Sometimes when you wake in the middle of the night it's only for a slippery moment, a moment to re-cozy yourself, to remember with a flash of panic that forgotten appointment from the day before or to get up to potty. Potty is a word mothers begin using from the moment they give birth and never leaves their vocabulary until death. Sometimes what wakes you is a long-forgotten memory, the thing you tried to put behind you.
Once or twice in a lifetime you wake up and just know it: You are dying, even though three hours ago you were watching Dexter and fluffing pillows on the couch and wiping down the kitchen countertops because you never know what the night will bring. And because a perfectly neat home masks the other mess that spins beyond control.
I jerk awake and move the empty wine glass to see the time on the digital clock. Two something. I should remember the precise time on the clock, but I am a date person. Dates I remember; times, not so much.
In the silent house with a staring cat and three sleeping children and again without a husband present, I struggle through sleepy, disoriented eyes to remember where I am. A sweet artificial stank hangs in the air; oh yeah, the Yankee Candle I blew out before I slammed the last gulp of wine. Nothing looks familiar as I go back and forth in my mind; which issue is more pressing, the crushing pain in my chest or where the hell I am? The glare of the streetlight shining into the window reminds me I'm home, home for now. This is our third house in less than two years, and it takes me a minute to remember where I am. Fort Campbell. Just across the Tennessee border, but with a Kentucky address, surely the result of a political fight over which state got to claim ownership of the home of the 101st Airborne. I'm back in the familiar zone I like to think of as Grey Street, a favorite Dave Matthews song about a woman who feels numbed and paralyzed by her life. Like her world has spiraled beyond her control. Where colors bleed and overlap into only gray. The vibrancy of each color not lost, just absorbed into a blanket of grayness. The gray of autopilot. The gray of another deployment, of a home with a man of the house who wouldn't know which drawer held the spoons. He's the man of the house in concept alone. He is three months into a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan, with no need to even own a house key.
But in this two-something wee hour, these ideas are just whispers under my blankets and inside my skin. My feet nudge around looking for the children who sometimes wander half asleep into my bed. As soon as I move I feel it, the thing that startled me awake. It isn't a dream or a memory or a forgotten appointment. It's pain, the physical kind. What frightens me in that moment isn't the gripping pain in my chest, but a wave of incomprehensible terror for its newness and unfamiliar nature. A twisting stab in my back pushes me out of bed and to my feet. I feel sweat roll down the back of my neck, but it's almost Thanksgiving and I allow the chill from outside to come into our home at night. I prefer the insulation of blankets and flannel pajamas to warm air.
Oh hell. It's a panic attack. My body is at long last going on strike, revolting from the stress of eight long, intense deployments. That's what I've been warned of, anyway, in the "resiliency" workshops and briefings army wives sit through during deployments. Well, before deployments, during deployments, and after deployments. So all the time. Whatever you face or feel, surely it's addressed in a binder somewhere. The army's philosophy is that just by virtue of identifying and labeling an issue, it's 95 percent fixed. At each available opportunity, we are reminded to pace ourselves and manage stress. I picture the PowerPoint slide: "Panic attacks are a terrifying but normal reaction: It will feel like you are going to die, but here are coping tips ... Remember, we are army strong!" But what were the tips? Dammit. Breathe. That's surely one. I do feel like I'm going to die.
I grab my cell phone off the dresser and wander through the upstairs of our quiet house. Joe is almost a teenager, a stack of Call of Duty: Black Ops video games just inches from his sleeping head and a game controller teetering on the edge of the bed. The violent video games that Jack allowed because they are a reality of his job. Jack argued that the video games are disturbing with their accuracy and not gratuitous in their violence. The line between good guys and bad guys is clear, at least in the game.
Our two daughters, Bridget, who is ten, and Greta, five, are curled together in Bridget's room across the hall. Using the term our is an effort on my part. "My children" comes more naturally; I have to make an effort to remind myself that these are "our children." I'm not alone in parenting, at least not in theory. In reality, yes, I am alone.
In this moment of defining chest pain I am alone.
From No Man's War by Angela Ricketts. Copyright 2014 by Angela Ricketts. Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint Press.