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One of the things you notice when you talk with John Milton Wesley about the death of his fiancé Sarah Clark, is that on the surface, he doesn’t seem very emotional. Tears don’t well up in his eyes when he talks about her. In fact, he beams as he remembers how meticulous she was.
"Sarah prepared to go to bed the way most people prepared to go to work in the morning. I would say - you're working kind of hard aren't you?" he says.
Clark, a 65-year-old teacher from Columbia, Md., was engaged to Wesley when her plane crashed into the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001. They had been dating for seven years and friends for two decades.
But step into Wesley's living room, and you soon realize that for Wesley, love, and loss, aren’t in the throat or the eyes. They’re in the mundane details of daily life.
"I haven't painted because these were the colors that she liked - yellow and orange and blue," he says. "The pillows on the chair - she redid those. She did the curtains." On the shelf, a wine rack holds the same bottles that were there on Sept. 11, 2001. Clark’s keyboard still sits in one corner of the room.
In the months that followed her death, Wesley felt her presence and absence everywhere.
"I was going into the pantry in the kitchen and I noticed fingerprints on the wall," he says. "I’d never seen fingerprints before. I got the message: 'John, she wiped them off.'"
Wesley continued to follow the routines he and Sarah shared: coming home at 5 p.m. sharp, reading from the Bible each morning, "because to let go of her and the rituals was too much for me to bear," he says.
But other habits were more difficult to break. When Wesley traveled for work, he didn't have anyone to buy a souvenir for.
"The hardest thing about loving somebody when you’re suddenly alone, is you miss the ritual of loving somebody," he says. "One of the ways I was able to survive was to immediately ask, 'What are the things that you would like for me to do?'"
Wesley says he got his answers: be active in church, work with children, be close with family. And he has done that.
He also poured himself into music. He and Sarah met singing in a church choir, and he has composed 40 songs since 9/11. One of them, called "In My Arms Tonight," is for people who are facing their own losses.
"Say you’re a serviceman coming home and you’re only going to be here two weeks," Wesley says. "What is it that a mother, a wife could say to their loved one, and what is it that their loved one could say to them?
"I was thinking about her," he continues, speaking of Clark. "What would be her gift through me to them? And the message would be basically, 'I appreciate you.'"
In 10 years, Wesley has begun to open up to other people, including a woman named Gladys.
"After I had been spending time with Gladys for a year, I had a dream about her, about Sarah," he says. "And she was laughing and smiling and talked to me about, 'you look good.'"
Wesley says it was as if Clark was saying 'I can go now,' telling him, 'you can let me go.'
"I knew it was important to let her go," Wesley says. "Let her go to her new life … in the place that she is when she’s not here with me."