Pat Tillman’s Ghost

By Laurel Doud

My husband left me for Pat Tillman’s mother. You know Pat Tillman; he of the long blonde hair flowing out from underneath his football helmet before it became de rigueur. The one who famously walked away from a multimillion-dollar NFL career to fight the bad guys after 9/11. The one who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire.

I never met Pat Tillman, but his ghost haunts me. I cannot get away from him. Even after all this time, hardly a month goes by that his name, his apparition, doesn’t bedevil me. My grandson wears a hat bearing Pat’s Run’s logo, an annual fundraiser for the Patrick Tillman Foundation. My sister texts me that on her Facebook page, someone posted it’s the anniversary of Pat’s death. After moving away from the San Francisco Bay Area, I find myself in the same city as one of Pat’s two brothers, the name Tillman periodically conjured up in conjunction with his wife’s law practice and his children’s books. If I only watch one college football game the entire season, it’s a sure bet that some footage will show Pat’s statue at Arizona State. At least once a semester in the college library I work at, I’ll get a rush of students looking for Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, which is required reading in some classes. “That’s with two L’s and one N,” I say as they type his name into the online catalogue. 

My husband had broken it off with Pat’s mother right before Pat died, but his death brought them back together. Why did he have to die just then? As far as I was concerned, my husband could be with any other woman as long as it wasn’t her, she who was a colleague of my husband’s and sat at my kitchen table drinking beer before I knew my husband had already left me emotionally, pretending nothing had changed. A friend of mine who believes in reincarnation says I’ve probably been enemies with Pat’s mother for many turns on the wheel and, no doubt, sometimes, friends as well. I suppose I could be friends with her in another life. 

But not this one.

I wasn’t gleeful when Pat died. No one would wish that on another mother, let alone a young man just starting out in his adult life. But it felt like karma, retribution. After all, I had lost someone I loved, so should Pat’s mother. The scales were in balance. 

This is hard to write, and I’m not proud of how it makes me sound. And maybe you’re wondering why go there at all? What good does it do to dredge it all up? It’s been years, you say, and, of course, you would be right. 

But that’s not how the human heart, this human heart, works.

What I’ve discovered, after all these years, is that grief isn’t linear. You don’t move away from it in a straight line. You orbit around it elliptically. The ellipses get bigger as the years pass, but sometimes the gravity of your life slingshots you back into the heart of your hurt and anger, and it feels almost as intense as it did when it happened. 

I seem to be back at the perigee now. 

I’m not sure what’s pulled me in so close this time. I’ve been pretty good lately about letting the past lie, looking at all the brilliant things in my life now that wouldn’t have come otherwise. I wouldn’t be living in this home that feeds my soul. I wouldn’t have this job that satisfies me. I wouldn’t have this loving (current) husband, wonderful (step)kids, fabulous grandkids, a whole new branch to the family tree. 

Perhaps the coronavirus triggered it. Maybe it’s the fact that my (current) husband and I are snapping at each other, worn down from months of working from home, sharing broadband and printer time. (I still think of my (former) husband as my husband, and both of them are just my husband in my head.)

It might be because my subconscious is playing havoc with my sleep. I’ve been dreaming crazy lately: intense, sometimes violent, occasionally lustful, always anxious and featuring my (former) husband. The dreams are so confusing. Sometimes we’re still together and in love, and sometimes we aren’t. The pendulum swings from profound sadness to vicious hatred and, when I wake up, those feelings are roiling in me still.

I’m having a rough time of it lately, and I’m exhausted.

I’ve written about that time in my life many times before, trying to make sense of it, to find some epiphany, some tidy resolution, a way to corral it into a container and box it up. I’ve fictionalized it. I’ve written essays. I’ve created PowerPoint on it. Seriously. I’ve even written pretty pathetic poetry—with amazingly awful alliteration. But the peace hasn’t happened yet, and I keep trying. And, as I try, I am always reminded of a line from a made-for-tv movie, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the “Last of the Belles,” I liked when I was a teenager. Zelda says to her husband, “Seems like no matter who you start out writin’ about, it always turns out to be about us. Poor Goofy. I reckon you think that if you write the story often enough, maybe some time, some way, it will have a happy ending.”

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I think I’ve been writing for that happy ending for a long time.

I need to go deeper this time. I’m trying to be as honest to my feelings as they were then as I possibly can. I tell myself I need to get this shit out in the open, turn it over, and maybe it will finally compost into fertilizer, feed something good, and Pat can leave me alone. I will have exorcized him. And everything else. 

Anger, I find, is so much easier to deal with than sadness. With anger, you have the crust to protect you from the core, but with sadness, you’re just split wide open. I think I’m scared to find out how much hurt I still feel because of them. 

Them. There I said it. Not him.

So why is Pat Tillman at the center of my rage? He’s a goddamned national symbol. He didn’t have anything to do with my husband leaving me for his mother, yet somehow his spectre has come to symbolize it. 

Pat was a defensive player, and I think I’ve got him protecting his line, his mother in the backfield. But I can’t go after her. Her son was killed. I spoke of karma before. I’ve got children I would be devastated to lose as well. It’s just too close.  

Of course, the primary target’s deeper down the field than she. My husband. But I can’t go after him either. My children, my grandchildren, love him. I loved him once too. He was my best friend.

He was my best friend, and he left me. 

And there it is, the molten core of my anger and the pith of my sadness. 

I’m getting frustrated because dredging up these feelings isn’t helping. So, yes, I unearthed them, but some things are too tender to expose. 

It doesn’t matter how deep I make myself go; I can’t change how I felt. 

I can only change how I feel.

So, instead of being annoying, maybe these hauntings are my mind’s way of getting my attention about these emotions—not necessarily to do anything about them, but just to acknowledge that they exist. Maybe all the anger and hurt wants is to be seen and heard, and then maybe my subconscious will be appeased; I’ll have executed an effective end-around.

I’ve been sleeping much better as I write this, my dreams benign, so maybe I’m on to something. I’m watching the planet of my pain recede in my rearview mirror as the trajectory of my orbit pulls me away. I’m headin’ out—until I lose the tug-of-war between inertia and gravity, past and present, and get catapulted again around that corner, heading back on in. 

But maybe I can lengthen the duration it takes for that to happen.

Life has no ending, happy or otherwise. It’s life that moves on, moves forward, and you need to go along with it, or it will just go along without you. These reminders that pop up in my feed, the memes of my previous life, I’ll just have to look at them differently. Feel them differently. Embrace them, if you will. 

Yesterday I was texting my daughter, and I mistyped until and my phone’s autocorrect replaced it with I Tillman. There’s no way I could make this stuff up. But it made me laugh, and that made a difference. 

It seems I’m going to be stalked for the rest of my life by Pat Tillman, for good or for ill, right or wrong, literally or figuratively. He’s never going to leave me alone.

But when I hit that next point of apoapsis, and I head back in towards the pain, I hope I’ll know how to deal with it better. When Pat Tillman’s shade appears again, I hope I’ll be able to say, Hi, Pat. Thanks for checking in. I’m doin’ okay.

It may not be peace, perfect peace, but maybe it’s a start.

Note: Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The initial report from the Bush Administration and the Pentagon was that he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the enemy. Five weeks after his death, it came out that Pat was killed by his fellow Rangers, and officials had gone to great lengths to keep the circumstances secret. Six investigations were conducted, but none entirely satisfying all the contradictions. Pat’s mother, Mary Tillman, wrote a memoir, Boots on the Ground by Dusk, that details those proceedings.

My husband and Pat’s mother are still together.


Laurel Doud is an academic librarian at Fresno City College in Fresno, California.

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