This Wednesday, December 5th, 2012, would have been my cousin Ryan’s 32nd birthday and it is a date that I have been dreading on the calendar as it brings up the saddest emotions as we struggle with his loss. My mom is amazing at remembering extended family members birthdays and so growing up, when it was Ryan’s birthday she would remind me by saying something to us children about it and to me it always signaled that my birthday was right around the corner. I am three months younger than Ryan, but the really special thing to me is that we were dedicated to the Lord together, on the same day, at the same place and time–our parents gave our little lives over to the Lord and prayed that we would one day follow Him.
I still can’t believe that almost 4 months has past since that horrible day in August when I received a voicemail from my mom explaining what had happened. I was at a women’s conference for MOPS in Dallas, Texas for the weekday and that day I was so joyful to be having a wonderful time with my dearest friends. My friend, Jennifer, had shared that morning that her husband was overwhelmed with work stuff that he was going through, so I decided that we should pray for him as we walked towards the conference center. At that moment, God placed my cousin, Jean, on my heart and my Uncle Tom to pray for too. I knew they were driving all the way from Virginia to Arkansas that weekend. Jean had found out a few months earlier that her husband, Andy, was being transferred there for his residency, so at 9 months pregnant, she and her now 8 year old daughter were on their way there to make the move to meet him and move into a brand new city. I quickly explained this situation to my friends and as we walked through the wide halls of the Gaylord hotel, I prayed aloud for them and Jennifer’s husband’s work situation. I had no idea that God had actually put Jean and her dad on my heart because they had already heard the terrible news of Ryan’s death. I excitedly entered the conference looking forward to what the day would bring. At the end of the session, I saw that I had missed a phone call from my mom, who was watching my children that weekend while I was away. I jokingly remarked to my friend that something must be wrong for her to be calling me and then I hit the voicemail button. As ladies exiting the conference jostled their way around me, I strained to hear the message. I couldn’t quite make out every word, but I could hear the emotion in her voice as I made out the words, Ryan, Afghanistan, and official notification for my Aunt and Uncle. I stopped at a paralyzed standstill, started shaking uncontrollably, and sobbing I collapsed into the embrace of my friend, Mary, who had been walking with me and witnessed my total disintegration. I choked out the words “my cousin was killed in Afghanistan”, put my head down, and tried to work my way through the throng of ladies who were exiting the conference. The sobs were pouring out of me making a deep, guttural sound as I shielded my face and tried to push through the crowd to get back to my room. Mary walked with me, shielding me from worried onlookers who kept asking if everything was ok. “Nothing is ok!” I wanted to shout, but all I could do was sob and try to get as far away from there as I could. When I finally made my way back to my hotel room and hid under the blankets on my bed, I was immediately surrounded by friends praying for me. Somehow in the midst of the chaos, Mary, had alerted all the members of our group as to what had happened and all of them joined me in our room. Linda, my mentor, whose husband was a former Navy SEAL, placed her hand on my back and prayed a prayer for me and then one by one the ladies filed out until I was left alone with only my two best friends and sisters in love, Mary and Heidi. We all wept together throughout the whole weekend. They never left my side–this moment forever linking them to Ryan. We wept together as I called my mom and heard what happened, told my husband, and then had to explain to my daughters how my brave, hero, and cousin whom they had never known, had died on earth and gone to heaven.
I still can’t believe that Ryan, my Ryan, is gone. He was the cousin that always played with me at Jeschke family gatherings–that made me laugh and shared toys and food with me. I remember going to the pool in Herndon with him when we were really little, the toys we played with at “Gramps”‘ house, and the giggles and fun that we had. I remember how at “Gramps'” we threw parts of a tear-a-part velcro ref at the tv, played with the “time bomb” toy, and listened to the tape player together; how we went into the basement of our grandparents’ house and he scared me with a mask; and how we ate ice cream out of green glass bowls. I resented my older sister, Katherine, for trying to take his attention away from me and how she bossed he and I around because that is what the oldest cousin does. She wanted to play with him because she loved him as much as I did, but I didn’t want to share–we never grew out of that. I don’t think he ever minded ladies fighting over him though.
I adored Ryan and always will. I looked up to him. He is the closest cousin in age to me and he always watched out for me. I remember watching his proud Dad, brag about how good he was getting in Taekwondo and watching countless videos of his matches. He was so brave and I loved it when he greeted his opponent and then proceeded to calmly kick their butt until he won his match. He never looked ruffled in a fight–it was as if he was calmly sizing up each opponent until he figured out their weakness and then destroyed them. He was my hero, my protector, and I didn’t hesitate to taunt other kids with “oh ya, well my cousin knows Taekwondo” as if he would magically appear when I said that to defend me. He cared about me, I always knew that. He would read books on gymnastics or find out things that I was interested in and research them solely because he loved me enough to want to talk to me about things that I was into. Most people don’t care enough to do that for someone, but he did and it made me feel so special. I knew he loved me because he took the time to care about the things that I loved and if it was important to me then it was important to him. He knew the names of all my gymnastics friends and told me which ones he went to school with and what they were like outside of the gym. I liked them to know that he was my cousin, because I was sure that he had to be the coolest person at their school. We would discuss different gymnastics moves or techniques and he would teach me Taekwondo moves or various holds. I remember beach trips and how I learned that his family ate lunch at the beach while ours always went home for lunch, but it was way more fun to eat party mix with him and drink sodas out of a cooler as we sifted the sand through our fingers and built drip castles together. I definitely had a cousin crush on him for way longer then was probably appropriate, but I always adored him and cared what he thought about me. I always wanted to wear the perfect outfit, so that he would think I looked pretty or something like that. He was a super handsome little boy (and man) with bright blue eyes and an inquisitive mind. It didn’t matter whether I saw him a lot or a little, I always loved and cherished the time we spent together. He wasn’t perfect and had many flaws, but I didn’t see them. He was my cousin…my Ryan.
The truth is that I can’t remember physically seeing him much if at all in the past decade, but that does not make his loss hurt any less. He lived in California and I lived in Missouri and we never were in Virginia visiting family at the sa
me time. I was on his base one weekend in California and I tried to get in touch with him, but I couldn’t reach. So I tracked him down on Myspace (yes, that is a thing we used at that time) and messaged him. We caught up, messaging back and forth, and I told him that I loved him and was so very proud of him. We kept in touch a little on Facebook, but I was busy raising my family and he was busy saving the world. He served on so many tours of duty that I thought he was invincible until he was wounded which made me worry a lot more, but I never dreamed that he would be killed because he was too tough and too strong for that to happen. I prayed for him a lot and everything military reminded me of him, so I prayed for him more. My husband and I watched “Generation Kill” and bought the book because he was in it and Jared wanted to read it. The book only reminded me that I needed to pray for Ryan even more as I recognized the horrors of war and thought about what he would be experiencing. I don’t think a week went by when I didn’t pray for him, or think of him and how courageous he was fighting to protect us. One night, I woke up sobbing after having a nightmare that he had been killed in battle. I got down on my knees and sobbed out a prayer for him and continued to cry and pray for him all the next few days. I later found out that he had most likely been in an intense battle moment around the time period of my dream. I had talked to my husband, Jared, about Ryan so often, that at my brother’s wedding, one week before Ryan’s death, my husband was identifying my extended family members by their relationship to Ryan only. “Now, is that Ryan’s mom, dad, sister, etc?” he would ask. Jared never even got to meet Ryan, but I really wish he had–they would have gotten along well together. I am quite sure that I was not on Ryan’s mind even a fraction of the time that he was on mine, but that doesn’t bother me. I just wish that I got to see him again, hug him again, and tell him how much I loved him, but now I will just have to wait until I can hug him again in heaven.
On that horrible day in August when I learned of his death, the same thought kept screaming in my head. I was so heartbroken, devastated, and sad; but I was only his cousin–what about his wife, his mother, his father, his sisters…theirs hearts had to be broken far more then I could ever comprehend. I began praying for them and enlisted everyone I talked to that weekend to pray for them, I emailed my church and the whole church started to pray for them, I asked the MOPS conference leaders to pray for his family and they prayed too. There was never any doubt in my mind that when Ryan died, he went to heaven. He had accepted Jesus in his heart as a teen and although his spiritual journey had it’s ups and downs, I knew he loved the Lord and had given his life to Christ and he was in heaven that very day. However, I didn’t want a moment to go by without the family and friends that he loved, knowing that they could one day be in heaven with him if they give their lives to Christ too. One of my favorite memories of Ryan and I is when we danced almost every dance at my Aunt and Uncle’s wedding as children. After watching the grown-ups for some time, he approached me and asked me to dance and we did. He wore a little blue and white pinstriped suit and I wore a long peach dress and we danced for what seemed like hours with one of his little hands on my back and one of my hands in his gentle hand. I felt like a princess and could have danced with him forever. The day that he died, my mind kept flashing from little boy, Ryan, to handsome, grown up, Ryan, and it made me so sad that such a precious little boy could be murdered like that. I am going to dance in heaven one day with him again and I will never give up praying for Ryan’s family until each and every one of them know Jesus like Ryan did so that one day they too can be in heaven dancing with him too.
Everywhere I went that weekend, I just wanted to yell out at anyone around “my cousin just died, so that you can live” or something like that. It seemed impossible that this tragedy could have occurred and yet people were just going on with their regular lives. I wanted them to know that he was a hero, that his death mattered, that he willingly gave his life to save others. He gave his life for all of us, even those people that never knew him or had never known him. I wanted to shout at everyone that “Don’t you understand what happened? Someone just died for you and you don’t even know or care! He is a hero–he is your hero”, but I didn’t. I just wept and sobbed and even laughed at the good memories until they would make me sad and then I would cry again. The whole flight back to my family’s home in Virginia, I sobbed and cried. Strangers gave me tissues or stared at me, but no one asked what was wrong. I wanted to stand up in the airport and tell everyone what had happened and how their lives should be forever changed. I wanted them to know how he, his wife, Sheila, and his whole family had sacrificed for them as he paid the ultimate price for us with his life. I wanted people to know that life would never be the same and their lives shouldn’t be the same either since this remarkable young man was gone. I cried on and off for days–and still do often. I stayed with my parents an extra week so I could be there for his funeral, then cried when I realized that I would have to go back home before it would happen. I cried at the Candlelight Vigil that was held for him and met his wife, Sheila, for the first time. I was so glad to meet her, but I didn’t want it to be without him there to introduce us. I told her something like that, cried, and most likely dripped snot in her hair. She is beautiful and so full of life even while experiencing death and sadness. He adored her and she adored him. I laughed and loved that he married a girl under 5 feet, petite, with dark hair like me. I know that I wasn’t the only one with a cousin crush, so it is funny that beautiful Sheila is a little bit like me. I wish I had gotten to see them both together.
When I realized that I would not be able to make it to his funeral, I of course cried. I wanted to be able to be there, to honor him, and to be with my family. In my mind I started listing things that I was angry with: “I hate that you died and that I have to miss your funeral…I hate that you weren’t wearing your vest that would have saved your life…I hate that I didn’t get to tell you how much that I loved you…Did you even know how much I loved you and did you even love me as much as I loved you?” For some reason, knowing that he loved me seemed so important in that moment. I closed my eyes and wept and as I did, I had a vision which brought me so much peace. It was a picture of Ryan walking with some of the children from Afghanistan. He was dressed in all his military gear with his vest and his gun. And it was as if he whispered, “This is how much I love you.” Then, I understood. He not only loved me enough to go fight for me and protect me, but he also loved me enough to do what he always did, which was care about what I cared for. I adore all children as if they are my own and he loved me enough to go over there to defend and protect not only my children here, but also protect and care about the children in Afghanistan. This little vision, filled my heart and peacefully spoke volumes to me. I am so glad that God gave me that quiet moment.
My children had never met Ryan, yet they knew how sad I was and they grieved with me. They prayed for me and for Ryan’s family. We couldn’t attend his funeral, but we wanted to
honor him anyway. He was going to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery
which is where our Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother, our grandfather and grandmother aka “Gramps” and “Gran”, and countless other relatives in our military rich family have been buried. We wanted to visit the cemetery and pray over Ryan’s future resting spot (Section 60, #10205) We asked if the cemetery knew where Ryan would be buried. They knew the area, but not the exact location. Jared and I took our four children to the graves of our relatives. We showed them the graves, talked about who their ancestors were, and the sacrifices that had been made. The children decided to lay acorns that they had collected on each family members’ gravestones. They thought it was neat that my grandmother, great-grandmother, great-aunt, etc. could be buried with their husbands since now that isn’t how they do things anymore. We slowly made our way to section 60 where Ryan was to be buried. There were men digging fresh graves and a funeral going on. I wept when I saw the funeral–I wept for the family and their loss. We decided to stop next to a little tree, joined hands, and prayed. Jared, Raine, Cadence, and I prayed and sobbed aloud while the boys skipped around us, enjoying the beautiful day and the sunshine. The girls gathered acorns to lay on Ryan’s grave when we come back to visit again. When we returned home to Missouri, we lit a candle for him, to remember his life and it burned until the day he was buried. We fly an American flag in his honor and try to celebrate him in all the little ways that we can. We will be celebrating his birthday this Wednesday.
A few days after Ryan’s burial, his sister, Jean, gave birth to a perfect baby boy whom they named Gabriel Ryan in his honor. I got to see the most precious moment when Gabriel met his Grandfather for the first time and they were so wrapped up in each other that love just emanated from them both. I imagine that this is what it looked like when my Uncle Tom saw his baby son, Ryan, for the first time and held his precious baby in his arms. I know that is just a small picture of how the heavenly father lovingly greeted Ryan into heaven and looks down upon all of us.
Ryan’s birthday is going to be difficult. It breaks my heart that I will turn 32 without him turning it first. I will never forget his life and want my children to remember him too. I see reminders of him everywhere. His picture hangs on a dog tag by my heart. I watch my boys playing and know how much my Aunt’s heart breaks for her little boy whom she will never get to hold and hug again. There are times that I think of him and tears pour forth and there are other times when there is joyous laughter as we remember the funny stories and great memories about him. My son, Britan, declared last month that he wants to change his name to Britan Thomas Ryan Young. He has insisted on it ever since and when I call him his full name without the Ryan part, he immediately corrects me. When I ask him why he wants to add that part to his name, he replies sweetly, “so you remember him”. I could never forget him. As much as I miss Ryan, I still have the same thought as I did months ago, that no matter how much I am hurting at his loss; Ryan’s wife, mother, father, and sisters are hurting more and that we need to be praying constantly for them, loving on them, and encouraging them. This whole month will be tough for everyone, especially Sheila and his family–not only because of Ryan’s birthday, but also because his guys are coming home this month which is a joyous event that won’t get to be celebrated for him. So, please think of his family, pray for them, and never forget the sacrifices made for you. I will never forget my hero…my Ryan.
I do not weep because you are gone, for I will see you soon.
I cry instead that we are left behind, not yet in heaven’s room.
You selflessly, so willingly, gave your life that we might live
Just as freely for our lives, the Son of God did give.
I cry because I miss you and the you that never will be.
The day that has not yet come, when in heaven I will soon see.
In heaven will we meet again, for I know the Christ you know.
It is this faith in Christ I have, that leads me where you go.
I will see you up in Heaven and when I leave this place,
I will cry no tears of sadness, for then I’ll see your face.
To greet you up in Heaven means to accept the Father’s love.
Please all who love you, follow Christ, to meet you up above.