I came across an old photo album the other day looking for pictures of my soon-to-be 16 year old son for his birthday. I have a dozen photo albums; all from before the time of digital photos. Although my intention was to find chubby cheeked pictures of my son, when I flipped open this particular album, I stopped, sat down and looked at each and every photograph. The album consisted of my husband’s police academy graduation day or better known as, “The Day I Pinned it On.”
I pulled out a photo and looked closely at the girl holding a little blonde boy wrapped in a denim jacket and standing next to the man wearing a Phoenix Police uniform. The girl looking back at me was young, just twenty years old, with long spiral curled blonde hair and sparkling eyes. She stood there proudly beside the man she loved getting ready to participate in the ceremony that would carry him into the ranks of law enforcement. As I looked at that photo, I wondered, “What would I say to that fresh-faced, little girl if I had the chance to sit with her a while on that day fifteen years ago?” This question bounced around my head for several days, until I finally sat down and wrote this letter:
What an exciting day! There are so many new sights and smells and noises--radios and guns and handcuffs. You’re just barely starting your lives together, although to you having been married for two years with a ten month old son, you feel like you know everything already. Now here you are after months of helping him study traffic laws and criminal codes, watching him demonstrate take down moves and listening as his language changed. You’re so proud! Look at him standing in formation with other municipal and state officers. One of these men or women may save his life one day. He looks so distinguished in that new uniform even though there are still traces of chapped skin above his mouth from those cold, cold morning runs up South Mountain. You had wanted to help him iron his uniform for today but he insisted on doing it himself. It had to be perfect. He spent hours starching, lint rolling and shining. His hair is freshly cut and his face cleanly shaven. He shines as brightly as his name plate, “Howard”. Officer Howard. How funny that sounds to you, especially after that time you both kept saying it over and over again laughing with childish glee after he received the acceptance letter. He kept smiling long after you had stopped because you had a sudden realization he could get hurt or even killed doing this work.
They’re putting up the flags now. He’s on the honor guard. Of course, he is. He always wanted to be the best at everything he did. He snaps to attention proudly and marches in perfect cadence with the others. His military background really shows in his proud movements. Even when you were stationed together, you never saw him so crisp and sharp. You just want to jump up pointing and shout, “That’s my Baby, right there. Do you see that officer down there? That’s MY HUSBAND!” But you don’t. He’s already talked to you about the community’s expectations of his personal actions and how you are an extension of him. You are now an officer’s wife and must conduct yourself as such.
After the flag line, you have a few hours to kill before the ceremony. You’re surrounded by his family and closest friends. Everyone keeps talking about how he’s always wanted to be an officer and how he’s worked so hard and how this will be the biggest challenge of his life. You’re excited for him but feel a bit left out as everyone gathers around him talking about his accomplishments. You try to get closer to him but he is surrounded by his academy buddies. They’re swapping stories about the time they’ve spent together and you’re trying to comfort and quiet a now fussy baby. Finally, you take your son outside leaving the festivities behind. As the door shuts, it closes off the sounds of excited chatter and you are left outside. Wife and child on one side; co-workers on the other. This should be a good lesson for you, but in your youth and inexperience you don’t notice.
Fast forward to the ceremony. You’re sitting in the audience with your husband standing proudly on stage. You’ve changed into your best dress. It’s burgundy lace. The color matches your lipstick. This is it! When he walks off that stage he will be a Phoenix police officer. He will be an enforcer of laws; keeper of the peace; servant of the greater good. Listen closely now, his company commander, Sergeant Cota is speaking to the families. He’s telling you about the calling that your husband is entering into. This is not just an occupation. Only a select few make it through the process and the training to be standing up on that stage. AND, this is just the beginning. As the family, you will be expected to make sacrifices—sacrifices of time (you’ve already experienced the beginning of that when you finally had a weekend for just the two of you and a major storm came through and instead of a romantic evening with you, he ended up spending the night with his academy mates on the top of the mountain with the radio transmitters). Sgt. Cota explains the person you love will never be the same. The streets will change him. “What’s that suppose to mean,” you wonder silently. He continues telling you that he will experience things you will never know. He will share times with his squad that you won’t and can’t understand. Now your excitement is tethered with a veil of uncertainty. Your joy blending with trepidation. These mixed feelings, sweet girl, get used to them.
At times you will both love and hate your husband’s job. Often these feelings will extend to him personally as it’s easy to blame. You will be furious and frustrated. You will feel let down and left behind. You will be both extremely jealous of the closeness of his partners and also incredibly grateful for their loyalty to him. You will shed numerous tears and scream into your pillow especially when the job keeps him from you when you really need him and a break from feeling like a single parent and a widow. At the same time, you will have moments of extreme pride like the time he tells you about saving a 5 year-old girl’s life or running down a felon. You will feel moments of terror when all you want is for him to come home, take off his uniform and promise to never hit the streets again. There will be times when he walks through the door and you can’t get your arms around him fast enough and times when all you want to do is shove a crying child at him and hide under your blanket.
He’s taken the oath now. There’s no turning back. He’s in. You’re in. He walks off the stage and hands you his badge. You’re so nervous, you have a hard time pining it on. Other wives don’t seem to be having any problem. For the first time, those comparisons start; that competition where a sense of camaraderie should exist. Finally, it goes on and you wrap your arms around this person who will never be the same. Life will never be the same.
My advice to you…
Be patient. Be kind. Remember the man under the uniform. This new label, “cop” doesn’t define him although it does alter him. Listen, but also speak your peace. Be able to hear his stories and also the needs he expresses underlying the words. Be strong and gentle. Provide a safe place where he can process the pain of the world. Take care of yourself. Take time to pursue your passions. Read. Write. Reach out to others. Offer the arms that unconditionally love him even when he feels he failed. Love him, the man you married before you pinned on the badge. The weight can be a burden. Love him in spite of it. And, most of all, keep a sense of humor. You’re going to need it.
Your older self.
About The Author:
Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.