Merck's widow feels husband's presence

A strange thing happened to Tanya Merck the day after she lost her best friend.

A friend of her mother whom Merck had known all her life called to tell her about a dream she had.

"Go outside and walk toward the fence in your backyard," said the woman, who had never been to Merck's house.

Merck stepped onto her patio into a chilly October evening and walked toward the fence.

"You'll find four feathers, one for each of your children and one for Dennis," the friend told her, naming Merck's husband, who had just died in Iraq.

Merck looked down to find four feathers at her feet.

"I was just in shock," she recalled years later.

It's still a mystery to Merck how her friend knew about those feathers, but she doesn't question the messages from her deceased husband, Staff Sgt. Dennis Merck.

She keeps those feathers in a box with other feathers that have appeared at the most appropriate times. Some stand out more than others.

When her daughter rolled and totaled her car, first responders were amazed that she survived with hardly a scratch. Merck wasn't. She found a feather in the cup holder of the wreckage.

Merck collected another feather that landed on her shoe as she walked to her car after meeting with a teacher about her son's poor grades.

Another feather circled around Merck as she walked alone on her parents' property. The urgency in its swirling convinced her it was from Dennis.

"You can tell the difference," Merck said.

Call it supernatural or power of suggestion, but it doesn't surprise Merck that her husband's strong love and devotion continue after his death from an accidental weapons discharge in 2005.

That's just the way he was.

Merck was accustomed to his long absences before he died. He worked long hours as a diesel mechanic to provide for the family.

During his time in the Army, he was frequently gone for one or two weeks at a time for training missions.

"It wasn't abnormal for me," she said.

She still remembers in chilling detail the morning two soldiers in crisp uniforms arrived on her doorstep. She had fallen asleep on the couch waiting for her oldest son to return from a birthday party; she wouldn't have had heard the doorbell from her bedroom.

When she opened the door and saw the soldiers standing on the doorstep, she slammed it in their faces. They eventually convinced her to open the door and recited the known facts concerning Merck's death.

"They were so sterile," she said quietly, remembering. "But I don't begrudge them that."

Merck went upstairs and woke up Nick. The other two children were sleeping at friends' houses.

When she came back downstairs the soldiers had left the living room. Nick thought she was just having a bad dream and for a brief moment Merck believed it, too. Then the soldiers stepped back into the living room from the kitchen.

"No, son, it's not a dream," they said.

Over the days that followed, Merck quickly realized that giving into depression wasn't an option. She still had three children who needed clean clothes, meals on the table and help with homework.

"I didn't have a choice whether I wanted to move on," she said. "I had to be strong for them."

Merck was resolved not to cry in front of her children, and for the most part she succeeded.

"I had to be tough and put on a happy face," she said.

At night, with the children asleep, is when she let go. When she couldn't contain her grief during the day, Merck escaped to her bedroom. She turned on the shower to mask her sobbing.

A few days before her husband's death, Merck struck up a conversation with a Walmart employee at the photo counter. She knew the man, Troy Hinton, vaguely from a previous job at WalMart and offered him help getting a home through her new job doing mortgages.

Hinton called her several days after her husband's death to offer his condolences. He continued to call occasionally and agreed to teach her son how to ride a motorcycle. She repaid his kindness with a home-cooked meal. Their friendship deepened.

He became someone she could count on to bring her out of a funk on her lowest days.

"He was a huge rock for me," Merck said.

Their relationship blossomed into a romance. Merck was scared at first to tell her children, but they welcomed Hinton from the start.

Hinton told the children he didn't expect to replace their father but would always be available to them as a friend.

In March 2008, Merck learned there would be an addition to the family. She was getting ready for carpel tunnel surgery when doctors discovered she was pregnant. It was a shock because Merck thought she was physically incapable of becoming pregnant again. They ran several more tests, each with the same result.

"Ma'am, there's not mistake," they told her.

Jaxon was born Oct. 10, a month early and on Dennis' birthday. Merck took it as a sign from him that everything would be OK.

"Jaxon has been a huge help in making me happy with life again," Merck said. "He's really melded us as a family."

As someone familiar with grief, Merck no longer believes that time heals all wounds. But, she said, it does provide a balm.

"I think you just learn better how to deal with it," she said. "Life goes on."

Merck was always motivated to help others