Close Calls and Retroactive Panic


I knew something was up as soon as I opened the email. It was from my husband, but in place of Sampson's familiar address was the name of one of his squadronmates. In what was obviously a message dashed off in haste on an unfamiliar keyboard, Sampson explained that he was writing from his buddy's cell phone.

“We had an incident, but everyone is ok,” he wrote, “safe on deck.” He told me that he loved me, and the rest of his day would be busy but he would try to call later.

As I blinked my bleary eyes, I read the email over again. And again, with the strangest sense of muted alarm oozing through my sleep-hazed brain. It was not Sampson's habit to email me after a normal flight; the unusual communication pegged my Something's-Not-Right-O-Meter. I tried to squelch the feeling -- he'd said he and the other guys were all right, hadn't he? Logic would dictate that I had no cause to worry after the fact.

With deliberate calm, I read other email, checked my usual webcomics, and scanned my blog reader before heading downstairs to my parents' den -- I was visiting family for the first time this deployment -- for a cup of tea. I said nothing to my folks, having no real information other than that Sampson was “OK,” which should not, after all, be big news. Caffeine and routine did little to shake the surreal feeling that something was off, but I resolved to sit on it pending further data.

That data came in the form of a Skype call. As I sat on the guest bed with my laptop perched on a box in front of me, I saw my husband looking as beat as I had ever seen him, the way a person looks after the adrenaline of an intense experience abandons the body all at once. Sampson confirmed my suspicions that his earlier flight had been far from normal; in fact, they had experienced a mid-air emergency that could have killed them. It came within a hair's breadth of doing so.

As the details unfolded, my own adrenaline spiked the way it had threatened to do all morning, ever since I woke up to that weird email. I stared at the pixelated video image of my husband, safe and sound and in one piece, and tried to process the fact that if events had turned out just the slightest bit differently, I might never again have seen or heard my husband alive. Instead of listening, wide-eyed and breathless, as Sampson told me exactly what happened and how he and the other pilot managed to land the aircraft safely, I would have been unaware that anything was wrong until I heard a knock at the door and found a solemn-faced man or woman in uniform there to inform me.

That realization touched off a train of thought -- retroactive anticipatory grief, perhaps? -- that made my stomach drop all the way through the floor. I was at my parents' house. Before I left home, I committed a major no-no: I did not tell anyone in the squadron where I would be for those weeks. If the day had turned out how we were thanking our lucky stars it hadn't, the squadron would have had a hard time tracking me down for next-of-kin notification. Sobering thought, that. It terrified me; you can bet I will never again leave town without telling someone at the command my precise address ahead of time.

In the aftermath of the incident, though, one irrational thought has persisted in niggling me at odd times. It bothers me that when my husband was facing the most dangerous, frightening event of his life, I was sound asleep and completely unaware how close I came to waking up a widow. Absurd as it might be, I actually feel guilty for not knowing that I should have been worried in the first place. I know it's preposterous even to imagine some sort of magical long-distance danger sense, functioning like Mrs. Weasley's clock in the Harry Potter books, but the emotional brain cares not for scientific reassurances. I guess I just hate the idea that life could be turned upside down without any warning. It's uncomfortable to think what can, has, and does happen to people, none of whom are given “fair” time to steel themselves against it.

Things are pretty well back to normal now, but I still have to tell myself (quite sternly, sometimes) that all those harrowing might-have-beens did not happen. It was a close call, but everyone -- as Sampson told me right off the bat in that otherwise cryptic email -- was OK. We move on, and it's back to business as usual in this military life.

Has your spouse ever had a “close call?” Did you have a nice little retroactive freak-out like I did, or were you able to shake it off as something not to dwell on?

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