Melissa Pritchard (left) and Goodman.
Tired but still thinking about Ashton—had I gotten her right?—I went into my kitchen, began to scroll idly through Facebook, skimming the bright chatter of friends, before stopping cold at what had to be a callous joke, a notice posted by the Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Centers: Sr. Airman Ashton Lynn Marie Goodman, 21, of Indpls., died May 26, 2009, while serving in Afghanistan. She was born June 14, 1987 at Beale Air Force Base, CA. Ashton was in the U.S. Air Force 43rd Airlift Wing serving as a driver for Panjshir (Afghanistan) Provincial Reconstruction Team. She was a... Abruptly, the notice stopped. Beside it was an official air force photograph, stamp-sized, of a barely recognizable Ashton, in dark blue dress uniform and peaked cap, looking like some nostalgic 1940s, studio-lit version of herself. Numb with shock, I clicked over to her page to prove it was a joke, a mistake, but found only grieving messages from family, friends, her boyfriend, David. Crying now, frantically clicking for details, facts, calling a military friend in Afghanistan, calling local friends, still fastened to the Internet, I located the Department of Defense casualty list and found the official air force announcement saying that she had died near Bagram Airfield of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device.
I returned to her Facebook page, staring blindly at accumulating condolences. There were details of the funeral. The burial. Donations could be made to the World Wildlife Fund. Her father wrote that he had flown to Dover Air Force Base and "brought his pumpkin home." I responded with a short, stumbling sympathy note. I read every anguished message from David, fighting somewhere in Afghanistan, unable to attend Ashton's ceremony at Bagram Airfield, where her body was formally loaded onto a transport plane home.
The moon is lonesome without you, but I look at it each night as it rises and see you staring back at me. I hope you are at peace. I miss you baby. Always fighting strong for your dreams, my little hummingbird. —David
My mother had always loved birds, especially hummingbirds. She had promised to send me a sign, once she had passed, that her spirit was still alive; hours after her death, a hummingbird hovered at my window, looking in at me for an unmistakably long time. I called to my sister to come see this tiny, iridescent creature shimmering in midair, gazing at us through the glass, its wings beating up to 80 times per second, backward and forward, in the symbol for infinity. The hummingbird returned the next day and again on the third morning as I sat in the garden praying to my mother for help, for comfort—it came, jeweled messenger, shaking the air inches from my face before darting away. I never saw it again.
Ashton was killed less than three weeks before her 22nd birthday. The birthday package David sent to Panjshir was returned, unopened. One of the first things he will do once he returns home to Indiana is find the tall pine tree Ashton lies buried beneath and share with his little hummingbird the gift he had chosen to delight her.
Sometimes we run away to be reclaimed, to be reassured that if we are not wholly understood, at least we are loved. When I came home, my daughters let it be known how worried they had been, shocked and even hurt that their mother would go somewhere, anywhere, without asking or even telling them. I had left home like an impetuous child, wanting to be found. Instead I had found Ashton and was opened to love beyond my familiar, given circle.
There are three photographs of Ashton I keep returning to. The first, taken days before her death, shows her sitting in a circle with Afghan women, wearing her favorite blue hijab, rainlike sparkles along the hem, her face turned to the camera, smiling serenely, as if telling the world she is glad to be fighting for justice with words now, not weapons. She looks like she does in most of her pictures—a bit indifferent to, or unsure of, her own prettiness. And it may have been the lighting, but in this photo, one of her last, she looks calm, radiant, ethereal.
Hardest to look at is the newswire image I had come across online: Ashton's remains in a flag-draped transfer case being lowered from a transport plane at Dover Air Force Base.
Finally, there is the photograph she chose for her Facebook home page: Ashton, balanced lightly on the edge of a cliff overlooking Panjshir Valley, arms raised high, lifted in a triumphant "Yes!" to life. Beneath the photo, this caption:
Don't forget to send me some love!!!! My address is Sr. Airman Ashton Goodman PRT Panjshir, APO AE 09354 I love getting cards and stuff in the mail. :):):):):)
Melissa Pritchard is the author of eight books, including Disappearing Ingenue and Late Bloomer (both Anchor), and a forthcoming story collection, The Odditorium. She teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
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