Friday, May 14, 2010

a year

It's funny, the stuff that grabs you by the wrists as if to shout, "I'm talking to you!" My writing teacher Carmen said something in class a few months ago that I doubt she even remembers, but it sure settled over my psyche that night. She was talking about her mother's death and how afterward she couldn't bring herself to write, quite a conundrum for someone who writes for a living. She felt paralyzed for months. And then she realized that she couldn't write anything until she wrote about her mother.

Mike was involved in a helicopter accident a year ago May 19th. The official Navy term is "mishap," which to me is like calling a landfill a little bit dirty. I have attempted to write about it several times. The process would go something like this: Open laptop. Click "New Document." Stare at blank document. Write single sentence. Delete sentence (repeat 2-37 times). Become aware of unpleasant feelings. Close laptop. Open wine bottle. Pleasant, this is not. It makes me sick to my stomach. But it's necessary.

What I remember about that Wednesday morning is that my life turned into a garbled TV searching for its signal, an incoherent mess that would flash a split second of a clear picture. I was visiting my parents in Dallas; Mike was out on a workup in preparation for his upcoming deployment. They were just off the San Diego coast and we'd been married almost seven weeks. My mom told me to come downstairs with an uncharacteristic urgency in her voice. She said there had been an accident.

I said of course Mike's squadron wasn't involved; there were more than 5,000 sailors on his ship, what were the chances? I sputtered this aloud more as a statement than question, but she said, yes, his squadron. I still remember the headline on CNN: "Three dead, two missing after Navy helicopter crash off San Diego." Some time later -- maybe seconds, maybe minutes -- the names of Mike's carrier and squadron flashed across the ticker. The aircraft had crashed into the water around 11:30 P.M. In a cruel anomaly, we had spoken on the phone a few hours before they went down. It was the first and only time we'd ever talked while he was on a helicopter. I couldn't understand a lot because of the rotor blades but I had heard him say "takeoff" before we hung up. Navy helicopters fly two at a time. He was either on the downed helicopter or flying alongside them, knowledge I'd wish away for the next four hours.

My mom was on the phone with Mike's dad all morning. Mom announced they had decided that the scant details from the media and the fact that we'd talked when we did were "good signs." I responded by throwing up twice.

I breathed the last full breath I'd take that morning and then shut down. Not physically yet, though I'd do that too in a few minutes. Know how I would've predicted I'd be? Hysterical, inconsolable, would need to be around people, but I went silent. I prayed to God to let me slip into a coma until this was over. Kathie Lee and Hoda blared in the background and I wanted to take a bat to the TV. Perky is such an unwelcome companion when faced with the 50/50 odds that your husband might be dead. My mom said we should go on a walk, so we did. It lasted half a block. Calls and text messages poured in from our friends and families, but it was too hard to take them. Their desperate tones made this too real for me and my M.O. of avoidance. I answered only one call that morning.

I had lived at Amy's apartment in La Mesa a few months earlier when she'd gone to Massachusetts to be with her family while her husband, also a Navy pilot, was deployed. I'm sure she expected a blubbering mess and not catatonic silence, but it was OK because she did all the talking. She assured me that no news was probably good news, that the ship's email and phone systems always shut down in this type of situation, and that's probably why I hadn't heard from him. Our ten minute conversation was the eye in a storm I feared had just begun.

As morning stretched into afternoon, one thing replayed over and over. I can't do this. A "can't" more laden with conviction than anything I'd ever believed. A "can't" that drowned in helplessness and sucked the air from my lungs. I guess I'd figured hypothetically that some divine wave of strength or faux-optimism would wash over me and I'd keep my hard-ass exterior. I didn't. No hypothetical can prepare anyone for this.

The only definite was that even if Mike was on the safe aircraft, five of his squadron mates, dear friends, mentors, people we loved and drank beers with and considered family, were gone. Five families and hundreds of friends would have to go on without them. Never again would I define "relief" the same way. No winners would emerge.

I shut down my computer, turned off the news and prayed desperate prayers to God in which I bargained, begged, and pleaded for his safety. I asked God if he'd considered rewinding time back to before the crash, because he can do anything, right? Seriously. I prayed for time travel.

My phone rang again at about noon and it was Mike's dad. I knew this was it. We'd been married for so little time that he hadn't changed over the next of kin contact from his dad yet. I stared at the phone wishing I could move to a third-world jungle for the rest of my life, because at that moment, I wanted permanent ignorance more than the truth. Answering meant no turning back, no more dodging the reality that lay ahead. Pressing that stupid green button felt like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

Mike was OK. He had just emailed us both, but since I'd quarantined myself from outside  communication, I hadn't seen it. I called my family and our closest friends and managed to squeak out the news. Then I just sat. And gasped for air. For as long as I could. When my arms and wrists regained strength, I signed into email and there it was. Proof. He said he was OK and would call as soon as he could and to please not worry. And then he said, "I'm sorry we couldn't talk on the phone longer last night." He'd just seen five close friends crash into the Pacific and he was the one comforting me.

My experience is, obviously, nothing compared to the altered realities that Allison's, Eric's, Grant's, Aaron's and Sean's families woke up to that morning. We miss them and think of their families everyday. I can't believe it's been a year.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

a quick vegas outline

  • I went to Vegas:
    • for my friend Katie's bachelorette party.
    • for the first time.
    • and because our wedding season kicked off the same weekend, my trip lasted only 19 hours.
  • The two most important lessons I took away from my trip were: 
    • that 19 hours in Vegas is sufficient enough to inflict enduring emotional scars.
    • that any quasi-reasonable person should expect a pool-oriented place named "Bare" to include:
          • topless people
          • topless people who should never, ever go topless
          • sequins before noon
          • bald $100-dollar-bill spewing septuagenarians convinced that "Tawni" is giving him a lap dance because he's so interesting, and like, wise.
      • At "Bare," I:
        • lost the ability to control the volume and pitch of my voice; in essence forgot how to whisper. 
          • attempted this facial expression: "Huh? There are topless people sitting arm's length away? Pardon me, I didn't notice. I'm SO down with clothing optional. In no way shape or form am I uncomfortable right now."
          •  actually made this one: "Oh the bloody horror bursting through my corrupted soul!"
            • subtly removed violently ripped off my sunglasses so I could stare at the Tin Man pool dancer. (Postscript: The Tin "Man" was a she.)
              • sang. "Just because I'm presumin' that I could be kinda human, if I only had heart."
              • And I asked myself questions like:
                • Would Tawni's mom be surprised right now?
                • Old Man River's wifey, who definitely exists according to his left ring finger, does she too go on  gender-exclusive vacations with her friends where they cavort on rooftop pools, perhaps with Chippendales and Bunco in the background?
                • Is this what [name of close friend or relative who goes to Vegas three times a year] does here? Cool/Sick/Faint.
              •  And the whole time, I prayed for:
                • removal of the knowledge that Mike and my dad have ever been to Vegas.
                •  church
                •  the return of childlike innocence
                  • three more days in Vegas