When Reality TV Calls …

Take it Back

Lori VolkmanLast weekend I escaped from the pelting rain and drury skies of the Northwest and enjoyed some sun in 29 Palms. I was there to talk to a group of military spouses about a tough topic: Reintegration. The theme of the SpouseBUZZ event was “Take Back Your Story.” As organizer Jacey Eckhart pointed out, dramatic television coverage of military life showcases the ups and downs, the romance, and the tragedy. We, the spouses, are revered and admired like toughened modern pioneer women on the one hand, and yet portrayed as fragile drama stripper-queens on the other. Okay, so that might be my own paraphrasing. But if you’re a milspouse you know you snicker and secretly wish you had the guts to wear that t-shirt you’ve seen: “Military Wife: Sexually Deprived for your Freedom.”

But it’s time, she said, that we take responsibility. It’s time, she said, to let our real stories be heard. It’s time, she said, to take back our story!  We cheered and puffed like the underdog team at half time listening to the rally cry of their inspirational coach. She even used a colorful personal vignette to drive the point home. She spurned us on with her story about the time she had a chance to tell her story on national TV, for hours and hours. And she described her shock and disappointment when the program aired and it was about the other young mother they interviewed. It was about the wife who cried on camera. The one who was falling apart. They didn’t want Jacey – the strong independent woman slinging a baby on her hip tending the garden and fryin’ up the bacon. They wanted the waif who tugged at everyone’s heartstrings when she bawled her ever-lovin’ eyes out.

“But that’s not us! No! We’re takin’ back our story!” I says to myself. “We’re changin’ the game,” I declare. And so we told our stories in 29 Palms. We took it back. We had fun. But at the end of the day, we only took it back from ourselves. Don’t get me wrong - I felt empowered. But as I sat in the airport waiting for my flight home, I was left wondering how that would translate for me, personally, down the road.

“Down the Road” Arrives

As luck would have it, “down the road” arrived the very next morning. That happens to me a lot. Gah. I opened my email and found this:

Dear Lori,

I came upon Witty Little Secret while I was researching military families and wanted to reach out to you with a request. I work for a prominent production company that creates original programming for a national TV network and we’re creating a new series featuring relationship expert Iyanla Vanzant.  For a new program in the series we’re featuring three couples who are on the brink of divorce.  We’d like to include a military family because there are so many unique challenges presented in these marriages. I’m wondering if you’re amenable to soliciting marriage stories from couples who are interested in starting the healing process and being featured in our program?

I knew I wasn’t the only one getting this email, but it intrigued me. I thought immediately about what kind of story, what kind of real-life couple could pull it off. It seemed so many of us had felt “on the brink” of something terrible at some point during reintegration.

I had.

It seemed that sharing it might actually help someone else. But it was a big BIG scary monster. So I asked a group of bloggers I trust for some thick-skinned criticism, and I was surprised that most of the responses were negative:

“I have a feeling it will show the world that military marriages are doomed … I don’t like it when the media makes military families look bad … Why don’t they ever want the marriages going 20+ years strong despite the military? … Why do they want to show the worst in us? … I worry about how the inner workings and unique struggles of military marriages will be portrayed … We have a unique lifestyle and it plays a big roll in why the divorce rate is so high … Civilians tend to not understand.”

Exactly. We have to be the ones to tell them, I thought. Show them. Take back the story. And then I stepped aside and pushed my girlfriends out in front of me and said, “so yeah – you go first! Go for it, girl! Right behind ya.”

They all keyed on the same thing that triggered me when I first read the email: It all sounded so risky. Really, really risky.

Reality TV is Scarier Than War

So what does this mean? We can send our husbands off to war, give birth to and raise children on our own, build things and pay things and fix things and decide things on our own, even sit with a friend who is waiting for a phone call after we’ve all heard a chopper went down … but we can’t handle a little reality television? We are the bravest people we know (aside from our servicemembers) but we can’t discuss how we deal with the realities of rekindling a long-distance marriage? We can detail our health and even our mental health struggles (and usually even our kids’ weird pooping habits) on the very public internet, but we can’t even look an interviewer in the eye and explain what it feels like when our husbands come home and we realize that homecoming isn’t the magic pill that cures deployment?

So far the answer is “nuh-uh.”

But we can still talk about reintegration. It’s time we were respectful and brave and real about it. And funny about it. Because it’s really funny at times, too. We take ourselves way too seriously. All of us do.

If you’d like to see the official media query, or even if you’d like to answer it, go here.

Or you can always stay here a while. If you’ve ever been lonely, ever banged your head against a wall trying to figure out where to go next, ever tried molding something that was out of your control, well, hang out here.  And we’ll get through it together, like we always do.

Now. Ummm. Like I said. Go ahead. You first.

You are My Military Family

They arrived one by one, each bearing gifts: chocolate, wine, hummus and veggies, homemade baked goods, a pitcher of our favorite margarita recipe, and a pitcher of sangria. And despite having a wide array of beverages at our disposal, we quickly realized we were missing one thing: dinner.

As we waited for pizza, we stood in the kitchen chatting and hovering over the goodies, leaning our elbows on the kitchen island, picking at the hummus and asking about the ingredients in the homemade cookies. Our faces were close, much closer than we would have been pretentiously perched around a room on overstuffed couches sipping tea. We could see each other’s eyes and we could follow more than one conversation at a time, and we could skip from topic to topic with mounting volume and enthusiasm. It was warm like the family dinner table. It was cleansing like church.

We leaned against the island and each other, and we laughed. No matter how many times my friend tells the story of inadvertently getting her breasts massaged by a beautiful woman on a Greek cruise ship, I laugh. I know that she’s going to make the phhhhht sound of a nearly empty ketchup-style bottle to describe how the oil was applied, and I know that she’s going to tell about the instant at which she realized what was about to happen – the moment that her boobs would be sculpted by a woman resembling Richard Dreyfus making a mashed-potato mound in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But still, she says it, and still, my side hurts and still, I’m gasping for air. And I look, and she is holding her side and gasping, too.

Though she loves to tell this tale, I think I’ll leave exactly which friend tells this story enshrouded in internet mystery. You know, for the sake of her heretofore anonymous breasts.

Too Fast to Capture on Film

We got down to the business at hand, and the project du noir was a clean sweep of the playroom, something that I knew a pile of merciless moms would be up for. We started with a room where you couldn’t see the floor and ended up with a room right out of the Cluttery Homes and Gardens “don’t let this happen to you” feature of the month. It was fabulous, and it was done. There was half-completed project. There was pile of toys for a garage sale someday. Everything was whisked away to Goodwill, never to be seen again.

When the pizza arrived my girlfriends evacuated the kitchen and ran to the door like teenage girls grasping for a ringing phone. But it wasn’t the pizza that held their attention. It was the smiling man in shorts with a food catalog who happened to arrive at the same moment as dinner. They came back and forth to me like chickens shouting, “LORI! LORI! IT’S GARY THE SCHWAN MAN! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! IT’S GARY THE SCHWAN MAN!”

gary the schwan man

The Man of My Ice Cream Dreams

That’s right. It was Gary, The Schwan Man. I wrote about him two weeks prior and unfortunately many of my girlfriends read my blog. And here he was, perched sheepishly at my front door, hesitating to guess why women he had never met were running around my house shouting his name.

By the time I got there, he was definitely blushing, and so were some of my girlfriends. I tried to decide whether to tell him he had been the subject of a blog post in which I had compared him to a UPS man of delectable deserts, or whether to let him go on thinking I was secretly lusting after his foodstuffs and describing to my girlfriends how happy he made me. But I just couldn’t choose. Both were kinda true. And before I could say a word, my friends were telling him all the sordid details.

“When does your husband come home?” he asked. “Soon,” I said. “Good, ma’am,” he said.

He left faster than any man I’ve ever seen who was working on commission.

As we stood and ate our pizza and laughed some more about the fortuitous arrival of the Schwan delivery truck, time hovered and sputtered for an instant and I looked around the room at my friends. I took an inventory of memories.

These are souls that I’ve known for so many years that I can tell you what kind of underwear they prefer and what kinds of pain relievers they stock in their home medicine cabinet. I thought about a dinner where we debated the inherent evils of public nakedness. I remembered scaring the pants off my friend from behind as I ran by her under the bridge. I recalled relying on one friend’s driving skills as we chased my husband down a dirt road for a dress left in his back seat. I remembered the only friend who could keep my cranky newborn appeased during a “relaxing” visit to the beach, and I remembered the friend that brought me stool softener at midnight. I remembered the boat in Mexico that nearly capsized and drown a dozen of us, and the lasagna test of wills, and the peach fizz fiasco. I remembered all of us weeping upon learning that cancer would take one of our husbands. And I remembered the looks on their faces when I told them my husband was being mobilized to the desert for a year.

I soaked in the looks on the faces around me. Several were laughing so hard they were crying, and one was dabbing the leaking mascara from the outside corners of her eyes. One was holding her side with one hand and covering her mouth in disbelief with the other. One was lurching and gasping for air. The story-teller was waving her hands between fits of laughter, and I found my cheeks red and throbbing from terminal smiling. I haven’t felt that way in a long time. It was breathtaking. And not at all because we were (probably) talking about sex.

lori volkmanThese are my friends.

I love them, and they are mine.

They feel like my family.

Not the one I was given,

But the one I chose.

The one that chose me.

Thank you to all of my friends for your support during this deployment. Thank you for holding me up when I wasn’t ready for what was ahead. Thank you for screwing my brain back in when I was ahead of myself. Thank you for raising my children when I was absentee. Thank you to all of those who used their gifts and talents rather than trying to poke a square peg in a round hole, and thank you to everyone who hugged and prayed and called at just the right time. Thank you to the men and women of the internet who reached out and cajoled and encouraged me. And most of all, thank you to the readers who came back again and again. Your rising numbers forced me to push the nonsense out of my mind. The exercise of attempting to put my “problems” into words has helped me to realize how truly small they are.

Military families are made in the midst of challenge. And I consider you all a part of mine.

Here Come the Professionals

military family

I went out on my deck and caught Barry red-handed. Literally.

I recently received a text from a girlfriend:

September 23 is your night. A pamper Lori with friends and food night … complete with babysitter, wine, and a few fun friends to hang with who also want to spoil you with cleaning your home while you chillax. If you try to make food or tidy your house you will be in huge trouble, girlfriend!

In keeping with Deployment Cycle Phase One Million (WYSIWYG), I’m not cleaning it up, either. It’s all hanging out, baby. I surveyed the clean laundry mountain just this morning and contemplated getting up early Friday to remedy it (bwah hah ahha ha ha …. I kill myself, sometimes). But it’s already beginning to dwindle as we sift and pick through it, and as we move the clothing into the dirty piles in the laundry room. I may fail at math, but I can tell you this: laundry is a hideously pointless zero-sum game. And so, it shall stay right where it is.

After the hysteria of inviting a pile of stay at home moms into this working mom’s house wore off, their kind offer got me thinking about how many times this very thing has happened in a year …

There was the time I wrote about staring out at my long grass and Bartly called someone from Texas and had my lawn mowed while I was at work.

There was the time I wrote about impending car doom, and Uncle Dan showed up and worked on Husband’s Camaro, Chris came over and fixed my dislodged wheel-well and taught me how to change my own car battery, and Bob, our local American Legion dude, serviced my SUV for half price.

There was the time I wrote about the status of my house and MaryKay came over and completely cleaned out and organized my kitchen pantry and left me with a stack of home-canned goodies.

There was hitting the wall and being rescued by a not so random rainbow, which was sweetened when Robert showed up with a pot full of chocolate (including refills) and a reminder to look for the elusive prize at the end of it.

I questioned my writing ability and Athena nominated me for this little blogging award without telling me, resulting in a trip to Washington DC wherein I had a personally guided tour of the Pentagon, got coined by an Air Force General, and met Donald Rumsfeld. And a certain JetBlue pilot I’ve never met gave me an airplane ticket to get there.

I wrote about The Preschooler perched on the edge of a basketball court watching a father play ball with his kids, and Barry and Dylan took my son to a baseball game. But not before weeding every flower bed and filling them with two yards of bark dust.

And then there was the time I was sick, and tired, and done with deployment, and Suzy brought us five meals and successfully filled my childrens’ stomachs with hot dinners for an entire week.

And there was more. So much more. Too much to write about, really.

It seems to me that this is where Reserve and Guard families appear to have the advantage - we have slightly more sympathetic and available friends. When Husband was active duty, my community was practically all military, and we were all doing it. We helped each other, and we supported each other, but it was not like this. It has really been a blessing the way the community has responded. It felt lonely to be without a military spouse group and far from a military base at first, but then it was humbling, overwhelming almost, to see what developed in its place.

But more importantly, I’ve had another epiphany this week. I mean there is obviously a law of nature at work, here. A regular cause and effect relationship has now been very clearly established. Whenever I complain, things magically happen. It’s not going to be this way forever and I feel it’s my responsibility to jump on that bandwagon while the gettin’ is good. And I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t recognize this law of nature. First of all, it’s a law. It obviously must be followed. I’m a prosecutor for crying out loud. I took an oath. I must obey the law. Second, it’s nature. You can’t fight nature, man.

So I feel it’s of the utmost importance that I “mention” the following: (1) a small family of five long wrinkles which can only be described as “chasms” have taken up residence on my forehead, the teeth which I spent the better part of middle school straightening and missing out on steak dinners for are starting to retreat to their previous positions, my postpartum melanin “soul patch” pigmentation has returned, and my thighs are beginning to burst out of the gut-sucking sausage roll shapewear I purchased pre-deployment. I’m thinking this could be remedied by a small team of surgeons and a live-in therapist (both will be required); (2) my current mode of transportation does not include a Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, or Maserati and really, it should be at least one of those. A driver would also aid in my ability to complete tasks with speed and/or class; and (3) I am currently forced to obtain my own groceries, pay my own bills, pick up my own dry cleaning, and clean my own house. I propose a team comprised of a personal assistant, publicist, agent, nanny, and housekeeper. Or a wife, which would cover most of that.

I decided to leave it at that for now. We’ll see how you do and then I’ll amend the list as appropriate. I’ll report on the excellent status of my girlfriend-induced renovation next week! THANK YOU FRIENDS. I love you. Really.

Goodbye Salute

31 of you are gone. What you do for a living means we likely will never hear your names, see your widows cry, or create college funds in your name for your children. Your work will be glamorized by the media, mourned by strangers, discredited by conspiracy theorists. The price of your extraordinary sacrifice will be on the minds of the American public for at least 48 hours.

But to us, the military families, you are more. You are our friends, neighbors, and classmates. You are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles. You are our husbands. Wives. You are our fathers and mothers. We know you.

Molon Labe.”

One More Sunrise

By ThrasherDave at Flikr, via CreativeCommons

I am sitting outside on my deck, because it’s the only clean place in my house. It’s been only two weeks since Husband returned to the desert, but it feels like a very long time. I can barely remember sitting and anxiously watching one more sunset from my bed on the night before his return for R&R. In many ways, it feels like he didn’t even come home at all. I am remembering the 14 glorious days when he was home and there was order. The children went to bed on time and the laundry got done. The dishes found their way into the dishwasher. I had the satisfaction of watching my family eat a hot, home-cooked meal. I reveled in the completion of mundane tasks like cleaning the entire kitchen floor without hearing, “Mom, I accidentally broke this glow stick open and it stained my shirt. And it tastes kinda weird.” It was a good 14 days. I had sleep, I had time, and I had sanity. I pooped when I wanted. I wasn’t at work for the best part of my kids’ day. And I wasn’t exhausted by 5:30 pm.

But now, once again, he’s gone. And the end of most of my “single” mom working days are spent wallowing in the horrifying realization that I accomplished roughly half of what I actually set out to do. I always attempt to make up for this perceived sloth in the last hour of the day. I scurry madly around the portions of the house visible to the public, picking up Lego landmines, trashing the faded macaroni art (yes, I toss 90% of these – sue me), and trying to make a visible dent in the mail or the trash or the dishes or the dust or the odd smell coming from the vicinity of the refrigerator. I punctuate this frenzied ritual with my nightly scream up the stairs, “YOU’RE USING ALL THE HOT WATER! GET OUT!”

By the time my kids are tucked in for the night, I have usually been informed at least twice that I am mean. The most common source of this animus is my never-ending mandate that the bathtub be drained. Every night they leave it full of water, and every night someone has to reach their hand into the cold dirty-foam water to unplug it. Every night that someone is not me. And ipso facto, I am mean.

So I’m not always friendly by the time we get to the nightly tuck-in. I am often focused on minimizing the length of the evening’s routine, and coveting the moments that will follow when they finally fall asleep and I have a moment to myself. And so I am sitting on my deck, listening to the sound of night falling in my beautiful quiet little town, and getting up the courage to discover what kind of overflowing watery mess awaits me upstairs.

I trudge up the stairs to find The Preschooler in his Superman jammies, perched on his bed. I am shocked. He’s really a different kid without his sister around, who is away at camp this week. It’s amazing what he can do when he’s not being harangued by his morality boss. (He is not-so-secretly hoping she is gone for good. When she said goodbye, he asked me how many years she’d be gone. He had apparently confused “camp” with “college.”)

I find the bathtub full of water. I demand resolution. I get called “so mean.” I feel fulfilled.

I attempt to avenge my own good name by tucking him in tightly and praying out loud with him: “God, please forgive me for being such a horrible mean mother who always forces her children to do such terrible things as draining the bathtub upon bath completion. I am truly sorry that I would expect my children to do such complicated things as to flip the drain on their way out of the tub, and I pray you would help someone invent a self-draining bathtub so they would never have to experience such a tragic injustice ever again, so long as they live. Amen.”

The Preschooler glares at me over his hands which are still in the “prayer” position. It’s a little sad that I know my six year-old understands the term “tragic injustice” and can use it in context. But I’m sure God gets my sarcasm, so I feel no guilt whatsoever. I’m eager to break out of my mean-mommyness, and suggest a goodnight song.

The Preschooler loves this. And really, so do I. Singing is part of my secret past. The kids know nothing about the brief time that I sang with “Hip Pocket,” a jazzy-ish band that managed to get two coffee shop gigs and a political rally before disbanding. Our main claim to fame was a super mellow beat driven by a former drummer for Strawberry Alarmclock.  I was truly a legend in my own mind.

The Preschooler picks the Lawrence Welk “Goodnight Song,” which is not exactly in my repertoire, but I know it well enough to fake it thanks to Lauren and Dana, babysitting sisters that used to sing this song to my kids. My favorite part comes at the end when you sing “goodbye” in Spanish, French, and German. I always close my eyes and remember the puffy little cheeks of Sweet Pea, who was tought to sing, “adios, ara-voo, our feet are the same!” She had such small red lips back then. When I open my eyes and look at The Preschooler, there is this bittersweet moment where I see the years slipping away.

His, not mine.

I float around doing my best pastel chiffon-clad Lawrence Welk Lady and I finish the closing salvo with a twirl of my skirts. Then, like the singing professional that I am, I ask whether I can fill any other special requests for the delightful members of our studio audience. I peruse my studio audience, which now consists of a giggling preschooler with a new high and tight, two stuffed dinosaurs, one bear, one camel that arrived from the Middle East smelling like cumin (his name is “spicy”), a Blue Angel that makes after-burner sounds, a light saber, a National Geographic Kids Magazine, and the parts of what look to be approximately two Transformers.

“You Are My Sunshine!” shouts the Transformer torso via its preschool ventriloquist.

I smile. This is one of those songs we always sang on the road when I was a kid, and we could have four-part harmony going all the way to the Grand Canyon, much to my parents’ disappointment, I’m sure. I turn the lights down and I kneel next to the bed. I have happy memories associated with the singing of this song, so I’m bobbing my head back and forth as I sing it again to The Preschooler, thinking of the brown station wagon with the wood paneling that somehow managed to survive our family adventures.

“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

The Preschooler lays down parallel to his light saber and reaches out to me as I sing. He finds my hand and pulls it close to him. Without really interrupting he mouths the words, “I love you, Mommy.”

My heart melts. I wince thinking that I had any ill thoughts whatsoever about the length and breadth of the tuck-in ritual after a long day at work. I think to myself, this is where life happens - right here. My voice softens and it is becoming more of a lullaby.

“The other night dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms …”

How long will this sweet face say such things to me in the dark? How many more nights will he really let me sing to him at all? I’m so foolish, sometimes. I feel horribly guilty. I am happy he is so forgiving.

“When I awoke dear, I was mistaken, so I hung my head and I cried. You are my sunshine …”

Suddenly, The Preschooler hugs my hand tighter, pressing it hard against his chest. His closed eyes clench tighter, wrinkles stretching out from the corners of his eyes, and one eye crease squirts out a tear that races down his cheek unexpectedly. His eyebrows and the corners of his mouth draw down into a strained, pained face of regret. Such a sad face for such a young soul.

I stop singing and ask him what’s wrong. I can barely understand the squeak of an answer that comes out. He finally manages, “She wakes up, and he’s not there. What happened to him?”

I guess I never really paid attention to the words. I mentally sing it back to myself. “It’s just a dream. She thinks he is there, and that makes her happy, but then she wakes up and realizes it was just a dream. That’s all.” But the significance of this to a child whose father is far away strikes me and I wish he had chosen a different song. We are clearly past the point of salvage now, but I attempt to turn the conversation anyway.

“Do you dream sometimes?”

I’m hoping this will lead into a conversation about how he recently defeated the lizard king with the help of Captain Weird, the martian-chicken. He dreams vividly, and I know this. I know this because he talks and he runs and he laughs and he shoots and he
slaps and he kicks in his sleep. And Captain Weird makes frequent cameo appearances, from what I can tell.

“Yes, Mama. I do. I dream of you. And I dream of Daddy.” He pushes his little eyelids together tightly again to keep his tears at bay and I know what he isn’t saying. I realize I’m gripping his hand a little too tightly.

“Mama, how long has it been since Daddy left?”

I release my tight grip and I smile gently. The Preschooler and I always seem to have the same thoughts. It’s like he was in my head moments before, as I lamented the stark difference between life with and without Husband. I smile because I realize this is yet another one of those moments where the words about to come out of my mouth are exactly the words I myself need to hear. Gah. It’s always that way.

But I have nothing. My smile fades a little and I stare into the dark for a moment.

I’m apparently tired of dispensing advice to myself. My answers are becoming pat and I don’t believe them any more. The analogy department is closed for the night. “Two weeks,” is all I can say. And I blink.

Then, in that absence of response, in the inability to process and created something inspirational, something amazing happens.

I see the resiliency in his eyes, right away. I recognize it. I remember as a military kid feeling like I could do anything, survive anything. The hard moments hurt, but I knew the sun would come up the next day because, by experience, it always did. If I could just put this day away, a new one would pop up. Guaranteed. Every time.

I look and I realize I’m not the resilient kid this time. He is. I watch as he wipes his own tear away with the backside of his hand and adjusts his head softly on the pillow. He closes his eyes. He rolls over.

“So tomorrow will be two weeks and one day?”

I open the covers and climb in still wearing my work clothes, and I cuddle him. We are two spoons. As I wrap the covers around us I say “Yes, it will be. And the day after that will be two weeks and two days.” And then we just lay there together in his bed for a very long time, quiet and still. He doesn’t know that I cry quietly. And I fall asleep as the dishes and the laundry and the kitchen floor wait patiently downstairs. The news is still blaring from the TV and the plates are stacked by the sink and the screen door to the deck stands wide open. But for now, I will stay here and watch his day fade away. For now, I will take him to the next sunrise.

And together, instead of counting the sunsets, we will keep looking for the next sunrise. And the next one. And the next one … until we are all back together in one big family heap, singing at bedtime … “our feet are the same.”

[care to comment on this story? I read every comment, and usually respond!]

Crossing the White Line

This week my memory was jogged, and the 15 years that have passed since I experienced my last homecoming reunion came flooding back. No doubt you’ve shed a tear at some point watching the viral Youtube video featuring surprise reunions by uniformed parents, or the touching story of a soldier’s homecoming during the closing minutes of the Nightly News. Everyone experiences the empathy of these reunions, but those who have been through it seem to feel something infinitely more. There’s a swirl of emotional exhaustion as my heart involuntarily cycles through the departure, the separation, and the reunion all in one crisp moment.

I received a text from a friend who was waiting on pins and needles for her husband to return from six months in Iraq. He was arriving by commercial flight, and the schedule kept changing. As wives of civilian pilots, we are used to this. As wives of military guys, we are not surprised by things in general. But she now had news that he was finally inbound, and she had a problem.

“I’m throwing up. I’ve been throwing up.

“What?! Oh no. What do you need? For us to pick him up?”

“If you could it would help me big time. And boy do I owe you.”

She wouldn’t owe us anything. There are secret codes between military families where you don’t ask for things that you don’t absolutely need. Because everyone is doing this. Everyone is going through it. You don’t ask unless you really really need to ask. You don’t mean for this to happen. People all around you say, “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call ….” and you do. But not the military spouses. You call them for emotional support, but you don’t ask them to babysit or run an errand or fix something. And so, if she was asking, it was needed. And it would just be done.

“We’re at karate now, and then we can head to the airport and bring him to you.”

“Love you guys so much.”

I smiled at how sweet that was. And then I felt so sad imagining my poor friend barfing and texting and barfing and cleaning the house and barfing and crying and barfing some more. And then I imagined her husband catching it, and I just had to laugh at my friend’s expense. I thought this kind of thing only happened to me.

On the drive to the airport I listened to the kids chatter in the back seat, and I thought about my own dad.We were lucky folks; unlike the rest of his shipmates, my dad and the other aviators often got to leave the ship several days in advance of the ship’s arrival in port. The rest of the 5,000 sailors and their 15,000 waiting family members would cram onto a single pier trying to differentiate one uniform from the next in a sea of blue against grey. But instead of fighting the masses, our intimate group usually gathered at a little potluck at the squadron offices, passing the time by making “welcome home” banners near the enormous open hangar doors. After a torturous hour and a half of milling and nervous conversation, we were eventually allowed to move outside to stare at the sky, waiting for the barely detectable dots that would be our fathers, our husbands, and our fiances. The long-awaited announcement was finally made that the jets were inbound, and we stood motionless and breathless, scanning the sky, unable to look away despite our burning retinas. We stood. We waited. All of those months we waited, yet these last few minutes seemed like such an eternity.

Military homecoming dates are notoriously unreliable, and the weeks leading up to the fly-in would be full of announcements, cancellations and changes. I remember not allowing myself to really truly believe that my dad was coming home until the moment those dots turned into discernible airplanes. Even then, I held my breath and watched with suspicion until they got close enough to see the tail symbol. And that was when they buzzed us. It must have been the same moment the others believed it too, because cheers and waves would erupt and the members of other squadrons in nearby buildings would filter out as our Dads buzzed us on the flight line, announcing their arrival as only pilots can. We strained as if we could see the lettering stamped under the cockpit canopy, and someone would declare “it’s them!”

Another eternity passed and moms put on their lipstick, smoothed out their dresses, and admonished their children to stay behind the white line. We all knew the white line was advisory only. We had crossed it many times before. But we jumped in place, waiting some more as the jets lolled in slow motion down the taxiway. Our jumping stopped as they came to a stop just far enough away that we had to stand still to squint through the waves of heat rising from the asphalt. I felt my heart beat as I held my runner’s stance, squinting and straining to see the airplane doors pop open, and the little men climb out. Slowly, they walked toward us like an army of unrecognizable clones.

As I waited for my father to get close enough to resemble the man I remembered, fear mounted: “He won’t recognize me. I won’t recognize him. What if I don’t recognize him? Will he think I’ve forgotten? I’m too embarrassed to run, but I don’t feel like I can stand here … is that him? Is that him?! Is that HIM?” Until a sonic boom sounded through my heart, simultaneously releasing a flood of adrenaline and tears. There he was, my dad, sauntering straight toward me, making eye contact with me at the very moment I distinguished him from the crowd. My dad! He really came. He really came!

I was paralyzed for only a moment, because his smirky grin was so unmistakable. As he broke into a jog, he erased in an instant any doubts I had. I was his, and I always would be. I burst involuntarily out of the white lines, being carried by my feet faster and faster, erasing with every step the many days he had been gone, until I crashed into him headlong. I squeezed and squeezed him to make sure he was real, and he was. He drew back to look at his baby girl. He seemed to smile through pained eyes as he searched my face for the changes that had occurred since he laid eyes on me last. Closing his eyes, he drew me in and held the back of my head with one hand, like a tiny baby who can’t hold its own neck up. My relief came in the form of tears, and I buried my head in his uniform, taking in the deep familiar scents of sweat and leather and JP-5. He really came.

We would stay there clenching each other until my mother caught up to us. Many times I saw the smile creases in my father’s face change slightly as they embraced for the first time in so many months. And I just stayed there, happily crushed between my parents, until we all stopped crying long enough to walk back to the hangar where tables full of red and blue jello and burgers and patriotism waited. I couldn’t stop smiling. Dad couldn’t stop smiling. He was home.

These memories flooded my mind as we made our way from karate to the airport to collect our friend fresh off the plane from Iraq. It wasn’t the tarmac on a Navy base, and I wasn’t eight years old, and it wasn’t even my husband. But as we got closer, the excitement mounted. The kids strategized what they were going to do to greet our friend.

“I’m going to run and jump on him!”
 “I’m going to squeeze his neck!”
“I’m going to climb on his back!”
Let’s yell his name! Skippy!”

 
Then I saw him. The sole uniformed man walking down the down the sidewalk at Portland International Airport is not hard to find, not even for a five year-old. “There he is! There he is!” They leapt from the car and ran toward him. Onlookers and airport strangers gave a sentimental nod, believing they were witnessing the reunion of a soldier with his family. The Preschooler hurled himself over the imaginary white line and tackle-hugged our friend’s leg. Sweet Pea stood patiently and bashfully by, waiting the way I did so many times when my little brother reached my Dad first. She would rather give a hug than take one. And finally, she did.

soldier coming home

I watched my kids drenching our newly-mustachiod friend in love, and I too had to stop and stare. It really did appear as if they were welcoming their daddy home. And in many ways, they were. It gave us a chance to borrow him for just a few moments. I admit that I probably hugged our friend just a little too much. But it was just so good to hug a man in uniform, to see him there in one piece, smiling.

We eventually delivered him safe and sound to his very sick and thankful wife, and I hugged her hard (and held my breath and wiped my face down with antibacterial soap and drank some bleach). Our friend filled the role of surrogate dad one more time, letting the kids tackle and wrestle and harass him. We left full-hearted with our dress rehearsal behind us.

We made our way back home with the front passenger seat glaringly empty once again. I barely remember the details of the 45 minute drive, because I did nothing but dream about Husband’s homecoming. I imagined his smile, and what those final moments would be like as he made his way through the airport toward us. I thought about the people on his flight, and how excited we would be for the weeks leading up to the homecoming. And I imagined that familiar look of satisfaction that I knew would wash over him once we all made it into the big bed for a family snuggle. I saw him resting in the moonlight with the windows open, breathing fresh cold air, and holding us all together.

And The Wall was no longer in sight.

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