Unit Christmas party in San Angelo, Texas, in 2007. From left to right: Marty, Sadia Heil, Erinne, Sheena, and Kate. Photo courtesy of the author.

Firefly Friends Guided Me out of the Darkness of Formidable Loss 

It was one of those rare moments—when your heart is filled to the brim with so much happiness that it feels as if it could burst in an instant. The explosion itself would be magnificent: golden glimmers of joy twinkling in the air you could catch like fireflies in the dark summer sky. I know this feeling. It greets me as I watch my son—with a giant, mischievous grin on his radiant brown face—hug his sister, or when I meet the glimmering eyes of my daughter as she lovingly reads to him on the living room couch before dinnertime.   

“Mama, why are you crying? Are you sad?”  

“No, honey. Sometimes my heart fills with so much joy that it makes me cry. I’m all right.” 

This moment is different, though. I look around. Everything is out of focus except for the faces of my friends glowing around me; their beautiful hearts and authentic presence remind me of who I am. Erinne, Rob, Sheena, Katy, and Marty—they ground me.   

Marty’s wedding in Virginia in 2021—the inspiration for this reflection. Left to right: Kate, Sadia Heil, Rob, Marty, Sheena, and Erinne. Photo courtesy of the author.

Marty’s wedding in Virginia in 2021—the inspiration for this reflection. Left to right: Kate, Sadia Heil, Rob, Marty, Sheena, and Erinne. Photo courtesy of the author.

I met them 15 years ago when I left home to serve in the Air Force. While checking in at my new unit, I recognized someone I attended boot camp with two summers prior.   

“Hi, I’m Sadia. Were you at field training at Ellsworth Air Force Base?” I smiled and awkwardly put out my hand. 

I hoped that maybe I could make a friend or two while in Texas for the next eight months. I had arrived on base a few days earlier, completely and utterly broken inside. My two older sisters helped me journey southwest during the arduous 24-hour drive. We set up my dorm, and they loaded my kitchen with easy-to-make meals. As I was hopelessly depressed and barely 100 pounds, Mom tasked them with ensuring I had plenty to eat. A few days later, my sisters bid me farewell at the tiny local airport down the road. For the first time in my life, I was alone.   

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By then, I masterfully masked my grief and anxiety—it made people uncomfortable. But behind my bright, almond eyes lurked the excruciating pain that comes with loss.   

“Hi, I’m Erinne.”   

She was kind. Polished, confident, and gregarious with a million-dollar smile: my first new friend in the Air Force. Over the years, we would connect over family, faith, and food: lumpia, aunties, Ramadan Iftar, pancit, broken Punjabi and Tagalog, our sisters, chicken pulao with raita, and Christmas parties. The first time Erinne visited my dorm room, she saw a picture of Ash and me together, framed on my tiny dining room table. 

“Ooooh, who is that?”   

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I met my first love when we were 16. At 21, we dreamed of traveling the world, getting stationed in Turkey, and someday getting married and starting a family together. Our dreams came to a screeching halt one crisp October evening when he died, almost instantly, in an accident. To this day, memories from the trauma are buried in my mind. What’s left is faded—the way a whiteboard looks when you wipe away the stain of marker left too long. Sometimes, a specific smell or song will take me back in time, but I rely mainly on the memories of my family and friends.   

Sadia Heil and Ash at an Air Force ROTC function in Maryland in 2005, a year before he died. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sadia Heil and Ash at an Air Force ROTC function in Maryland in 2005, a year before he died. Photo courtesy of the author.

Nine months after his death, I found myself in West Texas—torn between relief from the torment of being in my hometown and the agony of being away from family. But God had plans for me. This plan manifested itself in the form of a disheveled, unflinching, fun-loving, “hot mess” group of Air Force officers that would become my support system, my lifelong friends.   

Through Erinne, I met Rob. At first sight, he was boisterous, charming, and full of aloha. He came to my Texas dorm room intent on setting up my internet. Instead, he chatted up a storm, made some jokes, and left. All without setting up my internet. Generous and kind-hearted, Rob evolved into our fun-yet-protective brother. He’d listen intently as I wept about lost hopes and dreams. He was more offended than I when security personnel at the local airport questioned me—it wasn’t racial profiling, just “extensive screening,” they said. He tended to all of us, easing our hurt and angst with jokes, delicious chili, Hawaiian music, and mochi. Through Rob came our ohana. We were a family.  

Sheena and I met on the first day of class in Texas, and she instantly reminded me of my sisters. She was stunning and fierce, petite, direct, with sleek hair and a porcelain-like face. She called each of us “boo,” and she had an innate ability to make us feel much cooler than we actually were. Sheena was serene yet funny, and the best moments with her were always our deep, soulful one-on-one conversations. Down the road, I confided in her about my struggles at my new duty station.   

Illegitimi non carborundum. Don’t let the bastards bring you down, Sadia.” Endure with the resolve of Sheena, I’d remind myself throughout life’s challenges.    

Erinne and Sadia Heil in Baghdad in 2009. Photo courtesy of the author.

Erinne and Sadia Heil in Baghdad in 2009. Photo courtesy of the author.

Next to Sheena in class sat Katy: tall, beautiful, and quietly ambitious. Katy guarded her genuine heart, and all of us, with the fierceness of a mamma bear with her cubs. Our voice of reason, she was the one to call up with Earth-shattering news, only to be met with a wise, compassionate calm to your storm. And we had many imminent storms during those tumultuous days of our lives.    

One of those was the first anniversary of Ash’s death. I longed so badly to be back home—comforted by family, sounds of the recitation of Quranic verses, and home-cooked Pakistani salan. But I had a job to do, and that meant staying in Texas that dreadful Wednesday evening. I locked myself in my dorm and fell into the habit of playing one of my nostalgic, depressing burned CD mixes. “Whiskey Lullaby” was on repeat:  

Life is short 

I heard a knock on the door.   

but this time 

It was Katy. 

it was bigger 

And Sheena. 

than the strength she had 

And Erinne.   

to get up off her knees 

And Marty. 

They sat with me, filled my dorm room with the aroma of Japanese chicken and veggie curry with rice, cried with me, and baked Funfetti cupcakes—Ash’s favorite.   

Unit Christmas party in San Angelo, Texas, in 2007. From left to right: Marty, Sadia Heil, Erinne, Sheena, and Kate. Photo courtesy of the author.

Unit Christmas party in San Angelo, Texas, in 2007. From left to right: Marty, Sadia Heil, Erinne, Sheena, and Kate. Photo courtesy of the author.

I still love a good Funfetti cupcake: I often bake them with my children. Valentine ones with red heart sprinkles, spring ones with turquoise and purple butterfly sprinkles, Halloween ones with black bat sprinkles, and holiday Funfetti cupcakes with white snowflake sprinkles.   

This winter, my daughter and I baked our seasonal Funfetti mix and grew our very first amaryllis plant. I never knew this beauty could bloom during the cold season and continue to thrive throughout the year. In Greek, Amaryllis means “to sparkle” and represents determination, strength, and success. If Marty were a plant, she would be an amaryllis. 

She and I bonded over Thanksgiving break that year in Texas. Everyone else had gone home to see family, and Marty and I decided it would be a good idea to watch P.S. I Love You in the movie theater. It was not a good idea. As I sat there and watched a young widow explore the various stages of grief through letters from her late husband, I wallowed in my sorrow. I was ugly crying and trying not to be too obvious, but the salty boogers gliding down my lips gave me away. I glanced at Marty; she was ugly crying too. We were all in.

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That’s why, so many years later, this moment felt different. Reuniting with my friends for Marty’s wedding felt like taking a deep breath of fresh air after hiking to the top of Koko Crater right before the Hawaiian sunrise reigns over the sky: exhilarating and good for my soul. The golden glimmers of joy twinkling around me—each is a blessing who helped guide me out of the darkness. My firefly friends showed me that, amidst a paralyzing, formidable loss, my shattered heart retained the ability to love.  

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Sadia Ali Heil

Sadia Ali Heil is a major in the Air Force Reserve. A first-generation American, she takes pride in her South Asian heritage and the sacrifices her parents made to begin a new life in the United States. Heil earned her master’s in military operational art and science and a master’s in special education. She is a 2020 Tillman Scholar and a 2022 War Horse Writing Fellow.

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