There were days after her son's death in Iraq that Patricia Desens spent hours crying in his bedroom, days when she refused to believe he would never again breeze through the back door asking about dinner.
More than four years later, Spc. Daniel A. Desens Jr.'s bedroom hasn't changed. His mother still glances toward the back door, hopeful.
"He isn't coming back," she said recently.
Her grief doesn't ebb, but as time goes on, it flows. It has changed Desens' perspective, reordered her life, spurred her to reach out to others in pain.
A year ago, The News & Observer described how Desens worked to stay connected with her son. She routinely called Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens, the platoon sergeant who tried to save her son's life, unaware of the private pain he suffered as well.
Desens and her husband, Dan, have continued their relationship with their son's friends. This past June, they held another mass motorcycle ride in his memory, to a National Guard memorial in Wilmington that bears their son's name.
She keeps in touch with Stephens. She knows he's preparing for out-of-state training and then a return to Iraq.
"He sounds good about getting ready to go over," she said. "I don't hear any fear in his voice."
Desens is encouraged by the return of the 30th Heavy Combat Brigade to Iraq. The men want to go over, do their mission and come back to their families, she said.
"I feel like everyone will come back this time," Desens said. "They have the best angel in the world looking over them."
Many of the soldiers may miss next June's bike ride memorializing the battle in Baqubah that killed her son, whom she called Danny, and Capt. Christopher Cash of Winterville. Danny was 20.
When her child's casket was shipped from Iraq to a funeral home in Jacksonville in June 2004, Patricia Desens stood next to it and pressed her hands along the battered body, feeling the wounds through his uniform.
She never imagined emerging from such pain.
But in the past year, Desens has increased her volunteerism with grieving families. She is vice president of the local chapter of Gold Star mothers, a group of women whose sons were killed in war. She and Dan joined the local Purple Heart Association. She has reached out to Veterans Affairs, and now a counselor comes to town once a month to speak with grieving family members.
She reached out to the Army National Guard, and they reached back. Guard officials now call her regularly, just to check up.
"They say, 'Hello, Mrs. Desens. How are you?' " she said. "And I say, 'I'm fine.' "
There was a time when she felt ignored by the Guard, but no longer. The organization seems better at helping grieving families, she said. This month, she spent a weekend retreat at Wrightsville Beach with other Gold Star families from the National Guard.
"I think it took them awhile, but they've learned it very, very well," she said of the Guard.
Last spring, the N.C. National Guard hired a full-time casualty assistance officer, and the state has worked harder to develop relationships with families of troops killed in action, Guard spokesman Maj. Matt Handley said.
"Once you have a casualty, that connection is there forever," Handley said.
Now come the holidays, among the hardest times of the year. Desens has already bought Danny's gift, a toy M&M car, to add to the collection in his bedroom.
On a recent morning, Desens ate breakfast and put on makeup to head out the door. She was going to the home of a Marine mom who was grieving for her own son.
"She had a tough time last night," Desens said. "And I don't want her to have a tough day."
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