Officer Audrey Arbuckle

Crete Police Department, Nebraska

Family Is What You Make It

Family /ˈfam(ə)lē/

noun

“The basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children.”

 

I grew up in society’s definition of a “normal” family. I had two parents and a younger sister. The crazy thing about society is that they never get to see what goes on inside of that “normal” family.

Growing up for me was a never-ending adventure. I made the decision to go into law enforcement for several reasons, but the biggest was my mother, Laura. I watched this strong woman battle demons her entire life. When I was younger, I wasn’t aware of what she was going through and would do my best to distance myself from her. I was trying to keep myself from getting hurt, the more I think about it. I didn’t understand what bipolar disorder was and that I was part of the chaos associated with my mom’s manic and depressive phases. I watched her struggle with things she couldn’t control and I knew I wanted to be a person who could help not only her, but also others going through the same situation. I knew for a long time I wanted to go into law enforcement, but I didn’t feel like my choice was entirely supported by the people around me.

At 18, I was beyond ready to branch out. I was ready to leave my family and go somewhere on my own. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was ready to make my own family.

Now, let me stop you right there because I can see where that sentence may lead. I didn’t run off to have children. I could barely cook ramen on a stovetop at 18 and I promptly learned that year that I couldn’t even keep a betta fish alive. I was ready to pick my new family, all of whom would be approximately my age, with below-average cooking skills, and who also could hardly keep betta fish alive.

I wanted to make my own family through friends, through people who would support me no matter what my choice was. At the time, I felt like I wasn’t getting it from the family I had grown up with.

My dad always had very high expectations for me. Even though I’m 27, I’m pretty sure he still does. Without him, I wouldn’t have received a college lacrosse scholarship. The first day after lacrosse practice in high school I got into the car and cried. I wanted to quit. It was really hard, and when it had come time to partner up for drills, I didn’t have a partner. His response?

“Listen, we just paid $90 to enroll you in lacrosse and it’s too late to get a refund. I’m not wasting $90 so you can just quit. You’re going back tomorrow and you’re finishing out the season.”

Gee, thanks, Dad.

Except, in hindsight, he was right. I ended up being a varsity lacrosse player, making Team Colorado my senior year and having my pick of several colleges to attend and play lacrosse. Tough love is his style. It was no different on our drive to the now defunct Dana College, in Nebraska, where I would be touring campus and meeting with my advisor for the major I had decided on.

Dad, of course, wanted me to be a lawyer. I mean, I had just spent the last 18 years of my life arguing with him nonstop about literally anything, so he had a valid reason. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car on I-80 trying to think about how I was going to break the news to my parents. I’d actually tried writing it down, but I’m not really good at writing — hence the nearly four weeks it took me to sit and stare at the computer screen and type out this mess of words.

“Hey, uh, so…”

All this planning had clearly paid off.

“Guys, before we get to Dana I need to talk to you. I’m meeting with my advisor later tomorrow after my campus tour. Since you guys are going to meet with my advisor before me, I want you to know who you’re meeting.”

I remember catching Dad’s gaze from the rearview mirror and suddenly forgetting what I was going to say. He was not going to be pleased. At all. Not even a little. But there was Mom, turning to face me and smiling. Definitely trying to be supportive. Except I had already seen her cry a few times after making my decision to run off to Nebraska, of all places. I had very strategically not told them about my decided major until this exact moment.

“So, you’re going to be meeting with the criminal justice advisor, and I am going to apply to be a cop after I graduate.”

Cue probably the worst thing I could have said in a small metal box hurtling down the road at 75 miles per hour. Did I mention we still had to drive across the entire state of Nebraska? Note to self: You are far less strategic than you thought.

“A cop? Audrey don’t make that decision right away. You’re so smart. You could apply for law school after you graduate, and this is just a great stepping stone to understand a lot of the system you’ll be working in.”

(Dad, this is where I tell you that I still add the fines on all my tickets with my fingers while counting out loud. I’m only sort-of smart.)

I now had one of two decisions to make:

  1. Keep my mouth shut and just let my parents accept this decision.

  2. Argue with my dad and prove him right about being a lawyer because arguing.

I wanted to argue, but I could see my mom was about to cry again and I was, honestly, more upset than anything. I didn’t feel supported and it felt like the excitement about my future had been extinguished in an instant. I pushed this conversation to the back of my head and enjoyed the rest of the day with my parents.

The next day at Dana I toured campus and met my future teammates. I also met several people who ended up becoming my future family. That afternoon, I met one of the individuals who really pushed me to pursue my dreams: Dr. Sasse.

I sat in front of him eager to learn about my major. This was the man who ended up being my professor for over half of my classes in college. Our first meeting went very well.

“Arbuckle. I met your parents earlier, your mom cried.”

The rest of my high school year was a blur. Graduation went so fast that I honestly don’t remember most of it. Summer was an adventure because Dana College abruptly closed and I stumbled onto Midland University’s campus in Fremont, Nebraska. I had told my dad on our second trek across the great state that I wasn’t entirely decided about attending Midland. We expertly avoided the topic of my chosen future profession. I knew my dad was proud of me for getting an athletic scholarship and that was what I carried with me to keep my spirits up.

When we got to the campus, I was hesitant at first. I had picked Dana because I had fallen in love with it, and now I was crunched for time: Six weeks until the fall semester started and I didn’t have a college. Rest assured, just like the chaos of the last 18 years, this was a ride as well. My college coach had apparently already decided my future for me.

“So, you have a campus tour starting at 10 over there at Anderson. They’ll show you around the entire campus, then you’ll meet with a group of people in the library and pick the classes that you want. I already got your transcripts to the admissions office and your acceptance letter will be given to you after you schedule all your classes.”

Right. That was an easy decision, I guess. I felt a bit lost. I had been really excited about making my own decisions, about forming my own family. For a brief moment I looked at my dad, but I never said anything. I signed up for classes, got my schedule and dorm assignment, and then remembered the lessons I had learned up to this point.

If it was too late to quit lacrosse all those years ago, it was too late to go back on this decision. I’ll admit I was still a little excited. This was still a new chance for me. I was leaving Colorado, I was leaving my family, and I was going out on my own. This was my chance to form my own support system and get that new family. It was just decided for me.

Cue move-in day.

I don’t remember much. I remember carrying things to the third floor of a dorm hall built in the 1920s. There wasn’t any air-conditioning. I knew one girl. We had met at Dana signing up for classes, met again doing the same thing at Midland. My dad hugged me tighter than I ever remember. My mom cried. My sister was probably just excited to get rid of me. They left. My family walked out the door.

I promptly did not cry because I was forcing myself to be excited. This was my new start, my chance to grow apart from my family and truly define myself. By “truly define myself” I mean I suddenly had this newfound love for my mom and I literally spent my entire first semester calling her after every morning class. Sometimes I was crying because I wanted to go back home. Other times I was telling her about anything I could to keep her on the phone.

It was ironic, really, I had wanted to grow apart from my birth family and I instead grew so close to my mother that I wanted to move her into my tiny dorm with me. We never got along while I was growing up; we were so similar that we always argued. That first year in college really taught me how important she was to me.

Until April 23, 2011, I had no idea that my mom was really the person holding my blood family together. We lost her unexpectedly. The family I had made at Midland felt like the only family I had after she was gone. My younger sister was practically an adult. My dad wasn’t like my mom when it came to long phone calls.

My return to campus was difficult, but my professors were all aware of what had occurred. It was so close to finals that I was excused and given the grades I had prior to my loss. But what comforted me the most was I was going back to a family.

It was a pivotal point in my life for so many reasons, but what I remember most was the family I had made. My friends who had taken me to their houses and “adopted” me. I felt so lost, but it was hard to feel alone. I didn’t have the “normal” family anymore, the one that society had seen me with. Instead, I had a large group of people who all supported each other.

The rest of the time I was in college I grew closer to my chosen family. I stopped going to Colorado for the summer. I got jobs and found places to live (in a basement about 30 minutes north of Fremont for one summer, in an apartment in the middle of town for another) like some nomad. I utilized my roommate’s early move-in to the dorms to sneak in and move in early, too (and I’m only sharing this because I don’t think I can get in trouble for it anymore).

I felt disconnected from my family back home. I had long ago decided I was going to go into law enforcement and my goals never strayed from that. Despite that, I still did my best to tell my dad what was happening with my future. I told him about the internship I was lucky enough to get. He was the first person I called when the Crete Police Department, in Nebraska, told me that I was in the top three for their hiring choices.

On Nov. 13, 2013, I remember sitting in my on-campus apartment. My college roommate-turned-sister Hannah was sitting on the couch next to me. I was nervous because my interview with the mayor of Crete, the late Roger Foster, and my future chief, Steve Hensel, had been the previous day. I had a feeling the interview hadn’t gone too well.

“Okay, Ms. Arbuckle, now that we are done asking you questions, do you have any questions for us?”

I remember sitting across from Chief Hensel and spending nearly the entire interview telling myself to not wiggle in the chair, to breathe and not talk fast. I mostly remember telling myself to not say anything stupid, and it went about as well as you might imagine.

“Yeah, so… How did I do?”

They all laughed. In that instant I wanted to go back to Fremont and be with my new family. I told them that story and we laughed. I told my dad the interview had gone well because I was too embarrassed to tell him what had actually happened. I was already pursuing a career I knew he wasn’t happy about. I didn't want to give him anything to use against me as I moved forward with my choice.

When my phone rang that day on the couch with Hannah, I told her if it was Crete, it meant I wasn’t getting the job. The packet I had received when I applied said the individual who got the job would be receiving a phone call on Monday, not Friday.

I answered it and Chief Hensel introduced himself. My heart sank even further. That same packet also told me it would be the late Mayor Foster on the other end. So, I braced myself to hear what I expected and immediately tried to go through what I would tell my dad in the subsequent phone call minutes later.

Instead.

“This is Chief Hensel and I am calling you to inform you that we are conditionally offering you a job at the Crete Police Department.”

If you have learned anything about me by now, you should be well aware that I am careful with my words and strategically plan out what I am going to say in all situations.

“Wait … are you kidding me?”

See, careful and strategic. (Also, he wasn’t kidding and he’s had to put up with me since then.)

The phone call to my dad was still filled with excitement for me. I was just months away from graduating from college and I had a job. Not just any job, my dream job. The job that I had told my parents about all those years ago. I remember being so excited I could hardly select the contact on my cell phone. I was shaking and Hannah was hugging me. It was the happiest moment of my entire life.

It was a little less exciting when I asked my dad if he was proud of me, because I could tell there was something wrong. I pushed those thoughts away and told him I would keep him informed.

The feeling from that phone call didn’t last long because I was thrown right back into my new family. I walked into Midland’s cafeteria, a mostly empty place on a Friday evening. The people that stayed, they were my family. The people I had spent the last three and a half years with. We supported each other. I didn’t know it, but Hannah had sent a text to them all informing them of what had happened.

I walked into the cafeteria to get dinner and my family all stood up, clapping and cheering. That was the acceptance I needed and that is what family is all about.

The last time I went back to Colorado for an extended visit was Christmas of 2013. I spent two weeks with my dad and younger sister. It bounced between feeling amazing and kind of tense. I didn’t talk much about what my future would be when I returned to Nebraska. When I left, my dad hugged me really tight and told me to be careful. He told me he loved me.

I remember staring at him, feeling a sense of pride because I knew he had done his best with me. I never once knew how we were struggling financially. I never felt unloved. Even though I was running off to do something I knew he wasn’t the biggest fan of, I still set out to make him proud.

There is one amazing thing about law enforcement that nobody tells you about. It’s something that is hard to describe. When you get that badge and you take an oath to protect your community, you suddenly have thousands of brothers and sisters. I’m not just talking about your agency, because that’s like your immediately family. That’s like your mom and dad, the ones you spend the most time with. And I’m not just talking about the other agencies in the state where you serve, because you’ll have relationships with officers across the state. I’m talking about everywhere. You are suddenly part of the biggest family

This family is really connected. You learn it right away. In Nebraska, most of us go to the same academy. My class was made up of 35 officers from across the state … literally. Every time an officer was killed in the line of duty, a classmate would start our day by reading how the brother or sister died, and we would wear a black mourning bracelet for the day. It’s humbling because we did it more times than we didn’t during our four months at the training center. These were people we never met, but they were family.

I had made quite the family while I was in college. I always had a place to go for holidays, long weekends, and any day in between. That group formed a support system that still exists. Long nights of laughter and life-changing conversation, late-night trips to any place in Fremont that was still open. We all really grew up because of one another and became adults.

But joining law enforcement, that was me choosing another family. A really, really, really big family. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you work, when you meet another officer it’s an instant connection. Each training that I get the opportunity to attend, I usually go without knowing a single person. After spending a week with people —learning to become a field training officer or becoming a defensive tactics instructor — you always walk away with brand-new friends and a strong sense of why you’re part of this family. I felt so supported in law enforcement that I latched onto my new family and accepted that this was the way life was supposed to be.

For the last five and a half years I haven’t really discussed my job much with my dad. I call him and we talk. He’s still not the best at long phone conversations like my mom was but he definitely tries. The phone calls are few and far between. It’s probably my fault because I can’t find the right things to say. It’s hard not discussing my job with him because right now it’s a huge part of my life. It’s not easy to talk about work anyway. In law enforcement we tend to see a lot of things the rest of the world shouldn’t. That’s why we’re there. I already struggle trying to find the right things to say in a lot of situations. I’m not sure how to explain a lot of the horrors to my Dad. The few times that I have opened up to him I realize that he tried to warn me.

But in the last few months it’s been different. You see, I met Charlie and Tricia and I invited them to Crete. My department welcomed them eagerly and Charlie took these great photos of us.

And for the first time since I started this adventure of being in law enforcement, I felt like my dad was proud of me. I sent him a few pictures the day I got them back from Charlie to show him what we were up to. For me it was a way of reaching out to show him that it wasn’t all bad. My dad even shared the photos on his personal Facebook page, showing the world I was his daughter and I looked somewhat decent in photographs. I felt more comfortable sharing my absolute love for my career with him. My life was changed so much in just a few days that I wasn’t really sure what to do. I finally felt support in an area where I hadn’t really felt it at all, and I was ecstatic. Deep down, I knew I had been doing everything I could to make my dad proud of me. I have always known that my mom is proud of me and that she’s guiding me to where I’m supposed to be. But this was like a weight off my shoulders that I didn’t know was there.

And all it took was two amazing people on a mission and a couple of photographs.

I don’t have a family, by society’s standard. But I have a dad who is proud of me, friends who support me through it all, and brothers and sisters everywhere.

To me, I have the best family anybody could ask for.

Story by Audrey Arbuckle, edited by Kevin Frazzini, photos by Charlie Simmons