It’s going to start like any other day.
She’ll remember waking up in the early morning as his key turned in the lock at sunrise, finally able to sleep an hour knowing that he’s home safely. The sounds of his boots on the floor walking right to the laundry room, the boot dryer turning on. Last night’s track through the mud was grueling; the soaked, muddy footprints down the hallway from the front door that she’ll find in the morning when she gets up will let her know that he is going to be bone-tired from whatever track he had been on the night before. She’ll sweep it up as she starts her morning so the kids don’t track it through the house after its dried to a series of dusty prints leading to the gun safe. She knows that he’ll be extra sore today, and will remind herself to give him an attentive rub for five minutes before he gets dressed again tonight to work the kinks out.
Just before the kids get off the bus, ‘dinner’ will be cooking along in the kitchen. Waffles and bacon at 2:00 pm? Sure. Why not? You’d want to have breakfast when waking up to start the day, wouldn’t you? They will eat together as a family when the kids get home from school. Backpacks will be thrown on the foyer floor and cold cheeks will rush in to the dinner table to sit and excitedly share the day with their parents.
He will try his best to participate in the conversation even though he’s not really awake yet. After working the graveyard shift for ten years, it’s still not easy to have a full, bustling day around him until he’s finished his first cup of coffee. As groggy as he feels, he gets on his bike anyway and takes the kids down to the pond to catch frogs before he has to get dressed and head back to work for another eleven hour shift.
She’ll remember the sounds of him getting dressed, just the same as he always does. Buttons, snaps, zippers, ties. It takes thirty minutes just to get everything put in its place and be ready to go. She’ll remember the sound of the tearing of velcro, the stretch of the bands, the ripping sounds as he lays the strap down on the chest plate of his bullet proof vest that isn’t strong enough to hold back the bullet from his own service weapon, then pulls it back to readjust so it doesn’t chafe away the skin from the soft spot under his biceps.
She’ll remember how her daughter raced to the front door after kissing daddy goodbye at the garage. How every night, without fail, she would tear down the sidewalk and scream with delight as he pulled out of the cul de sac and rolled his windows down in the road in front of the house. His flashing lights would make the little girls insides do flip flops, and they would exchange another wave, another air kiss, a “Bye daddy! Be safe daddy!” As he pulled away and blared the siren just for her. Another thirty minutes in rush hour traffic and he’ll be ready to work just as the other fathers are pulling in their driveways to enjoy basketball games and scout meetings with their children.
She’ll remember that he died on a Tuesday.
She’ll remember the knock at the door at 11 pm. She’ll remember that she was just starting the washing machine and that it contained his pj’s. She’ll see the support officer on the porch, and she’ll instantly know, but she’ll have to somehow get the door open and make it real. She’ll remember that she had just put his coffee cup in the dishwasher and started the cycle, and as the neighbor is running across the street to stay at the house with her sleeping kids, she’ll resist the urge to run screaming into the kitchen to yank open the dishwasher door to see if there is a chance that the water hadn’t washed away the last drops of coffee in the cup yet.
She’ll remember what she was wearing as she walked in a daze into the ER. They are his sweatpants that the hospital staff gave him on his last visit on that night ten years ago. That night he had hypothermia from holding the suspects head out of the water in the freezing river while the helicopter flew closer to pull them out. The night that the Sergeant had called her to say “It’s ok. He’s in the hospital being treated, but he’ll be home in a few hours. We’re sorry he wasn’t home on time tonight.”
The sweats are faded and worn with comfort. She’ll remember that they had laughed about it when he got home in the middle of the night. The baggy pants and sweatshirt they had given him to wear in the ER was two sizes too big, but she loved it every time she put them on. They were silly, but they reminded her that he was all around her.
She’ll remember that the nurses and doctors all looked at her with sadness. She’ll barely get to see the eyes of the other officers lining the hallway, for they will be full of tears. Their brief glance will convey every gut-wrenching apology that they can muster.
They are sorry. And she knows.
She’ll see him there, nude and broken, and it won’t be the strong man that she knew, but a vacant shell of what was left behind.
For the next few days, she’ll have to make decisions. Weeks later, she’ll cry when she finally pulls the sheets off the bed to put them in the washing machine. She’ll open her top drawer of her dresser and see the gallon ziplock that the kind ER doc had handed her, one hand on her shoulder and the other reaching to give her the very last pieces of her husband of twenty years. His badge, crusty with dried blood, his wallet, soaked with the same. His ankle holster for his secondary weapon that he always strapped around his ankle, just in case.
Deep in the bottom of the bag will be his necklace. That same one that she purchased for him when he was graduating from the police academy. Saint Michael. The patron saint of protectors. She fishes through the bag to reach it’s glinting metal at the bottom, and as she pulls it out, she’ll remember what she had inscribed on the back so many years ago. “May the Lord protect you as you protect others.” She’ll cry, remember how she felt when she bought it. So proud. So scared. So young.
She’ll remember the way it felt to walk away from him, laying there in the hospital, her fists pushed into her eye sockets. The Chief gently holds her with one hand on her back and another supporting her elbow. Her limp body slides into the passenger seat of his cruiser and she is empty.
She’ll remember the way the Chief’s car swayed on the drive home from the hospital. How the cruiser leaned as it hit each corner, each speed bump. The ride-alongs that she did once or twice every few years will come back to her. She’ll remember looking over at her husband, sitting in the cockpit of this crazy and complicated car with all of its computers and radios and buttons and wheels. She’ll remember how she gazed at the way the red light bounced off his badge as he turned to grin at her as they were leaving the last call. How grateful the homeless couple had been – he had just helped bag up all of their belongings with the giant black leaf bags that he kept in the trunk for just such occasions. It had been raining, hard, and the owners of the shop didn’t want them sleeping there, so he called the police. She’ll remember rolling her windows down, and listening to the way he spoke with the man and woman, as he gently tried to wake them up from their huddle on the ground…how respectful and helpful he was. How he offered to help them get where they needed to go, and how he had rummaged around in his trunk for bottles of clean water and toilet paper to magically appear.
She’ll remember the sun coming up as she sits at the kitchen table, waiting for the kids to come down and get ready for school when their alarms went off. And the way their slender tummies filled out their new winter pajamas, and how slim and finely made they were, just like their dad. And she’ll remember that they look at her, faces crumbling already, because they would see her swollen face and they will know that she is broken, too.
She will remember so many things from that night. So many emotions. Fleeting milliseconds of time that will be frozen in her mind for decades. Entire hours will fade into a place where only such searing pain can hold them, but the glimmers of memory will still be there, in the back of her mind.
She’ll remember the phone calls, the hugs, the hands to hold. The letters. The cards. The support. And she’ll remember when all of those things slowly began to fade away. The pain of what the term ‘new normal’ meant.
She’ll never forget him. The father he was. The husband he was.
And more than that, she’ll never regret the oath he took that day so many years ago. For it was this oath that kept him going. Driven. Humble. Honored to wear that badge night after night… all of those years.
She’ll pray that you remember that, too.