The Angelic Woman From Raleigh

My husband John Ditto died on a Monday evening. I know the exact time, because the hands on his crushed Seiko wristwatch are forever stuck at 6:22.

Remembering time is harder than recalling place when in the shock of loss, but I’m positive it was the third day and I was in my bedroom when Mary, one of the devoted volunteer helpers, gently tapped on my door.

“Come on in,” I muttered. “Susan, I hate to bother you, but there’s this lady at the door. She wants to give you something.”

“Can you please tell her to come back a little later,” I said, appreciating all offers of condolence, but desperately needing sleep.

“She drove here all the way from Raleigh.” That’s three-anda-half hours away.

“OK. Give me a minute.”

In June of 1980, when John’s orders said Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, N.C., I groaned. After a happy year in Japan, where John commanded VMA-211, an A-4 Skyhawk squadron, I’d hoped for sunny Southern California. We owned a furnished house there that had been rented, so the transition would’ve been easy breezy. But instead it was a full move, selling the house and driving two cars cross-country.

Going back to “Cheerless Point,” nickname for the base where we were first stationed as a newly married couple in 1968, left me unenthusiastic. My memories were of a remote base next to the tiny town of Havelock with only a Sears catalog store for shopping – a sad prospect for a 21-year-old.

But this time, 12 years later, we had two children and other priorities. It was a safe family environment where the kids could roam unsupervised, crabbing on the Neuse River and riding their bikes till dusk. And, we lucked into a great house in a cul-desac right on the river with old friends as neighbors.

Col. John Ditto was busy. The demands of being the operations officer for the 3rd Marine Air Wing weighed on the perfectionist pilot who also was learning to fly the Harrier jet in his off time. But we were happy. This time around, life was cheery at “Cheerless Point.”

Then that cold afternoon: the classic knock came at the front door, the general and the chaplain tried to blunt the blade their words shoved into my heart. Left was the grief of a 10- and a 6-year-old and sorrow that fell over my shoulders like a lead coat.

In retrospect, there were many premonitions and signs. During those months prior to his Jan. 19, 1981, Harrier crash, I felt something was coming. Some kind of change. Also, out of character, John had begun excitedly sharing his vivid dreams of flying without an airplane. Close friends teasingly dubbed him “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”

Understandably, in those first days after his death, I couldn’t stop with the “whys?” Why this brilliant, loving, 44-year-old man with an adoring family and great career? The whys were tearing me up. I was in my bedroom asking God why on the day the woman from Raleigh arrived.

Not only did she drive seven hours round trip to visit someone she didn’t know, but she managed to get onto a very secure base without a military ID and drive eight miles to a house not easy to find.

No GPS in 1981.

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” said the woman, “but I read about your husband in the paper and I was supposed to bring you this.”

She handed me a folded piece of paper.

I invited her in, but she declined, so I gave her a weak hug, thanked her and went back to the bedroom.

I read the words on the paper. It was a Bible scripture, Isaiah 57:1.

“The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.”

Those words were to comfort and sustain me not just at that moment, but throughout my entire life. I quit asking God why and began thanking Him.

I believe the woman from Raleigh was an angel – my angel.