Brittany Jean Pittman married Carson Bird in August on a glorious Georgia day. A rainbow emerged after their vows, and they danced and kissed while a circle of friends sang, "I'll help you carry on."
Her husband, the man she adored, died in November.
She struggles to understand what has ended, and what never will end. He's gone, but in so many ways he remains with her - almost, but only almost, close enough to touch.
Carson was a brawny, lively man, filled with outlandish confidence. He believed he could conquer anyone, or anything. His swagger propelled him to honorable mention All-American status in 2007 as one of the top cornerbacks in Air Force's history. His swagger led him, and her, to believe they could conquer chondrosarcoma, a vicious strain of bone cancer that invaded his left hip and his lungs.
For months, he lugged around a bulging, throbbing left leg. He awoke many nights shouting in pain. Later, his leg was amputated at the torso. Still, the Birds kept believing.
But even Carson could not conquer cancer, which means Brittany lives alone in a suburb of Atlanta.
"The hardest thing is getting out of bed every day," she says, not long after rising. "People don't understand. I didn't just lose my husband. I also lost my best friend. You wake up every day and you relive this awful nightmare. You're stuck in this nightmare and you can't get out of it and have to figure out how to get out of bed without him."
She pauses to weep.
"Um, so, it takes a minute most days to get up the courage to get out of bed and face the day. If Carson could get out of bed every day with a huge tumor on one leg or with one leg, I can surely get out of bed.
"He went through so much and he fought like hell, and now I have to fight like hell."
On Friday, Brittany returns to Colorado Springs, where she spent much of her childhood, to receive the Carson Bird Award at Air Force's football banquet in recognition of her steadfast courage.
She returns to her hometown as a 29-year-old widow, who requires every ounce of that courage.
Their romance soared so quickly, and stayed there. Brittany and Carson met a bar on Academy Boulevard in late 2013. On their first date, he took her skiing at Breckenridge. After he kissed her at the bottom of the slope, she swears she saw sparks. She soon moved into his home on African Daisy Court on the northeast side of Colorado Springs.
From its birth, this was an intense romance. Carson had lost his mother and Brittany had lost her father to cancer. They were survivors who clung to each other with tender ferocity.
"Oh, gosh," Brittany says, laughing. "It was crazy. With death, you really realize the value of life. We had a different kind of love than most people. We literally lived every day like it would be our last. We never held anything back."
At night, after Carson came home from coaching at Air Force's prep school, he rested in the living room.
Brittany, in the kitchen, announced, "I love you."
Carson responded, in a shout, "I love you more!"
This reply irritated Brittany.
"No, you don't!" she shouted back, and soon they were arguing about whose love was more immense. Later, they talked for a long time in bed about how much they cherished each other.
Now, she lies in bed alone. Well, kind of alone. Most nights, she watches a video Carson made for her a few weeks before his death.
"Just lay your pretty head down," the video version of Carson says. "Try not to cry, because it's simply a matter of time before I see you again, but until then try to fall asleep and know that when you fall asleep I'll be talking to you."
When she awakes, Brittany talks back.
"I don't really feel like he's gone," she says. "If there were flies on the wall of our home, they would think that I've gone crazy. They would think that I talk to myself, but I talk to him. It sounds silly but I have long conversations with him because I can hear him in my head."
She keeps him close, always. On this morning, she wears his favorite gray T-shirt, which announces, "I Love Jesus, But I Cuss A Little." She sometimes dabs on his deodorant, Old Spice Swagger.
She's thinking, on this morning, about a night Carson grilled a dinner of asparagus and ribeyes. He prepared this meal late in his life, when he realized his meals with Brittany were numbered.
He sliced into his steak, which oozed red, and turned to Brittany.
"When your boyfriend cuts into the steak and says 'This is too rare', that's when you break up with him," Carson said. "Only a man can eat their steak like this."
Thinking back, Brittany laughs.
"He was joking, but almost in a serious way," she says. "He didn't want anybody else to have me."
She listens to friends, mostly women, who encourage her to remain open to romance and marriage.
"Oh, you're young," she's been told. "You'll find someone."
No, she says. She never will marry again.
"I don't want to sound like I'm going to be an old spinster," she says, "but nobody could ever compete with Carson, and it wouldn't be fair to the man and it wouldn't be fair to me.
"Just because Carson is gone doesn't mean I don't feel him and don't feel like I'm married. We have a love and a bond that even death can't break."
On one of his final days, Carson traveled in and out of awareness, falling silent for hours before returning to talk with his wife. Death was close. Waiting. Right there beside them.
He told Brittany he had just finished a conversation with God. He carried a serious request to His Maker. Carson wanted to bring Brittany with him to the afterlife. He told God that Brittany was his best friend, his everything.
"I told him I think you should come with me," Carson said to Brittany.
God, Carson told his wife, gently denied the request.