Close Calls and Retroactive Panic


I knew something was up as soon as I opened the email. It was from my husband, but in place of Sampson’s familiar address was the name of one of his squadronmates. In what was obviously a message dashed off in haste on an unfamiliar keyboard, Sampson explained that he was writing from his buddy’s cell phone.

“We had an incident, but everyone is ok,” he wrote, “safe on deck.” He told me that he loved me, and the rest of his day would be busy but he would try to call later.

As I blinked my bleary eyes, I read the email over again. And again, with the strangest sense of muted alarm oozing through my sleep-hazed brain. It was not Sampson’s habit to email me after a normal flight; the unusual communication pegged my Something’s-Not-Right-O-Meter. I tried to squelch the feeling — he’d said he and the other guys were all right, hadn’t he? Logic would dictate that I had no cause to worry after the fact.

With deliberate calm, I read other email, checked my usual webcomics, and scanned my blog reader before heading downstairs to my parents’ den — I was visiting family for the first time this deployment — for a cup of tea. I said nothing to my folks, having no real information other than that Sampson was “OK,” which should not, after all, be big news. Caffeine and routine did little to shake the surreal feeling that something was off, but I resolved to sit on it pending further data.

That data came in the form of a Skype call. As I sat on the guest bed with my laptop perched on a box in front of me, I saw my husband looking as beat as I had ever seen him, the way a person looks after the adrenaline of an intense experience abandons the body all at once. Sampson confirmed my suspicions that his earlier flight had been far from normal; in fact, they had experienced a mid-air emergency that could have killed them. It came within a hair’s breadth of doing so.

As the details unfolded, my own adrenaline spiked the way it had threatened to do all morning, ever since I woke up to that weird email. I stared at the pixelated video image of my husband, safe and sound and in one piece, and tried to process the fact that if events had turned out just the slightest bit differently, I might never again have seen or heard my husband alive. Instead of listening, wide-eyed and breathless, as Sampson told me exactly what happened and how he and the other pilot managed to land the aircraft safely, I would have been unaware that anything was wrong until I heard a knock at the door and found a solemn-faced man or woman in uniform there to inform me.

That realization touched off a train of thought — retroactive anticipatory grief, perhaps? — that made my stomach drop all the way through the floor. I was at my parents’ house. Before I left home, I committed a major no-no: I did not tell anyone in the squadron where I would be for those weeks. If the day had turned out how we were thanking our lucky stars it hadn’t, the squadron would have had a hard time tracking me down for next-of-kin notification. Sobering thought, that. It terrified me; you can bet I will never again leave town without telling someone at the command my precise address ahead of time.

In the aftermath of the incident, though, one irrational thought has persisted in niggling me at odd times. It bothers me that when my husband was facing the most dangerous, frightening event of his life, I was sound asleep and completely unaware how close I came to waking up a widow. Absurd as it might be, I actually feel guilty for not knowing that I should have been worried in the first place. I know it’s preposterous even to imagine some sort of magical long-distance danger sense, functioning like Mrs. Weasley’s clock in the Harry Potter books, but the emotional brain cares not for scientific reassurances. I guess I just hate the idea that life could be turned upside down without any warning. It’s uncomfortable to think what can, has, and does happen to people, none of whom are given “fair” time to steel themselves against it.

Things are pretty well back to normal now, but I still have to tell myself (quite sternly, sometimes) that all those harrowing might-have-beens did not happen. It was a close call, but everyone — as Sampson told me right off the bat in that otherwise cryptic email — was OK. We move on, and it’s back to business as usual in this military life.

Has your spouse ever had a “close call?” Did you have a nice little retroactive freak-out like I did, or were you able to shake it off as something not to dwell on?

About the Author

To the Nth

In the course of the decade since she accepted a certain Annapolis-bound young man's invitation to the senior prom, To the Nth has found herself a midshipman's girlfriend, a student pilot's fiancée, and a Naval Aviator's wife. As the couple's first sea tour unfolds, she discovers anew each day that life with a husband in "the fleet" is quite a different ballgame from the flight school experience.

To the Nth, being unable to keep her head (along with the rest of her) out of the clouds, devotes her volunteer time to Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force. She is a qualified Mission Observer, trained to fly as a member of the aircrew in operations ranging from search and rescue to homeland security.

She maintains a personal blog and a Twitter account, either of which may, without warning, be used to inflict pictures of her cats on the Internet at large.

  • Amy

    I will never feel so guilty as I did sitting in the back of that memorial knowing that I should be sitting next to the person in the front row and reliving the whole time every detail shared with me about what happened.

  • Andi

    My heart was pounding while reading your post. So very happy that Sampson is safe. I don’t think any of this is absurd. A “retro freak out” is totally understandable. I think you’ve coined a new term, and I’m willing to bet many, many spouses have experienced this.

  • As I read this post, I am remembering that same feeling of the “retro freak out” from when my husband got home and told me of a near-miss on the ship he was on, not only missing ramming one ship, but also missing being rammed by yet another. Another potentially deadly near-miss. I am sure there are many who can identify with your feelings! So glad for you that Sampson is safe!!

  • jessica

    just recently, me and my husband are skying. not video but call. so i couldnt see anything. one minute we are being super gushy, the next… dead silence. and not but 2 secounds later i hear the sirens go of. it was the worst sound i have ever heard. and ive heard women talk about this happening before. but i just had no idea how it would feel. and its not like my husband said “sorry honey, gotta go, love you bye”. he didnt have time for that. instead i hear silence and sirens. i completely broke down and sobbed for an entire hour until he called back. i knew that more then likely he’d be fine… but like you felt with the first e-mail… i knew something was going on. and could it be MY husband in the line of fire. so scary. if theres such a thing as “retroactive anticipatory grief”… i had it that hour i waited for his phone call.

  • DL Sly

    I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the easy availability of communications are good or bad. During the first years of the Afghan and Iraq wars, communications were sparse at best, and for that I’m kinda glad. Otherwise I would have worried myself grey (ok, fine, Andi…grey…errr) had I known about the AK-47 round lodged over MH’s heart in his second-chance vest (no body armor then) or the bullet entering then exiting the left side of his kevlar (yes, KEVLAR) helmet. As it was, I didn’t know about them until he came home with his gear where I saw them up close and personal. At that point, though, he was safely home.

  • Julia Hugo Rachel

    We have an unspoken rule. he doesn’t ask me what happened and I don’t ask him. We accept the unspoken. But sometimes, there is “that look between us” and I know it was bad. recently, I was the one in agony. Not talking about it is as bad as going through it. Another part of me, says “thats part of the job”. I am grateful for the little things….like the time we got together last weekend. I don’t even know what normal couples are like. I can’t imagine.

  • I think this is a proximal extension of the near-miss phenomenon. I was shooting my rifle at a range afew months ago, when I noticed that one of the rounds I had loaded (I was looking up at the time I popped it in) was seriously screwed up. Probably would have made the rifle blow up in my hands. All I could do was look at the rifle and wonder why I happened to catch the problem when it was that deep in the mag. What would my status be if I hadn’t?

    Just the brain coping with the unknown or uncontrollable, I think.

  • Sarah

    This reminded me of when blogger and SB commenter Sis B got a knock on her door…and the men in uniform were at the wrong house:
    I know she had nightmares about this for a long time…

  • Jennifer

    GI Joe & I have had the “what to tell the wife & what not to tell the wife” discussion, but I still get more than I want to know sometimes. He’s at premob right now, been running pseudomissions. One mission he became a “acceptable loss of assets” as he put who “was executed in town square”…but the unit completed the mission. While I am glad it happened here, so they can learn from their mistakes, in those dark hours of the night when you can’t sleep I cannot help but think: “What happens when it is someone seriously bent on killing them, not just instructing?”

    • Jennifer

      Ah crikey! Why did it use my real name instead of my user name!! At the very least it shouldn’t show my last name.

  • Wendy

    My “retro-freak” happened months after my husband redeployed from Iraq. He came home one afternoon to inform me that his award had finally been approved. My response was, “The one where you called in the medivac for your commo guys?” His response was, “No, for when my humvee rolled over an IED 3 weeks before I came home.” First time I’d heard of the incident! I had nightmares for weeks after that and had a really hard time when he deployed again last year.