Over Coffee

Excerpt Chapter from Married to the SEAL Teams: Lessons in Love

Sunday Morning coffee porch

Love is a constant trying and reaching and failing and falling and trying all over again. ~LB

I am sitting on an antique chintz sofa at Blaylock’s Funeral Home waiting to receive your ashes. The lighting is soft and the artwork lovely and it reminds me of the Priest’s rectory and the disaster of marriage counseling and how beautifully that day ended for both of us. No thanks to the Priest.

When Bobby walks into the room and sits down next to me, my heart begins to race. I don’t know the rules or what words to say and out of the corner of my eye I see your image leaning against the doorframe with your arms crossed over your chest, chin up. Your lips are pressed together just enough to let me know you approve. My eyes blur with tears. It is impossible and morbid to think that your strong, chiseled body now fits into an urn.

“The engraving is beautiful,” Bobby says.

I wonder if there is a return policy – an undo – a please return his body to me because I cannot stand this for one more minute – clause.

“It is,” I say.

I reach out and trace the Trident with my fingertips. It is engraved with such detail and care that I feel you move through me and I take this as confirmation I’ve done this one thing right. The beloved “Budweiser” defines you, our life together and the ethos by which we lived, far better than the inadequate words I chose. To be fair, though, I would have had to use infinitesimal small print on all four sides and every square inch of the urn and even then, there are not enough words in all of history to describe you. I glance at your image in the doorway and think, “Don’t let that go to your head.”

I feel you smile and my memory reaches back to that sunset in Del Mar and our Del Marsecond beginning.

I watch you gather words; arrange them in your mind as you stir cream into your coffee. I can read your face like a sweet braille on the tip of my tongue. You love and hate this about me, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve always been at home in your silence.

When you look up and stare at me a hush falls over the world. You say, “I get mad and yell. It’s who I am. You know that. But no more fists through the wall. The furniture will stay intact. And you and our babies…always were and always will be safe.”

“I fear the rage, Steve. Not you.”

Your eyes are so tired. I want to kiss your eyelids, soothe away every pain of the last eight months, but I am not your savior and I am barely your wife. I keep my hands to myself.

You say, “I fear you…”

“That’s a lie.”

“It’s not a lie.” You reach across the table; place your thumb on the inside of my wrist and say, “I fear you will leave me forever. It scares me more than anything I’ve ever been or done or will do. Can we skip the counseling bullshit and just do… you and me again?”

The steam from our coffee rises between us in the shape of a promise.

Bobby touches my arm and asks, “Are you okay, Lynn?”

I blink; feel each beat of my heart as it drains the blood from my head. I fight the dizzy because I am desperate to answer you.

“Yes,” I say.

Bobby knows I am not talking to him.

He helps me to the truck and waits while I decide where to place your urn. The floorboard seems disrespectful and the backseat too far away from me. There should be some goddamn guidelines: How to transport your lover’s remains. I can actually feel your impatience and his unnerving calm. I decide on the passenger seat, buckle you in and climb behind the wheel, but my hands shake so badly I cannot put the key in the ignition. I’m angry. So angry I want to grab the urn, throw it in the bed of the truck and scream, “There you go, badass… that’s what you get for dying.”

The minutiae of death are stirring my crazy.

More than anything I want to drive three thousand miles to the hotel in Del Mar, book our room with the ocean view, and stay there for the rest of my life.

Instead, I drive to the only place I can think of where I won’t have to explain.

Your urn is heavy – or perhaps death is – but the heaviness soothes me, like a weight that holds me in place. I use both hands, back through the glass door and find a table in the corner where I place you just so – the back of the urn to the wall; the entrance and entire room in view. Habits die hard.

Mary-Beth weaves through the tables with a coffee pot and two cups. This week her hair is red and spun high on top of her head and her blue eye shadow matches her sweater. She puts both cups on the table, pours coffee into one and asks, “How ya’ holdin’ up, darlin’?”

We both glance at your urn. I say, “I know this is odd.”

“Nothin’ odd about it. That’s a fine looking urn. You just pick him up?”

I nod.

“Well then, seems just right to me. We’ve missed ya’. The gals and I was just talkin’ about the two of you. Always whisperin’ over coffee… and that man’s eyes… I’ll tell you what!  Had a look meaner than a caged coon, but always polite and tipped nice. We notice those things.”  She looks straight at your urn and says, “Just so ya’ know.”

I nod. Perhaps part of the sweetness of moving to a small town where nobody really knows us is this acceptance of how out of place we are and how quickly we blend in.

She fusses with napkins, leans in and says, “Deet’s and me, we barely have a civil word to say to each other after all these years. Gotta love the man, though. Works himself to death.” She clamps a hand over her mouth, “Oh, honey, that’s just a figure of speech, now. I’m not thinkin’ right.” She pats my shoulder, “I bet you two never had cross words.”

Our worst fight lasted eight months and grew to epic proportions, so out of control that I packed up half the house, both children and drove across country to figure it out.  I say, “Yes, we did,” and the tears begin to fall.

“Oh now, I’ve gone and made ya’ cry.”  She hands me a tissue from her apron pocket, “It’s fresh; just wrinkled. I’ll leave you be, Miss Lynn. Y’all enjoy your coffee and holler if you need somethin’.”

I take a deep breath as she walks away, tear open a Sweet n’ Low and hear you say, “Stop using that crap!” so clearly it brings a smile through the tears. All three waitresses and the scattering of customers stare at me.

It’s not like I didn’t do bizarre things while you were alive. I’m damn near famous for some, but bringing your remains in an urn to a small town café to have coffee with me probably tops the list. I don’t care.

I want to sit here and believe you are with me. I want the clink of dishes and random chatter and sounds of life because the silence at home is deafening. I want to remember every single word we said and all we did right, after how badly we went wrong.

You leave a twenty dollar bill on the table, pick up both coffee cups and say, “Follow me.”

I do. Down corridors and around corners until you open the door to an ocean front room and the sound of crashing waves rolls over me. I want to disappear, just here, with you. It’s been so long.

I step out of my shoes, remove my sweater; suddenly determined.

“Later,” you say, “Talk to me.”

I shake my head.

“Use words,” you say.

“I can’t.”

“Then tell me what you can’t say.”

I watch you sit down in the chair, coffee in hand. You cross your legs, perfect a smug posture and try to hide a smile.

I won’t win this one. I know it and you know it. I drop down on the bed; stare at the ceiling and exhale, “Fine. Here’s what I cannot say! It frightens me when you disappear right in front of me. When whatever it is takes over your body and pulls at my strength. I cannot say that in seven short years I’ve mastered hiding my own desires and wants and needs in my emotional closet so as not to disrupt your life when you’re home.”

I turn my head and look over at you. You do not look up. Your hands are on your knees and your head is bowed and I want to crawl into your lap, but I stay where I am.

I take a soft breath and continue, quietly, “I cannot say that I feel insignificant and unworthy because I can never find the perfect balm to soothe you or the exact words to pull from you the seed of your angst. That without reason, I began to believe I am that seed and I want to deny my own thirst so as not to grow the weed. I cannot say… that I have enough love for both of us if you would just trust that enough to let me crawl in to the place where you need comfort.”

I hear you cross the room, feel you lie down beside me. You take my hand and in a voice so soft I can barely hear your words, you begin, “I cannot say to you that I am scared to death and fear nothing. That I want my own things and my own time and my own space and need to be with my own thoughts until I know what I’ve seen and what I’ve done and who I am is all one and I am solid again.  I need sex for my hunger and food for strength and I don’t want to talk or think or be and I can’t love and I can’t feel and I never know if any of that will come back and I need you to wait.”

You wrap yourself around me and whisper, “I cannot give you up or let you go or leave you behind. And I love you beyond all reason and I cannot stand your tenderness or your tears when I’m like this and I cannot make you understand the difference.  I cannot say I am afraid of your love.”

I say, “I wonder, if you lock anger in a box, does it stay there forever? Does it stay there long after your gone? And who opens it in the end?”

You roll over and stare at the ceiling for a long moment and say, “You do. And you bury it in the sand.”

The ocean took the rest of our words and drowned our hurt well into the night.

Mary-Beth stands at the edge of the table and studies me, biting her lip. When I look up at her she asks, “Are you hungry, honey?”

I shake my head.

Silently, she refills my cup, pats me on the shoulder and walks away.

“I don’t know how to deal with his intense and unexplained anger,” I say.

The priest considers me, steeples his fingers, sighs deeply, “And what is it you do to make him angry?”

“I… Perhaps I’m not being clear…” I look over at you, at the hint of an ‘I told you this wouldn’t work’ on your lips. I sit forward, “He. Wakes. Up. Angry…. He. Comes. Through. The. Door. Angry!”

“Entirely true,” you say.

The priest nods at you, looks at me and says, “I see. And so, it must be something you’ve done. Come now. Think hard.”

I want the secret code from God to unlock your soul and calm the fire inside you. I want guidance and help. I’m entirely sure I do something every three minutes to make you mad, but that’s not why we’re here. There is anger and there is this… this furious rage. How do I battle an unknown terror that eats away at your soul, puts your fist through walls, and frightens our babies?

“I’m done here,” I say. 

From the hallway I hear, “Go with God, Son.”

I think: God better have a separate car.

You come out smiling, take my hand, and say, “To be fair, the Monsignor doesn’t have a clue what it’s like being married to me.”

“He doesn’t have a clue what it’s like being married. Period!

“Point,” you laugh.

I let go of your hand. “There’s not one damn thing funny about this. Is it me, Steve? Is all that rage, all of this because of something I did?”

“No. I told you that when you left. I’ve told you that every week since. It’s gone, over, locked down.”

I want to believe you.

You take my elbow, open the car door and say, “Buckle up, I have an idea…”

The words remind me of us before the fury; before life became wrapped in anger, before I bolted like a frightened child. I am so lost without you. I close my eyes while you drive and silently ask God to skip over the middle man and just give me the key to your peace.

He does, but He makes me wait until we’re at a hotel coffee shop in Del Mar.

I wonder now if death would be easier on us – the living – if we knew the answers to all the questions we can never ask. Was life enough? Did you feel loved? Were you relieved when the angels came and said, ‘Well done, Son, let’s go home now.’  But more than anything, I want to know in your last moments, did you think of me?

Steve's Urn

Lynnette Bukowski © 2014 All Rights Reserved

Lessons in Cadmium Red

When my father died, I learned the value of heritage. When I was assaulted, I learned I was so much more than my body. When my young friend took his own life, I learned forgiveness. When my unborn babies died, I learned a boundless capacity for love. And when my husband died, I learned that my life was blessed. Of course, I did not recognize any of these lessons until long after the experience had passed.

This is the story of one life lesson…

At midnight on my 45th birthday I was knee deep into a bottle of Ménage à Trois wine and fascinated with my birthday gifts – tubes of oil paint and soft sable brushes. I dipped one brush into my favorite color – Cadmium Red – and made one long curved brush stroke. Proud, I held up the canvas and said, “Look at how beautiful! What does it remind you of?”  Cadmium Red Poppies

Steve looked at the canvas for a long serious moment and said, “My extraordinary patience… and the audaciousness of you.”

“Huh… I’m not sure you and the word patience belong in the same sentence. But I’ll give you extraordinary,” I paused, slightly confused, “Also, when I asked the question, I was thinking of those red poppies in the pasture.”

“I know.” His face was partially hidden behind a book, but I saw the grin in his eyes, “Think back… that exact flavor of red, o’dark-thirty, twenty years ago…”

“Oh.” I poured another glass of wine.

We spent the rest of the night wrapped up in memories. Specifically, this one:

I had not seen or talked with Steve for three months, so at 4:00 in the morning when he woke me from a sound sleep to let me know he was home, I did exactly what was expected; I rolled over, stuck my hand under my pillow and mumbled, “Forty-five, finger on trigger… you feeling lucky tonight?”

He said, “That’s my girl.”

Years earlier, we agreed on this exchange just in case it was not him sitting on the edge of the bed. The truth is I always knew it was him. His presence changed the air. But once, just after we were married, he returned home in the middle of the night and met the wrong end of a shotgun at the bedroom door.

I do not like to be scared. He did not relish being shot. Fair is fair.

Correct verbal response received, I welcomed him home, got up and made coffee and in hushed tones told him about the moments I saved.

“Sheri took her first steps, Stephen discovered baseball and Lego’s, I jerry-rigged the bathtub faucet to work around the stuffed Lego piece I could not dislodge, I was hired to ghostwrite for a psychologist, and… an 18 year old Danish Au Pair is asleep in the guest bedroom.”

He held his coffee cup suspended midway between the counter and his mouth and asked, “What’s asleep in the guest bedroom?”

Before I could explain further, the 5 foot 11 inches, legs-up-to-her-ample-chest, blue-eyed-blonde Hella, sauntered into the family room wearing only a Cadmium red tank top and matching bikini underwear. She stopped in front of him, did a full model’s pivot, placed her hands on her hips and said, “I am Hella. You are Steve, yes?”

Steve glanced at her, swiveled on his stool, leaned across the bar until his face was inches from mine and whispered, “You are the finest woman in the universe. Now that you know that, I’m going to kill you, slowly. What the fuck?” Then he turned back around and without preamble said, “Go put some clothes on. Now!”

It was the beginning of a hate-hate relationship between the two of them that lasted just over two months.

I should mention here that Steve did not ever mince words, his normal voice was at a volume just under a roar, and he did not flirt with women if I was anywhere in the vicinity.  He was both a gentleman and very good looking, so there was never any shortage of women trying to turn his head. But his head never turned because I am who I am and he was who he was. You can doubt that if you wish, but there truly are men and women who do not stray.

That said, I took a moment to absorb what I’d just witnessed: A young, beautiful woman had just presented herself to my husband as though I had moved her in solely for his pleasure. I gave the unsettling development half a thought and then dismissed the behavior as a cultural difference. I tend to be an optimist. Steve was a realist. I took a deep breath and explained why she was now in our home.

Hella had come to America two months earlier as part of an Au Pair program. I was told she wanted to increase her English skills, help with housework and provide child care in exchange for room and board. What wasn’t perfect about that? I needed someone to play with the kids while I was writing and we could not afford a babysitter. We could help her, she could help us. And okay, details were lacking as to why she did not get along with her first American family, but our neighbors – sponsors of many of these young ladies – asked for my help.

Steve’s sigh was room deep, “Babe… we need to talk about that “help” thing you have and… I do not think she’s here for the same reason you think she’s here.”

“Maybe not, but can we give it a try?”

He rubbed a hand over his face, gave me a weary smile and said, “Yes, we’ll give it a try.

Steve told me once that coming home was often more adventurous than his day job. I took it as a compliment. In reality, it was a testament of his fortitude.

I’ll admit this now. I used to collect people. Other folks collect coffee mugs or teaspoons. Not me. I amassed people who asked for my help without weighing who they were, where they came from or what they wanted from me. In the beginning, Steve was charmed by this quirk, then exasperated, and finally, resigned. Out of necessity, he became my scoundrel detector and I counted on his keen ability to “sense” a person’s demeanor and motive in minutes. I had this gift too, but I leaned toward giving scoundrels a chance. When Steve intervened, they were sent on their way before I had time to protest.

This worked well when he was home. Not so much when he was away.

Hella’s stay with us became a battle of wits and wills. She did not like housework, enjoyed cooking even less and during her third week in our home, she lost Sheri. Granted, Sheri was a pistol, but to this day I am not sure how a baby wearing only diapers can open the front door, cross a busy street and manage to toddle four blocks from home without a caregiver noticing her absence. Apparently, Sheri wanted a cookie and was mercifully intercepted by a kind neighbor who had both a cookie and my number, which is how I found out she’d gone missing.

I relieved Hella that day from all duties having to do with our children and, much to Steve’s delight; I set about working with her sponsors to have her sent home. It would take four more weeks.

bags packedIn all fairness, I still believe Hella was essentially a good girl, but terribly misled by two of her Au Pair peers. They advised her that American men tended to be weak and malleable. So, for girls who wanted to stay in America, but did not want to watch children, clean house or cook, the game plan was to win the man’s affections and thereby have all their wants and needs fulfilled. Wants and needs included an established man, a car to drive, money to shop and no rules and curfews.

When she finally broke down and admitted the game plan to both of us, Hella’s behavior made more sense, but I had to admit how badly I’d been duped.

Righteously, Steve only rubbed it in for the next twenty years.

It took me that long to learn how to balance my unrestrained capacity to see good in people with my own gift of discernment. And longer still, to notice that no matter how outrageous, traumatizing, unexpected, or agonizing, every experience we live through teaches us a lesson about ourselves or others.

How absolutely blessed I am to have been cherished by a man who knew my heart, endured my lessons and loved me still.

Lynnette Bukowski © 2013

Just Wait

Big RedAt 11:42 pm on a Wednesday night I opened the front door to a weary-eyed social worker, a police officer so rigid he looked to be vibrating, and a two, perhaps three-foot tall blanket that may have been light green at some point in its history.  I stepped to the side to allow them entry.  No one moved.  Red, usually attached to my hip, stayed in the doorway in a sit position, but his front paws crept forward until the tip of his black nose nudged the blanket. A tiny hand appeared, touched the top of Red’s head, and then quickly withdrew. The movement snagged a silky frayed edge and the cloth fell away to reveal a mess of brown hair, round blue eyes and a perfect spray of freckles across cheeks and nose. The boy stared straight ahead, jaw set, lips rigid, “I not talk,” he said.

I nearly smiled, but this felt like a test, so I nodded once and said, “Good to know.” I ignored the woman’s raised eyebrows and instead, turned and walked down the hallway, as though welcoming a frightened child and two strangers into my home with five children asleep upstairs and my husband deployed was simply another day in the life.  It wasn’t.  But I had trained for and signed on to be an emergency therapeutic foster parent, and it was far too late at night to admit I might be in over my head.

A piercing, rigid scream coincided with me flipping a switch in the kitchen; the brightness igniting the sound and the child until both dissolved onto the floor, skittered across the tile and came to rest as a steady choking sob in the corner of the room.  I glanced toward the sound of whispers in the hallway, heard the baby cry, heard the upstairs floor creek with footsteps and nearly missed the words from woman to officer, “I thought I mentioned he doesn’t like to be touched.” Still, my focus was on the dog huddling peacefully next to the trembling boy in the corner of my kitchen.  My first thoughts: Who the hell touched him? Then: Dog is fine, boy is breathing, floor is clean.  Really, this is my brain in crisis-mode.

I’m sure I heard God chuckle as I ushered the adult people out of my home with a quiet thank you.  To my ears I sounded like a crazed Ms. Manners.  I just barely controlled my urge to laugh aloud at their relieved smiles, the promise that the child would be placed in a permanent foster home by the weekend; and the pitifully small paper sack in my hand with the name “James” scrawled in black marker.  It was weep or deal time so I closed the door, found two pillows and a large quilt and settled in for a long night on the kitchen floor.

Until that night I thought I knew what was in the next room, what kids like for dinner, what grass feels like on bare feet.  I was comfortable with the orderly mess I orchestrated each day. It was crazy and hard and joyful and it was mine. Until the night of James — when I discovered that in three years a child can be so badly abused that his small world is reduced to a corner in the kitchen and an old soiled blanket.

On day two, James and I compromised with a makeshift bed upstairs next to Red’s pillow at the end of Aaron’s crib.  He dressed himself, but only while underneath the blanket draped over his head.  He ate with his hands, brushed his teeth and appeared intrigued by the maneuverings of the older children in the house. They spoke to him, answered for him, proclaimed his cuteness and ignored his quirks.  Still, he did not talk.  He paid no attention to Aaron, or so I thought, who, for most of the day remained strapped to my chest in sling. One morning, in the midst of a chaotic (our norm) breakfast, signing papers and packing lunches, James tentatively stepped very close to me and with the edge of his soiled blanket, reached up and wiped a bit of spittle from Aaron’s chin.  For an instant all activity stopped.  A collective deep breath filled the space and then – through the guidance of angels perhaps – we all knew not to react to this tender moment – instead, we resumed chaos as usual.

Baths were out. Since I drew the line at Red and the blanket in the bathtub, our first attempt at bathing ended in shrill screams and a brief regression to his safe place in the corner.   Sheri – in all her eight-year-oldness, cleaned out the plastic baby pool and with Red’s patient cooperation, a bar of soap and a three-year old at the end of a hose, we had a semi-clean boy and a sparkling, if not matted, Golden Retriever  every other day.

James’ two day emergency stay turned into two weeks, four days and three hours – this according to James –and not duly noted until the day I received a phone call notifying me of a permanent home move, to which I responded with a simple, no thanks, he’s already home. The social worker was still speaking when James took my hand (a touch miracle of its own) and pointed with glee to his tiny drawings on the wall in his safe corner.  This was the first smile, the first initiated touch and the first emotion I’d seen from this child.  After some confusion (he still wasn’t speaking) I came to realize that he had drawn meticulously neat small dots to represent hours, circles around exactly 24 dots to represent days and squares around each set of circles to represent weeks.  Also, he was partial to blue crayons, which oddly complimented my yellow flowered wallpaper.

Patience is not one of my virtues.  I tend to set my course and go, obstacles be damned. James, though, elicited a calm in me I cannot to this day explain.  I was content to watch him watch life, soak it in and return to his safe place in the corner as necessary.

Red was my Godsend and as it turns out, James’ confidant.  Shortly after the baby pool baths began – and out of necessity – I showed James how to brush Red’s coat.  Our back deck was about a foot off the ground and built around a large oak tree.  Each day, James would sit on the edge of the deck next to the Oak trunk.  Red would cuddle up to his left side and as the brushing began – a methodical, tender child stroke – James would quietly talk.  Usually, I sat in a glider on the other side of the massive oak rocking Aaron, but James never seemed to notice that there was anyone else in the World except for him and Big Red.  He told Red in vivid detail about his broken arms, his round scars, his mommy’s bruised eye, how Man #3 was more mean than Man #2, but wrestled better until he got mad.  How touching meant hurts and talking was trouble and how he thought maybe Man #1 might be his dad who went to Heaven but mommy didn’t tell him for sure.

On the forty-second day of James, a sunny, breezy day, James asked Red if he ever wanted to be a cowboy some day.  I heard hope in the question and I so wished Red could just this time… answer the question with a hearty Yes! I was still smiling to myself when I heard Red’s sigh from the other side of the Oak, heard his nails scratch the deck board as he stood and shook.  James – holding on to Red’s collar – appeared at the side of my chair.  He reached out and patted Aaron’s head, touched my hand and asked, “Could Red and me please have a butter jelly sammich, Mommy Lynn?”

Exactly one year, thirty days and two hours from the first moment we met – and I have the wallpaper saved to prove it — James left our home to live with his natural grandparents in another state.  From letters and phone calls I know that James learned to ride horses – to be a cowboy – and in high school he began to train dogs specifically to work with abused children.

That was the year I learned to listen.  Really listen.  I kept notes – The Journals of James – I wept in the shower each night for the pain this child endured, I testified in court to make sure Man #3 saw the inside of jail cell, I learned to listen to small words, small gestures, tiny movements and night terrors and wait with baited breath for the moment when a simple request for a butter jelly “sammich” rocked my world.

We have to be willing to wait.

 boy and dog
Lynnette Bukowski © 2010