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.

Daddy’s Shoulder

I was startled awake this morning by a vision of Steve reaching down to pick up our daughter in the aftermath of a little girl catastrophe.
The memory pulls at me like a secret, whispered in a language I do not quite understand.

I stumble out of bed, brew an espresso, collect tennis balls and Spike and try to ignore the very real detail that Sheri is overseas and the entire world is on fire.

It matters not that I am distracted or half asleep. Our tradition is to stop on the memorial brick path to the beach for a moment of silence in reverence for the beloved souls remembered here. As I lean down to unleash Spike, I read aloud the inscription on the paving stone beneath us:

“Dan —- September 16, 2010 – ‘Dad, I miss your strong shoulders.’”

My intuition is relentless.

My rational mind thinks it might be easier if messages from Heaven or the Universe arrived as ink on notepads or lipstick on the mirror.
But my intuitive moments – like this – nourish me, tickle every nerve ending awake and flutter kick at my heart. When I open myself up and make space my intuition is an excited puppy nipping around my heels to let me know in vivid sunrise detail that Sheri is looked after from Heaven as on earth.

And once again, life is rich and juicy and fascinating.

Deployment Note written to our then 3 month old daughter:

“One day your Mom is going to teach you about love and how to walk in high heels. I’ll teach you how to spit, shoot a gun, repel down a cliff and stare a boy down. Perfect these lessons and the world is yours, baby girl.  And when you’re afraid, just reach out. I will always be holding your hand.  Love, Dad” ~Steve Bukowski

Memo from the Department of Just Showing Up

DSC_0003 (2)How is it that I find myself at 3:30 in the morning on my back porch with an old box of matches?  I ask this aloud to Spike.  He does not answer.  Instead, paw on my leg, tennis ball in his mouth, his brown eyes look up at me, hopeful.  The print is faded, but I can make out “Subic Bay Christian Serviceman’s Center” and on some dare to the full moon, I slip out one match, strike it, and marvel at the spark and fire, the sharp, pungent smell of thirty-three-year-old sulfur.  Spike is not impressed with this magic.  Still, my spontaneous grin ignites a full body wag and thumping tail and I cannot help but throw a high curveball into the moonlight and watch as he ducks under the fence and chases across the pasture.

Surely, it is no accident that on this particular night I woke up to rummage through a drawer for warm socks and came up with a memory so potent that time slips away in decades. I am so entranced with my memories that when my captive audience of one returns triumphant – ball in mouth – I cannot help but tell him the story.

In 1976 I lived in Coronado, California with my parents in a high-rise condominium overlooking the Pacific Ocean.   I attended college and worked as lead vocal in Whitefeather, a top-forty, all-girl band.  We played military base clubs and private parties four nights a week and I was rarely home before 3:00 AM.  It began in October that year, each morning at dawn – with only two hours of sleep – I woke to a crude, slightly entertaining mantra emanating from a group of men dressed in blue and gold t-shirts, tight tan shorts and combat boots.  They ran in formation down the beach, chanting their cadence, replete with original and rudimentary rhyme that echoed up six floors and into my head.  Most of the time I was intrigued, but after one particular week of very little sleep and finals looming, I leaned my head out of my open window and issued a stream of oaths.  Without breaking stride, every single man waved at me in unison, mocking my sunrise angst.  Thus became our morning ritual.

A neighbor educated me about these supercilious behemoths.  All were trainees or instructors at BUD/s (Basic Underwater Demolition School), a brutal training course for specialized commandos known as U.S. Navy SEALs.  It was several weeks before I had my first close-encounter.

During a private gig, and mid-way through my rendition of Moondance, the most ridiculously handsome, arrogant man I will ever meet, walked right up onto my stage and asked me to dance.  We spent the next year in heated debates disguised as dates.  During one such date he dared me to marry him.  I accepted the dare.

Years later, when he arrived from a mission just moments before I gave birth to our daughter, I yelled at him about his lousy timing and party-crashing habits.  He laughed, kissed me square on my panting lips and said, “I didn’t crash your party, I simply showed up to the rest of my life.”  The sweetness of that moment may have been lost to labor pain, but I digress…

In October 1978, Steve and I were married at 10:00 o’clock at night at the Christian Serviceman’s Center in Subic Bay, Olongapoe, Philippines during a monsoon.  Picture this: me in red Candie high heels, (I had them in every color) climbing alone into the back of an open Jeepney(a Filipino taxi) in rain and wind that sliced the sky open. When I arrived, the electricity was out but Steve was there, along with Sixteen Navy SEALs (slightly intoxicated), and a Navy Chaplain who stood wearily between my travelling companion and Steve’s best friend.  I stood at the entrance, charmed by the glow of the votive candles they held.  In unison, they began their own off key version of the wedding march. The room smelled of matchstick sulfur, wet clothes and grain alcohol, but I was delighted by their goofy smiles and I think I laughed aloud as I sloshed my way down the aisle with mud spattered up to my knees and rain dripping from the hem of my cotton dress.  Steve smiled that cocky, edgy smile, leaned in close and whispered, “See, all you had to do was show up.”

Exactly six hours later Steve and his platoon left for a three-week excursion.  Middle of the night exits and unannounced returns became the rhythm of our existence.  During our first year of marriage, we spent exactly 98 days together, no more than 15 consecutive days at a time. I found it fascinating to drill him on details about his trips and quickly learned that even my best methods of persuasion only worked for short clipped versions of his days (so to speak) at the office.  Eventually, we found other things to talk about. Every two to three years from 1978 on we moved across the street, the country or the world.  We lived in seven different states and four different countries.

Independence, while slightly force-fed, taught me how to run our family on my own for months on end.  And it never failed that just about the time the kids and I learned a new language or adapted to a new culture, Steve would show up on the doorstep and we would begin again the next adventure.

This is no sad story, I tell Spike.  He lifts his head, having long since curled himself around my bare feet, and looks at the small box in the palm of my hand. It is not a treat or ball and his obvious disappointment makes me laugh through my tears. Death is nothing at all.  Even now – so many months after Steve’s passing from this earth – he is urging me on to show up to life without him. This, I announce aloud, is beyond measure, a legacy much larger than our little universe of dog and broken woman in the wee hours of dawn.  This ancient little box of matches is a gift full of brilliant love and serendipitous moments.

Steve was right. Life is not complicated.  Rather, it is a sequence of surprises, both excruciatingly painful and full of glorious adventure mixed and stirred up in moments. We mere mortals too often obscure the steps and miss the moments, when all we really need to do is just show up.

 By Lynnette Bukowski © 2011RED
Lynnette Bukowski continues to show up to life each day as a freelance writer and artist. She is the Founder and Director of LZ-Grace Veterans Retreat and is always available to correspond with military widows and families of our fallen warriors at ljbukowski@gmail.com

Rainy Morning Letters #495

golden memoriesIt is the perfect morning to lie in bed and cuddle with the memory of you.  Through the window glass the trees shush, their leaves yielding to clear drops, one after the other, sometimes two together, as though you are watering my heart from your Heaven.

The roof dulls the sound for a moment until it spatters over the eaves and creates blistering drops on the deck, like sizzling bacon.  I think: bacon and three fried eggs and a sliced tomato.  A lazy weekend morning and I serve you one of the few gifts you would accept from me.

At this moment – right now – I feel your solid chest against my back, your right forearm and calloused hand resting on my hip, your knee pushing gently against the back of my thighs.  You are right here.  If I turned, I could lay my head against your shoulder, push my face into your smooth neck and know.  The knowing of nothingness and everything.

My eyes squeeze shut at the ache of pure sadness.  The missing your physical presence makes the windows shudder with a stomping rush of falling rain.  Is this your universal answer to my tears? You were never this dramatic on Earth.

You whisper: Get up and write this down.  I stretch against your memory like a waking child. I say: don’t tell me what to do.

If you were here to make me coffee I would hear the sound of six level scoops.  Water pouring – like this morning rain. The aroma of your love for me would seep into the bedroom like a stealth warrior.

I get up, wander into the kitchen and put six rounded scoops and one-half more, which I know would cause a morning spat.  Why do I so blatantly break the making coffee rules?  Because I like the way our spats end: You grab my hips and spin me into a bear hug and ardent kiss that even now – in the memory of it – leaves me breathless.

Still – probably surrounded by a Platoon of spirits – with each cup of coffee you pour – you add cream, a teaspoon of sugar and while you stir, you grumble to the cup, I can’t believe she is still such a rebel. They all chuckle.  I can hear you, you know, as though the words form a red neon ticker tape of commentary circling the tongue and groove pine of the kitchen ceiling.

I ask God: Do spirits laugh?  And I have this vision of you sitting around with God and Buddha, a few Mystics and all the Team guys who have so recently passed over.  You are all telling stories, animated hand gestures and colorful language and the laughter is so huge it sounds like thunder rumbling through the trees.

The passion with which we lived still resonates.  My ego starts to dream up God deals.

I’m sipping coffee laced with licorice tea.  I know… the oddity of me.  And I begin:  rainy coffee

Dear God, today is the 495th day of this infinite deployment and really, I need him back now.  Here’s the deal….

God sighs… the infinite loving sigh.   No Deal.  He says this in capital letters.  And like I’m watching a You-Tube short I’m given a glimpse of you – vital and healthy, slipping through narrow gates, holding infants, holding moons, philosophizing with Emerson and St. Francis, building lavish parks, bending to take a toddler’s hand, telling sea stories with your Team mates, trimming your mustache, building houses, studying in a library that is endless and everything.   You are full of Joy.

When you stand, turn, and stare at me, through me, hands on hips, blue-green blazing eyes near maximum intensity I can hardly breathe through the realness:  I’m writing again, I say. The answer to the question you have not asked.

About damn time.  You think it.  I feel your thought and see it glisten through you just as the sun peaks through the cloud.  It’s your rare, reserved smile spilling over me.  I laugh aloud because even in Heaven you’re a smart ass.

It’s all about the Love… I hear you say, standing at the stove stirring your beef bourguignon and reminding me each time I walk into the room that it’s all about the love.  I wonder if you even had an inkling then of the absolute greatness of that simple lesson?

You wait patiently then – so unlike you – until my soul fills with a boundless blue love.  The rain begins again and it is here in this moment I feel your energy leave me – for now – standing in the perfect memory of you.

rainy morning sun

Lynnette Bukowski © 2011