by Kara Maletta-Howe
An officer’s spouse must always be ready for the worst. But who is there to support her when the worst is realized?
As I sat there with swollen ankles and a protruding belly, I don’t think it hit me right away.
I was more focused on the birth of our first daughter instead of the other reality that was about to take over our lives. I could feel the sweat on both palms as my hands met with each clap. It wasn’t because I was nervous as I heard them call his name. I actually didn’t have any worries as he walked across the stage and received his diploma. My heart did slightly swell with pride watching him commit to such an honorable career; however, if I had known what I do today, my emotions would have been different. I was ready to support him in his new position, but no one told me about mine. A police officer’s wife sounded lovely, but my new title may have been somewhat deceiving.
His foot beat began in West Philadelphia in the heat of the summer, and even that didn’t seem to faze me. Our screaming newborn consumed most of my thoughts. It wasn’t until she turned 6 months old and I had the opportunity to sleep that the worry set in.
One unforgettable day, the house was sparkling, and the aroma of sweet red peppers stuffed with sausage and potatoes was intoxicating. The clicking sound of the slow cooker switching to warm startled me. I grabbed my phone to check for a text. He always called on his way home. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest. For the first time I began to panic. Not because I feared that my delicious dinner would over cook but because my husband was two hours late.
One phone call and a couple texts didn’t satisfy my need to reach him. What scared me the most is that I didn’t receive the annoying “busy” text which I usually got when I tried to contact him at work. I called about 10 more times.
My body tremored as I rocked my baby girl. I fought back tears and all the terrifying thoughts about what could have possibly happened to her father. We sat there for one more unbearable hour. Then my phone rang.
“Hey,” he said.
I gave him a brief second to explain before completely breaking down.
“I had a late arrest,” he said.
At this point, my uncontrollable sobs turned into pure anger.
“I thought you were dead,” I screamed.
“Someone would have come to the house and told you.”
Great, now I would forever be petrified of the doorbell.
Just when I thought I had moved on from those sleepless nights that come along with a newborn, I wondered, will I ever rest again?
The good news was that with his rotating shift of night and day work came with two days off each week. When he was home, I could relax. The bad news was a consistent RSVP for two. This was sad considering we recently became a family of three. At least I could plan ahead for weekends he would have off every three months.
Then came the issue of what to do on those highly anticipated days. Which side of the family would we visit? Where would we go? In all fairness, his days were long. Arriving in court for a day full of testifying, then eight hours on the night shift patrolling the streets. I couldn’t help the need to be selfish. I craved the family time. I still do. But how could I blame him?
Years passed, and we started to get into the groove of this life. The worry, the loneliness and the fear of the unknown were always there with me, but they became my norm. I too was busy with my own job. Maybe not as impressive as his but just as important and probably sometimes just as scary. We had two kids and one on the way. It is hard work being a mom, and even harder having to be a fill-in dad sometimes, too.
Our children have come to the grips with the fact that it’s usually just me tucking them in at night. On one particular evening, I can clearly remember their difficulty settling in. I often ponder if perhaps they had a feeling, one of those gut-wrenching sensations that are tough to ignore. I was bothered by their reluctance to go to sleep but also was suspicious of my own feelings.
I was finally able to put myself into bed much later than expected. Catching up on one of my favorite TV drama series, I couldn’t fight the feeling that something was wrong. I figured it might just be because one of my favorite characters was killed in the show or possibly because I seemed to be full of emotions recently. After all, I was eight months pregnant.
At some point I fell asleep and by coincidence was awakened by the need to use the bathroom, which wasn’t out of the ordinary thanks to my squished bladder.
It was always a challenge stumbling back to bed in the dark. The blackout curtains were a necessity so my husband could sleep during the day when he was on night shift. I reached for my phone for light and to check the time.
Usually, I’m temporarily blinded by the brightness in my eyes; however, the text written across the screen was clear as day.
It read, “My partner was shot, but I think he will be OK.”
My mind spun like a merry-go-round trying to gather its thoughts.
“Hey Siri, call Tom,” I muttered.
My shaking hands did not have the ability to dial his number.
He answered on the first ring, and I couldn’t tell if his calmness was for me or if he was in shock from what had just happened. He quickly shared the story of a man who fled his vehicle after a car stop and fired at his partner when confronted. He understandably rushed me off the phone as he was approaching the hospital. Hearing his terrified voice scared me to the core.
“I have to go be with my partner now,” he said.
I used to giggle when he referred to his co-worker as his partner, although it didn’t take me long to realize he was just that. He was his brother, his best friend and now his life was in jeopardy.
I cried the rest of the night. My tears fell hard for his partner and his family, for my kids and their commitment to a life they didn’t get to choose and mostly for my husband who witnessed the unimaginable. I cried for myself, too. I knew April 23 would always hold a dark cloud over our lives. I knew it would haunt my thoughts forever.
Through text messages I received word that his partner would be OK. Thankfully he would recover from the bullet wound in his right shoulder. As I waited up through the rest of the night, I thought a lot about how my husband and his partner would recover emotionally? How could they survive this horrific ordeal? Could I survive it?
When my husband finally arrived home the next morning, I asked if he was all right. He looked at me as if I had asked him a silly question.
“I’m fine,” he replied.
Was that it? I stayed with him as he drifted off to sleep, never getting a full story of the previous night’s events. I watched him rest peacefully until it was time to wake the kids up for school.
I greeted them with the usual smiles and tickles. We chatted through breakfast and giggled the whole way to school. I think I hid my sadness pretty well. I sighed with relief as they left the car. They went about their day untainted. I didn’t know how I was going to get through mine.
When my husband woke late that afternoon, I was given all the details. I couldn’t imagine how he could be mentally prepared to return to another day on the job, but he was. I often forget the strength and courage it takes to muster through his line of work, but he does it continuously.
I, on the other hand, am not built that way. Every story I’ve heard in the last 10 years about what happens on the job has affected me. Every missed birthday or Christmas, every disappointment in my children’s eyes, every sleepless night, every worry of the unknown, every fear that he won’t come home breaks a little piece of my heart.
I often throw myself a pity party for the daily emotional burdens I bear, but I’m still dedicated to my job. I will support my husband forever, even when others won’t. I’ll stand up for him through it all and will shield my sorrow from him and our children the best I can. At the end of the day I will have his back, but I will always wonder … If something ever does happen to him, who will have mine?
Kara Maletta-Howe is a lifelong resident of Chestnut Hill. She and her husband Tom are raising three kids in the same house she grew up in with her parents, Linda Maletta and the late Tony Maletta. Kara has a passion for writing truths about her life, specifically those that depict the adversity of being married to a Philadelphia police officer. Tom Howe began his career with the Philadelphia Police Department in November 2008.