GREENHILL, Ala. -- Every night, Nicole Conley tells her daughter a bedtime story about Matthew. Catherine's 2 years old now, and she gets scared before she goes to sleep.
Not long ago, after Nicole had told that night's story, Catherine started to cry.
Nicole asked what was the matter.
"I want Daddy!"
"Sweetie, it's time to go to sleep."
"No, Mommy, no! I want more Daddy!"
Now Nicole was crying, too.
"You want me to tell you another story about Daddy?"
Catherine said yes.
Which one should she tell?
Maybe the one about Matthew running into the fire extinguisher on spring break or him freaking out about horseradish sauce on a steak. Should she tell about the skinny high school quarterback or about the muscled Marine?
It could be just a snapshot. Their first Valentine's Day, as she watched a nervous Matthew Conley walk past the big bay windows toward the front door, carrying two orange roses. Nicole loves orange. Or the time Matthew covered their home in rose petals for her birthday, and cooked her chicken parm.
Sometimes she laughs when she tells a story. Sometimes she cries. But night after night, she talks in a voice soft and sweet, telling a little girl about the daddy she never met.
TWO AMERICAN KIDS ...
Nicole tells Catherine about a boy who grew up without much but appreciated everything. Matthew's parents didn't make a lot of money. Tommy and Debbie Conley still live in a double-wide trailer across the county road from Debbie's parents. But they loved their children, and the whole family was happy.
Nicole, who's 24 now, living in a gated community up the road in Killen, grew up with pretty much everything. But what might have been an abyss was never a problem. Instead, she learned something about happiness from watching Matthew. Nobody got more excited about his grandmother frying him a big pile of bacon.
"It was just so adorable," she says. "He said his favorite thing about Christmas was going over to his grandmother's on Christmas morning and having breakfast. He just appreciated every little bitty thing he ever got."
Nicole tells Catherine about the Rogers High School quarterback who liked hitting opponents more than he liked throwing the ball. Matthew's highlight tape is filled with the 5-foot-10 kid in the No. 7 jersey laying people out, often away from the play, sometimes after the whistle, sometimes from behind. Didn't really matter. He'd come back to the huddle laughing. "Matt had more clipping penalties than any lineman on the team," says his best friend and former teammate, Joseph Thigpen.
But when Matthew got serious, people paid attention. Before his senior year, the new coach, Dan Beavers, moved Matthew to quarterback. Rogers had won only two games the past three seasons. Beavers needed a leader, someone the other guys would follow. And they did. Once, Matthew played with an ankle so swollen his shoe barely fit. Another time, playing sick, he got so dehydrated he needed an ambulance after the game. But he never said a word, scared he would be taken out.
Matthew finished that season with more than 1,000 yards passing and a bunch of touchdowns. The Pirates' record was 5-5, and the stage had been set for future teams to compete for state titles. After the last game in the fall of 2001, the players all got back on the bus for the ride back to Greenhill. It was over. They all cried. Years later, people haven't forgotten. "You remember any time we see a kid show the type of determination that Matt did," says principal Tim Tubbs, whose son is now the quarterback. "People will say, 'Doesn't that remind you of Matt Conley?'"
Nicole tells Catherine about the disagreements, the scuffles, the ... aw, heck, let's be honest: Matt Conley liked to fight. And he was scared of nothing. But after the laughter dies down, a common thread emerges.
He stood up for people.
In the stands at a high school basketball game -- during the game -- a bully pushed Matt's friend, and Matt cold-cocked the guy. "They stopped the game," Thigpen says. "Coaches are running up in the stands. The whole stands are watching. Dude's head is swelling up."
Another time, when Matt was home from the Marines, a big ol' guy tried to pick a fight with Thigpen. Matt stepped in and started screaming at the guy, pushing him into a corner. The man, older and bigger, looked ready to cry. "If you ain't ever been cussed out by Matt Conley," Thigpen says, "you ain't ever been cussed out."
Nicole tells Catherine about Matthew enlisting. It came out of the blue. She was at home watching the movie "Ali" with her sister. The phone rang. It was Matthew.
"Hey," he told Nicole. "I think I'm gonna join the Marine Corps."
She sat up. They'd just toured Alabama-Birmingham together, talking about college, about going to the same place. Matthew had graduated with honors from Rogers in 2002. "Why?"
His parents didn't have the money for college, Matthew said, and he didn't want to be burdened by loans.
"I never figured out what on earth possessed that boy to walk into the recruiter's office," she says now.
His parents tell of his urge to serve. That was certainly true. The terrorist attacks in New York disturbed him, his friends remember. Coach Beavers, who served in the Army, talked enlisting over with his star quarterback. "He thought it would be a good way to get college paid for," Beavers says.
Nicole tells Catherine about Mommy and Daddy's last phone call. She was eight months pregnant. It was the day before Valentine's Day in 2006. When she answered, Matthew, a few weeks away from his 22nd birthday, was laughing.
"They keep making fun of me because I'm old," he said. "The only person who is older than me is Lt. Fitzgerald."
"I'm so sorry," she said, laughing, too. "How old is he?"
In the background, she could hear the hum of young Marines crowded around the phone, egging him on, singing. Another soldier came on. Matthew finally got the phone back.
"Who was that?" she asked.
"Fitz," he said.
"You tell him your wife said I think he has a very sexy voice," she said.
Matthew cracked up.
"Hey, Fitz, my wife thinks you're sexy."
Fitz made a joke about how fat she'd been getting, and everyone laughed some more.
Five days later, Cpl. Matthew D. Conley and 2nd Lt. Almar L. Fitzgerald were mortally wounded when an improvised explosive device activated from a nearby building blew up their Humvee. Fitzgerald died a few days later in a military hospital. Matthew died instantly. He had gotten out of the truck to go check on fellow Marines who'd been attacked. His last act on earth had been to try to help his friends.
He only had 16 days left in Iraq.
Someday, Nicole will tell Catherine about the night two Marines and a Navy chaplain came to Tommy and Debbie's trailer. It was 4:30 in the morning, and it was freezing outside. Tommy was snoring on the couch a few feet from the door, and the knocking startled him. Debbie heard it from the bedroom. They opened the door together, squinting into the glare of a strange vehicle's headlights. That's when they saw the uniforms.
"They're here to tell us Matthew's dead," Debbie blurted.
Tommy didn't believe it. Not his little boy. Not the one he'd taken to see Hulk Hogan and coached in Little League. Please, God, not Matthew. "Are you sure?" he asked.
"Is your son Matthew D. Conley?"
Tommy said yes.
The Marine said he was sure. He had Matthew's dog tags.
Tommy and Debbie stumbled across the street to tell Granny and Pawpaw. Then they had to go tell Nicole, who'd slept at her parents' house that night because of the icy roads. The Marines and the chaplain had tried her apartment in town first.
Tommy and Debbie led the way, the Marines following, driving down Highway 43, the road Matthew used to drive to pick up Nicole for dates. In a few months, the road was renamed after him, from the McDonald's all the way to the Tennessee line. By the time they arrived at the security gate, the sun had begun to inch up. Tommy was so shook up he couldn't work the code, so they called Nicole's father, Dewayne.
The ringing phone woke Nicole. "Is that Matt?" she wondered. She fell back asleep. It rang again. And again. She heard her dad answer. She got up, slid on her jeans, then slipped back into bed and waited. For a few more minutes, everything was the way it had always been.
When Tommy heard Dewayne's voice, he said, simply, "Matthew has been killed."
There was silence. Finally, Dewayne spoke: "I'll be right there."
He met Tommy at the gate and led everyone back to the house. Then he opened the door to his little girl's bedroom. He was shaking. He told her to come downstairs. When she walked across the balcony, overlooking the living room, she saw the two Marines and the Navy chaplain. "It was like my last mile," she says, "like I was about to be executed."
Everything was a rush of condolences, and Tommy crying and hugging her, and Debbie crying and hugging her, and signing forms and military words like "lost appendage." The Marines finally left. Tommy and Debbie left, totally crushed. Nicole's mom told her she needed to shower. People would be over soon.
Nicole, almost nine months pregnant, turned on the water, slumped down on the floor of the shower and cried, her heart breaking for Matthew, for herself, and for her unborn child -- their unborn child -- who'd always be the little girl whose daddy got killed in Iraq.
Nicole tells Catherine about the Friday evening when Cpl. Matthew D. Conley came home for the last time. He was due in on a commercial flight to the Huntsville airport, about an hour and 15 minutes from Greenhill. That's how the bodies of dead Marines are returned to their families -- alongside the luggage of unsuspecting travelers.
Someone donated limousines for the family. The sheriff met them at the funeral home. He led them on the long drive across the state of Alabama, lights flashing. Something amazing happened along the way. At every county line, other sheriff's deputies waited in their cars, ready to escort the Conleys, blue lights on, all traffic stopped. Nothing was interfering with their awful journey that night, from Lauderdale County to Lawrence County, then on to Limestone and, finally, Madison. All along the way, people lined the roadside, waving American flags. When the sun went down, they shined flashlights on the stars and stripes, so that the only things the Conleys saw blazing across northern Alabama were small circles of light with flags inside.
When they reached I-65, Alabama state troopers blocked off the interstate, clearing the way. Marines loaded the casket into the hearse and then the procession turned around.
It was time for Matthew to come home to Greenhill.
Nicole tells Catherine about the funeral, 16 miles of cars stretched from the Rogers High gym, the same one where Matthew once hit that dude for messing with his friend, to the cemetery. Small American flags lined the median, thousands of them, and people stood and saluted as the caravan inched toward town. At graveside, the Marines honored Matthew Conley with a 21-gun salute. A young man played taps. Doves were released and climbed skyward, circling once over the cemetery, then disappearing from sight.
A HOLE IN THE UNIVERSE
Nicole tells Catherine about the box that got returned. Just before Matthew died, Debbie shipped him a care package, filled with basics such as underwear and socks, snacks he liked and a pillow his younger sister Allison made him.
The box arrived in Iraq after Matthew died. There was no one to deliver it to, so not long after the funeral, the box made the long journey back from Iraq, ending up in a U.S. Postal Service warehouse, then Alabama, then the truck of the mailman who delivered to County Road 33. The postman knew what it was the moment he saw it. When Debbie wasn't home, he didn't leave the box on her doorstep for her to find. That seemed too cold. Instead he drove it to Granny's house, so the awful reminder could be handed over by a loved one. On it, he attached a note: "I'm sorry."
Nicole tells Catherine about the things returned to her, too. Some of them were just small reminders of a man who no longer existed: underwear with his name stamped on the back, T-shirts, Lynyrd Skynyrd CDs. But there were other things.
A book called "The Expectant Father." (Boring as all get out, he told his soldier buddies, but it would help him be a good daddy.)
An application for the Florence Police Department and an application, filled out, for the University of North Alabama. Matthew had been planning their future.
About 65 pictures, which she had to count and sign for. First, she's skinny. Then big. Then bigger. Then there's an ultrasound of their baby.
Then the Marine who'd brought Matthew's belongings to her said, "One journal."
"I'm like, 'He kept a journal?'" she says. "You open it up and start reading. It says, 'We got in a firefight today.' He told me he never shot his gun."
Nicole tells Catherine about Nov. 6, 2005, when her daddy wrote in his journal, "Talked to Nicole yesterday. She said she felt the baby kick and man that just made me so excited, but at the same time, kind of sad. I was excited because, crap, it's awesome to know that the baby is in there kicking around and moving a bit. Sad because I wish I were there to feel it and enjoy it with her. This whole being gone during her pregnancy, or 'prego' as she calls it, bothers me so bad. I feel like I have let her down. I just hope she doesn't feel that way."
And 22 days later. It was Monday in Iraq, but it was Sunday night back in Greenhill:
"I did learn on the 17th of Nov that we were going to be having a little girl so that was awesome. It is really cool to actually know what we are going to have. It honestly helps me a lot, because if I get killed over here at least I know that I left a piece of me with Nicole and hopefully that will help her out."
Nicole tells Catherine about Daddy's unit coming home. Tommy and Debbie flew out to Twentynine Palms, Calif., to greet the troops. That morning, everything felt wrong. We shouldn't have come here, I don't think I can do this, Debbie thought. The buses pulled up, and hundreds of soldiers began searching for their families. All around, people hugged their sons and daughters, their husbands and wives. Debbie couldn't help herself. Why? Why did they get their son back and we didn't? It seemed so unfair. Then she saw the boys from the pictures. Matthew's unit. The weary Marines surrounded Tommy and Debbie, and recited the prayer Matthew had prayed before every mission.
Nicole tells Catherine about the hole left in Greenhill. People didn't know what to do. Tommy and Debbie look a decade older, at least. Tommy doesn't like to go on the front porch alone. Debbie doesn't like to go to yard sales on the weekend anymore.
"Tommy and Debbie have aged exponentially," Nicole says. "Fifteen years in the past two years. To see Tommy two years ago and to see him now ... Tommy, especially, I don't think he's doing that good. Everything's always focused on me and Debbie. Nobody's the same. Nobody's really the same."
Once, Thigpen says, Tommy approached him and let down his guard. "I'm trying to be strong," Tommy said, "but I need help."
Friends struggled, too. For six months after the funeral, Michael Noe, Matthew's first cousin and one of his best friends, spent eight or so hours a day at the cemetery. He'd sleep out there, waking up in the freezing cold. Once, Tommy found Michael there in his car and knocked on the window. People worried about him, but he didn't care. He talked to Matthew as if he was still alive, asking what he should do, how he should look after Catherine. He wrote Matthew a letter, leaving it by the grave. "I regret every day I missed your last call," he wrote. "I'm writing this because I never even wrote my best friend while you were in Iraq and I'm sorry. I hate myself for that."
About half a year after Matthew was buried, while he was sitting at the grave on an overcast day, a beam of sunlight hit Michael. It startled him, and he took a picture with his phone. An old lady approached. He'd seen her there before. She spoke sweetly, like she knew him. "Honey," she said, "I've noticed you every time I'm here."
He told her the story. She told him hers, about losing three family members, all in about seven months. "You being here every day doesn't make it easier," she said.
After that, he didn't need to go as much.
He wonders if she was an angel.
Nicole tells Catherine about the last night of this past February, right in the middle of all these awful anniversaries, when Tommy and Debbie stopped at the cemetery after Friday night dinner. They wound their car -- Matthew's old Jeep -- up toward the top of the hill.
Their feet squished on the grass; it had just rained. Tommy talked about all the projects he has been organizing to honor Matthew out here: flags and granite walls and a tree they planted, upon which hangs a photo of Matthew and Nicole. Their faces have already faded from the rain and wind.
They arrived at their son's headstone, covered in notes, and a glowing angel, and other little reminders. Tommy looked down and swallowed. "Tuesday was his birthday," he said.
Debbie cleaned up a little, as Tommy stared at his son's name. "That right there is one of the hardest things a parent can ever do," he said. "Come down here and see his kid's name on a marker."
Finally, they turned to leave and make the drive back to Greenhill. "He was a hero," Tommy said.
Debbie didn't say anything. Mamas don't care much about things like that. She walked toward the car, turning around every few steps to look at her son.
Nicole tells Catherine how the pain doesn't go away. Lela Mae Curbow, known to everyone as Granny, stood at the stove, keeping an eye on the biscuits. Pawpaw made the gravy, like he has done for years. The biggest, crispiest pile of bacon you've ever seen sat on a plate. And in the small living room off the kitchen, the family joked and laughed: Tommy, Debbie, their youngest daughter Allison, Debbie's brother Ricky, with Granny giving Pawpaw what for. "He wears the pants," she said, "but I tell him when to put 'em on."
Everyone cracked up. Then, a few minutes later, out of nowhere, Granny began to cry. The bacon did it. "It took me a while to get past fixing breakfast because of him," she said. "It still bothers me. He'd always sit right over there. And he could eat a pound of bacon."
Everyone was silent. Tears rolled down Granny's face. Out in the hall, a candle burned. They light it every time they're all together, so his spirit will be with them. It's halfway gone.
Nicole tells Catherine about Tommy. He sits on the couch, holding Matthew's combat uniform. He lays the tunic across his lap, like he's holding a baby, smoothing out the wrinkles. He rubs his index finger slowly across the name above the pocket. The house is covered in pictures of Matthew, and prayers, and American flags. Tommy doesn't take his eyes off the camo.
"I was looking forward to Matthew coming home and telling me stories," he says.
Someday, Nicole will tell Catherine about Michael Noe, who's trying to become a professional golfer now. Whenever Matthew needed to talk about what was really going on in the desert, he'd call Michael. When one of Matthew's best friends got killed and it shook him up, he kept the details from his parents and asked Nicole if he could tell her about his feelings when he got home. He called Michael, too, and left a message. He was crying.
Michael still has one message saved. Matthew's voice sounds tired, hollow.
"Hey, man," he says. "It's your little cousin. I hope you're doing good. Sorry. Maybe I'll talk to you later. I love you."
"That was a week to the day before he got killed," Michael says.
A SMALL CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM
Nicole tells Catherine how much she means to everyone. Tommy and Debbie adore Catherine, for many reasons. And they've been scared. Scared that with their biggest link to Nicole gone, time will pull the family apart. Tommy worries about this a lot. He wants Catherine always to be a part of the family.
"That's all I ask," he says. "Don't let the grandparents be pushed away. That's our link to Matthew. She don't have to let us see that baby. For a while, she didn't. I don't want Catherine to ever forget that Debbie and I are her grandparents. I want to have a chance one day to tell Catherine what a great daddy she had."
Nicole stopped taking Catherine out there for a while, when just the sight of Matthew's old home was a lot to take. But things seem better now
"I don't want to do anything to upset them," she says. "I certainly don't, do not, want them to not see Catherine, because that was a huge, huge part of who her dad was. They raised him for 18 years."
Nicole tells her little girl about the good days. They still exist, and most of them involve Catherine. Raising a child makes Nicole look forward. Instead of static reminders Matthew died, Catherine is a reminder Matthew lived. Like today, when they went to the park, and Catherine played with all the dogs and, afterward, the entire family hung out overlooking an offshoot of the Tennessee River. "Slowly," Nicole says, "these periods of laughter get longer."
Tommy and Debbie were there. So was Michael, and a bunch of other relatives. Catherine waddled out, carrying her Dora backpack, commanding all the attention. She looked like Matthew, and when she smiled, Michael saw his old friend living on.
Debbie noticed something different right away. "Hey, Catherine," she says, "you got your pigtails?"
Nicole grinned. "They're kind of crooked," she said, "but it's hard chasing her from behind with the ponytail holders."
Everyone crowded around the little girl. Tommy stared in wonder. Catherine picked up and threw a ball, talked with everyone. Then she saw something that interested her. She bounded off in that direction, a little wobbly. Every eye followed her. So many hopes, so many dreams.
"Come on, Mommy!" Catherine yelled. "Come on!"
Nicole tells Catherine about ... about ... about ... when something doesn't come, panic sets in. What if she forgets things about Matthew, things only she knew? It would be like him dying all over again. But the mind does lose things.
"What you should be able to remember, you can't," she says. "It so quickly happens. It's unreal. I'll be laying in bed and think, 'I forgot he had a mole right there.' Random stuff. I forget stories to tell Catherine. I'll be trying to tell her something and just draw a blank. I had a really bad time one night coming up with something to tell her. The more I got frustrated, the more I couldn't remember.
"All I could say was, 'Your Daddy loved you.' What else could you say?"
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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