Coming Home

Loving a cop means living with uncertainty.

I knew what I was getting myself into with Thomas, with falling in love with a cop. My family has a long history in the police, fire, and emergency medical services field: my mother is a nurse, my father is a paramedic and fire fighter, and my grandfather was a deputy. I have long understood the family sacrifice that is demanded and frequently unrewarded. This is why I was hesitant to date Thomas at first. He is a cop, and that means accepting — or, at the very least, resigning myself to — certain truths.

There would be long nights, some spent alone. Plans would be upended, interrupted, or cancelled altogether because of the requirements of shift work or paperwork. Drunk drivers have a way of reducing holiday dinners to paper plates covered in tinfoil; shoplifters tend to make us late for movies. I understood that Thomas would always drive fast, no matter the destination or time. Sometimes, we would run into people he had arrested — like the time he realized he had previously arrested the cook and our waitress at the local IHOP. (We stared warily at our pancakes and French toast.)

And then there is the danger. I hold onto a faith in numbers that the odds of safety are on my side, a faith that things always happen to other people. And I know how terrible that sounds, how absolutely selfish. Perhaps I should feel a bit ashamed, but I don’t anymore. I live with a ritual that cannot be broken. Before he leaves I always say, “I love you. Be safe. Do not come home with any extra holes. Just come home.” I must say this. I have to, because in the darkest recesses of my anxiety-riddled brain lies a fear that something will happen if I forget to say it.

But then, one night in April, that something happened anyway.

The call came at 12:07 a.m. I had just drifted off to sleep after an evening of thunderstorms and heavy rains. My cell phone rang on my bedside table. Even in my half-conscious state, I recognized the caller. It was Thomas. I didn’t understand why he would be calling me so late. I fumbled with the phone.

“Hello?” I mumbled.

“Steph, I’ve just shot someone.”

“Oh my god … what?”

“I’ve shot someone. Listen, don’t worry, I’m not hurt and I’ll be home soon.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I can’t recall hanging up, but I am sure I told him that I loved him. The remainder of the night was a haze of restless sleep and anxious minutes alone.

He came home at 5 a.m. and knelt down beside the bed. I reached out for him and our eyes met. I had never seen him look so pale, so flat. It terrified me instantly.

“What happened?”

He took a deep breath and began the story.

A woman awakes to strange sounds in her house. She goes downstairs and finds a man in her kitchen, holding a large butcher knife. There is a confrontation and she runs upstairs, barricading herself in the room. She calls 911. The strange man is beating on her door, working the handle. He wants her to open the door; he wants to talk to her. He says he wants to kill her.

The 911 operator dispatches the police. Thomas arrives at the house two minutes later. He is the first officer there.

As he stops his car in front of the house, he sees a man walking in the front yard. Thomas thinks he might be the homeowner or a witness so he gets out and calls to him.

The man turns around and faces Thomas, holding a butcher knife in his hand. He screams obscenities and holds the knife to his own throat.

Thomas pulls his gun and yells at the man to drop the knife.

The man won’t listen. He screams that someone is going to die tonight. He alternates between pointing the knife at Thomas and putting it to his own throat. He yells that Thomas is going to have to kill him. He yells that someone has to die tonight.

Thomas keeps ordering for him to drop the knife, drop the knife.

The man begins to walk. Thomas moves laterally, focusing on objects that he can put between them. They are circling, screaming. The knife is on his throat. Someone is going to die. Now, the knife is aimed at Thomas and he says he will kill him.

If you won’t drop the knife, then just stay still, Tom yells to him.

The man puts the knife to his own throat again. Someone is going to die tonight.

Thomas can see the lights of another officer’s car in the distance. His heart is racing. The man sees the lights too. He lowers the knife from his neck and a horrible scream, a battle cry rushes from his throat. With the knife pointed at Thomas, he begins to charge. There is a moment of recognition: Thomas cannot take this back.

This will be forever.

For both of them.

“Did he die?” I asked.

“Yes. At the hospital.”

We stared at each other. Everything had changed. I knew it and I began to cry. Thomas called his parents. I called my mother because I didn’t want her to see it on the local morning news. Once our calls were made, we held each other. I kissed him gently.

“I think you are in shock.” I said through streaming tears.

“I think you’re right.”

He was so pale and so expressionless. This was not the face of the man who cried when he first saw me on our wedding day. This was not the face of the man who smiled so sweetly when he proposed to me on a cliff in Curacao. No, not this face. I could not shake the fear that it might be permanent, and it made me sick.

Tom sat on the edge of the bed, staring at me with blank blue eyes. When he spoke again, his words chilled me.

“How does it feel to be married to a killer?”

Tears froze in my eyes. “Thomas, you’re not a killer. You were put in a horrible situation with no way out. You had to do it. You had to come home.”

“I know.” His voice was so quiet.

“Please, you can’t think of yourself that way. You are a good man and this wasn’t your fault.”

“I know.”

We sat in silence for a while. Thomas stared blankly. I cried. We did not know what was coming next. How could we?

In the days to follow, there was media coverage, investigations, meetings with lawyers and officials, and mandatory counseling. There was a significant amount of restlessness, sleeplessness, and a lack of appetite. For both of us.

Admittedly, I was emotional, possibly unreasonably so. My waking thoughts were consumed by how close I came to losing my husband. We had been married only seven months. Still newlyweds. There is no amount of bridal preparation that helps you reconcile that honeymooning first year of marriage with the notion that you came inches from being a widow.

What-ifs consumed me. What if that man had had a gun instead of a knife? What if he had gotten closer? What if Thomas had hesitated just a second longer? Wasn’t it just last weekend that we sat in a booth at Market Street pub with our friends? We laughed and drank and sang along as a man with a guitar played “Simple Man.” I remember staring down into my glass, swirling the honey-colored liquor and ice, thinking that we had it all. Nothing could come between us. Sitting in that neon lit booth, with a nice haze settling over my eyes, I didn’t care how clichéd my life might have looked or sounded. At that moment, we were happy.

But what was I supposed to do now? The fragile bubble of safety had been ruptured. I felt exposed and uncertain — all the time.

Thomas was not sleeping. At night, I went to bed; at night, he watched television until he passed out for a few brief moments. I would lie awake and listen and the tears came quickly.

We learned about the man. I won’t name him here. As it turns out, he was mentally ill and had been hearing voices and threatening violence to himself and others. He should have been in a hospital. When I learned this, it became a double tragedy — suddenly I found myself unable to hate the man who tried to kill my husband. There was no one left to blame. My anger and fear and frustration were all mine to bear.

Thomas was stoic in counseling, and it scared me. Our life was sand slipping through my fingers. He held my hand and promised me that everything would be fine. I wanted to believe him. I stared into his beautiful blue eyes, searching for confirmation and what I saw was a man who truly believed that, a man who needed to believe that.

The state investigation of the shooting cleared Thomas, stating it was justified and reasonable. The vindication lifted a visible weight from his shoulders and he began to resemble the old Thomas again. Over the next few days, he started sleeping in our bed again. His appetite came back. I even saw a smile. And then the inevitable came. We were standing in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner.

“Steph, you know I have to go back to work.”

“I know. I hate it, but I know it.”

“I have to get back because the longer I stay out, the harder it will be for me.”

“I understand. It’s just that I almost lost you out there and it’s hard for me to let you go again.” I fought the tears and won.

“I’m sorry.”

He pulled me to him. I buried my face in his barrel chest. “I’ll be okay,” he said. “I promise. I have too much waiting for me at home.”

When I realized I was in love with Thomas, I reconciled myself to a list of concessions. Beyond the lousy hours, minimal pay, and physical exhaustion, the most serious concession is that he does not belong to me most of the time. In that uniform, he belongs to everyone. He is a sworn protector of children, of the battered wives, of the weak, and of the wronged. There will be those who seek to hurt him, to injure him, to kill him. He will be punched and kicked, bitten and spit upon. Some will threaten him with words, others with weapons. But he will never back down. Never.

Thomas received a Silver Star from the police department for his bravery on the night of the shooting. The Chief said that he saved a woman’s life that night, potentially others as well. But to him, it’s his job — it’s what he knows, what he is good at. It is his family tradition: Thomas’s grandfather was a homicide detective in the NYPD; his uncle worked the NYPD Bomb Squad during and after the September 11th attacks.

Months have passed since the shooting, and yet it remains in our lives. We’ve moved ahead, to concentrate on our life together, but I cannot deny that it feels different. We take less for granted. Time spent together is appreciated. Arguments are not allowed to stand. I remain constant to my ritual parting words before he leaves for a shift.

I count my blessings every time he opens the back door.

Article © 2009 by Stephanie Fowler