*These are events occurring in January of 2006.*
. . . In a split second, the fear ate me alive.
It started with a news story and well meaning phone calls. News of a helicopter crash travels fast in our community and I had seen it on the news. A few key details . . . type of aircraft, location, et cetera helps in narrowing down quickly who could be involved. I saw the news photos of one crumpled Blackhawk and quickly deduced there were no red crosses in view. And . . . breath exhaled.
That sounds incredibly cold now. Especially in light of what was coming. Now, after news of any crash, the emotions come rapid fire – but choking guilt over that initial relief is always first. If my Soldier is safe, someone else’s nightmare is just beginning. But then, loss was an alien, a distant tragedy happening to someone else. Written about, read about, insulated by distance, unknowable, dehumanized by computer screens and newsprint. I could go about living, the fear at bay. Then I got the daily voicemail from Husband and my relief was complete. I was navigating the Smoky Mountains between Knoxville and Asheville in the dusky, blue twilight that lingers long after the sun sets, comfortable for a heartbeat, grateful, even, for the moment. Then, in the waning minutes of the day, it occurred to me that just maybe-possibly-probably-wasn’t-true but-we’d-better-make-sure that my dear friend Jaime wasn’t involved in the crash. I vaguely knew, in the cobwebby corners of my chaotic brain, that she was attached to the 101st Airborne Division, the parent unit of the accident aircraft.
My family had called several times to ask if I had heard about the crash and/or heard from the Husband. Big faux pas, poor deployment etiquette, in case you don’t know. I gently chastised them about the mental panic it would induce in me if I had not, in fact, heard from him after news of a bad crash, when he usually called daily. I casually mentioned Jaime, secure in the fact that the odds were in our favor, and frankly, she just couldn’t die. She was the golden girl whom everyone loved.
Let me tell you about Jaime. She was my best friend in flight school, aside from the one I met and married. Here’s the back-story. I fly helicopters too. I met the Husband in Army flight school after I swore on a stack of Bibles that I was not going to flight school to get a man. I will happily eat crow the rest of my life. Don’t tell him that. Anyway, Husband, Jaime, and I were all in the same class and briefly lived in apartments all within 100 yards of each other. She was married and her husband was stationed in Alaska, unable to make the trek to Alabama. We quickly fell into a daily rhythm of carpooling, studying, and breaking bread together. (Unless it was Husband’s turn to cook – then it was pizza we broke). Somewhere between first flights and learning to hover and lucky check-ride gum (Juicy Fruit) and floating down Alabama rivers and feeling like I would never learn to hover, she became a sister, a woman who loved the Lord and loved me and got the one part of my life that I couldn’t articulate to the family and friends who had known me for twenty-four odd years.
And, that poor girl had to listen to Husband fall in love with me while I was desperately trying to convince him (and her) that I was completely unavailable. There are five people who truly got to see the beginning of our life together unfold . . . that knew us as us, rather than loving one and knowing the other by default. She was the first. And she knew us best. And stood up with us on our wedding day when we became the official us. And, most importantly, took Husband clothes shopping so I wouldn’t have to, saving us some unfortunate but necessary conflict. She was sacrificial like that.
Fast forward to fall of 2005 and Jaime, her husband, and my Husband all left for Iraq right around the same time. Separate units, separate locations, different threats. And you know, I prayed for the trio every day. But I only worried about the boys. It simply could not be that anything bad could happen to Jaime. It was inconceivable.
But, I reassured everyone that I would email, check-in, verify her relative safety and all could breathe easy. Sunday night I sent off the email, comfortable in the knowledge that I would receive my usual breezy, encouraging, matter-of-fact reply that all was well and she was winging her way to Australia to meet up with her husband for mid-tour leave. By Wednesday morning, I had a twinge of concern, too soon to cause legitimate worry but long enough that I was going to start using secondary sources to check her well-being.
Sitting at my keyboard, in the same tiny, old-house-smelling, now ex-future nursery, fingers hovering over the search box, light streaming in the corner window, my old boxy Nokia phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize. He meant well, this more-than-an-acquaintance-but-not-a-friend, he thought I knew. In fact, his opening line, after the hellos and surprise, was, “So I guess you heard about Jaime?”
Well no. I hadn’t heard.
I just dissolved, swallowed whole in an instant. In the split second the words hovered in the air, they picked up speed, gathering the weight, the emotion, the grief, the ultimatum, the fear, and the sadness of the past three months and exploded into my soul, changing the landscape forever. It wasn’t just about Jaime.
I called my family, gasping, pouring out the news. I called friends, inadvertently doing to them what had been done to me. I scoured the internet between choking sobs, desperate to find a reason, a purpose, any seemingly insignificant detail of the crash that would change the story, make it untrue.
That night, I lay in my bed, board stiff, alone in the tiny white house, dust mites hovering over twisted walls and warped wooden floors, air so thin, again, panicking. I had a soul-sucking, irrational fear that I was not safe in my bed, in my house. Someone, anyone, was coming for me. If something could happen to Jaime, the firstborn, the golden girl, the homecoming queen, the Washington State Rodeo Queen (she would be so mad at me for mentioning that), the best of us . . . something could happen to me. It was paralyzing.
I reached for my gun, convinced if I kept it under my pillow, I could keep the tidal wave of fear from drowning me. Keep the danger at bay. But that wasn’t enough. I had my hand resting on the cold steel, willing my heartbeat to slow, and it wasn’t enough. I hunched over the gun case in the light of a small bedside lamp, dark closing in. I loaded the magazine, slammed it home. I racked the slide back, chambered a round. The noise was ringing in the small bedroom, authoritative. Safe. Then, a lifetime of gun safety drummed into my brain penetrated the haze of fear. It was categorically unsafe to sleep with a fully loaded, semi-automatic pistol under my pillow, especially with a cat who slept on my head. I racked the slide back, emptied out the bullet, set it down. Looked at it. I was unconvinced. Picked it back up, reloaded the pistol. Set it down, looked at it. Breathed slow. Emptied out the bullet . . . (kept the magazine in, couldn’t let that one go) . . . and slid it under my pillow. I crawled back into bed, still stiff legged, still heart racing. Didn’t sleep much that night. Didn’t sleep well for many nights after that.
I moved through the next days like a person underwater. I was fearful. So fearful. I felt like our lives were the same and my fear was more about me becoming her in every way, including her early death. Then, it overflowed into worry about the Husband. Specifically, his safety doing the same job in the same place that Jaime died. It poured out on our lives, saturating every thought, every step, every conversation. It was irrational but so real, so present, directing me at every turn. Taken moment by moment, the events of the previous three months had been survivable: I ran towards the Lord each time, availing myself of the grace so freely given.
But with one phone call, I was undone, those moments stacked upon each other into a weight I truly believed I could not bear . . .