R-Y-A-N. It was my younger cousin Ryan Jeschke who taught me how to spell my middle name, huddled over toys in my family's playroom, long before Kindergarten, or high school, or war.
The name was a family name. A warrior name from the long list of legendary fighters from which we both descended. Our patriarch, John Ryan Devereux, served our country in the Army Medical Corps during both the Spanish-American War and World War I. He was a professor at Georgetown, assisted President Hoover, and did relief work for Pope Pius. His brother was the Archbishop of Philadelphia, and we all were descended from an ancestor who was an officer in the army of Louis XVI of France. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/jr-dever.htm
We had a lot to live up to -- for that ancestor was only the beginning of the warrior legend. Our great-grandfather, Richard Hall Sr., was a Brigadier General in the USMC. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Croix de Guerre, and helped plan the D-Day invasion of Normandy, for which he accepted an award from President Eisenhower on behalf of the entire USMC.
His brother-in-law, Brigadier General James Patrick Sinnott Devereaux was the "Hero of Wake Island" and survived the Death March to Bataan. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/jpsdever.htm
Our grandfather, Richard Hall Jeschke, Jr., retired a Colonel in the Marine Corps. He served in both the Pacific and European theatres of World War II, and in Korea as well. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star with a combat "V". One of his last honors was to be selected as a reader for the 75th anniversary of Iwo Jima at the National Cathedral. And, in a twist of God-ordained fate, was the Marine mentor to another one of my heroes, Charles Colson -- but that is a story for another day. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/rhjeschke.htm. I called him "Grandad" and Ryan called him "Gramps". He was our hero.
I write all that to say this -- Ryan was a warrior born into a line of warriors. It was a part of his undeniable DNA. He had the Jeschke "look", which two of my brothers also have. He had their seriousness, focus, and drive. He had desire to serve, to help others, and to sacrifice their all for our country. My dad loves to tell the anecdote about how Ryan was originally not allowed to play with toy guns or swords. So Ryan made his own weapons -- out of sticks and stones. The warrior spirit pumped through his veins. Irrepressible.
He grew up in a rough side of town, so he learned to defend himself and his two younger sisters through martial arts training. From his mother, a collegiate swimmer, he was gifted with Aquaman-like skills. In other words, like it or not, Ryan was born and bred a Marine.
All these things I loved about Ryan. But I, Katherine Ryan, loved him for more than just that. I know Ryan as the little boy who taught me to spell my name. Every time our families would get together, we would sneak off and find a place to talk and play. At the time, I was a tomboy with two sisters, and he also had two sisters and no brothers, so we would take any chance to ditch the dolls and tea parties to play more athletic/rough-and-tumble stuff.
It was at the home of our ancestor, the original Ryan, though, that I sharply remember a moment we had together on the stairs. "I know you are younger than me," I admitted, as children and old people swirled around us, "but you are my favorite cousin of all." In hushed tones Ryan responded: "Same."
You see, whenever I was with Ryan, my heart was at rest. I felt safe. We understood each other. No pretense, no expectations to live up to, just open admiration and trust and a sense of peace. With Ryan, I was myself.
I think the biggest gift in all my grief is the knowledge that my husband Chris loved Ryan as much if not even more than I did. Ryan and I were family, but Ryan and Chris were FRIENDS long before Chris and I got married. When Chris first started out leading Young Life back in college, it was at Herndon High School, and when I mentioned that my cousin Ryan was there, Chris sought him out and Ryan became one of Chris' very first "Young Life kids". In fact, on my very first trip to Young Life's Rockbridge camp, Ryan was there on the bus with me -- or rather with Chris' sister Jackie! Ever since their brief dating history, our family has had a wonderful time teasing that the Craddocks find Jeschkes irresistable ... since both Chris and Brian married myself and my sister Cheryl, and Jackie dated my cousin! Weird, but true.
When Chris and I were engaged, I joined on as a Herndon Young Life leader, and got to witness Chris and Ryan's bond firsthand ... mostly them wrestling each other EVERY SINGLE YOUNG LIFE meeting, and breaking people's houses in the process. Chris assures, me, however, that aside from wrestling, there were also much more serious conversations taking place, day after day, month after month after school -- discussions about life, and manhood, and Jesus. And sometime during that time frame, with my dad, Ryan prayed to receive Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
In the twelve years since, many a young teenaged buck like Ryan has challenged Chris in wrestling, and all have lost. Chris even took down a five man squad that tried to kidnap him as a prank one night (true story for another day). I think that the fact that Chris could beat Ryan earned Ryan's lifelong respect. "But," Chris admitted to me just the other day, "there was only one time a teenager has ever beaten me in wrestling." That teenager was Ryan.
("I was beating him," Chris insists, "but the only reason I tapped out is because he cheated! He grabbed my finger and nearly tore it off. I HAD to tap out, or he would have broken it.")
I'd like to think that Ryan flew cross country for my wedding just to see me, or stopped by our "Love Shack" apartment after September 11th to boast about his intense Recon training for my benefit. But I know, deep in my heart, as Ryan sat in our hideous 70s orange chair and recounted how he would survive if water-boarded, that he hadn't returned just for me. He was there to see his friend, his mentor, and one of his own personal heroes, my husband.
The truth is, Ryan may have looked up to Chris and I, but we also looked up to him right back. His war exploits and training were the subject of every Thanksgiving and Christmas discussion, his face my prayer through every "Star Spangled Banner."
"When I was little my cousin was one of my biggest heroes," my brother Brendan wrote in a tribute on facebook.
"If I could turn back time, I would. Ryan Jeschke is and has always been my hero. He died so that we may be free and now he is alive in heaven with Christ who died for him," blogged my sister Christen. http://blog.christenyoung.com/2012/08/10/my-hero.aspx
Over the past 12 years, Ryan was deployed so much that we rarely got to see him in person. He never saw my new townhouse, or my current "big house." He never met my dogs. And it wasn't until last summer when my family was visiting San Diego that he finally met my four children, and we finally met his bride, Sheila.
From the second he saw them, Ryan adored my crazy kids. He hugged us all and swooped them onto his shoulders. He didn't mind that they were a little loud at the dinner table. In fact, he reveled in it. And the fact that we had adopted a child that was of a different race didn't bother Ryan in the least. In fact, he was totally in love with Christian, and peppered us with questions about adoption, parenting, and how to be a good dad.
The thing that struck me most about our all-to-brief time together was how much Ryan adored Sheila. His arm protectively around her, his eyes drinking her in. He had fought hard to win her heart, and he was never, ever going to lose her again. We couldn't help but fall in love with her, too. Most importantly of all, we saw and heard for ourselves Ryan's passionate commitment as a follower of Jesus Christ. He was reading the Bible and faithfully attending a vibrant church. Jesus had saved Ryan, and Ryan's marriage. And, like anything in life, he was going to pursue his faith full throttle.
"This is going to be your last tour, RIGHT?" Sheila said with a smile, patting his leg.
"We'll talk about it," Ryan conceded. But as he looked at me across the table, I could see the twinkle in his eye. As much as he loved and adored Sheila, the Marine corps was in his blood, and he could not refuse his country's call. He was a warrior, from a line of warriors. He was a Ryan.
The last time I saw Ryan was God's precious gift to me. God knew that I needed that gift, and I can barely tell or write the story without breaking down once or twice. It's hard to find the words to match the story in my brain, but I'll try.
I was standing in the lobby of our church, The King's Chapel, chatting mindlessly and making small talk, in my ordinary world. Sunlight poured through the windows. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him. My American hero. My cousin. My Ryan.
The conversation melted away in that instant. I ran across the room and threw my arms around him. "RYAN!" I shouted, my sheer joy in seeing him overpowering any embarrassment at the exuberance of my greeting. Nothing else was important as that hug.
We chatted happily about his deployment, his arm cuddling Sheila close. Sheila's eyes were rimmed with tears, but even as Ryan talked about returning to one of the most troubled regions of the world, his voice was steady. He had been there before, he had a job to do, and he was going to do it. For the first time, it hit me what he was sacrificing -- the soft San Diego breezes and a wife's embrace for the harsh sands and disgruntled people of Afghanistan. And he was doing it for me, and my family.
The words felt cheesy, because it was my own cousin I was talking to, but I said it all the same. I stared dead in his eyes and said, "Thank you, Ryan, for your service." As we said goodbye, we wrapped each other in a long, warm, tight hug. "I love you," I said aloud, spontaneously. I surprised even myself, but shrugged it off in my head. Well, I did love him. So there. "I love you, too," he said.
We didn't know it then, but I know it now. Our last words to each other on this earth were "I love you." My precious gift from God. And with that, Ryan headed out into the sunshine, off on one last adventure with his brother-in-law, one last tour of duty, one last sacrifice for you and me.
Everywhere I look, I am reminded of Ryan. American flags, Marine Corps emblems, uniforms, anthems. Breezy, warm, soft days that remind me of San Diego. And most of all, I think of Ryan as I watch my daughter bop around the grassy-green soccer field, free and happy and safe because of his service, and his sacrifice.
Next week, he will rest with our ancestors ... the many warriors of our family (and their beloved wives) who have made Arlington Cemetery, our nation's finest resting place, their final earthly dwelling.
As I come to grips with the reality of Ryan's earthly absence, I miss the cousin whose heart beat along with mine. The cousin who shared my name. The cousin who -- among many accomplished cousins -- was our family's PRIDE. I miss my husband's friend, our Young Life kid, his wedding picture on my refrigerator that I put aside because "I'll always see Ryan another time." And I will, of course, because I KNOW where the real Ryan is, because we both loved Jesus.
R-Y-A-N, greet me again. When I get to heaven's gate, greet me again.