When I met Diego D. Pongo at the gym, neither of us was looking for a relationship. I was preparing to deploy to Iraq for just over six months, and he was more focused on being a good parent to his young daughter than on dating. He was a Marine Raider with U.S. Marine Special Operations Command out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. I offered him a ride back to his work, though it was only a two-minute walk from the gym. He agreed, and gave me his number as he got out of my car. I put it in my phone as “Handsome Diego.” On one of our first dates, we took a long walk through the marshes surrounding North Topsail Beach, on the North Carolina coast. While the tide was out, we walked out to a small island a couple hundred feet from the shore. I wondered if I had foolishly fallen too hard for him right before a deployment. We had agreed that this wouldn’t become anything serious. Neither of us noticed the rising tide that would soon leave us stranded. He held my shoes and clothes over his head and led the way as we waded through the cold water, cutting our feet on slivers of shells while we scrambled back to the beach.
We officially became a couple on New Year’s Eve, a week before I deployed. When I was in Iraq, he sent me a letter: “I was pretty fortunate that you stalked me in the gym, it’s just an example of your perseverance!” Diego often compared me to Isla Fisher’s cute, creepy character in “Wedding Crashers,” who tells Vince Vaughn’s character in a manic voice, “Don’t ever leave me, cause I’d find you.” It was our first inside joke.
From Iraq, I sent him lyrics from Taylor Swift, passages from my Isabel Allende books and poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I was impressed to have found someone who loved writing letters by hand as much as I did. The military mail service was so slow that I would often write to him in a notebook, then take a photo of it on my phone and send it by email. He’d receive the handwritten note weeks later. I returned home in summer 2018 and within a year and a half it was Diego’s turn to deploy.
I mailed my last letter to Diego two weeks ago — but it’s one he’ll never read. On March 8, 2020, he and Marine Capt. Moises Navas were killed by enemy fire while navigating harsh mountainous terrain in northern Iraq. It took upward of six hours for backup forces to recover him, my sweet man, and they sustained multiple injuries themselves.
Before he left in January 2020, Diego gave me his brother’s phone number in case anything happened. When I got the call, I never knew I could scream so loud. I crawled over to Diego’s closet and curled up on the ground with his shirts. I thought of his 8-year-old daughter, whom he loved above all else. I thought of the false positive pregnancy test I had in November, and how supportive and reassuring he was when I called him in tears, and how difficult our relationship had gotten after he deployed — even the letters weren’t enough to make up for the pain of being apart.
As I was trying to comprehend a future without him, the reports about the novel coronavirus in the United States grew more dire. Much of the country locked down. More than two months later, the pandemic has paused everything, including Diego’s funeral. His body is waiting at Dover Air Force Base until he can be delivered to Arlington National Cemetery for burial with full military honors. When that eventually happens, his family will fly to Arlington, Va., to say goodbye. They will also come to collect his belongings, my gentle reminders that he’s not yet entirely gone. The virus has disrupted so much, but it has at least slowed down time enough for me to try to understand what was lost, and what I gained from knowing Diego.
After he died, I dreamed I was searching for Diego, in a compound, a barn, the ocean, at home, but I could never find him. Now I take medication to sleep, but waking up without him next to me is almost worse than the dreams. In our bathroom, there are two sets of towels, and on our porch there are two chairs, side by side. I didn’t know that the absence of a person sitting next to me would feel so heavy.
Other times, I feel guilty and unfaithful when I envision getting involved in another relationship one day. My therapist says these emotions are normal after losing a significant other, but I still feel crazy. I write letters to Diego and I have even written to my hypothetical future partner, asking him to always help me honor the man whose death brought us together. I long to have someone to take care of again. I met one of Diego’s friends at Dover Air Force Base and, for one fast, strange moment, thought, “Yes! He’s my future husband,” simply because he was tall and rugged like Diego.
Diego struck a rare balance of tenderness and toughness. He was just as comfortable clearing the house with his pistol after the burglar alarm went off as he was with suggesting a couple’s counseling session to make sure we stayed strong. He taught his daughter to play with Legos, fill in coloring books and practice her multiplication tables. When he wasn’t taking her to school in the mornings, he practiced his Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills, or sipped coffee with me on our porch. He once ripped a dead pine tree out of the ground in our yard with his bare hands. He laughed at my bad jokes. And he put my needs above his own, except when there was a pint of ice cream in the house and he was hungry. He had a magnetism about him that drew people in, though I teased him that it was just his perfectly coifed, thick, longish hair — the kind that members of the Special Operations community pine for after years of high and tights.
Diego’s daughter shares his facial expressions; a skeptical look with a raised eyebrow has his mark all over it. We took her to Disney World and visited all four parks. We made sure to go back again for her favorite rides, the Tower of Terror and Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster. Diego encouraged me to swim with her. I wish I had, instead of worrying about getting my hair wet and having to reapply sunscreen again. On that trip, Diego gave me one half of a two-piece princess souvenir pin that together formed a heart. I kept the two pieces of the broken heart on my bathroom counter until two weeks ago, when I mailed my final letter to Diego in hopes it can be buried with him in his coffin. Enclosed was one half of the heart, the Belle piece. I will hold on to Beast forever.
While Diego was in Iraq, we talked about all the things we would do when he returned this summer. He was excited to travel with me and his daughter to Italy, to celebrate his homecoming and our birthdays. I’m going to turn 30 in August, and Diego would have turned 35 in July. In our few years together, we vacationed in Croatia, attended family weddings and holidays, and explored countless campgrounds throughout North Carolina. One trip we never got around to taking was to visit Arlington National Cemetery. Diego frequently went on his own to pay his respects and encouraged me to visit whenever I was in the area. I brushed it off as too sentimental, but to be honest it scared me. I was thankful I had never lost any of my own Marines in my career, but Arlington reminded me that it was always a possibility. Now, my first trip to Arlington will be to bury Diego.
Before his final mission, Diego called me from his team site to tell me he loved me, just in case anything happened. We had been arguing more frequently, and he wanted to remind me that despite the friction he still loved me. I told him the same and teased that if anything happened, I would find a way to bring him back to earth because I wasn’t finished with him yet.
The virus has upended so much, but it has given me a gift: the chance to live a little longer in a world with Diego in it. His shirts are where they’ve always been in the closet. His socks and underwear are still in his drawers. His toothbrush and comb still sit on his side of the bathroom counter. I use his favorite coffee mugs each morning, and seeing his red truck in the driveway makes me feel like he’s just gotten home from work. Eventually, the world will start pressing forward again — and so will I. But for now, I can take comfort in this pause.
Kelsey Baker spent six years in the Marine Corps and deployed to Kuwait and Iraq. She enjoys watching cardinals and other visitors at her bird feeder every day.