Falling into The Fray. . . .

The phone rings really early on Tuesday morning.  Groggy from the sleeping pill that has become my safety net over the last few weeks, I squint to see the time on the cable box.  My eyesight has diminished in the last few years. . . the result of the ravages of a disease that I don’t even know I have yet.  Looking back now, I can’t remember if I was in my own bed or if, by that time of the deployment, I had already moved into the sleeping room with the kids.  All that happened that year makes some of the details less easily remembered while others, like the one about which I write today, are so etched in my brain that they never leave.  I visit them once or twice a day. . . and then move on with my day.

Because, for the fourth time in our marriage, my husband is living on a different continent than me, I automatically add the appropriate number of hours to what I see on the clock and think, once again, that I hate doing time travel math and maybe it is time to get an old-fashioned clock with the appropriate face and numbers.  Looking at the caller ID, it is an 800 number telling me that it is from Afghanistan.

The phone calls from B are rare. . . like me, he is a writer.  It is how I fell in love with him in the first place.  He wrote, I wrote and we planned a mythical existence in which we would be happy, joyful with amazing children who would be brilliant little hockey players who would grow up to go to West Point and Harvard.  It was a myth, but it was the blueprint we composed as we fell in love across the miles after a chance meeting on holiday.

But myths are just that:  myths.  They have the bones of the story, but where the bones end and the skin begins is always hard to discern.  Life is anything but mythical these days.

Answering the phone, I hear his voice, cracking across all of those miles.  There has been another death.  I keep a journal that details the stories of the fallen from the brigade.  I find their hometown newspapers and read the words that fill in the holes of stories that I don’t know very well.  Their coaches, teachers, pastors. . . all provide the richness of the details that tell us who they were, where they left their marks and the lives they leave behind. . .hearts that will forever be broken.

As always, he can’t tell me who it is, but I sense that this one is different.  I’ve always hated when local newspapers, FRG groups, and command teams treat the deaths of officers differently from how they treat those of  specialist or a sergeant.  They will, of course, deny it, but I’ve traveled this road far too long and I know otherwise.  To B, though, all losses are painful. . .each one closing him up more and more.  From a few different pieces of information that I can pull together, I make the inference that this lost trooper is an officer, a captain, as well as others.  See, even I do it.  Do I remember this death more clearly because it was an officer or because of all that has come before and all that came after?  I don’t have an answer, but I do have a story.

Still, I say a silent prayer for all who will be affected by this death.  And. . . .the layers and recriminations will last longer, I suspect, than the memory of what happened that day in Helmand Province.  Getting the kids out the door, thankful once again, for Tiki who has been my savior through it all.  Tiki, the woman whom I love more than any other (the exception being my beloved Tina, but more on her in a future post), who has made my life possible this past year.  Without her, I am not sure where I would be. . . .

The kids leave and I get dressed for work.  My boss, a saint in a white man’s body and crisp tie and suit, has made a schedule that meets my needs.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are long days for me, four and a half hours of teaching. . . intense talking, commanding a class of 20-somethings.  On days like this, when I know about a death, but can’t talk to anyone about it, it takes everything in my soul to go into the classroom and put on my professorial hat.  Holding my temper. . . the tears left long ago. . . .when some male, the same age of the two who have died for their country that day in a far off lonely place, asks the question “is this going to be on the test?”

I give the same answer that I always do. . . .everything is fodder for the test.  It makes me want to scream.  Really. . .is that your only issue today?  Why aren’t you over there?  Instead, I smile weakly and move back into the material. . .praying that things like how people learn to be consumers will drown out the anger in my head.

The best part about my job is the drive there and back.  Forty-five minutes of hell-bent for leather speeding (and two tickets) down a country road. . . .testing Lola’s ability to demonstrate her handling power.  The angrier I become, the faster I drive. . . .daring fate to make me change my mind.

But the speeding ends at the gate where I show my ID, proving once again that gated communities come in all shapes and sizes.  For the first time of the day, I click on the cruise control, set it to 20 mph and creep through the neighborhood for home.  Speeding on the back roads of North Carolina is one thing. . . . $500 tickets notwithstanding, you don’t want to get caught speeding on post.  The consequences are much more dire and make writing the lawyer a check to get you off of the court docket seem like a really small price to pay.

By the time I get home, the kids are in full meltdown tilt.  This is the year that I will get the chance to really know my children.  After seven or eight years. . .probably time.  Jack wants pizza. . .his new favorite and I generate the energy to make the call.  LIving on post always means that the delivery time will be longer and, besides, kids in car breaks up the routine and they don’t run around as much when they are beneath the seatbelts.

I’ve just called in the order when the doorbell rings.  WTH?

Elle answers it before I get to it and there are two of the young wives from the coffee group.  Two of my favorites. . . young, energetic, in love with their husbands. . .their friendship has made this year so much easier.  One’s yin to the other’s yang, they are inseparable, reminding me of the last time we were all together for a hail and farewell the previous summer, before the departures began.  The hail and farewell was at Yang’s house and we all dressed like it was the 80s.  I can’t remember if B and I dressed up, but I do remember thinking that the 80s were to them what the 50s had been to me. . .while my friends and I had worn poodle skirts with high pony tails, these girls wore pink and green LaCoste golf shirts, madras shorts and big, teased hair.

There are alot of thing that I remember about that night in July . . . .but, and maybe it is because it sounded so innocent or because of what happened later, I don’t know.  But I remember Yin looking at Yang’s husband, a monolithic presence compared to his much smaller wife, and promising that she would take care of Yang during the deployment. . . . . . months later, it would come back to my mind and plot itself down in the creases of the brain where the pain is stored.

I don’t remember setting up this get-together, but I fake it and I wonder if my exhaustion shows.  They are young and happy. . .I am old and tired.  Maybe they are what I needed this evening. . . .a little laughter, a reminder of the joyful part of this year.  I tell them that we have ordered pizza and that we need to go pick it up. . .are they game?

They’ve come to expect big girl drinks from visits to my house, so I employ one of my old tricks. . . .big girl drinks in polish pottery coffee mugs.  Hey—it worked before. . . .why not now.  I’m pushing the envelope, but I’m too tired to care.  We pile into Lola and head to the local Pizza Hut.

One of the things that I miss about Fayetteville is the drive-through Pizza Hut pick-up.  Life with an autistic child who is a well-known runner (vernacular for those kids who sense no danger in running into traffic) requires you to rewrite the rules on everything from how you lock your house to where you buy your take-out.  Only tonight, the location that I have picked out for pizza doesn’t have an operating drive-through, so I am forced to go into the restaurant.

Maybe things will work out after all. . . . I hate to take the kids into the restaurant and having Yin and Yang in the car make it so much easier to leave them.  I admonish Thing One and Thing Two (alternate identities of J and E) to behave and I rush in to pick up the pizza.

But, karma always intervenes.  She can’t help herself.  I find that the order has been screwed up and I have to wait.  Saying silent prayers, I thank God for bringing Yin and Yang to the house that night.  I have to wait a bit longer before I can grab the pizza and head out of there.

What seems like an eternity but, in reality, is probably only five or six extra minutes, comes to an end and I am back in the car before I know it.  Things seem calm. . . .looks like my plan worked.

Before I even get Lola back on the highway, though, Yin and Yang have spilled the beans.  Apparently, while I was patiently waiting in the store, thankful for such peace, Thing One had escaped from the car.  Running around the parking lot in the night air, Yin and Yang, both childless at this point, get out of the car and begin to chase.

Note to self:  warn all others that chasing the runner is what he wants. . . . chase him and he will run. . .further, faster, laughing these deep belly laughs the entire time while you get tired, winded and start to swear.

Safely back in the car, Yin and Yang tell me the story and we all laugh together.  I remind them that this is what “having it all” looks like.  We reach the house, refill the big girl drinks and, since I am home to stay, I join them over big slices of pizza.

We catch up and talk about how things are going.  They tell me what they hear from their husbands, I take caution to limit what I tell them about B and me.  No one needs to know what we are dealing with. . . the stress of command, the number of deaths, the marriages that are breaking all around us.  At one point, Yin tells me that she talked to her husband that morning.  Like many couples, they have a code they use when they need to share their feelings, but that doesn’t violate the rules of contact.  Their code for “death” is that “bad things happened” today.

Lots of husbands make those calls when the commo blackouts are finally lifted.  They can’t tell their spouses what they know, what they’ve seen, where they’ve been, but their voice on the other end of the line lets their loved ones know that, at least this time, it wasn’t them.  I’ve had more of these phone calls than I care to remember, but am left to retain.

I look down at my pizza.  They need me to say something, but I have to be careful.  There are so many reasons.  Because the brigade is so big, it doesn’t even occur to me that they might even know who died. Most importantly, though, one of the dead on this morning was a company commander. . . .Yang’s husband is one, too, and I don’t want her to even entertain the thought that company commanders can get killed.  Besides, what are the chances of losing two company commanders in one deployment.  It is simply unnecessary to upset her.  I leave the topic on the table and move on to other thoughts.

What I remember from that night, besides the details revealed above, was the sense of happiness they held. . .the anticipation of an upcoming R&R. . . the talk of children to be conceived. . . .vacations to take. . . futures to live.

Twenty-four hours later, I am headed out the door to teach a night class.  The phone rings. . .it’s Yang.  Her voice is cold, formal, angry.  You didn’t tell me who it was last night, she accuses me.  I hold my breath.  Looking at the same clock that had awakened me the morning before, I feel my body tense and hope there is no state trooper on 210 that evening, because I am going to have to set some new speed records if this conversation lasts much longer.

All I can tell her is that I couldn’t tell her the night before.  I hadn’t wanted her to worry.  It turns out that the fallen commander is a close friend, familiar, part of her extended circle of friends.  My silence causes her to calm down and change her tone.  I say again that I just couldn’t tell her.  I don’t ask for forgiveness. . . . there were no other choices and I did what I knew was the right thing to do.  Softening, she tells me that she and her friends have “got this.”  They are going to weave their circle more tightly and take care of all of those feelings that will need to be met.  I walk out the door and run to the classroom. . . where I can think about something else.  Two years ago and I still hear her voice.

Two years ago, today, my phone didn’t ring that morning.  This time, I check my email. . . .something I did nearly every 30 minutes for twelve months. . . for the fourth time in seven years.  There is an email from B.  Reading through it as I pack my briefcase, it begins in a far too normal fashion.  I read it through once and then again.  He tells me that he has just left the tarmac where he held the hand of another fallen trooper.  I close my eyes and make myself go there.  Like everything else he has ever written me, it is beautifully written, rich in detail.

Today, my driving music is from The Fray. . . .”How to Save a Life”. . . . .the words reminding me of how I felt that day. . .that day when I will have to get in my car and make the 45 minute trip and put on my professor’s hat.  There will be someone who will, inevitably, ask if that day’s lecture material will be on the test.  I’ll answer back. . . kindly. . . .patiently.

But, before I go, I call Fred.  He answers and we don’t talk for the first few seconds.  On this day, two years ago, when I felt I could still trust him, when I thought he understood what this world was really like, I turned to him.  He knows it is me, but he waits.  He waits to see how much I know before he answers any of my questions.  But, instead of talking, I cry.  Sitting on my front porch that February day, Groundhog Day, at Fort Bragg, I cry.  For so many reasons, I cry.

The email tells me that the dead trooper is another company commander.  It is Yang’s husband.  The woman who told me two weeks before that she and her friend “had this covered” is going to need someone to cover her.  The fact that B emailed me instead of calling tells me how devastated he is.  I cry to Fred and, before he revealed that he could not be trusted, he cried with me over the phone.

We hang up and I get into my car.  I start it up and move slowly through the neighborhood, navigating the various speed bumps . . . ..I turn on the CD player. . . . I listen to The Fray. . . .the piano notes of the beginning of the song fill the car. . . .”sit down we need to talk.. . . .”

Forty-five minutes later, I walk into the classroom.  I pull up the power point slides and I put on my smile and talk about how to get a consumer to change his behavior.

I’ve got this one.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. SJS
    Feb 05, 2012 @ 15:13:57

    Gut wrenching … and insightful. Thank you for sharing.


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