Helpless

Excerpt from Married to the SEAL Teams: Lessons in Love

“You have the power to heal yourself, and you need to know that.  We think so often that we are helpless, but we’re not. We always have the power of our minds. Use your power.” ~Hay

I close my eyes at the exact moment the wheels of the plane leave the runway and let the tremendous roar and rush of power hold me against the seat. One long moment of intense anticipation that feels like us. I like it here, suspended and helpless.

It feels like our last Sunday morning.

From my place on the bed, I narrow my focus and let the bathroom doorway frame you like an object d’art. I watch you shave, content with my coffee and imagination; a story waiting to find its way to the journal on my lap.

I ask, “What does a person feel right before they surrender?”

You angle your head, pull the razor up one side of your cheek, rinse the blade and speak to the mirror, “Helpless.”

“Yes, but what does helpless feel like?”

“Wouldn’t know. Never been.”

I wait for you to finish your morning ritual before I slip off the bed, enter your kingdom and prove you wrong.

Research for a story I may never finish.

Over breakfast that morning we discussed in finite detail the difference between submitting to a lovely helplessness and feeling brutally helpless and while I try to recall our exact words, this memory leaps into another:

I’m hanging from the top edge of four-story scaffolding with hands slick from spattered paint; frozen with fear. You yell up at me, amused, “You climbed up there like a sexy cat. What’s the problem?” When I don’t answer and can’t catch my breath, your voice drops an octave, “Don’t look, just feel… hand grip, find your footing… that’s it…” I make it one story down before I slip and grab wildly and cry out. My heart beats so rapidly I think it’s moving the steel frame, but the vibration is you climbing up behind me, covering me, “Put your hand here, now here, I’ve got you, footing, again…” and your voice changes – striking and intense – Always consider your options, Lynn… you are never helpless.

View from a plane Right now I am strapped to a seat in a passenger jet with a hundred other souls and what remains of your beautiful body rests on my lap in a wooden box. I cannot fly the plane and I cannot bring you back. Screw my options. If I die in a plane crash, you damn well better be there to greet me and if I don’t die, I’ll continue to long for the day. Of course just thinking such a thought makes me feel badly about killing all the other passengers and my flash of anger deflates into a prayer for you and God to keep us safe.

I wonder now if you sit next to Jesus, boss saints around and discuss options.

I loved flying with you. Always in the aisle seat, you sat like you were ready to pounce. I was content to watch people and whisper their lives in your ear. “The man across the aisle at the window seat clutching his hat. There’s a photo taped inside. It’s a child. He’s rigid with fear; hates his job, hates flying, but the photo anchors him. Loves his family, though, so he’ll keep doing both…” You elbow me gently; flip through the pages of your magazine. I lean closer and whisper, “The young woman three seats up, fidgeting, in the too short dress and the well-worn heels? She’s eyeing the man on the aisle across from her. Watch… she’ll bump his shoulder with her hip when she stands; smile shyly. He’ll get up and follow her.

“Shush…” you say. But when the woman stands and pretends to lose her balance, you close your magazine and watch. And when the man follows moments later, you turn to me with exaggerated scorn and say, “You scare me…”

I know.

My intuition was our secret.

When the lights blink on and the chatter begins and the world levels out, I am disappointed beyond reason.

Living constantly requires my attendance.

I always choose a window seat now. I still see stories in people, but there’s no one to tell, so I turn my head away. Perhaps when we lose the one person our secret is safe with, the secret dies too.

“Are you okay?”

The shoulders of the man next to me are too wide to fit properly in the seat. He smells of Clive Christian, has dark thoughtful eyes, and looks remarkably like an older version of Jeff, which astounds me.

I try not to stare, but the resemblance is uncanny. I manage to answer, “Yes, thank you…” while my mind slips to a last memory of young Jeff.

His eyes crystalize with pain, his hands tremble against my forearms; his voice pleads with me, “I… goddammit, I don’t know what to do. Please…”

You lean against the hospital wall a few feet away with folded arms and tired eyes. The twenty-hour fight with Command to bring this young man back to the island from training is over; the battle won, but you still stand sentry.

I had no idea what to say or do, so I say the first words that come to me, “You love each other through this. That’s what you do.” He nodded tersely and slowly released his grip on my arms. Just before he entered the room to be with his laboring wife and their soon to be still-born infant, he turned to me and said, “God help me.”

I say, “He will.” I think, Brutally helpless.

I am still in this thought when the man leans in. I flinch. He attempts to move away, but there is only so much room.

I have this thing now about physical boundaries. I don’t like people getting too close to me. I know it’s hurtful – even to complete strangers – but I think death does this to the living. Touch is too loud and sounds are too fast and I cannot seem to find my bearings.

“You’re crying,” he says.

“Am I?” I reach up and touch my face, genuinely surprised to find moisture.

Slowly, he holds out an offering – a folded white handkerchief in the palm of his hand. I find this charming and old fashioned, but I make no attempt to take it. “Please…” he says.

I take the handkerchief and touch it to my cheeks. I know he wants to engage me in conversation; I can feel it. His energy is gentle and I could easily offer so many simple reasons for tears, but I am suspended between a memory of our last and lovely Sunday morning and a young man’s broken soul. Both are far too intimate to share, so I whisper, “Thank you…” and lower my gaze.

With both hands I grip the plain wooden box on my lap so tightly my knuckles turn Wooden box 1 BWwhite and looking at them oddly reminds me of Crystal’s delicate hands clutching the sides of the hospital gurney.

“Relax your grip, honey, you’re safe.” I whisper.

“But I’m falling off the edge of the world…” she says.

I’m staring at my own hands when I realize I’ve placed the man’s wet handkerchief against the box under my naked fingers; a barrier between you and me. I know it’s a ridiculous notion, I know it’s a box, I know these are ashes. In some closet in my mind, though, I’ve put a stranger between us and it is as real to me as your death. He watches as I brush the handkerchief quickly onto my knee. The act feels rude and unkind, but I don’t have the breath to apologize. I need to close my eyes; concentrate through the rising panic and as I do, I notice – perhaps for the first time – how excruciatingly painful it is to have a broken heart.

I’m falling off the edge of the world.

Softly, he says, “I used to be afraid of flying.”

I shake my head no, stare out the window, and grip the box so firmly my hands shake.

I’m not sure why or what I’m holding on to so tightly, but I sense it’s a last and final thread and when it breaks, I need to be ready for impact.

Going numb is a practiced skill. It began the morning after you left and I welcome it now like a new friend. I named it grief and asked it to stay around and come in full force when I need it. I’ve decided I need to stay clear of undiluted joy and sorrow, so numb is my easy. Besides, I don’t think grief is sadness. Sadness has a shelf life; grief endures.

“Precious cargo?” he asks.

“My husband,” I answer. My tone is monochrome, as though you’re waiting for me in First Class. Numb is my easy.

There is an awkward moment of silence before he says, “I’m so terribly sorry.”

I don’t know how or if I respond because my memory is jolted back to Tripler Medical Center and Crystal lying perfectly still on a sterile hospital gurney that seems too short for her tall frame. She is seven months pregnant and looks impossibly young. The infant she carries is no longer living, but the doctors must induce labor and she must give birth. To a dead child. It is an impossibly cruel ending to a precious gift.

She is on her back staring at the blemished square tiles of the ceiling and each time she blinks into the florescent light, silent tears leak down the sides of her face. Any words of comfort I have do not leave my lips. They are flat and empty against the enormity of such anguish.  She has held this devastating truth for twenty-four hours waiting for her husband to arrive and with every third breath she turns her head to find me and whispers, “I’m so terribly sorry.”

She is sorry she called on us in the middle of the night. She is sorry we’ve never met before. She is sorry she walked so far three days ago. She is sorry she cried herself to sleep. She is sorry she fought with Jeff on the phone the other night. She is sorry she cannot make friends easily with other wives. She is sorry for staying so long in the sun, wanting to work, leaving the bathroom a mess. She is sorry for crying; for being so weak and helpless.

Dear God, I pray, give me soothing words… No words come. Instead, I turn the light off, place a cool washcloth on her forehead and hold my hand against her cheek to catch her tears. It is the only comfort I can give.

There is a long while when the only sounds in the room are hospital monitors and room ventilation; lonely clicks and rushes of air that seem flippant and vulgar.

When she sighs heavily the sound echoes around the room. I hold my breath.

“Do you believe in Jesus?” she asks.

“I do.”

“Is He here?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“Holding your baby,” I say, and I am blinded by my own silent tears.

A moment later the hospital room door cracks open and a sliver of light shines over your head as you motion me out to the hallway to meet Jeff.

I still see the light when I open my eyes. The flight attendant’s voice instructing us to prepare for landing seems far away, but I let the practiced words lull me back to the present. I ask the kind man next to me for his address so I can launder and mail his handkerchief back to him.

“Keep it please,” he says, “Perhaps we’ll meet again in our travels.” He looks at me thoughtfully for a long moment, hands me a business card and adds, “I am so sorry and I hope I’m not being too forward, but if you ever need anything, call me. Please consider that an option.”

You know me so well. Of course I need to be reminded of mortality, but not too harshly and with frequent breaks for frivolous distraction. So you send vivid memories that make me believe you must be holding that child in Heaven and plant complete strangers to carry your messages.

I am never helpless.

I nod at the man and attempt a smile. I cannot speak because I have no language for what really happens between you and me now. I can only be a faithful witness.

Hug from behind 2 BWWhen the plane lands, the roar of the engines engulfs me, much like one of your hugs; from behind, as though you’ve taken a quick break from eternity while I’m standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes or sitting at my desk drowning in words. You must know I want that hug… with your lips pressed against my temple to let me know I am safe.

Kiss me now, please. Then you can get back to your Heaven.

*****

Lynnette Bukowski ©2015  August.  All rights reserved.

LZ-Grace Veterans Retreat – We Heal The Living

Knowing freedom is to free someone else.

I’ve come to know that where there is damage and pain there is also truth to be found. And when one of us somehow finds our way out of the abyss or the tunnel or the woods, we need to share our way out or through.

Everything comes with risk. But if you’ve lived through war and find your way home to Landing Zone Grace (LZ-Grace Veterans Retreat) there is not one thing you cannot overcome and achieve.

When we release what we’ve lived through and find connection with other souls, we are inspired to live on, to use our scars as road maps, to reignite a marriage, to find safety again with family and friends and to pass our strength and experience forward to all the world.

Please consider supporting LZ-Grace Veterans Retreat. Our mission is service and our immediate needs are funding and an existing site so we can begin serving our Warriors as they come home in 2014.

Find out more about me and my mission to serve our Special Forces Warriors and their families here:

NRANews.Com Veterans Day Special Interview with Cam & Company

BBS Radio Interview with Leader of the Pack Susan Herbert and Mark German. Find them at http://www.H4Hero.com

Listen Here:

Blogs of War Special Feature

http://blogsofwar.com/2013/09/12/lynnette-bukowski-landing-zone-grace-veterans-retreat-preparing-special-forces-personnel-and-their-families-for-life-after-war/

Lynnette Bukowski © 2013 All Rights Reserved.

For more information, please visit http://www.lz-grace.com or email me at lynnette@lz-grace.com

Twitter: @BukowskiLynn and @LZ_Grace

Sunrise With Grace

Delphinium_cv2We finally find her sitting in a cluster of delphiniums, eyes closed, smoking a cigarette. Wisps of her silver blue hair blend so beautifully with the flowers that the only way we know she’s in there and alive is by watching puffs of smoke spiral up through the lavender blue blooms.

The young man next to me leans forward and in a deep lyrical voice says, “The sun is nearly up and I brought apples. May I help you, Grace?”

A slight, wheezy sigh emanates with a puff of smoke, “Is that you, Shelly?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”  The man is a foot taller than my 5 foot 6 inches.  His stature is massive, but poised, as though he stands at attention, except for the apple he holds in each hand and the flush of color in his cheeks when his bearded face looks down at me and says, “Sheldon. The name is Sheldon. Will you hold these?”

I nod, take the apples from his hands and watch as he reaches into the blooms and effortlessly lifts one hundred pounds of Grace into his arms.

“I dropped my cig,” she says.

“Life’s a bitch,” he says.

She throws her head back and laughs while he carries her like a young lover down the walkway. I follow behind, apples in hand.  Gently, he places her in the middle of the bench and sits next to her. I sit on the opposite side and exchange a knowing smile with Sheldon. I’m not sure what we both know, but it feels to me in this moment as though we’ve known it for a long, long time.

We both know Grace.  She is saucy, short; 93 years old and befriends those of us who are brave enough to approach.

I was sitting on this exact bench thirty minutes earlier when the stranger, Sheldon, walked out of the dark and stood close enough for me to see he looked frightened. When he spoke his voice crumbled into panic, “I cannot find Grace. Will you help me?”    bench at beach

I had a moment with God, then.  O’dark-thirty, I am alone with no gun and no dogs and not afraid. Explain, please? It was not outside the realm of possibilities that I was seeing a man who was not there and talking to myself, but suddenly I knew exactly of whom he spoke.  Also, he had an apple in each hand. It was a woman, not a state of being he needed help finding.

While we searched, he told me that he sat with her every morning to watch the rise of dawn. He could not remember how many days or weeks or months now, but it had been awhile since he’d arrived back in CONUS. He says this as though I simply know what he’s talking about. I do, but I keep it to myself. He’s distracted, but methodical, looking under trees, behind fences, sweeping his hands through thick rhododendron bushes.  I ask, “Have you checked her house?” He stops and looks at me for a long moment, and then he shakes his head; continues the search. His voice ebbs and flows as he tells me that sometimes he stays awake all night just waiting to leave his empty house and make it here – to the bench. She is his saving Grace and he is the deliverer of treats. This morning: apples.

Grace squeals like a delighted child, “Here we go!” I am back in the present moment and cannot help but smile at her enthusiasm. Her feet do not reach the ground. She crosses one ankle over the other and swings her feet to and fro while the three of us sit and watch the sun rise and send bursts of light over the water.  She chomps down on her apple and talks with her mouth half full. “Shelly,” do you know my friend, Lynn? She’s a writer and building a place for you boys to find a little love when you’re home.”

sunrise beachSheldon leans forward on the bench to look over at me. One eyebrow is raised, but he touches the tip of his ball cap and says, “Nice to meet you, Ma’am.”

I open my mouth to respond, perhaps clarify her statement, but Grace interrupts, “Oh, don’t be so darn formal, Shelly,” She scolds, takes another bite of her apple and talks while she chews, “Shelly here – this young strapping Navy man – fancies killing himself. Damn fool if you ask me.”

I audibly catch my breath; hold it.

Sheldon leans forward, puts his face in his hands and mumbles, “Grace… I don’t think… ”

“Don’t you shush me, young man. I’ve had just about enough of this balderdash. I’m old. I hide in flowers to sneak cigs. I need to tell someone else about you …” she takes another huge bite of apple, chews for a moment and continues, “…because I’m not leaving this earth until you find your footing again. And I need help.” She takes her tiny hand and smacks it on his thigh. It sounds like a painful pop, but he does not flinch. “How many ways to kill yourself are we up to now…. ten, twelve?”

“Grace,” I begin… I hardly know what to say, but I see Sheldon lean further into his hands and I can feel his discomfort.

“And you be quiet too, young lady. Let me have my say.” She giggles, swings her legs, licks apple juice off her wrist and continues, “You never show up here without your dogs. Ever. Why today? I’ll tell you why today. I need some damn help. As if the hand of God delivered your pretty butt right to this bench. That’s right… I asked for you and not five minutes later I watched you walk by those delphiniums, head hanging, deep in thought.”

She turns from me and leans her body against Sheldon. “You are a dear young man and too full of life to give up. I don’t need you in Heaven. I’ve got plans… and they don’t include some young swashbuckler. I need some damn rest. Now… you tell Lynn right here about your panic attacks. Go ahead…”

“Grace, too hard… you’re being too flippant about something so difficult… “My words stumble out and catch on a sob. I have no idea where the tears came from or when they began. I wipe a sleeve across my face and look up to see Sheldon staring at me, tears rolling down into his beard.

The 93 year old sitting between us tosses her apple into the sand and with far more strength than I think possible, she grips my thigh with one hand and his with her other hand. “Look here, you two. There is no time left to talk about the weather and trip over words.”

Sheldon nods, resigned, and begins, “Other people imply that they know what it’s like to be like this… to be home from the hate …but not home at all, to go through a divorce…fuck me, I was barely married… ” He takes a long, deep breath, “Sorry…bout my language.”

“We’re not worried about your words. Say them all,” Grace says. She pats his leg, rubs her tiny hand on his arm. I swear she’s making clucking sounds to comfort him.  I am so taken in by his words that I cannot move. I let the tears drip down over my lips and watch as he physically rocks forward, then backward. A self-comforting move that comforts me.

“… Except maybe that other people are generally caught up in their own lives,” he continues, “They don’t see. My wife didn’t see what she did not want to see.  Gone. Left. I can’t make her stay or make her come back and I don’t think I want to. Not afraid… I’m not afraid of dying. I want back out there. I want to work. I don’t want to live, I want to go, work, do.  I’m afraid of living, not dying. Afraid of sleeping… when my heart starts to pound in my chest and my fingertips go numb and my mind starts this rapid movie and my vision blurs and there is not enough air. Never enough air and the entire space collapses into a single thought… all the thoughts swirl into a single thought and there is nothing else but that thing – as if I were seeing it through a gun barrel…”

“… and I’m tiresome. People cannot abide being around me. They think they ought to, and they try, but I know and they know that I’m tedious beyond belief. I’m irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and there is no reassurance good enough. And I’m scary as hell. Look at me. People don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, and those who do… they’re still out there doing what I need to be doing and just so you know,” he glances at Grace, “they too have their own 12 ways of dying.”

He stops talking as suddenly as he started and stares at me. Dares me with his eyes to get up off the bench and run. I don’t. I stare back. I think I might get up, walk to him and hold him for whatever time it takes for his heart rate to ease, but that seems too bold in the moment. We’re strangers – emotionally glued together now by an incredible woman named Grace. I have nothing to say because every single word he said is true. It’s the truth. And the only thing I know to do – honestly do – is sit with the words and him and Grace and let the sun fully rise.

Grace claps her hands together and chuckles, “Good. Now I can die in peace.”

Her words break the spell. Sheldon turns his full body towards her and smiles, “Old woman, you better have your fine self right here on this bench tomorrow morning. I’m bringing cherries.” He leans a bit towards me and grins, “And you… if you’re brave enough to show back up, I’ll bring tissues. You have snot all over your face.”

And just like that we go from death and despair to laughter while Grace sets a meeting time for tomorrow. We exchange phone numbers and awkward smiles and then Grace hops off the bench like a teenager and says, “Bring me some cigs tomorrow morning. I think I’m all out.”

“Not in your wildest dreams, woman.” Sheldon laughs. He hugs me quickly, sincerely, and then takes Grace by the hand to walk her home.

I’ve been aware from time to time of finding new corners in my mind and heart. Some of those corners are incredible and take my breath away with the beauty they store. Others seem too dark to wander through alone.  Perhaps that’s the point. We are none of us alone when another soul is willing to walk into the dark corner with us, hold our hand for a moment and turn on the light.

Lynnette Bukowski © 2013

Grace.againThere are so many reasons to be alive… Please seek out and find some Grace.

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/  1-800-273-TALK (8255) http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/1-800-273-8255 – Press 1

 

The Power of Sharing Strength…

helping(Sharing Strength was posted on August 6, 2012. I have revised the original in light of recent events because… much of it bears repeating)  

Iron sharpens iron. As one man sharpens another.  (Prov. 27:17)

 This is the miracle of human connection: we do not need to be in the same room, the same state, or the same country to reach out our hands and lay bare our hearts and say, I stand with you stunned – in silence and prayer, I will hold your hand, I will share your tears, I will take the impact of your pain as my own and bear it with you. We are all one. I feel your pain because you too are my brother, my child, my beloved. And I will stand with you – the left behind, the living – and share my strength.

Today, a dear friend, Rob Dubois, Author of Powerful Peace: A Navy SEAL’s Lessons on Peace from a Lifetime of War told me a story about a young girl who felt lost and hopeless and left her life up to one last event. Rob spoke from his heart with far more detail than I share here, but these words as I remember them bruised my soul: She wrote a long note to her parents, and the last sentence said: “I’m going to the mall. If one person smiles at me I will not kill myself.” Not one person smiled at her. Not one.

I came home to read an article shared by a friend on Twitter. Matthew Hoh wrote in The Huffington Post that a study released by the Department of Veterans affairs in early February, states that Veteran suicides have now reached twenty two (22) per day. Nearly one soul per hour every single day! Mr. Hoh writes, [Our recent] “…wars did not kill 6,500 Americans, but rather 13,000 or 20,000…”

It is so easy to turn away from this and say, with compassion, we just cannot save them all. We have lives to lead, places to go, things to do. But in my heart I hear this truth: What if a gentle touch of our hand, or our willingness to stay and not turn away from their pain, or the moment it takes to pick up a phone, send a text or a Tweet or a Facebook message was the exact moment that changed a life?

What if we passed a broken soul and shared a smile…

Because there is true comfort in knowing we are never really alone.

It is a poignant reminder of the first time in my adult life I learned this lesson.

On September 25, 1978 I began my drive to work from Coronado to San Diego.  Half-way across the Coronado Bay Bridge, a perfect 230 feet above water, sun glanced off my windshield and created a tunnel-like view of a small plane as it clipped the underside of a passenger jet and dropped from the sky.  I slammed my foot on the breaks and stepped out. As cars on the bridge screeched to a stop behind me, I stood and watched with horror as the jet banked away, paused, and began a nose down dive.  The sky shrieked wildly until it didn’t.  For one brief moment I imagined the plane was landing, until it hit the earth and exploded into a pluming black cloud.  Movement around me slowed to half speed, then quarter speed, as if the air in the blue sky had thickened with sorrow.

Those of us watching from the bridge began to scream; the sound inhuman, swallowed whole by the eerie howl of a sudden hot wind.  The heat roiled in my stomach and I bent over where I stood and vomited.  A man, a complete stranger, came to me and held my head, smoothed my hair back.  He made kind sounds, non-words that echoed through the blood buzzing in my ears.

I don’t remember the drive to the crash site.  I do remember following my stranger’s silver Mercedes as though it was a lifeline, a reality I needed to stay with.  We parked blocks away, but we felt the heat, even then, as he took my hand.  We ran, or he did.  I stumbled beside him, keeping pace with the sirens, praying, passing stunned people who staggered into the streets.  A wall of heat and smoke stopped us and we stood, useless.

My stranger fell to his knees then, pulling me down with him, crushing my hand to his chest while he wept; long crawling gasping sounds.  We huddled there in the street on our knees, and between sobs he told me that he’d been running late, on his way to the airport to pick up his daughter.  She was 25, working in LA and coming for a visit.  Surely, she’d forgive him for leaving her stranded.  He whispered the last words and I put my face close to his, looked into his eyes and took the full impact of his words.

I felt then like elderly people must feel when they forget who they are, where they are, what shoes are for, when each gesture calls meaning into question, unbuttoning a button, breathing.  I was 20, a mere child, but I forced myself to understand we were taking turns, as people do, in sharing strength.

I learned later that the 727 was carrying more than six tons of fuel, much of it in the wing tanks.  The news reported that from the moment of impact with the Cessna, it took just 17 seconds to transform PSA Flight 182 from a fully functional airliner into a mass of burning wreckage encompassing four city blocks.  The crash destroyed 22 houses in North Park, and killed 7 residents, as well as all 144 people on board the jet and both pilots in the Cessna.

Jeff told me later that he knew his daughter was on the plane the moment he witnessed the impact, but that tending to me and having me with him gave him the strength he needed to “keep the fist out of his gut long enough to know, without a doubt, that he could not save her.”

Jeff and I remained friends from that day on. He was finally able to go home to his daughter in September, 2002.

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as true strength.” ~Sales

Share a smile today, reach from your soul and touch a life.

There is tenderness in the presence of true strength; it fairly grips the soul and stays long after the moments fade, years I think. Perhaps even a lifetime.

The Veterans Crisis Line is 1-800-273-8255. Please call if you or a loved one needs help.

Lynnette Bukowski © 2013

Sharing Strength

 Iron sharpens iron. As one man sharpens another.  (Prov. 27:17)

This is the miracle of human connection: we do not need to be in the same room, the same state, or the same country to reach out our hands and lay bare our hearts and say, I stand with you stunned – in silence and prayer, I will hold your hand, I will share your tears, I will take the impact of your pain as my own and bear it with you. We are all one. I feel this loss because this too is my brother, my child, my beloved. And I will stand with you – the left behind, the living – and share my strength.

Two years ago (tomorrow) the world lost 30 brave men and Bart, a Warrior Dog – all heroes – aboard Extortion 17 in Afghanistan. The families, friends and loved ones of the fallen are scattered across the country and globe and while it is impossible to reach each of them in person or by phone, for the past week entire communities came together to raise funds, show support and share in the grief of loss.

Today, hundreds of people – many who do not even know these men and their families – join virtual hands in support and prayer via Facebook and Twitter to uplift and share strength.

There is such comfort in knowing we are never really alone.

It is a poignant reminder of the first time in my adult life I learned this lesson.

On September 25, 1978 I began my drive to work from Coronado to San Diego.  Half-way across the Coronado Bay Bridge, a perfect 230 feet above water, sun glanced off my windshield and created a tunnel-like view of a small plane as it clipped the underside of a passenger jet and dropped from the sky.  I slammed my foot on the breaks and stepped out. As cars on the bridge screeched to a stop behind me, I stood and watched with horror as the jet banked away, paused, and began a nose down dive.  The sky shrieked wildly until it didn’t.  For one brief moment I imagined the plane was landing, until it hit the earth and exploded into a pluming black cloud.  Movement around me slowed to half speed, then quarter speed, as if the air in the blue sky had thickened with sorrow.

Those of us watching from the bridge began to scream; the sound inhuman, swallowed whole by the eerie howl of a sudden hot wind.  The heat roiled in my stomach and I bent over where I stood and vomited.  A man, a complete stranger, came to me and held my head, smoothed my hair back.  He made kind sounds, non-words that echoed through the blood buzzing in my ears.

I don’t remember the drive to the crash site.  I do remember following my stranger’s silver Mercedes as though it was a lifeline, a reality I needed to stay with.  We parked blocks away, but we felt the heat, even then, as he took my hand.  We ran, or he did.  I stumbled beside him, keeping pace with the sirens, praying, passing stunned people who staggered into the streets.  A wall of heat and smoke stopped us and we stood, useless.

My stranger fell to his knees then, pulling me down with him, crushing my hand to his chest while he wept; long crawling gasping sounds.  We huddled there in the street on our knees, and between sobs he told me that he’d been running late, on his way to the airport to pick up his daughter.  She was 25, working in LA and coming for a visit.  Surely, she’d forgive him for leaving her stranded.  He whispered the last words and I put my face close to his, looked into his eyes and took the full impact of his words.

I felt then like elderly people must feel when they forget who they are, where they are, what shoes are for, when each gesture calls meaning into question, unbuttoning a button, breathing.  I was 20, a mere child, but I forced myself to understand we were taking turns, as people do, in sharing strength.

I learned later that the 727 was carrying more than six tons of fuel, much of it in the wing tanks.  The news reported that from the moment of impact with the Cessna, it took just 17 seconds to transform PSA Flight 182 from a fully functional airliner into a mass of burning wreckage encompassing four city blocks.  The crash destroyed 22 houses in North Park, and killed 7 residents, as well as all 144 people on board the jet and both pilots in the Cessna.

Jeff told me later that he knew his daughter was on the plane the moment he witnessed the impact, but that tending to me and having me with him gave him the strength he needed to “keep the fist out of his gut long enough to know, without a doubt, that he couldn’t save her.”

Jeff and I remained friends from that day on. He was finally able to go home to his daughter in September, 2002.

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as true strength.” ~Sales

Aboard Extortion 17 that day were 17 of my husband’s brothers – U.S. Navy SEALs. It is this brotherhood of men and their families who sustain me today as the widow of a veteran Navy SEAL. And I know without a doubt that on August 6, 2011, my husband Steve welcomed all 30 – and Bart – into a brotherhood that lives on in Heaven as a Platoon of Warrior Angels. Such Grace.

There is tenderness in the presence of true strength; it fairly grips the soul and stays long after the moments fade, years I think. Perhaps even a lifetime.

Lynnette Bukowski ©2012

Lynnette Bukowski is a freelance author and artist and the Founder/Director of LZ-Grace (Landing Zone Grace) Veterans Retreat. (www.lz-grace.com)