My memories after the notification phone call are like a strobe light. Single moments standing still, broken up by dark gaps in between. This is sort of what that looks like.
I am on the phone with the people at the 800 number. They are rude, indifferent, and have no information. “Try again at shift change,” they are saying, like I interrupted their snack time. Fuck you, too, then.
Ayse is sitting at the table. She is watching me pull a three ring binder off the desk, strip its contents, and insert dividers, business card holders. I am grabbing the hole punch to put some blank paper into the binder. It only punches two holes. What the hell? Two holes? Who the fuck only wants two holes? Oh, I grabbed it from his desk. Where’s mine? It’s on my desk. Three holes. Good. We have ‘his’ and ‘hers’ hole punchers? God, we’re nerds.
I am calling Heather. She knows something is wrong before I speak. I never call this late. “I have no more information than what I’m about to tell you. I’m not able to talk afterward. Do not react. I have work to do.” She knows me, she knows my heart, she knows before I say anything what has happened. “Ollie’s vehicle was hit by an IED. They’ve applied tourniquets to his lower extremities. I think he’s probably unconscious still. That’s all I know.” We let it hang in the air for a moment. “I’m going to need you,” I say the same way I would say, “I need you to pick up some milk.” “Okay,” she says. “Okay,” I say. We hang up.
I’m pacing the back patio. It’s a little chilly. The fresh air delightfully burns my lungs. I call my brother. “Ollie was hurt. I don’t know any details. I’m just letting you know because I might need you.” He asks if I am going to call mom and dad. I can’t. I don’t want to hear their fear, their grief. “Will you do it for me?” I ask.
Page protectors! How could I forget page protectors? Ayse’s still at the table watching. I am so glad she is here. She texts Brian sometimes to let him know how I’m doing. I don’t really know how I’m doing.
I am talking to Aunt Marlena. I am on the patio again, pacing so that the ball of my foot falls on each line of the concrete. I make patterns with my feet as I call. Right foot on the lines, left foot in between. Two steps in between. No steps in between. I weave between furniture and the grill and toys, make a game of it. “Um, Marlena? Remember our conversation two weeks ago when I asked if you could come be with the children if something happens to Ollie? I’m going to need you….” She can come now. I tell her to wait for more information. She will get ready.
Skype pings. It’s Faith. Ayse looks concerned. “I’m not telling her tonight,” I say. I have carefully avoided calling any of the other wives. They need to hear from their husbands before they hear from me. I am guessing the black out will be lifted in the morning. Unless there’s another incident. I ignore Faith for now. My heart breaks just thinking about saying a single word to her.
I call the 800 number again. I’m going to keep calling until they get some information. They still know nothing until shift change. “We only check their condition once every six hours,” she says like I’m stupid. He might be dead in 6 hours, asshole.
I am making lists. People to call, things to do. My friends will arrive tomorrow. The adrenaline won’t last that long. They will need instructions. I write them out now.
Thursday, 14 April. Children to Alana. Include address and phone number. I might not know my name tomorrow. Call Marlena with update. Go to the pharmacy and fill the godforsaken prescription. JAG–find healthcare power of attorney, and Ollie’s Living Will. I have the Last Will and Testament along with the other powers of attorney in my binder of important documents. I check through it for birth certificates, marriage certificate, social security cards and other necessary paperwork. Pack bags for me and for Ollie. Commissary to stock up for Marlena. Call the MFLC, call the therapist. Pay all bills and set them to auto-pay. Catch up all the laundry.
I am talking to my son’s father while I play my patio pacing game. His voice, usually hard and a little cruel, is soft. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” he says. “Keep me informed.” I ask him to let me tell my son tomorrow, but I wanted him to be aware first. He agrees. I’m shaking when I hang up the phone.
Faith is trying to initiate a Skype video call. I deny the call but can’t ignore her any longer. I send her a few chats, asking about her day, making lame jokes. She can’t know anything is wrong. Not tonight. Not until she hears from Mike.
I am talking to my mother-in-law. Her voice is strained. We are being strong for each other. I tell her I will call when I have more information. Brian called her after he called me earlier. We have nothing to say.
On the patio, I keep catching his kayak in my peripheral vision. It’s laying there upside down on saw horses next to the shed. Just enough light from my bedroom window makes it visible. It punches me in the gut every time I see it. Will he ever use it again? It’s his lifeline. Two steps per square. Ball of right foot on the line. Turn the corner.
I’m talking with Shane, the rear detachment commander from the previous deployment. He has good information and a calming voice. He promises to make phone calls to find out as much as he can. Tracy’s husband is downrange and he can look in on Ollie. She calls a few minutes later, crying. She was my beloved FRG Advisor from the first deployment. We’ve gone through so much together already. She will tell her husband as soon as he is in touch with her.
The notebook is made. The phone calls are done. Ayse is still at my table. We’re making small talk. She made some of my lists for me. It is long after midnight.
The phone rings.
For some reason I’m sitting in the floor in the tiny space between the table and his desk.
I answer the phone. My face is hot.
“Uh…..Mrs. Hughes? I am from the….uh….. casualty assistance line? I am…. uh….calling to inform you about…. SSG Hughes’s injuries?”
My heart is racing, I am shaking, I can barely speak. This man on the phone is the slowest talker I’ve ever heard. He doesn’t enunciate. I want to throttle him.
“I’m…uh….going to….uh…read you the medical….uh…..report?” he says everything like a question.
“Yes, please,” I whisper. Ayse is sitting beside me on the floor. I have a pen and paper ready.
“Your husband has…..a…..laceration? On his chin? And…uh…it has been sutured.”
“His…uh…neck is…uh…stabilized…. and he is sedated….and intub…intubated.”
Another excruciating pause.
“And….uh….he has a…. ing….inguin….I think it is inguinal hemia?”
“Can you spell that please?”
It doesn’t look right as I write it on the paper.
“His left leg is traumatically amputated below the knee,” he speeds through that part. “And his right leg…..is….uh…. well….I don’t really….I’m not sure what….I don’t know what this word is…it says…uh…ex…. ex….fix…. I can’t really….uh….read this? It says…. uh….”
After minutes of listening to him stumble over this report, I finally spit out, “Does he have a right leg or not?”
Suddenly I am floating above us, watching as Ayse tries to control her reaction to what I’ve written on the page, watching as the person who looks like me just uttered a phrase that was kind of hilarious but kind of just broke my brain in half. Is this really my life?
“Yes, yes, ma’am, he still has a right leg,” the asshole on the phone says triumphantly.
I am back to myself, my words are sharp now. “Is that the end of the medical report?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says. “I will call your husband’s mother now.”
“You will do no such thing.” She will not have to listen to this moron give her this information. We hang up. I don’t look at Ayse.
I have one task left.
“Hi. I just got the medical report. I’m going to read it to you and then I’m going to hang up, okay? We will talk tomorrow.” Neither of us wants to feel the impact of this on the phone. She agrees.
I’m back up above myself as I read words that sound like someone else’s story. “Ollie is sedated and intubated. He has some sort of neck stabilizer on. His left leg is amputated below the knee. His right leg is very injured but he still has it. He has a few other minor injuries. I’m going to go now.”
“Thank you,” she says.
I hang up the phone.
I am crashing, crashing back down into my body. Feeling has returned. I am sobbing, curled into a ball on the floor, Ayse is stroking my hair, rubbing my back. My world, my entire world has turned inside out and upside down. It is swaying, coming in and out of focus. She anchors me to the floor as she bears witness to my grief. Without her I might float away into the abyss.
His leg is gone. Gone, gone, gone. Gone. Does he know? Will he learn about it when he wakes up? Will he wake up? His leg is gone.
I lay quietly with Ayse sitting at my head. I have spent every tear, every emotion. My body is limp. The tile feels good on my face, but it is not enough. “I need something cold,” I whisper, as the room starts to spin and go black. She comes back with frozen corn.
This is the beginning of a new life and here I am laying in the floor with a bag of frozen corn on my face.
We’re not off to a great start.
The absurdity catapults my emotions in the opposite direction. I laugh maniacally as I mop the snot and tears off my face.
I am okay now. I send Ayse home to rest. She will be back in the morning. I research “inguinal hemia” and decide the term is “inguinal hernia.” I try to figure out what “ex…fix…” means but come up dry.
I am tired. I fall asleep thinking about the last time we were in this bed together. The last time our legs were tangled up, our feet touching under the sheets.
I sleep soundly for the first time in months. There is not much left to fear.