By Stacey Gualandi/January 17, 2013
It took a lot of courage for Marie Tillman to go public with her very private story. She shared her heartrending tale for the first time in her memoir, The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss and Life. It had been eight years since the controversial death of her husband, Pat Tillman, while serving in Afghanistan.
“I wanted to be able to have my story and my experience be something that could be helpful to other people.” Marie Tillman
She was reluctantly thrust into the spotlight in 2004 after Pat, a popular Arizona Cardinals football player-turned-army soldier, was killed in a tragic incident of friendly fire in Afghanistan.
In her book she writes about the final “just in case” letter he wrote months before he died and its effect on her life. It’s a very moving story and one we were glad to broadcast on The Women’s Eye Radio Show a few months ago. The Ninth Annual Pat’s Run in Phoenix will be held April 20 to honor his legacy…
STACEY: This is a story that everyone seems to be very aware of. Are you looking back and thinking, yes, I did the right thing by writing this book?
MARIE: I do feel really good about the book and the response that it’s gotten so far. One of the reasons I wrote it is because I wanted to be able to have my story and my experience be something that could be helpful to other people. Since it’s been out, the response, and the people reaching out and telling me that it has helped them, has been really great.
STACEY: I’m sure in some ways it’s probably been very cathartic as well, knowing where you were eight years ago and where you are now. I don’t think Marie Tillman back then could have written this book. What changed your mind?
MARIE: In part I wouldn’t have been able to write this book when it first happened because it really is the journey that I write about. And it was through that process, and time, and all of the things that contributed to helping me get through it, that I was able to come to this place where I felt like it would be a good thing to share my story.
STACEY: What a story it is. Basically, where do you start off with this book? Is it literally just finding this letter that Pat wrote before he died?
MARIE: It is. The opening chapter is about the day that Pat was killed and starts with this letter that he left behind and the message that he left for me—that he wanted me to live my life. The book goes on to describe how I was able to do that, and also looks back on times in our relationship and things that I drew strength from that helped me move forward.
“It really showed how he struggled with this notion that he might not come back and yet he really wanted to leave something for me and to leave it behind.”
STACEY: Obviously it had to have been very difficult to write this book and how difficult it must have been for Pat to write this letter to you.
MARIE: Definitely. I think that one of the things that I talk about that relates to the letter is that it wasn’t this perfect letter. He had started sentences and stopped, and there were things that were crossed out.
It really showed how he struggled with this notion that he might not come back and yet he really wanted to leave something for me and to leave it behind. The fact that it wasn’t perfect and it really showed this struggle that he was having made it that much more profound.
Marie’s talk at the Center For Public Leadership at Harvard University, March, 2011
STACEY: In your book the letter says, “It’s difficult to summarize ten years together, my love for you, my hopes for your future, and pretend to be dead all at the same time. I simply cannot put all this into words. I’m not ready, willing or able.” You knew that this letter was there. He had written it several months earlier. So what happened the day that you rediscovered it?
MARIE: It was the night that I learned that he was killed. It was after all the commotion of the day had died down and I was by myself. The day had been such a blur, and I was just going through the motions, trying to make sure that everybody was informed. I handled a lot of the stuff that was going on, just with the news.
It was just really a quiet time for me to sit and start to come to the realization because I don’t even think at that point in time I was fully aware of what had actually happened. In many ways, that night when I pulled out the letter, I knew that in some way it would make it all real.
“And so in that moment, I made that promise to him, knowing that I would have to try, but not really sure how exactly I would do it.”
STACEY: He also wrote in the letter, “Through the years I’ve asked a great deal of you. Therefore, it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask. I ask that you live.” When you first read those words, and upon hearing such horribly devastating news – that you’ve lost your husband – did you say to yourself, ‘I don’t know, Pat. I don’t think that I can live?’
MARIE: That’s exactly what I thought. I felt like there was no way that I could move forward, and certainly not live the way that I knew that he meant me to live. He was this person that was so full of life and energy and loved to be out there in the world and take chances and really live life.
I knew that’s what he meant when he said those words. And so in that moment, I made that promise to him, knowing that I would have to try, but not really sure how exactly I would do it.
STACEY: Most people would be grieving in private. But your story was so big, and it was all over the news. You had no privacy. Why do you think your story and Pat’s death struck such a chord with the nation?
MARIE: I think it was a combination of things. Certainly I think that people really respected the decision that he made to leave his football career and join the military which was really prompted after September 11. That was a time in this country when I think a lot of people either wanted to or actually made the same decision.
It was something that struck very deep at the heart of people around the country and then to hear of his death was really a blow.
STACEY: I don’t think anybody would have ever anticipated that. He’s this hero…he was like a symbol. Did you have any anger and think what if he hadn’t enlisted? Did you say, ‘You know. It’s about us. It’s not about serving your country. It’s about our relationship.’ Or was it that you felt that this is what had to be?
MARIE: No. Of course there were times when I was angry after he died and even when he was alive. Military life is not always easy. I think understanding him and where the decision came from, and really what it meant in a larger picture, would always win out. But definitely there were times when I was frustrated and angry about the decision.
“I knew that if I was to be able to keep my promise and really live my life and be open to the world and all the wonderful things that are out there, I had to let it go…”
STACEY: Do you ever dwell on the controversy in terms of his death?
MARIE: It was something that I focused on for many years. I knew that if I was to be able to keep my promise and really live my life and be open to the world and all the wonderful things that are out there, I had to let it go and be able to put all of that into a place so that I could move forward. And so that’s what I worked really hard to do.
STACEY: You wrote in your journal a lot during the last eight years. Is that what formed the basis for the book?
MARIE: I started writing pretty early on after Pat was killed, and it really was a form of therapy for me. It was a way that I could express myself and let out all of these things that I was feeling. But it was never with the intention of having some of that be included in a book later that would be published.
It was really for myself. It was interesting going through the experience of writing the book and to revisit some of those journals. I had forgotten just how bad it was and how sort of dark and desperate I felt at times.
Women of Distinction Award, May, 2010 from AAUWinfo
STACEY: It’s seems like it was an obsession that you could never let go of but you had to. Who do you think you are now having gone through this journey?
MARIE: I think in many ways I’m the same person. But I do think that I’m stronger than I thought I was. That knowledge has been something that’s been very powerful for me, to realize that I can be out there on my own and get through something like that and be okay on the other side.
STACEY: You wrote in your book that of course you would wish to have Pat back, but you wouldn’t want to be the Marie you were eight years ago, that you like who you are better today.
MARIE: And I do. I think that that’s part of life. I think that everybody deals with their own challenges and figures out how to get through them, and that’s how we grow and evolve as people.
STACEY: You’re fully committed now to the Pat Tillman Foundation. What is your ultimate goal with the foundation?
MARIE: It is really something that I get a lot of joy out of. The foundation started after Pat was killed, and really has turned into this great organization that is helping veterans and their spouses go back to school, get an education, and continue to move forward in their own lives and do great things in the world.
I really see the work that I do there almost as an extension of this journey of service that Pat and I started together when he joined the military.
It did take me some time to come to a place where I could focus on the foundation and not feel like I was stuck in the past. A big part of that was when I met my husband and got married, and I now have a family and a life outside of all of that. But yet the two things work together in harmony. So that was really the big key for me.
“The difficult thing about grieving and in life is there is not really a one size fits all, but people can know that there will be better times ahead.”
STACEY: Did you ever think that you would remarry?
MARIE: Never. I felt very fortunate to have had this great love in my life, and I thought that that was it. Some people don’t ever get something like that and that was sort of my one shot at it. So I never had any intention of getting remarried, and never thought that I would find somebody that I would want to be married to.
STACEY: You and you husband, Joseph, went from zero to four kids, like boom!
MARIE: It was a fast transition. But it makes perfect sense to me. I feel really grateful to have these five boys in my life. It’s been an incredible journey.
STACEY: You refer to that letter as a gift, one that you are now giving to other people through your book. What advice do you want give?
MARIE: The difficult thing about grieving and in life is there is not really a one size fits all, but people can know that there will be better times ahead. They have my story as an example of something that may be comforting to them.
STACEY: Absolutely. We thank you for taking the time to share your story, Marie. We all very much felt like we were going through it with you on some level. And we wish you great success with Pat’s Run coming up in April.