As I watched my mom suffer from Stage IV lung cancer, it was hard to imagine how she could be so strong. But then I thought about what my younger brother did in Iraq on April 29, 2007, the last day of his life.
"He protected his men as he now protects me," Janet Manion, mother of Marine First Lt. Travis Manion, said on April 16 from her hospital bed in Doylestown.
With the five-year anniversary of my brother's death approaching, I asked my mom to talk about Travis, who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. She said he kept her from giving up.
"Knowing what my son went through in April, I know I'm not doing this alone," she said through tears. "Travis is by my side telling me every day that I can do this."
Travis, my only sibling, saved the lives of a fellow Marine and a Navy corpsman during an ambush in Fallujah before being struck by a sniper's bullet. His heroism before and during this fight earned him the Silver Star and Bronze Star with Valor.
Shortly after my brother's death, my mom established the Travis Manion Foundation, which honors our nation's fallen heroes by challenging the living. The growing organization assists our troops, veterans, military families, and the loved ones of the fallen.
Our guiding principle — "If not me, then who ..." — comes from Travis. A few days before his final deployment, my husband, Dave, joked about tripping Travis after an Eagles game so he wouldn't have to go back to Iraq. My brother knew Dave was kidding, but he responded: "If not me, then who ..."
Those words were still inspiring my mom when I asked her how she wanted to be remembered.
"I was able to be part of a team built because of the legacy my son created, which has helped so many others' lives," she said.
Those other lives include the Iraqi soldiers he served with and fought alongside. At a memorial service shortly after Travis was killed, Iraqi Col. Ali Jafar was so struck by the foreign Marine's genuine caring for Iraq that he asked to speak through an interpreter.
"We learned a lot from this warrior," Jafar said. "We will continue what he worked on."
Even through her grief and then cancer, my mom spent the last five years doing the same. "In the middle of the night, I think, dear Lord, I don't know how much more I can take," she said. "But then I am reminded of how Travis never would want me to give up."
Travis was only 26 years old when he was killed. My mom was 58 when she died Tuesday. But even as she struggled to breathe, she prayed for the thousands of families that have sacrificed so much since the 9/11 attacks.
"I never thought, 'This is not fair,'?" she said. "I think about how many have gone through worse things than me."
The last five years have not been easy for my family. But as I've had the privilege of meeting many other loved ones of fallen troops, as well as wounded warriors and their families, I share my mom's sentiments. This is much bigger than us. And the family, foundation, and military community she left behind will continue to challenge people to honor freedom's protectors by living lives worthy of their sacrifices.
I don't know if I'm doing enough. But thanks to my pillars of strength — a brave Marine and his mother, who refused to let her son's death or cancer force her into hiding — I will always keep trying.
"I don't feel fear," my mom told me. "I feel a different sense of peace."