In the run-up to every Memorial Day weekend, for the past several years, a certain photo takes top spot in those most circulated among my fellow military and veteran wives. On blogs, on social media sites, it is shared and “liked” over and over. Taken by the photographer Todd Heisler, from his 2005 award-winning series for the Rocky Mountain News, “Jim Comes Home,” which documents the return and burial of Marine Second Lt. Jim Cathey, who lost his life in Iraq, the photo shows his pregnant widow Katherine lying on an air mattress in front of his coffin. She’s staring at her laptop, listening to songs that remind her of Jim. Her expression is vacant, her grief almost palpable.
It is the one and only photo that makes me cry each time I see it. What brings the tears to my eyes is not just the bereaved young woman, but the Marine who stands behind her. In an earlier photo in the series, we see him building her a little nest of blankets on the air mattress. Sweet Lord, I cry just typing the words, the matter-of-fact tenderness is so overwhelming. So soldierly. But in this photo — the one that lives on and on online — he merely stands next to the coffin, watching over her. It is impossible to be unmoved by the juxtaposition of the eternal stone-faced warrior and the disheveled modern military wife-turned-widow, him rigid in his dress uniform, her on the floor in her blanket nest, wearing glasses and a baggy T-shirt, him nearly concealed by shadow while the pale blue light from the computer screen illuminates her like God’s own grace.
I believe this photo has had such a long viral life not just because it is so honest but also because it is so modern. During a spouse’s deployment, your laptop is your battle buddy. Your sense of connection and emotional well-being is sustained via e-mail, Facebook, Skype and Instagram. It appears, per Lieutenant Cathey’s widow, that the same is true even in a time of loss. This heartbreaking — and groundbreaking — photo showcases the intersection of technology and agony.
The photo series can be viewed here.