May 25, 2013 Updated: May 27, 2013 at 12:23 pm
This week, Carson Givens turns 10.
This week, Carson comes home from a trip to Disneyland celebrating the occasion. He plans to play with his new board game - Sorry.
And he also will pay his respects to the father he never met.
Carson grew up the son of the first Fort Carson soldier killed in Iraq - a child born into a family that had less than a month to grieve his father's death before welcoming Carson into the world.
A picture of that man, Pfc. Jesse Givens, hangs in the living room of Carson's home in Fountain, clear to anyone who takes more than two steps into the house. The American flag that covered Givens' casket rests on a mantel across the room.
Reminders of Givens' life are everywhere.
None prove as evident as this child turning 10.
In those 10 years, an additional 258 Fort Carson soldiers died in Iraq, while 82 troops assigned to Fort Carson died in Afghanistan. Two more Fort Carson soldiers died May 2 in a crash in Kuwait.
But Carson, his brother and their mother, Melissa Givens, were first to face that loss.
Their journey began when two Army officers arrived at Melissa Givens' door, followed by a chaplain.
"I can still remember them standing on my porch like it was yesterday," Melissa Givens said. "Then I look at Carson, who was born 28 days after, and I'm like, 'Oh, crap, it really has been 10 years.'?"
Melissa Givens remembers turning to the chaplain on that first day.
She needed advice. She needed to know what Day Two held in store - what she could expect a week, a month or a year from that moment.
"He said, 'I don't know,'?" she recalled.
Without direction, she waited. She planned on waiting 18 months, anyway, for Jesse Givens' safe return. She just kept up the habit after the chaplain left.
Backlogged letters that Jesse Givens wrote before drowning in the Euphrates River on May 1, 2003, continued to trickle into Melissa Givens' mailbox after the funeral.
Six months later, letters still appeared.
"If you're still getting letters from the person, they're not really dead," Melissa Givens said. "That made it a little easier and harder.
"Easier when I wanted to live in denial. Harder when I was trying to face reality."
Reality took time to face. She lived in a "fog" for the first year after those officers appeared. Her identity in the community, she said, shifted from "Melissa Givens" to "the widow of Pfc. Jesse Givens."
She recalled sitting down to sign her name over and over again across stacks of Army paperwork.
At times, she spelled her name perfectly. Other times, her mind wandered - relenting only after friends noticed her writing one letter of her name 10 or 15 times.
"(A friend) would stop me and she would say, 'OK, now you need to do that again. You only have two S's in your name,'?" Melissa Givens said.
She noticed differences in her children.
Her oldest son, Dakota, harkened back to words uttered at his father's funeral: Be strong, be the man of the house. Be the caregiver now absent from that home.
He often refused to cry.
"He would sit, and he would monitor me," Melissa Givens said. "If I was sad, he'd sit and watch me . and then when it would clear, he's like, 'OK. Everything's all right.'?"
"We hit teenage years . and he got angry."
Dakota proved to be the extrovert of the family, Melissa Givens said.
Carson's the introvert.
He asks questions, always curious about that uniformed man pictured in the living room. And Melissa Givens sometimes spots hints of a jealousy for his brother, who got to know his father.
"He misses what he didn't know," she said. "I don't think he misses the person so much as he misses the idea."
The push to be a perfect parent during those turbulent years can be extreme, said Marjorie Knighton, a master clinician with AspenPointe. Left to handle the duties of both parents, widows and widowers often become too focused on the daily stress of caring for children.
The result is grief that goes ignored or neglected, she said - deepening the depression or prolonging the recovery.
"We all have to grieve," Knighton said. "That's a normal part of life. It's supposed to happen.
"Because if you carry that inside, then that creates other issues."
Melissa Givens admits setting high expectations immediately after Jesse Givens' death. Her grief was a public grief.
"Everyone was impacted by that loss because that's when reality really set in, that Fort Carson is actively engaged in this war on terror," said Terrance McWilliams, Fort Carson's command sergeant major when Jesse Givens died. "This is not a training deployment. This is war."
Melissa Givens recalled hearing stories of widows crying themselves to sleep five or six nights a week, 10 years after the death of their spouse. And she recalled vowing not to be that person.
She was wrong.
"That made the depression prolonged," she said. "That made me sad, longer."
The lingering grief can best be described as "my little black cloud," she said.
She still often feels that "cloud" approaching. And in those moments, Melissa Givens said, she settles into her room, grabs a blanket and a box of tissues.
She accepts the grief.
The anniversary of Jesse Givens' death passed quietly this year.
No special dinners. No helium-filled balloons scrawled with messages written by Carson or Dakota. No moments set aside to release those balloons, much as those children have done at least once a year for the past 10 years.
She asked her children how they wanted to mark the occasion.
They stayed inside. They broke tradition. Carson went to his karate class.
Melissa Givens kept moving forward. She's in a long-term relationship with Sprague Taveau. She's also going to Pikes Peak Community College.
In the end, they celebrated May 1 by carrying on like every other day.
"It could be progress," she said. "It could be that we're getting different.
"I think a lot of it, too, is that life is just different now."
And it's likely to keep going for the rest of their lives.
Sitting in her living room, she recalls the words of her Army casualty assistance officer - a man who at age 9 lost his father during the Vietnam War.
Yearning for relief, she asked him when the pain stopped. He offered one tidbit.
Twenty-five years after his death, that officer still waited for his father to return home.
Today, Melissa Givens knows the feeling.
"Ten years ago, I thought that was the end, I really did," she said. "I still have moments, but I'm mostly OK. And I can live with mostly OK.
"Because I know that it doesn't get better. It gets different."