As a military journalist, I usually interview the same sort of people: public affairs officers, first shirts, retired generals, veterans’ charities, everyday military members and sometimes their spouses. Most of the time, it’s great fun listening to their life experiences. Occasionally, the interviews are tinged with the sadness of loss. Sometimes, what they have to say is flat-out boring, to be completely forthcoming.
But every once in a while, life on this job has a way of showing you what’s truly important.
In 2014, I read a delightful little book by a British war bride. Joy Beebe lived through the blitz of London in World War II, fell in love with an American GI and moved to America to start a new life.
Joy’s story spoke to me personally, as my maternal grandmother was also a war bride from England. Joy and I were leading somewhat parallel-yet-opposite lives, as she had moved from England to Salem, Oregon, to be with the man she loved. I had just moved from Salem to England to be with mine. Our assignment then was to Mildenhall AFB, about two hours away from where Joy grew up.
I wrote to her, describing how much I had enjoyed her memoir. I also shared how my husband and I had recently recreated my grandparents’ wedding photos at the rural English church my grandmum Audrey attended her whole childhood. Joy shared her own wedding gown story in the book, and it struck me again how much we had in common.
Grandmum Audrey had passed away when I was in the sixth grade, before I ever truly got to know her, so in a way, befriending Joy almost felt like a second chance. Joy wrote back, and we began corresponding via email.
This fall, it occurred to me that Joy wasn’t getting any younger. At 97, I had never officially interviewed her for any story. So I requested one, scheduling it after her daughter Barbara returned from a trip.
It was a month away ― farther away than I usually schedule interviews, but my deadline wasn’t close. We were fine, I told myself. In the weeks leading up to our interview, Joy often asked, “When am I going to talk with Crystal?”
Joy, Barbara and I had a lovely chat via FaceTime on a Tuesday. She looked lovely on-camera, the epitome of a classy English rose. Though she often got lost halfway through a thought, she clearly had a sparkle left and enjoyed our conversation. I wanted to ensure she knew how grateful I am to her generation, how much I admired the men and women who sacrificed so much for my freedoms.
Barbara texted me afterward, detailing how it was the most lucid and bubbly Joy had been in quite a while. I smiled ― but I wasn’t ready for her next text.
Less than 24 hours after our interview, Joy had had a massive stroke. “I think she had been waiting to talk to you,” Barbara said. Just a few days after that, on October 30, 2022, Joy left this earth to rejoin Carl, her dashing soldier husband. My article on her hadn’t even come out yet.
My very next article, written while Joy was still lingering, was on a 17-year-old Gold Star child who was now dying herself. Kayla Spangler was 80 years younger than Joy ― yet she was also not long for this world, preparing to die of a vicious brain tumor. I couldn’t help but contrast the two ladies’ lives, one so long and full, the other so short, yet somehow imperfectly perfect in its brevity.
After my article published, Kayla got her wish of getting a personalized video from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, her favorite actor. She graduated high school early in a lovely bedside ceremony and had an early Christmas with family. Cards and letters from around the county poured in from well-wishers. She knew she was loved.
Kayla died on December 6, just a day before I watched teams of former special forces jump out of airplanes in honor of fallen comrades.
Death, especially in the military, is simply unavoidable. As a journalist, it’s easy for me to stay clinically detached; if I couldn’t hold myself together, I simply couldn’t last in this job. Yet Joy’s and Kayla’s exits from this life while briefly entering mine seemed beyond coincidence.
I am here to share these stories, yes. But perhaps those stories were also meant to be learned from: love hard, take the trip, hold the hand, forgive the hurts, make the leaps. Write my own story, if you will, not just about others’.
And make sure it’s full of what really matters.Read comments