"You need a hair cut, shipmate."
His voice was sharp and clear, as if he was standing on the bow of his ship, addressing another sailor.
"You look like a hippy. We need to get you squared away, sailor."
His tone was undeniably stern. The tone he used with our son Noah when he had hit his cousin for keeping a toy too long. The tone he always used with his men.
Not when he was dead asleep.
Max's sleeptalking had often woken me in our seven years of marriage. I had never been overly alarmed about his one-sided conversations. Only curious. Sometimes he talked about ammo parts needing to be moved in the next unrep. Sometimes about shining his shoes or stowing his gear. Sometimes he spoke only in acronyms that I could not decipher in my own half sleep. He always sleeptalked about the Navy.
I was used to this. It was normal for Max to talk in his dreams when he was ready to ship out. It was a comfort to me. It told me he was worried. And that was human. That was normal.
His stern, stoic, unsmiling face was not. That was too controlled, too callous. It meant he was more focused on the mission than on leaving. But his sleeptalking, that told me he was worried. Perhaps more than his face would reveal. I nudged him awake.
"You okay? You were talking in your sleep again."
"Yeah, I'm okay." He rubbed his face. The stubble was light but I could still hear the scratch of it against his palm in the dark. "Wha'd I say?" He yawned, pulling me toward him, curling me into his chest.
"It was funny. You were yelling at someone. Said he was a hippy." He didn't laugh. He just hugged me tighter, falling back asleep. I listened to him breathe in my ear and tried to join him in rest, but my eyes were on the red numbers of my clock. They said I had twelve more hours until he was gone. Twelve more hours until he walked into another world where everyone was his shipmate and his tone would never change.
"Annie! Where are my anchors?"
I could hear him call me as I finished another coat of lipstick in the downstairs bathroom. Always, I was deemed the finder of all things lost, misplaced, or covered by the awkward placing of junk mail, the Midweek, or the T-Mobile bill.
"Did you look on the kitchen table?" I called. We were late. We needed to meet the rest of his unit and their families at the Honolulu International Airport USO before all of them were taken under military escort to their plane.
"Annie!" He sounded pissed. I made my way toward the kitchen, using my Chief's-wife-radar to find the missing naval accessories. I stopped next to the table, cluttered with Noah's preschool art, my textbooks, three saltshakers, chopsticks, shoyu, Tabasco, all things necessary to eat a meal in our household. I wondered how Max would survive eating MREs.
I pictured our bedroom. Max standing there in his khakis, pinning on his five rows of ribbons, belting his pants, the gold from his buckle a shiny mirror behind a USN Anchor, a copy of the smaller ones he was now looking for, his blue-gray eyes combing over the dresser, end table, and chest, searching for the two anchors that were symbols of his rank and years of service.
Downstairs, I lifted a picture of a cartoon firefighter that Noah had left on the kitchen table the day before. He had used red, orange and black crayon all over the page. He had not stayed within the lines. As I lifted his preschool masterpiece, a bit of gold caught my eye.
"Annie!" I heard Max's footfalls on the stairs.
"Found them." I said the two words without music in my tone. An unknown feeling of dread spread though my system. I was the finder of all items lost or covered. And at that moment I felt my role of finding the lost slipping away.
After two months, I understood what underway meant. For years it had meant the ship was out at sea, or Max was deployed somewhere foreign or domestic.
Now it meant undercover, undertow, under the weather, under dark of night.
I had not known how hard Max's being gone would be.
Yet even as I went about my day, taking Noah to preschool, driving to work in traffic, working, lunches, meetings, driving home in traffic, picking Noah up, making dinner, starting our evening, the void inside me grew.
Every night we emailed Max. Noah would draw him a picture and I'd mail off a card or a funny picture of the two of us. I envisioned him sitting down to check his secure account at the former pilots' lounge in Baghdad International Airport. It was odd that he was in an airport. A Navy man on land? I had laughed when he told me. War, for a Navy wife, meant your husband was on a ship, far away from guns, mortars, RPGs, HMDs, WMDs and anything else that blew up, drew blood, maimed, or killed. But this war was different. Very different.
We heard from Max about every two or three weeks. It was never enough for me.
The nights were the hardest. After I made dinner and we had sent off our mail, Noah would bathe and we'd read stories on the twin bed Max had put together before he left. He had said Noah needed a big boy bed now that he was the man of the house.
The man of the house at four years old.
After I finished reading the third storybook, Noah said his prayers.
"Dear Jesus, please bless my poppa. Don't let him get hurt over there. Bless Momma and Nana. Don't let Momma cry no more. Amen." His little boy voice was clear and so matter-of-fact.
I would lie next to Noah and bury myself under his covers, listening to his little chest rising and falling. I tried to find sleep where I knew I could not.
The idea for another child grew in the void where Max and our life once resided.
One Saturday afternoon, while Noah was down for his afternoon nap, and I had done the dishes and washed three loads of laundry and I could not keep still, I started to click my thoughts of a baby into an email to Max. I started to tell him that the idea of another child was in my heart. And that now I wanted one to grow in my womb. I deleted those words. Max would have found them cheesy.
But it was true. My want for another child was desperate, I knew, but the feeling seemed strong enough to have pushed its way out of my chest. I had spent the last two months of my husband's indefinite deployment to Iraq overdosing on Fox News, CNN News, Joe Moore on the weekdays, and Diane Ako on the weekends, watching for some miraculous image of Max. Knowing that would never happen and when it did I would be at Foodland picking up yet another pint of Ben & Jerry's to watch the next twenty-three hours of continuous coverage. At some point I thought maybe Geraldo Rivera would interview my stoic-faced husband, and Max would tell ole Geraldo, "Send my aloha to my wife Annie and my boy Noah in Wahiawā." Geraldo would wipe his eyes and shake Max's hand. Max would give a curt nod, turn around and get back to business. All Chief, all the time.
As I typed "Just a thought" into the subject line of the email, someone rang my doorbell.
No one I knew ever rang my doorbell. They always knocked or called, "Annie? You home?" Even the postman still called me Annie Tom, my maiden name, even though Max and I had lived across the street from Mom since Noah was born. The bell was used by Jehovah's Witnesses or the kids from the next street selling Zippy's Chili or School Kine Cookies. Stuff I didn't want or need.
In my neighborhood, a small cul-de-sac of old timers and middle-aged couples, Max and I were the second youngest on the street, next to the Tanabe girl, whom I had known since she was two and who now lived in her family home with her latest boyfriend. She was maybe eight years younger than me. Everyone else was Mom's age or older. I knew everyone and they had known me since I was ten when Mom and I had moved to Wahiawā after Dad died.
I stopped typing the email. I turned and looked at the door. Maybe the bell was my imagination. Until it rang again.
I got up from my desk and moved toward the door. As I walked through the kitchen toward the living room, I heard Noah clamor down the stairs, called by the siren of the bell. I turned the corner, my left hip bumping the china hutch. I looked down and saw one of his GI Joe's on the floor, its toy gun lying inches from its little toy fingers, its plastic leg twisted behind its back. Its blank plastic eyes stared up at me. I left it there and moved into the foyer. As I stretched out my hand to open the door, my only thought was if I had enough cash in my wallet to buy one Zippy's Chili ticket or two.
So when I saw Master Chief Fegenbush in his crisp white uniform, standing next to a strange Commander with crosses on his collars, I knew why the bell had been rung.
When Max brought home his orders for Iraq around Christmas that last year, we had been trying to have another child. We both wanted Noah to have a sibling. We both wanted a larger family. So when we thought of at least a year in Iraq and then maybe eighteen months in the Middle East, we knew we didn't want to wait too long. Noah would be almost eight years old by the time this next baby came, and we didn't want that big of an age gap. That is if we waited until the deployment finished to try again.
And then there was the issue of losing limbs or paralysis. We didn't really talk about death.
"We could save a sample. You know, like that couple in People Magazine," I suggested on a whim. Max laughed.
"You want me to leave a sperm sample because you read about some sappy widow in a trashy magazine?"
"What if we don't get pregnant before you leave?" I was getting a little anxious. We had only a few more months to try.
"What if we do?" He smiled.
Max went to see Dr. Leonard Ching, a urologist a friend had mentioned, and asked him about the sample. Dr. Ching agreed it was a good idea, in case anything happened to Max during his deployment.
"He said he had done it several times in the past. That it was pretty common." Max shrugged and handed me Dr. Ching's card. I filed it in the "Max's Deployment" file.
This happened all before Max left for his sixth deployment to the Persian Gulf. In his twenty years in the Navy, he had never been to the Middle East without a ship, he said, as he shook his head in disbelief.
Max was assigned to Baghdad International Airport as a Military Customs Officer. He was there to search cargo of all incoming and outgoing personnel and civilians.
One day, an angry man tried to shoot Max's Executive Officer during a routine cargo search. Max, the Chief, a position that required care, concern, and training of all enlisted personnel as well as junior and senior officers, entered the situation to help. Once the civilian pulled the gun, the only thing Max had to disarm him was his chest. The first bullet hit his body armor. The second hit his unarmored neck. How the gun had gone undetected on the civilian was under investigation.
A Navy man killed by a bullet. I wondered what the odds were. Didn't most Navy folk die on or over water? Not my Max. God had another purpose for him.
I wondered if God knew that a Chief was supposed to die on water, not on land.
"Chief Petty Officer Maxwell P. Bennington."
I closed my eyes as they read his name and the First Class rang a gold bell three times. I forced my eyes back open to watch the box with Max's ashes slip over the side of the ship and under the cover of the ocean.
My mother stood next to me and held Noah. I held the three-cornered flag in my arms, Max's medals pinned to its front. It was heavy with new pieces—a purple heart, a bronze star.
I would always know where these medals were. I would never have to find them for Max as he hurried down the stairs, his voice frantic and angry. My role as the finder ended the day my husband was shot in an airport far from home.
I don't remember the rest of the day. When I fell asleep that night, I dreamt I was next to the dining room table, looking for Max's anchors. I heard his voice calling me.
Annie. My anchors? Did you send me to sea without them?
I ran around the house looking and searching. Not seeing. No gold glints of metal. Nothing that said: here I am.
I heard his voice, murky under the depths.
Annie. Find me. I'm anchored at the bottom of the sea.
"Momma? Where's my Spiderman backpack?" Noah asked. His little voice still a baby. Small. Sweet. "I can't find it." He pushed on my back, his touch gentle on my body.
I lay there on my stomach in my bed. I didn't want to move. I didn't want to get up. I just wanted to lie there, staying under the covers until the pain stopped throbbing.
"Hang on, honey. Give me one more minute and I'll get up and find if for you." I smiled at him, my eyes filling with tears as I looked at his beautiful green eyes, so content.
"Okay Momma. Two minutes." He held up two pudgy fingers and ran back to his room. I heard him playing swords with himself, the sound echoing within our quiet house. I thought of him playing by himself. Always he would play by himself now. Now that Max was gone.
Until the baby came, that is. Then he would be the big brother, and he would always have someone to play with.
The pain abated a little, and I slid off my bed and stumbled into my bathroom. As I washed my face, a list started in my head.
Find Noah's backpack.
Find Dr. Ching's phone number.
Find out when Dr. Tanoue can use Max's specimen.
Find out how soon I can have another baby.
"Momma! Two minutes!" My time was up. I needed to get moving again.
The moment my foot hit the pavement next to my car, I wondered if I was ready to tackle this task. The simple duty of commissary shopping. It had been a week since Max's burial at sea. We had run out of tuna, rice, and eggs. Noah wanted peanut butter.
I didn't want to shop at the Navy Exchange commissary. I didn't want anyone to see us. It was a strange, irrational thought. The kind of thought that flashes through your mind when you see a strange man approaching when you are in an unfamiliar place. It was just grocery shopping. It wasn't like I had asked my dead husband's urologist if I could have the specimen we had given him before Max left for Iraq. Something strange and out of the ordinary, yet necessary. Which I had done this morning before leaving for the commissary.
"Mrs. Bennington, please accept my condolences about Max," Dr. Ching said the moment he came on the line. "He was a good man."
They always said that. He was a good man. What else would they say? We don't get why he went to Iraq, we don't agree with the war, but hey, somebody has to die, right? And Max, well, we all knew Max bled battleship haze gray and was ready for that Vitamin Lead wasn't he?
And I always said the same thing back. "Thank you, it's kind of you to say."
What else would I say? But with Dr. Ching I couldn't say thank you, I could only swallow my tears as I asked him to send Max's specimen to my gynecologist as soon as possible.
Dr. Ching didn't respond right away. I waited for him to talk me out of it, as my gynecologist, Dr. Tanoue, had tried to earlier that morning. I waited for Dr. Ching to tell me to go through the grieving process first, to wait until I was sure I wanted to raise another child without a husband, to wait until I knew that I wanted a child rather than trying to use the child to fill the void left by my husband.
"Of course Mrs. Bennington, I'll do that right away. Why don't you tell my nurse where you want it sent and I'll have her messenger it over from our lab." He didn't try to rationalize with me. He didn't try to talk me out of it. I laughed.
"That was easy," I said.
"Oh, yes, Mrs. Bennington, very easy. You won't have to wait long to complete the procedure, unless Dr. Tanoue has some problems scheduling the fertilization."
Dr. Tanoue's problems had little to do with scheduling, but I didn't say anything to Max's sperm doctor about that. As the conversations with the two doctors played over in my mind, I held Noah's hand and we made our way into the Commissary. Actually, he tugged me as I walked slowly through the sliding doors. I let Noah jump in and out of the doorway so he could hear the door chimes more than once.
I usually dreaded going shopping with him, because he got bored in twenty minutes and I spent the rest of the hour and a half trying to entertain him between the cereal aisle and frozen foods. But this time I knew he could play buffer to anyone who might approach me and ask too many questions. Less chance of that at Schofield versus the Navy Exchange. It was like my face was plastered on a "Widow of a Sailor" poster at the NEX.
Most of the Chief's Mess had been at the burial on the Missouri. Max always said, "Trust your brothers and sisters in the Mess, no matter what." As a Chief's wife, I knew to call on a fellow Chief first. I was supposed to call the Mess before I was to call family. That didn't always happen, but when I needed anything "Navy" done, I called Master Chief Fegenbush and he always helped me. The Master Chief had been Max's sponsor when Max had pinned on his anchors in 2000.
Max had been one of the first Chiefs from Hawaii to die in the war, so the entire Mess had shown up for the ceremony on the Missouri. And of course, they all talked. To each other. To other sailors. To other wives. Since I was a "local" and didn't live on base, more talk. I was strange to them. Relying on my family first versus the Mess first. So when I stepped foot on Pearl Harbor or the NEX, a small siren sounded at Ocean's, the Chief's lounge near Makalapa gate, and everyone knew we were present and accounted for.
Today I wanted Noah and me to be far away from that.
Yet even as I walked into the commissary, I felt as if people were looking at me. They didn't make eye contact. No one stopped me, or talked to me, but they knew. They remembered my face from the Star-Bulletin. From the Channel 8 news, while in my initial grief, I had let my classmate from Kamehameha, Diane Ako, interview me.
"How do you feel about the war, Annie?"
"The war didn't kill my husband, Diane, a man did."
That quote appeared under my picture in the paper, a long distance shot of my mother and Noah standing on the bow of the Missouri, me holding Max's flag.
The war didn't kill my husband, a man did.
The editorial page went crazy with that line. No one understood it. Was I for the war or against the war? Was I for Bush or against him? Did I blame the Navy for sending my husband over to do a peacekeeper's job? Would I burn a flag in effigy?
"What are you going to do now, Annie?" Diane asked.
I wanted to tell her about the baby. I wanted to tell her that war took Max away but it would give another life. I wanted to tell her all of this, but I knew it was too much too soon.
"Find some peace. Find some time to figure this all out," I answered instead.
Diane nodded her head sympathetically and closed the broadcast with my favorite picture of Max in his whites standing in front of the sixteen-inch guns on the stern of the Missouri. He had been stationed on the Missouri during Gulf War I. Max looked anchored to the teak deck, his arms crossed behind his back. He was so proud of the picture.
"Momma, I want a boat today." Noah reminded me where I was as he pulled my hand down the cart aisle. A woman and her two screaming kids came around the corner and she stared at my face as she passed. Her children continued to whine as she ignored them.
The "Widow of a Sailor" poster must have been passed around from base to base.
I made a mental note to shop at Foodland in Wahiawā from then on. Everyone would still stare, but they would stop once I returned eye contact. Local people were at least a little more respectful of mourning.
I wondered what people would say when I was pregnant? When I was huge and pointing my belly button at everyone?
Didn't her husband just die? And she's häpai? Those Navy wives, cannot wait until the body is cold, no?
I swallowed my desire to scream and laugh at the same time. Noah stopped me from spilling my anger and frustration out on the speckled linoleum. He led me to the cart with the plastic boat attached to its front and climbed inside, turned his little face toward me, and smiled.
"Come on, Momma. I'm the Chief of the Deck." He made propeller noises as he turned the toy steering wheel, and I pressed my hands into the push bar and sent the cart spinning down the packed aisles of food and produce, his childish sounds soothing the fear that bubbled in my chest.
We turned the corner near the seafood aisle and the lobster tank. I looked up suddenly from my list and saw Max pushing a cart up the meat aisle coming toward us.
I knew it wasn't really Max. Another irrational thought. But for a moment, the man in the desert cammies, hair freshly cut, square-jawed, a thick brush of a mustache above his lip, looked just like my dead husband.
How many times did I need to be reminded that my husband was gone? I turned my eyes away from Max's doppelganger and looked at the lobsters in their water, swirling around, my eyes blurring as I envisioned Max's face hazy on the ocean floor.
Noah stuck his head out of the cab and waved at the soldier, who smiled at him. Noah stuck his hand out for a high five. The soldier gently smacked my son's hand. Noah laughed.
"Hey, buddy," the soldier said to Noah. "That's a good looking boy you've got there, ma'am." The soldier smiled at me as he pointed at Noah.
I opened my mouth to say thank you and burst into tears. All of my crazy lunatic thoughts came crashing through.
He was a good-looking boy.
My husband was a good man.
I was the Widow of a Sailor.
I had to find what it was that would make me whole again.
And maybe another baby wasn't it.
I laughed as I cried and the soldier looked at me, a shocked expression on his face.
"Are you all right, ma'am? Should I? Can I? Um, maybe help you find something?" He stumbled with his words, and his face looked unsure and afraid at the same time.
"No, no. I think I can find everything by myself." I managed to answer. I breathed in my next set of tears. He nodded, and quietly left me with Noah, who had crawled out of the car cab.
"You okay, Momma? What happened? You got an owwie?"
The image of Max's face as he smiled and waved good-bye. His mouthing "I love you" as he walked toward his gate the last time I saw him alive. It was the same face I saw in front of me on Noah's four-year-old face. Too much concern. I wanted his little-boy look back.
"I'm good, baby." I picked him up and held him as I pushed the cart back to the front of the commissary.
We could shop another day. Today was not the day to start something new.
In my dreams Max comes and talks to me. He tells me I made the right decision.
Sometimes he asks me to find his anchors, but those dreams are beginning to be less and less. He still calls me and I float down to the bottom of the sea and let him hold me.
Soon I won't need to find him anymore.
One day when I'm ready, I'll find what I need and I'll let Max go.
And whenever I find what will fill the void he left, I'll still be the finder of all things lost—or anchored at the bottom of the sea.