I met my policeman husband, Sparta, ten years ago, on January 12, 1996. We were set up on a blind lunch date in a café on Mission St. in San Francisco. He still has the receipt. A few months into our love affair, I watched a news report from Sparta’s bed. A highway patrolman had been gunned down on the 101 freeway across the bay. I saw the pictures of the wife, the children. I pulled Sparta’s navy striped comforter up to my chin, my eyes widening like Cindy Lou Who. Then I was suddenly sobbing.
For the first five years of our relationship, we celebrated January 12. Even after we were married, we still snuck out of work for nostalgic lunches at Café Mondo on that date. Then, at about 3 a.m. on January 12, 2001, while I was sleeping the still-comfortable sleep of the second trimester, the phone rang.
I was somewhat accustomed to late-night pages and phone calls, usually SWAT call-outs where Sparta would jump out of bed, dress quickly, and kiss me goodbye. I would get up and run to the door with him, make sure I caught his eyes. “I love you. Call me when it’s over.” I’d walk slowly back to bed with the now-familiar tape playing in my mind: Will this be the last time I kiss him? Should I throw a fit? Not let him go? Is this the moment I will always regret?
I had an imperfect method for dealing with the anxiety of the SWAT call-outs. I tried to pre-feel everything that might happen, just so it wouldn’t be so shocking if it did. I would pre-feel one of his friends arriving at my door, telling me Sparta’s been killed. I imagined the friend hugging me, telling me everything will be okay. My mother and my brother coming over to the house, hunched in my living room, hands dangling between their knees. I pictured myself like Jackie O. at JFK’s funeral. This was about the time when I usually realized pre-feeling was totally ridiculous. I would take a deep breath. This is what he loves. This is who he is. I’d close the door on those images. Wait, I’d tell myself. Don’t think, just wait.
When the phone rang on January 12, 2001, I remembered Sparta was already out on patrol. I answered cautiously, “Hello?”
“Babe, I — I’m going to be late.”
Unfamiliar gravel in Sparta’s voice. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“It’s — it’s — my friend Pete. He’s been shot. I’m going to the hospital. I’ll call you later. I gotta go.”
Pete was on the SWAT team with Sparta. I had never met him, but he was part of the group, including Sparta, that had recently won a Northern California SWAT competition. Sparta used a photo from the event as his screen saver, six guys in Hawaiian shirts, holding up plastic beer cups and grinning broadly. A bulb of anxiety in my chest abruptly awakened, its roots clutching my gut, tendrils of bile in my throat. I shuffled back to bed, shivering under the covers. I didn’t turn out the light. I called my dog over, patted his soft head from the bedside. Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod. Please let him be okay. Okay okay it might be okay. Let him be okay. But I knew it wasn’t okay. Something in Sparta’s voice told me.
I wanted to do what was right in the situation. Should I cry? No, no, not time yet. It seemed as if every cell in my body was wide awake, screaming for me to take action. Get dressed, plunge my car through the darkness, find comrades, help out. Should I go to the hospital? Call someone? But which hospital? Call who? It was 3:30 in the morning. No. I could only sit there and stare out into the heavy night, beckoning to numbness.
At 5:30 I heard Sparta open the front door. I went to meet him. He was still in his black SWAT uniform, black army boots. I didn’t want to ask anything yet, and he let me lead him to the nook in the kitchen, where he sat down and slumped his head in his hands. I sat across from him and put my hand around his fist. After a second or two, he looked up and said, “It took so long for the ambulance to come. Maybe we should have taken him in the squad car. They tried to resuscitate him, but it was too late. He died, Pips, Pete’s dead.”
I was watching this scene on daytime TV. We were just play-acting. It wasn’t real.
Sparta emitted a guttural choking sound. His body was not used to crying, he sounded like a rusty machine. The noise pulled me back into my own body, where my throat was constricting and my lungs ached.
“Wait. Are you sure? I mean, they can’t save him? Is it really — really true?”
“It’s true,” he said. “It’s true. I saw him.”
My eyelids clamped shut, trying to keep the truth out, the tears in. It was no use.
Sparta drank a shot of whiskey. We lay down in bed, me in my bathrobe, he in his boxers and t-shirt. Holding hands, we lay there silently for about a half hour. Then Sparta said we might as well get up. We went to breakfast, and Sparta called the police union to help with funeral arrangements.
A day or so later, we took a shift at Pete’s house, sitting in Sparta’s truck in the driveway. For several weeks, there was always a policeman or two outside the house, 24 hours a day, just in case the wife or children needed something: a quart of milk, a shoulder to cry on. After an hour or so, the widow sent word that we should come inside where it wasn’t so cold, and there was food and drinks. She stayed upstairs with the baby.
This January 12, 2006, Sparta is being promoted at the Police Department. He will continue his current job as Chief of Staff to the Police Chief, but he has decided to leave the SWAT team. It’s not easy for him to retreat from the street. As for me, I’ve been pre-feeling what it will be like when I attach that sergeant’s pin. I don’t think it’s going to be a giant flood of relief, more like a gentle thawing.
Mommy Athens and Daddy Sparta have been together for over ten years. They have a beautiful little boy and are expecting an adopted baby girl. Sophia’s writing has also appeared in Stanford Magazine, Using Our Words: Moms & Dads on Raising Kids in the Modern Neighborhood, and in two collections: Tied in Knots: Hilarious Stories from the Big Day and Mexico, A Love Story (Spring 2006). She can be reached through her Web site at www.sophiaraday.com.