He's everywhere. In the photos on the mantel. In the awards lining the walls. In the Orlando Magic jersey his mom sleeps with at night and the hat his sister keeps in her room. More than six years have passed since Michael Thomas was in this house, but his presence is felt daily.
"No matter where I go in this house, I think of my son," Debbie Kirkpatrick said.
Thomas, 34 and an Army Green Beret, died in Afghanistan in 2007. The weeks that followed are what towns and families across the nation have become accustomed to during the last decade of war: memorials in the newspaper, processions down the main drag, tears and eulogies and promises to never forget.
But after time, the town moves on. Friends check-in less. The tears slow and loved ones await the supposed return to normal.
"They say it gets easier. It doesn't," Kirkpatrick said, her voice catching in her throat. "Maybe I don't cry every day, but I think of him every day and I miss him every day."
He was the son who would run 5 miles to his mom's office to surprise her. He was the brother who drove from Texas to Florida when his sister Krista didn't have a date to homecoming. He was the father who dressed up in matching costumes with his son for Halloween.
And he was the leader who, when his unit was ambushed on a mission, told the younger soldier manning the turret and expecting a child to switch spots. And with his body exposed through the opening of the Humvee, he was the soldier who gave his life to protect others.
"He was our superhero," Cassie Kirkpatrick, his younger sister, said.
"He was that guy you put up on the pedestal that no one else could touch," Krista added. "He was invincible."
Krista doesn't cope the same way her sister and mom do. They celebrate the day he died as his birth to heaven and play Metallica and his favorite '80s hair bands when they're feeling low. She prefers to bury the pain, moving away instead of leaning in.
"You have to find ways to preoccupy yourself so you don't sit around and dwell on it," she said. "I try to block it all out."
And while her mother focuses on the good her son did and his belief in the war, Krista's more willing to admit to the outrage that stirred inside her after his death.
"Of course you feel that anger and resentment, especially in the beginning," Krista said. "Until you finally settle down and think rationally and remember what his purpose was and why he wanted to be there."
They each preserve him in different ways. Krista has two MREs (military meal, ready to eat) he sent her still stashed in her pantry. Cassie has a bear she calls "Michael Bear" that she holds close when she misses him most. And for Bucs games, Debbie hangs his jerseys all over the living room, just like he did when he was pumped for a big game.
"I used to think Memorial Day was just a BBQ," his mom said. "Now I really know why it's there. We have to remember all of them. We have to remember their families and the holes they left behind."
Though his death has carved out a space that can't be filled in their lives, they find ways to carry on. Krista and Cassie focus on their children. They know now to appreciate every little moment.
"No matter how high you hold someone, no matter how invincible you think they are or how much you love them, in a blink of an eye, it can be gone," Krista said.
Debbie is thankful for her grandkids. She's not sure she'd get by otherwise. Some days, it's hard to get out of bed. She doesn't clean the house as much anymore. She doesn't see the point. But then Cassie will help shake her out of it and remind her to focus on those she loves who are still here.
Still, Michael finds ways to surprise her, Debbie said. Just the other day, she was going through a box of mementos she stashed away. There, folded in between photos of her son, she found a creased piece of paper. Every letter and photo in that box is burned into her memory, but this was something she'd never seen before.
"He must've printed it out and tucked it in with some photos, just in case," Debbie said. "He'd want us to find it and think of him."
Typed on the page was a poem: "To Those I Love and Those Who Love Me."
Tears built as she read each line of the three stanzas, feeling as though her son were talking to her.
Though you can't see or touch me, I'll be there
And if you listen with your heart, you'll hear
All of my love around you soft and clear
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.