Reprint Author: Melissa Knackmuhs Kiefer – Article published online Feb. 1, 2015 in “Hippocampus Magazine”
Every morning, I stare at the Illinois State Police squad car in the driveway. It could be any squad car—the car NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu sat in at the time of their execution; the car that burst into flames when Illinois State Trooper James Sauter was rear-ended by a semi; the car that was torched and flipped on its side by Ferguson protestors. The car you’ve allowed kids to sit in so they could take turns wearing your hat while they admired the buttons and lights. The car is now a giant sign. It proclaims that a cop and a cop’s wife live here.
The squad car in my driveway acts as a signal flare to others, an accidental invitation for angry complaints, honest concerns, and questions ranging from firearm regulations to traffic laws—all from strangers who don’t care that you’re off duty and dripping wet from your interrupted shower, eating, or sleeping.
Right now you’re asleep on the couch. You’re kicking your legs in the air like you do, muttering indecipherable words. I remove the half-full glass of fruit juice from the end table. I don’t want you to kick it again, splatter red on the carpet and all over the wall so that the living room looks like a murder scene. You fell asleep watching the news again. Ferguson footage is our constant background noise, the maddening low hum, the ticking bomb, the pounding pulse in my ears.
As newscasters debate, I try to summon my own words. I’m tired of other people telling me what to think. Although I have freshman English papers to grade and graduate school papers to write, I prefer my journal in the earliest part of morning. Sometimes a place for words are best kept between a woman and her god. I pray differently as the day progresses. New mercies turn into old worries. Statements I too often wonder: Where is he? Why isn’t he home yet? As the days go on, I try to keep up my mental list of gratitude, but all my thank you’s turn into please.
Why do I write? I write because I don’t have answers to those helpless questions. I write in order to have control over words and feel stronger than I am. I write in order to share a reality more truthful than the one blaring from my television screen. I write because the top and bottom pages of your calendar list names of troopers killed in the line of duty and the dates that signify their End of Watch. I write because “End of Watch” sounds almost biblical to me as I copy down that phrase. It pairs easily with “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I write because I can’t lump all police officers together and try to prove that they are all good, worthy, and decent. I write because I can’t change the story. I can only write a true story about a police officer and his wife.
You recorded on the police report his time of death as 8:46 p.m. An hour earlier, you came home for supper during your personal time. I had two grilled cheese sandwiches and a pot of vegetable soup waiting. You sighed as you unhooked your duty belt and draped it over the back of the chair which instantly crashed to the floor under its weight. You weigh 214 lbs. Your bulletproof vest weighs 4 lbs. and 5 oz. Your duty belt weighs 14 lbs. and 13 oz. Some days, I want to know the weight of all the things you carry.
You unbuttoned your uniform shirt, and then I heard my favorite sound: the crackle of Velcro. The sweaty Kevlar, the thick bulletproof vest came off so that my arms can finally fit around you and I can touch your chest. I need you to be bulletproof, but I like you better when you don’t have to be. When you take it off, I feel like my thoughts, my ideas, my love can finally hit you. For a few moments—until personal time is over– you are my husband again.
We stepped over piles of belongings and pushed aside moving boxes and sunk into the couch because you had a sweet half-hour left of personal time, but Dispatch called out Rockford 16-40 on the radio permanently attached to your hand when it’s not hooked onto your duty belt. 16-40. That was you. Code 2 meant lights and sirens, so in less than five minutes, you transformed back into something distant and untouchable—a man with a higher duty than soup and grilled cheese and ordinary evening with wife on couch. I told you I love you, goodnight, be safe. We kissed. Quick. Firm. One dictionary definition calls a kiss a “salute made by touching with lips pressed closely together and suddenly parting.” My kiss salutes you.
I locked the door, washed the dishes, watched the stupid Kardashians on TV, took my medicine, and went to sleep too early. When you’re working, I can’t write. I can’t watch the news. I can’t get work done. I do every superficial thing that isn’t really me. I watch reality TV in order to disregard my reality. At 3 a.m., I checked my phone. You called at midnight to tell me you’ll be late. You didn’t want me to worry.
Before the night the NYPD officers were assassinated while sitting in their squad car, Wenjian Liu called his father at the end of his shift for the past seven years to let him know he was safely headed home. “You can stop worrying now,” he always reassured. I wonder if the moon was full that night, if the air was wrong, if Officer Liu had that uneasy feeling law enforcement and first responders sometimes feel creep all the way up his back and crawl on his neck—the premonition that some kind of senseless violence could transpire tonight. I wonder if he made love, spoke love, showed love to his wife of two months before he began his watch that permanently ended that night. Widow Pei Chen looks much younger than me struggling to stand beside his casket, a sea of NYPD officers holding her up. In the eulogy, she called him her soulmate, her hero. What were their last words? Was it a rush of hello-goodbye, I love you, be safe? How long did this father wait for his son to call before the nausea kicked in, before a decade of tight fears unraveled and he knew, undoubtedly, something wasn’t right. Where is he? Why hasn’t he called?
I make a pot of coffee, the extra for you to drink later. As daylight reflects off the windshield of your squad car, I research articles for a graduate school essay on Victorian ghosts and their effects on the psyche. Are we haunted by our memories, our very minds? I wonder if you’re haunted by the first dead man you ever saw, the gang member from Rockford you said was “dead but didn’t quite know he was dead yet.” You described the grey matter of his brain, the white of his skull.
Your brother by blood also happens to be your brother in uniform. Bub’s haunted most by the children, in particular a young girl involved in a car crash asking if her dead mama was OK in the front seat and asking your brother if he would stay with her while she died. “You’re not going to die, sweetheart,” he said. But the seven-year-old knew she would die and didn’t want to die alone. “It’s really beautiful,” she said of heaven as she inhaled one last time. “She was beautiful,” he said, with a faraway look in his eyes–the only time I heard him tell the story. After a long shift, he takes off his duty belt, unstraps his vest, and sometimes still sees her face.
In northern Illinois, the victims and the dead bodies were strangers. The license plate numbers, the physical descriptions, the addresses were all tragic details but not memories or deep bonds or fierce attachments. In southern Illinois, you know the names you hear on the radio,names you wish to God you could go back and pretend you did not hear. Not everything about coming home is peaceful.
You weren’t on duty, but you went to the crash site. You described to me the blood that stained his field, the impression where your best friend’s face broke the ground. You described to me how his wife—one of my best friends—crawled through the plane wreckage to lie beside him in the mud. I always thought I’d be the widow. Not her. Because at their rehearsal dinner, he threw her over his shoulder and ran out of the chapel. He dipped her and kissed the bride. It wasn’t supposed to be her wearing his wedding band on a silver chain around her neck. You went to their house every day after the accident. You took your personal time there, asking to the point of exasperation, “Please tell me what I can do.” You described to me the uncanny feeling of holding the hand, wiping the tears of your best friend’s wife. I have to go to them, you said. My friends would do this for you. I would want them to.
I was in the room when Erin sang over her children as she did every night, as if the night of her husband and their father’s death was any other night. I snuggled into bed with the youngest as she traced the outline of my cheeks, eyelids, and nose and sang the precious notes off-key. Then she lifted her hands up to Jesus and her daddy. It is well, it is well with my soul, her little voice tried to mimic her mom. Erin’s voice resounded, flooded the room, pulled a song up out of a body still streaked with tears and caked with mud: Even so, it is well with my soul.
“Well done, good and faithful servant,” I whispered as I leaned in close to touch his wooden casket. The End of Kris’ Watch marked the beginning of a vigil—so many friends keeping watch over the family, best friends clomping and stumbling around in the boots he left on the porch, shoes too big to fill.
You and your brother were asked to be pallbearers. Two days before the funeral, both of you stood in my living room in uniform with Dispatch crackling through your radios, grabbing onto furniture and shoulders as I looked you both up and down and calculated the weight of all the things you carried making it difficult to stand.
You know the difference between carrying dead weight vs. carrying the hope of the weight of the living. You see their faces—friends, acquaintances, strangers—swollen heads, blank stares, blood pooling behind them on the asphalt, glassy eyes that tell you a soul has left the body.
Your fellow officer, Trooper Jason Blessing, pulled a drowning man out of the backwater after a big rainstorm fell on a foot of melted snow. Blessing performed CPR until the man was revived. From illness or stress or emotion, the trooper was later found nauseated and heaving on the side of the road. His wife proclaimed him a hero. She left him for someone else three days later.
I watched you sleeping, knowing you needed mental and physical rest. In these rare moments, I guard you. I watched the rise and fall of breath. “Breathe in, breathe out,” I whispered as I placed my hand on top of your chest.
I was fifteen, and you wanted me to sing with you. The song was for special music at church. I wonder why you picked me. I was shy. I was unsure of myself, hard to understand, and harder to get to know.
At one of our last practices, you gave me advice. You said I had to sing the words of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (a haunting melody of Rapture, no regrets, and Carpe Diem) like I believed them.
In the old VCR recording of the actual Sunday morning performance, I have long hair with straight-across bangs and chicken legs exposed by a too-short denim skirt. You’re wearing Wrangler jeans, your boots, and a sunburn. You begin your lyrics so fitting for our time: “Life was filled with guns and war, and all of us got trampled on the floor. I wish we’d all been ready.” I turn my head to look at you for reassurance while I sing the beginning of my lyrics: “A man and wife asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head– he’s gone.”
You winked at me. You always wink at me to calm me, to connect me, but this wink was some sort of prophecy. Every time I looked back at the congregation, the tape showed you looking back at me. I remember the sweet rhythm, the pull and release, inhale-exhale, high notes melting with the low. We looked at each other on the last note so we could get the harmony and the timing right. For the ending to work, I had to breathe in when you breathed out. And I smiled at you, at that offering of air. When we looked back at the congregation, they were on their feet. They must have believed us. They must have believed in us.
“Were you late last night because of that personal injury call?” I ask. You told me it was a fatal. Your first fatal that you had to handle all by yourself. Post left a number for you to call about the incident. You talked to a reporter on your way home, three hours after you were already supposed to go off the air. “What can you tell me about it?” the reporter asked. “He’s dead,” you answered. “I don’t know what else you want me to say.”
“Are you OK?” I asked. You said, “You know how a road kill deer looks on the side of the road?” I winced. “That’s how he looked. Humans and animals, we’re all just red meat inside.” I didn’t laugh. You didn’t intend for it to be funny. “He was from Dixon,” you continued. “About thirty. Motorcycle. No helmet. Going 100+ mph. He basically did the splits when he went underneath the semi. You know where a person’s butt crack is? Well his body just kept cracking, splitting in that direction.”
In northern Illinois, my cellphone woke me up from the dream where I’m the grieving young widow at your funeral. I blinked away fragmented images of pallbearers and color team, shrouded badges, a folded flag, and hundreds of men and women in uniform. Eventually the cellphone’s ring drowned out the jumbled sound of bagpipes and Taps, the rifle salute.
You called to tell me you wrecked your squad car. You sounded mad and embarrassed, like the time you slid your squad into a snowbank during the blizzard and hurt your pride. You told me they took you to Midwest Medical Center in Galena just as a precaution. I said, “OK. I love you. Goodnight. Glad you’re safe.” Disoriented, I yawned and quickly fell back asleep–returned to a dream where your friend Klaus was positioned at the foot of your coffin and your brother at the head standing casket watch.
You looked strange when you walked through the door at three in the morning. You told me that as your squad was spinning, you thought “this was it.” Your car finally came to rest on its side in the middle of a wooded area off of Highway 20. You were hanging upside down by your seatbelt. You were driving too fast. You were called to a 10-96 (Mental Subject/ Suicide). People took pictures of your crushed squad car because they couldn’t believe you crawled out of it alive. People found remnants of your tickets, reports, a snapped-in-two clipboard, and tow sheets scattered in the woods. Your body pumped up so much adrenaline that you didn’t sleep for thirty-six hours. I thought you had a mild case of PTSD, but you only took one day off, 5-12 workman’s comp, and then went back to full duty status. I saw my psychiatrist, tried to forgive myself for not going to the hospital, lost twenty pounds and patches of hair.
When discussing Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, I often still refer to it as “Ferguson” as if it were an event or a war (and maybe it is) instead of a place not far from my hometown in southern Illinois. I’m nearly nine-hundred miles away from Staten Island. I can say the name Eric Garner. I can say that the NYPD officers in the viral video used excessive and unnecessary force. It sounds so superficial, so insubstantial for me to comment that I find it hard to breathe when I see mistakes like this, that I nearly choke on my own excess of air, that I vomited after watching Michael Slager shoot Walter Scott in the back like it was target practice.
You stand up to people who think they can do whatever they want without repercussions. Even in grade school, you could never tolerate a bully; you always supported the underdog. You know how to make people talk to you, trust you, tell you the truth. You’ve stopped drunk drivers, domestic abuse, and suicides. You stopped to talk to the kids on the streets in Rockford because, as you say, “they need to know I’m not their enemy.” You do the good the media doesn’t cover. You still call this mentally frustrating and sometimes life-threatening job your calling. When I kiss you goodbye now at the beginning of your shift, I kiss you as more than a salute. I kiss you as resuscitation, CPR, an offering of air.
A Metaphor: When I was fifteen, you took me horseback riding. You told me not to let go of you no matter what. But the saddle wasn’t secure, and I started to slide and fall. The entire weight of your big body fell on top of my small body. I was bruised and breathless but managed to gasp, “I didn’t…let go.” I carry all the stress you carry, too.
Sitting on the porch steps, I inhale and exhale slowly, as I imagine you do while you drive away from me in your squad car, among the paperwork, the gear, the buttons, switches, and lights. I sing, “It is well” as a whisper, as a prayer, not knowing if you’ll be home in the morning, but knowing words are now my offering, our story, the fire in my veins, and the grace inside my hurt. The wife behind the badge cannot collapse, and so I stare at the spot where your squad car was and keep singing the words to the old hymn until I start believing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - An adjunct literature instructor and high school creative writing and drama teacher, Melissa Knackmuhs Kiefer earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Evansville and her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Murray State University where she successfully defended the controversial (and much longer version) of her thesis, “The Police Officer’s Wife.” Her articles and reviews have appeared in New Madrid, LA Family Magazine, and Evansville Living Magazine. She’s passionate about the arts (and keeping them in schools), enjoys the outdoors, and loves her two Labrador Retrievers.