We were in Cape Breton, an ocean-front picturesque part of Nova Scotia when the phone rang late at night. Late night phone calls never bring good news. We had more than a few of those when Cowboy was on active duty. One call in particular stays in my memory. Cowboy was at sea captaining a warship and I was at home in south Miami holding down the fort. David had been seriously injured, just transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital from a hospital ship.
I took the red-eye, arriving at Bethesda the next morning. It was a difficult time. I remember looking at him and wondering if they could put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There were IVs and tubes and bandages and slings and lots of medicine smells. I abhor hospitals but I've loved David for a lot of years so I did what had to be done.
I yelled at him.
I reminded him that he was a marine, a reconnaissance marine and not supposed to be hurt. I told him he promised me he'd come back in one piece. I told him he broke his promise. I told him I was going to make his life a memorable misery until he was whole again. David laughed at me, told me he expected home-cooked meals – chicken and dumplings, corn chowder and Boston crème pie – his favorite foods – and that he expected me to wait on him hand and foot. I told him he was lucky I didn't bring one of Cowboy's pistols with me and shoot him.
They shoot injured horses, don't they?
When he was stable I took him home with me and nursed him back to health. Actually, I badgered him back to health. Cowboy came home from sea duty and yelled at him all over again. It was a long and hard recuperation. When I was seriously injured a number of years later and Cowboy was back at sea, it was David who took care of me.
Now… the phone call was about Bull. He was injured in a war zone and had been flown to a hospital ship. We have hospital ships near the Persian Gulf, in the south Pacific, in the north Atlantic and I don't know where else. I don't know which hospital ship took care of him but I do know injuries have to be serious to be flown to one. It means immediate major medical intervention is necessary. It means a person's condition may not be stable enough to endure a flight back to the states or even to a European base. I was ready to fly to the hospital ship. My husband is a retired Admiral; he can call folks, arrange for us to get to that ship. I was manic. I am also just like one of the hundreds/thousands/who-knows-how-many relatives of wounded military trying to reach their loved ones.
Cowboy didn't make those arrangements. He wouldn't if he could. Like everyone else, we'd have to wait until Bull was stabilized and could be transferred elsewhere. I kicked Cowboy. I punched him, hit him, cursed him. He did what he always does when I panic. He held me until the tempest passed and said all those soothing things he knows to say when I'm hell-bent to face the enemy and slay it, whatever it is. Of course he says most of it in Italian so for all I know he's reciting a poem he memorized as a boy or listing all the entrées on an Italian restaurant menu.
A week passed before Bull was transferred to our base in England. We were making arrangements to fly there when we heard he'd be on the next transport to Bethesda. We flew into DC and drove to the hospital, arriving just before Bull got there. If it wasn't for his great height – 6 feet, 8 inches - stretched out on a gurney – I wouldn't have known it was Bull.
Only his bandaged head was visible, the rest of him covered in sheets and blankets. His face was bruised, his eyes blackened, nose broken and lips split. IVs on poles moved along with the gurney. I glimpsed a nutrition pack – had one of those once. They only give those to folks who are really sick. The blanket jostled as he was moved. I spotted a central line, too many IV gizmo attachments and other medical paraphernalia I didn't recognize. I had a hard time staying on my feet.
Bull wasn't conscious when they wheeled him in. The medics told us he was sedated to keep him calm and pain free on the trip. I found myself leaning on my husband… breathe in, breathe out, telling myself not to break down in front of Bull when he woke up.
I knew Cowboy was already saying his Aves in his head and I had a few words to say to God, too. I was angry, saddened, afraid and uncertain of Bull's future. As far as I was concerned, God had some serious explaining to do.
The medics knew Cowboy, remembered me from previous hospital stays. I was not their favorite patient and rightly so. I've always detested doctors, have good feelings toward nurses who took care of me, hate the hospital smells. They let us stay with Bull in the intensive care unit – not that they could have kept me out – even the orderlies have good reason to be afraid of me. I held Bull's hand while he slept. His wrist was broken, fingers swollen, his forearm black and blue. I wasn't sure I wanted to know what else was wrong.
Cowboy got a run down on all of Bull's injuries and exactly what happened. Most of Bull's missions were classified so he didn't share any of that with me. I don't know what internal organs and other parts were damaged, bruised, and broken. I know it will be a long recuperation. All his parts are attached but mostly broken or shattered; he has a few surgeries in his future. The medics say his heart is strong and his mind is clear – the rest will mend and heal with time – a lot of time.
I worry about his memories. What god-awful thing happened? An IED? A grenade? Mortar fire? Was he set upon by dozens of bad guys? Did he fall off a cliff? Did a tank roll over him? Will he have flashbacks? Will he know us when he wakes up? I remember his first tour – his buddy was blown up in front of him – the remains buried at sea – Bull had nightmares for months.
I want to hold him tight to me, keep him safe from whatever comes next. I want to go back in time, stop the clock, change his choices.
I'm ready to bargain with God.
It's a long night and I doze in my chair. When I wake, I'm on Cowboy's lap, his arms holding me, my head against his chest, Bull's hand still firmly held in mine.
"Bambina, lie down. I'll stay with him," my husband says.
"No," I answer. "I have to be here when he wakes up."
"Because I have to yell at him," I say. "He has to tell me why he broke his promise."
My eyes fill, tears of anguish, fear, grief, silent tears, always silent tears. Childhood taught me that; never cry aloud. Crying only attracts more unwanted attention."Can't take you down to Maple Valley, Sar. The Admiral said you just got over a bad cold; you're to stay close to home.""You are such a wuss.
I thought you were a fearless marine!"
"I'm a Devil Dog!"
"Tsk. That's what you think. I know 8-year old girls braver than you."
"You give the Admiral that kind of sass on a regular basis? I bet he spanks you for that."
"Double tsk! Is he here? No, he isn't. Either you take me down to Maple Valley or I'll go by myself."
"He pays me to keep you safe, Sar. I can't go against him."
"Well, he doesn't pay me anything at all. I'm going. You can come with or stay home and twiddle your thumbs."
"He's gonna kill me."
"So don't tell him!"
"What are you thinking about, bambina?" Cowboy asked. I was still on his lap but holding Bull's hand in mine and staring at him, willing him to wake up, willing him to heal.
"Remembering when we first met the big guy," I mused. "Some of the things we did together."
"You mean the mischief you got into, the trouble you got him into when I found out what the two of you did?" Cowboy was smiling. Nothing really gets past him. He always knows when I'm up to something.
"No mischief," I said.
"Right," Cowboy grinned. "What I call mischief, you call a wise decision at the time. That's why you get your parte inferiore warmed," he chuckled, making me roll my eyes.
"What if he doesn't wake up when the sedative wears off?" I was making myself crazy but I couldn't help it. Bull is a giant of a man – a gentle giant – I've never seen him laid low before. Even when he falls asleep on the sofa, you can tell he'll wake the moment it becomes necessary, ready to attack any trouble that happens our way.
I don't want his mama and sisters to see him like this.
"Let's take him back to Washington with us," I whisper to my husband. "I can fix him. I know I can."
"I know you can, zucca pumpkin, but his mama needs to take care of her boy."
Both of us can cook for him, nurse him back to health. His mama will also ask Jesus to watch over him. I won't do that. I'll be yelling at God for allowing this to happen. I'm not sure which of us will be successful with a greater power. I know his mama has first dibs. I won't argue that point but I know that sweet woman. I would save her the worry and fear that's bound to fill her when she sees her youngest child. I'd save her from that if I could.
"You can make lasagna for him, bambina," Cowboy suggests. "He'll smell it and wake up. That boy can't resist your lasagna."
"He really likes my apple cake, too," I add. "I could bring one of those along with the lasagna."
"Just don't make anything with peaches," Cowboy deadpans.
I smile. Cowboy doesn't like to share peachy dishes."You better get out of that tree, Sar.
The Admiral just called; he's about 10 minutes out."
"So it's been raining and you're wet, that's so what. He won't like that."
"You're such a hayseed," I told the giant man looking up at me from the ground. "I think you're afraid of my husband."
Bull smiled. It was a feral kind of smile. I saw it when he put a leg up on a low branch, about to climb up and get me.
"Better not try that, jarhead. That branch can't hold your weight. You'll break my tree."
"Either come down or I come up, Sar."
"You plan to eat at my table tonight?" I asked, crossing my arms.
"Got a date, tonight," he grinned, implying he was eating out.
"Tsk!" I muttered, yelled "Catch!" and jumped.
He caught me, swung me up into the air and spun around until I was dizzy. Got into the house and changed into dry clothes just as Cowboy got home.
Who's going to catch me now?
It was two more days before Bull woke up. I was sitting beside the bed eating my own lasagna…
"Is some of that for me?" a husky, raspy voice asked.
"No," I replied. "I made it to eat in front of you so you'd be jealous. What the hell were you thinking?" I started yelling and I yelled loudly. Nurses came running…
They did their thing, checking vitals, shushing me, telling me I had to leave. I kept yelling.
"You dumb hayseed! I told you to keep your head down! I warned you that you'd make a giant target! Why didn't you listen to me?" I pushed the nurses away, grabbed Bull's face and kissed his forehead, my tears blurring everything into a wad of wet grief.
"I love you, too," he said, his voice a mere whisper. "Now can I have some of that lasagna?"
"No lasagna," the nurses said.
I spoon fed him the bulk of it when they left the room. Later he ate the entire apple cake, threw up most of it and grinned at me. It was the apple cake taste he wanted lingering in his mouth.
"Dumb hayseed," I muttered.
Cowboy took over, talked quietly with him while I dozed. Later, Bull slept a natural sleep and I left briefly to shower, change clothes and make more lasagna. We stayed at David's condo in Virginia where I took advantage of his rarely used kitchen.
Cowboy and I stayed in the ICU with him the entire next day, talking quietly, watching him doze, and stepping aside while the medical team checked him over. They changed IV bags, brought broth for him to sip, poked and prodded him. Pretty nurses flirted with him. Even knocked on his butt, broken, bruised, black and blue, he's an awesome sight.
He has over one hundred broken, fractured or shattered bones. I didn't know we had that many bones. He'll have to learn how to walk again. He'll need help feeding himself, dressing himself, brushing his teeth. His fingers, hands, wrists, forearms are broken. He's damned lucky his spine is intact – a few bruised vertebrae.
"Good thing you have a hard head, marine. They don't call you guys jarheads for nothing."
"Then it's a good thing I'm not a squid," he grinned, a remark that made Cowboy, a former Navy Seal, arch his brows. That made me laugh."Why'd you join the Corps?" I asked one day as I slipped into the driver's seat of his Hummer.
"My daddy was a marine," he replied, picking me up over his lap and plopping me down on the passenger side of the car. "The Admiral said you're not to drive my Hummer, Sar."
"Is the Admiral here?" I asked, kicking him in the shin for good measure.
"I can't go against him, Sar."
"Why not? He's not your immediate C.O. David is."
"Can't go against him, either."
"You are such a wuss! I don't know why I put up with you."
"It's cause you love me. All the ladies love me."
It's true. Everyone who meets Bull loves him. That's his mama's doing. She instilled the best of what a man should be into her son. He didn't know his father, a marine killed in Vietnam when Bull was an infant. The man left him a legacy – dozens and dozens of letters sent home for his son to read when he was older. Honor, duty, country, love of God, love of family – the few, the proud, a true Marine.
So many internal injuries – the man shouldn't be alive. Vital organs damaged, bruised, torn… three surgeries before he arrived at Bethesda. Cowboy won't tell me the details; I'm not sure I want to know.
There are new medals on his uniform jacket – for bravery, for honorable actions above and beyond the call of duty, for courage and valor in times of war, for extraordinary combat heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force, for sacrificing himself to save others. There are phone calls and brief visits from senior ranked officers, some of whom have names you would recognize.
I don't care.
Medals represent honorable actions but they're meaningless to most people; few know what they represent. Phone calls and visits signify that Bull's actions went beyond meritorious. They're duty calls, duty visits. They won't heal his wounds. They won't erase his nightmares. They won't make him whole.
Bull was discharged from the United States Marine Corps under the most honorable circumstances. He'll stay at Bethesda until he is ready and able to move forward with his life. He'll receive a pension, continue to be eligible for medical treatment and be forever recognized as a man who served his country well.
As soon as he is physically able to stand on his own, I will beat the hell out of him for getting injured. He'll laugh at me.
I need to hear his laughter.
I need to feed him at my table.
I need to watch him nap on my sofa.
I need to see him stand on his own, walk and run.
I need to jump out of a tree and into his waiting arms.
I need to try not to smile when he teases me.
Mostly, I need to hear his laughter.