Va. mother who lost her son in Afghanistan publishes artwork as tribute
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: October 17, 2015
HAMPTON, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Jeanne Weaver closed her art studio and stopped painting after her son was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 9, 2010.
She returned to her passion in January 2011 with a singular focus: to capture moments in the short but memorable life of Army 1st Lt. Todd Weaver, a noted graduate of Bruton High School and the College of William and Mary.
The attacks on 9/11 prompted him to join the military, and his death reverberated through his family and the college community. Three days before his death, he watched online as his daughter took her first steps. At 26 years old, he left behind a wife and infant daughter.
Jeanne's return to studio and subsequent work has been published in book form. "Losing Todd: A Mother's Journey, Finding Peace in My Heart" has been published by the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary.
She hopes it will touch other families who have lost loved ones through war or other reasons. Besides her paintings, it includes essays written by Todd's friends and professors at William and Mary. Included is a piece from Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense and current college chancellor.
She said the term "healing" doesn't quite work for her, because she will never completely heal. But, she said, people can find a measure of peace.
"People need to go through the process and give themselves time," she said. "Do not be afraid of tears. Tears are cleansing. You always have a scar, but you have to walk through the process."
It wasn't easy for her. After Todd's death, the family brainstormed ways to build a legacy in his memory. They talked about a website and scholarships in his name.
"I can remember saying to the kids, 'What am I going to do?' And they said, 'Well, mom, you're going to paint.'"
Shoes to seashells
The first pieces she painted comprised a trilogy: her son's baby shoes, his athletic cleats and his Army boots. The final piece in the collection depicted a seashell that she found on the beach a few days after Todd was killed.
"It was the first time I had ventured out of the house," she said. "I picked up this shell and it caused me to think of the beauty of his life."
Todd was 26 years old when he died, but Jeanne said he had experienced so many things. Her personal email signature ends with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "It's not length, but depth of life."
At Bruton High School, Todd excelled in academics, football and baseball. He was a senior on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It became a pivotal moment in the young man's life. In a 2011 interview with the Daily Press to mark the 10-year anniversary of the attacks, Jeanne and her husband Donn recalled their son's anger and desire to make a difference — and do it quickly.
He first enrolled at James Madison University and immediately joined the National Guard. After serving a tour in Iraq, he enrolled at William and Mary and joined the ROTC, becoming a star cadet. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and found a home in the famed 101st Airborne Division.
His death occurred in the same area where hundreds of Soviet soldiers were killed and forced to withdraw in 1987. It prompted an outpouring of grief in the area and especially in the William and Mary community.
On Sept. 10, 2010, the day after he died, Todd's body was returned to American soil in a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base. The next day, the university set aside time in its Sept. 11 service to honor its distinguished graduate.
Speaking to the Daily Press in 2011, Donn Weaver said his son was clear about his life's direction.
"None of us can say for sure if he would have made the Army a career," he said. "But certainly, once he was in the Army, even as an enlisted man in the National Guard, he was determined he made the right decision."
A solemn honor
A few years ago, the Muscarelle Museum hosted an exhibition of Jeanne's art in the museum's annex at the Sadler Center. The location is a campus crossroads, and the feedback from thousands of students who saw her work "was very, very powerful," said Aaron De Groft, museum director and CEO.
He called it "a solemn honor" to finally publish it in book form, along with the essays.
"We felt it was right for the college, having lost a college family member," he said.
Jeanne will return to Williamsburg for book signings on Oct. 23 and 24, , at the William and Mary Bookstore on Merchant's Square. Both signings will take place from 6-8 p.m.
A third signing will be on Oct. 23 at the William and Mary Alumni House, in Liberty Hall, from noon to 3 p.m. The family will realize no income from the book, which sells for $30. Proceeds will go toward production costs.
Donn and Jeanne no longer live in the Grandview section of Hampton. Today they are full-time residents of Cocoa Beach, Fla., where they got married 45 years ago and where Jeanne spent the last full day with Todd and his wife and baby on Mother's Day 2010.
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