I noticed the piece of paper as soon as I rushed by the car.
Even from a distance, the way it was tucked into the driver's side window caught my attention.
Was it a parking ticket? I wondered as I got closer to the blue Honda Civic parked near the corner of Willow Grove and Germantown Avenues. A note from someone who'd hit the car, an angry neighbor? I was betting on an angry neighbor.
Careful not to touch it, I leaned in to see.
On the back of a Center City garage ticket, someone had scribbled in black ink:
"Saw your Gold Star license plate. From the bottom of my Army wife heart, I offer all love + solidarity. So sorry for your loss. Katey."
I waited around, hoping I might catch the reaction of the driver when he or she discovered the message left by someone who knew Gold Star plates are for those who have lost loved ones during their service. After about half an hour, I had to leave, so I left my own note, hoping that whoever owned the car would be willing to share their story.
A few days later I was sitting at a coffee shop across from Rachel Ascione, a 36-year-old clinical therapist and doctoral student at Chestnut Hill College.
Her stepbrother, Cpl. Ron Payne, was killed in combat in Afghanistan on May 7, 2004, near the village of Sahmardun Ghar, Afghanistan in a firefight with Taliban insurgents.
According to official reports, he was shot while exposing himself to enemy fire so a wounded Marine could get to safety. Payne, 23, was the first Marine to die in combat in Afghanistan.
When Ascione returned to her car, she, too, figured she'd gotten a parking ticket. The message touched her, but she also took it as a divine sign that her brother knew in death, as he so often did in life, that she was thinking of him, especially as the anniversary of his death loomed.
"I see you brother," she said aloud that day in the car.
She later posted a picture of the note on Facebook and this message:
"Oh Sweet brother. Just when I'm feeling too tired. Just when I'm ready to throw in the towel. There you are. You've done it since I was 7 years old and now almost 30 years later you're still showing up for me … Even if it's through others. My God I miss you."
Ascione and Payne, who grew up in Lakeland, Fla., were so close that people assumed they were twins. They were in second grade when their parents married and their connection continued into adulthood, even after Payne enlisted, which was not a surprise to anyone in their military family — Payne used to dress up as a Marine as a kid.
Ascione worried for him during his first deployment in Iraq. They kept in touch through letters and the occasional call, including an unexpected one when she was out partying and he teased that he could just feel she was up to no good.
When Payne returned the family was relieved. When he reenlisted, Ascione was so furious she refused to talk to him for a full day.
"Now, of course, I realize it was just fear," she said. "I was so afraid for him."
Months later, after a restless night of sleep she couldn't understand, her phone went off while she was at work. It was a news alert about two Marines in Afghanistan: one dead, the other missing in action.
She called her stepfather, Ron, who was usually good about talking her down when she worried. This time, he was silent.
An hour later, her phone rang. It was her mom, screaming.
Ascione walked outside and dropped to her knees.
"How do we know it's Ron?" she cried.
Her mother answered: "Because there are two Marines at our door."
And then came the wave of grief and anger and heartache, blurry mental snapshots of white-gloved Marines, a flag-covered casket, a meeting with President George W. Bush, where Ascione, the lone Democrat in the family, was on high alert for any signs of an election-year show. That washed away when the president turned to Ascione and said,
"And you must be the sister … "
She couldn't stop crying as he put his hand on her head, which was something her towering brother used to do.
For years, Ascione used to have a memorial sticker on the back of a previous car that prompted people to stop and say thank you. Some left notes. When she got her new car, she decided to honor her brother in more personal ways, through research and work around issues faced by military families.
She thought about joining the military herself, until her stepfather, also a Marine, said something she'll never forget:
"We've already paid our price to this country, we don't need to pay it again."
As the anniversary of Payne's death nears, she'll be thinking a lot about sacrifices.
"Grief looks different every year," she said.
Some years she's gone to the cemetery where Payne is buried with her parents. Other times, it's just her, a sister remembering the brother she misses every day, a Marine who was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Sometimes, when she feels strong enough, she watches the video of her brother speaking at a Memorial Day event at the family's church, shortly after he'd returned from Iraq, and less than a year before he died.
He'd made Ascione drive around the church a few times, he was so nervous about speaking. His words from the podium would prove to be more prophetic than anyone could ever imagine.