause they could barely define, then I would carry nothing but hate in my heart.
I embedded in Iraq several times as a photojournalist, and met a variety of young soldiers (plus I was in the Army myself during Desert Storm), and was always amazed by how many were married with children. One of the often overlooked experiences from these wars is the story of young widows (and widowers) who go on living, in just their early 20s, after their spouse has died.
I'm not saying we've 'forgotten' these 'left-behind' men and women exist, but I don't think we know what really goes on after the funeral and folded flag, and the perfunctory 'sorry for your sacrifice.' We feel sad, and we sympathize, but we've held them on such a pedestal that it's impossible to empathize. They're martyrs, not normal people.
Artis Henderson's story does as good a job of relating the other side of that experience as I've ever read.
A few other reviews of "Unremarried Widow" point out what they perceive as a "lack" of emotion that Henderson shows. That might be a fair point, but it's what I consider the book's strongest trait. Henderson isn't resorting (and I'm not saying other men/women have) to melodrama or pleas for sympathy, or patriotic martyrdom - instead she's relating about as awful a story as there is with an honest and blunt dispassion that pulls the reader closer to her experience. I never found myself saying "oh, poor Artis," from a detached point of view, but instead my heart was breaking along with her, because the story was so straightforward, detailed and expressive - but never telling me how I should feel. The events did that, not any demand from her. I guess it's hard to explain exactly what I mean, that "less emotion is more emotion," but that was how I felt.
She alludes to problems and challenges in her young marriage, enough to make me think it might not have lasted if her husband Miles had returned - and many, many marriages fell victim to exactly the problems she describes. So why not hers? I think her honesty in showing these potential problems makes this a story of a real marriage, not a fairy tale of a too-perfect romance.
It also shows the often unpleasant nature of soldiers, and the judgmental attitudes and selfish scheming they often display; from experience, I know it's accurate.
As I read, at first I didn't like her inclusion of a fellow widow whose husband died in the same helicopter crash. She was presented in a bitter fashion that seemed exploitative at times - but, in the acknowledgements I discovered that this woman was one of Henderson's readers and resources, and it's clear that's how this woman intended her story to be portrayed. That changed how I viewed those parts of the story, and I respected both women for showing how each worked through their grief in a different way.
This was a book that has stuck with me after reading it, in a way few books do. It doesn't go for high swooping cascades of melodrama, and that's because it doesn't need to - the true story is all it needs. Maybe some civilian readers need an extra layer of "emotion" that some felt Henderson doesn't provide, to better connect with a military lifestyle that's certainly difficult for most to relate to. But I don't think that should be necessary. I think Henderson's clear-eyed storytelling approach does the job.
The book and story is heartbreaking, which isn't the same thing as depressing. I wish civilian audiences would be interested in a book like this, because when we're talking about "Iraq" we're talking about hard stories like these. I think about that star-crossed country, and all its associated fates, all the time.
I hesitated to read a book where I knew a significant part would focus on grief. But that initial reluctance disappeared quickly as I was drawn into this memoir, one written with unflinching honesty and depth by Artis Henderson. It isn't a watered down or rosy portrait of a military wive's marriage.
Even though Henderson sometimes chafed at the rules and regulations - and frequent moves - which were integral parts of her life, she also loved her husband, Miles, deeply and passionately. For me, that love shone even more brightly when set against the challenges Henderson and Miles faced, long before he was deployed to Iraq.
I'm grateful I was able to read an early copy of this book. It is one of those finely wrought books which allow readers to be totally immersed in the author's life. Henderson vividly describes how she lived before meeting her husband, working 40 hours a week for a U.S. senator, feeling so lonely that she often spent her weekends in the library reading travel guides. But then there is the night she goes out dancing and meets Miles. And even though he seemed far different from the man she imagined marrying, it also seemed instantly natural and right that they would end up together.
At this point, you might be thinking, "Cue the violins and romantic music". Lonely young woman meets handsome man and romance saves the day. But Artis had been against the Iraq war and Miles was determined to serve his country. How on earth could two people with such different backgrounds make a relationship work?
Rather than being a strictly chronological account of her relationship with Miles, Henderson adds an extra dimension to this memoir by including sections focused on her childhood and teen years and her difficult relationship with her mother. There is a tragedy Henderson suffered early in life and it took me by surprise. There was no hint or foreshadowing of that moment and I won't spoil that section by going into more detail.
I will only add that there isn't a wasted word in this book and it moved me to the core. I probably received plenty of stares as I cried openly while reading it in coffee shops and doctors' offices. I was awed by the author's willingness to open her heart and not turn away from the truth, recounting her painful moments as well as the great joy and love she experienced.
Not since reading The Year of Magical Thinking has a memoir struck me so deeply. Even if readers don't know someone who married a soldier - or had a friend or relative who served in the military - I can't imagine anyone finishing this book without having a deeper understanding of the lives of the men who serve their country - as well as the deep concern, love, and hope felt by those who wait for them.
on February 14, 2014
I went to Army helicopter flight school with Miles Henderson and considered him a friend. It was emotionally hard for me to read the book but I couldn’t put it down. I found Artis Henderson's style of writing very easy to read, like she is sitting on the couch telling the story. Not simple, just easy. From an Army aviator’s perspective it all made sense to me, technically speaking. I mean she didn’t get any technical issues wrong which is a common pet peeve for military folks. Most importantly I thought the book really honored Miles and the love they shared. For me personally it answered so many questions I have had all these years. A+
This is the real-life story of the author, who married her husband, Miles, just months before he was killed. Her journey from single woman, to wife, to widow, to reclaiming her life as her own is told in her own words.
This is her memoir, told her way, and I respect that, but I found myself with a lot of unanswered questions/ gaps in the story. There were many times when someone or some event would be mentioned and seem significant, but then we never heard about that person/ event again. (What happened to Scott? Does she still keep in touch with her in-laws? ) I also felt that the end of the book was rushed. Within the space of a few short chapters she goes from coping with her grief to changing jobs, and then in the last chapter it's a quick summary of her world travels and new career. I would have liked to have heard more about how moving affected her, how it felt to travel without Miles, etc.
All in all I liked it, and appreciated the honesty, but I felt there were some holes in the way her story was told.
Disclosure: I was given a free advance copy of this book in return for posting my honest review on Amazon via the Amazon Vine program. I always post my true opinion regardless of the source of the book.
on February 12, 2014
This is such an honest, poignant memoir that really captures the essence of love and grief. It's brave and beautifully written, and without self-pity Henderson explores how the pain of losing her husband transforms into strength and courage. But it's the fact she admits feeling lost and alone, and doesn't always write about herself in a positive light, that makes her story so real and relatable.
on March 22, 2014
If you’re not a non-fiction fan, or don’t usually read non-fiction, I urge you to pick up this book. As a military spouse, I found this hard to read – but I knew it was something I should read. It reminded me of how delicate life is, and each time my husband deploys there’s always the fear, however slight or unfounded, that he may not come back. Artis Henderson’s husband Miles was a helo pilot, a much more dangerous job than what my husband does. I am grateful that he does something relatively safe, and have always wondered how these women sleep at night, knowing that their husbands are constantly in harm’s way. That requires quite a bit of bravery and strength on their part. Henderson is a graduate of the Wharton School of business, at UPenn. She had always dreamed of being a writer, yet she was taught to be very practical, so that dream was pushed to the back burner.
Her father was also a pilot, working for a small commercial line; he also had a small plane of his own that he flew out of his family’s own remote property. When Artis was only 5, she and her father were taking a short trip, just for fun, when his plane crashed. She wasn’t badly hurt – but her father was, for him it was a fatal injury. Could this have possibly foreshadowed her own husband’s crash years later? It’s something that certainly shaped her life. It’s something that makes recovering from the death of Miles sort of familiar, as her mother had been a young window herself.
After she first met Miles, she had no idea where military life would take her. She also had no idea the type of sacrifice she would be making, supporting a military spouse. This is something I definitely related too, this feeling of a life that is not quite your own. We do what we can to support our spouses, and this calling that they have to serve, and a job that they love doing. However, there is always this sense of waiting, when will I have a normal life/career/a husband who comes home every night for dinner?
She writes of her feelings before they were even married: ”I began to worry about what it would mean to be tied to the military. How would I navigate this life for the long haul? Where would my own dreams and ambitions fit in? When the brightness had disappeared from the day, I turned on the porch light and sat in the yellow glow, waiting for Miles to come home.”
This is a way of life, not one that is easy to get used to. They decided to get married before he deployed, they didn’t want to wait until he came back. Going back and forth from one base to the other, she works a variety of jobs – none of which are truly worthy of her time, and level of education. While he is deployed, she is told by his unit commander’s wife to censor what she says, don’t say anything that may stress him out or keep his mind off his mission. I have also heard this speech and find it ridiculous. Of course you want to tell your spouse everything, good or bad. That is your husband or wife over there, someone you share everything with.
She had sort of imagined what it would be like to have those soldiers knock on her door to tell her he was gone. She panicked when they were there, in real life, and it was nothing like she had pictured. ”There is no greater hurt than knowing you have been loved and the source of that love disappearing.” Not being with him in the last few days of his life, or not knowing the real details of his death was incredibly difficult for her. She wanted him to be at peace, to truly honor him, and most of all feel that in the last moments that he wasn’t scared. Even though they were married for less than a year, the grieving process was much longer. The military’s investigation into the crash took longer than she wanted, as she was ready to get some type of closure. I hope that people read this and remember the sacrifice that people make to serve this country – service members and their families as well. I hope too, that they can be encouraged by Artis, and the incredible life that she made for herself after this tragedy.
on March 16, 2014
Stunningly devastating words uttered by Artis Henderson when she makes a call to a fellow military wife after she returned home to find two representatives that were there “to regretfully inform her” of her husband’s death.
From the beginning, you meet Artis, a woman that describes herself as “the not right kind of pretty” and her blossoming relationship with a man that is her everything.
Artis has always dreamed of moving overseas and becoming a writer, instead, she put her life on hold and travels from base to base with her boyfriend then husband. Taking odd jobs and barely subsisting with broken down apartments and broken down cars. However, that reality does not matter, what matters is that the moment he walks through the door her life begins.
Seeing how her mother had handled grief when Artis’ father died, she thinks that maybe she can learn from her, but comes to the realization that grief is personal. That each person must walk down their own path to see who they are at the end, and that grief is not a weakness, it is an individual act.
The reader journeys with Artis and along the way meets the individuals that have helped her become the person that she is today. I may not have agreed with all of her choices, but they were not my choices to make. Though at points, she may have felt that she had dishonored her husband, had not loved him enough, I did not see that at all. I saw a growing young woman, who started out afraid and insecure, who blossomed into a woman that had taken the worst that was handed to her and made a new life. A life that Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miles P. Henderson would be able to look her in the eyes and say, ‘Yeah babe. You’re Okay’.
“Pursue your dreams wisely, with all your heart, with honor and with decency”
Artis Henderson's memoir is a poignant account of her short but loving relationship with her husband Miles who was killed during his first deployment to Iraq. Both in their early twenties, they had barely started their lives together when Artis became a widow after Miles' helicopter crashed in a sandstorm.
Though different in many essential ways, they shared a deep love. Artis had always seen herself as a writer, traveling the world and living in interesting places as an independent woman. After meeting Miles, she finds herself living in army towns and socializing with army wives who she finds little in common with.
Artis and Miles met in a bar/dance hall in Florida when Miles travelled from his base in Alabama for a weekend with his friends. Their attraction was immediate and profound. Shortly after meeting, they began living together and then married. Miles is very religious and church-going while Artis is neither. Artis is highly educated with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School of Business. Though no specifics are mentioned about Miles' education, it appears that he is a high school graduate who has aspirations of attending college when he retires from the military. Artis grew up in a fairly urban environment in Florida and Miles is a product of a ranch in the Texas panhandle. Somehow, despite these differences, they make things work for the short time they have together.
Interestingly, Artis's father died in a plane crash when she was five years old and when her mother meets Miles, she comments on how much he reminds her of Artis's father.
I never got a sense of what Miles was really like. What were his deep interests or passions? What did they share together beyond having fun and their mutual attraction? What did they talk about? I believe their love was real but Miles never came alive for me as a fleshed out character except as what he meant to Artis. I wanted to know him as a person in his own right and I couldn't find him in this memoir. What I did find, however, was a tragic love story that I was able to appreciate in its own right.
This is a brave book, a sad one. It's the kind of story that so many wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, sons, uncles, fathers, cousins, and others have experienced, being married to or related to those who have sacrificed their lives fighting for the United States over the past decade. This is the sort of book that makes you realize how many other, untold lives filled with grief are out there, waiting to be shared.
Each love story is unique, as is each tale of grief. In this case, an independent woman who lost her own father in a small plane crash will repeat the sorrow when she marries an Army helicopter pilot who dies in a crash in Iraq.
Part of the book's strength is that the author shares her uncertainty over getting married in the first place, over losing her own independence. She's uncomfortable with the self-imposed rules of military life and the role an Army wife is supposed to follow. As a couple, Miles and Artis weren't together long (a pairing of opposites, each trying to find a way to make the unusual relationship work) before suddenly Miles is off to war, and Artis must make a new life alone, waiting.
When Miles's untimely death occurs, his wife's world is rocked from its foundation, and she openly shares the measures she takes to cope. She also gives insight into the other pilot's life, who was flying with her husband when he died. That widow's grief takes a different form from her own, and it's useful to see the range of emotions and coping strategies each woman undergoes.
In the end, this is a book about two people who loved each other, albeit briefly, and the sorrow that comes from that loss, which endures a lifetime.