Photo provided by Erica Lucas
Right after Husband’s regular coffee duties resumed, I started to notice that flickering light fixtures were shining brightly, the hot tub was mysteriously operational, and the lawn was lush and manicured. Tools were being used, cars were getting washed with pre-kid precision, and project lists were making appearances around my kitchen, often scratched on the backs of Home Depot receipts with a carpenter’s pencil. The car window was fixed. We had batteries of every kind available again.
“We” were adjusting perfectly well. Perfectly. Well.
After a few days the kids needed to return to school and we made plans to drop them off together so that Husband could meet their teachers. We managed to get out the door with a moderate amount of mayhem, and arrived at school a squeaky clean four minutes before the final bell.
Let me preface this portion of our tale by stating that I recognize Kindergarten hallways are not for the faint of heart. I accept full responsibility for failing to prepare Husband for the insanity he foolishly walked into:
- One or more wild-eyed children seem to feel Kindergarten is the emotional equivalent of being ripped from the arms of their mothers by child protective services.
- Said children who are being inexplicably ripped from the intertwined arms of their loving mothers are excellent at verbally expressing this emotion.
- One or more moms apparently feel the same way but are less excellent at verbally expressing this emotion.
- Most parents are lurching and tripping to avoid a small unidentified pool of liquid which is of questionable origin and was strategically delivered right in the middle of a designated backpack-unpacking zone.
- As the bell rings, the hallway transforms from silent whispering onlookers perched neatly at the glass entry doors to a bustling explosion of parents jockeying for the bumper-car gauntlet.
- This obligatory flurry of parents are hovering over their five year-old dawdlers nervously, bursting with frustration at the prospect of uttering the phrase ”hurry up” for the forty-ninth time in fifteen minutes.
Basically we are a bunch of smiling, greeting, crying, shuffling, bumping, cajoling sardines. That’s what we are. For fifteen minutes, it is the friendliest chaos in the elementary school.
And so there we were, attempting to fit four family members where two might usually go, and my son walked fearlessly through the morass and said, ”hey there,” to one of the twins, raising his hand nonchalantly and winking sideways at her. (Or me. I couldn’t tell. I reassured myself he was winking at me. I know he wasn’t.) “That’s not my girlfriend” he whispered informatively. I sighed in relief. ”I like her sister better,” he said.
I looked at another parent who I’m sure heard the entire exchange and was likely to be the twins’ mother. I smiled and gave her the “what are you gonna do” look. Like the Kindergarten Stepford Mom that I am, I used it as an excuse to say ”hurry up now, baby.”
I turned to introduce my husband to the teacher and realized he was not within reach because he was standing flush against the back wall staying wisely out of the way. He looked like he’d rather be on display in an underwater cage encircled by starving sharks.
We did introductions quickly and headed for the third grade hallway. Half way done.
I thought things were going great until I looked back at Husband. He had this weird smile pasted on his face. I didn’t realize it at first, but people were giving him the surprised open-mouth “WELL HI THERE!” smile as he passed them in the hallway.
Many of the families at our school were keenly aware of Husband’s deployment. We don’t live in a military community so it’s a little bit unusual at our school to begin with. But on top of that some had seen our picture in the newspaper, so in our little enclave he had become somewhat of a celebrity without really knowing it. Moms stopped us in the hallway. “Oh, my goodness! You’re home!” and “Welcome back!” and “It’s so good to see you!” resonated down the hallway as we attempted to walk with Sweet Pea pulling and tugging us along. Husband managed a “ha ha, good to see you too” and a “oh, uh, thank you” but was otherwise just nodding and smiling stiffly. One woman hugged him and some of them hugged me, and one even raised her hands to cover her mouth as if she was going to cry. “I’ve been praying for you!” she blurted out.
I looked at my husband’s pasted smile. He looked like a scarecrow. Friendly, but equally friendly to everyone.
The more people approached him, the more he looked like the guy in the shark tank, the more he looked like he was holding a struggling, wounded fish and the blood was trailing through the water mercilessly. I felt horrible. The bell was about to ring. We used that as an excuse to keep moving.
When we finally arrived in the third grade hallway a few of Sweet Pea’s girlfriends were milling about comparing shoes in the hallway. As we approached several of them stood with their mouths hanging open. One particularly sparkly girl hugged Sweet Pea and winked at me over her shoulder. “I just knew he’d be coming home!” she proclaimed, as if this was an unreliable conspiracy leaked by the third grade rumor society.
After goodbye kisses, I glanced back at the beaming face of my Sweet Pea, and I sensed a new easiness in her demeanor. I lingered in the doorway for a moment watching her gather up her things, and I caught a glimpse of what my little girl looks like when she rests in her father’s presence rather than his absence. I felt husband’s hand on my back, and I felt his presence, too.
Some jogging students flew passed us as the bell rang, the wind from their speeding backpacks blowing the homemade tissue paper artwork adorning the walls like a playful rustling of leaves. Moms once harried now milled about saying hello and procrastinating their morning workouts. I was sauntering carelessly, too. Until I felt the pressure of his hand on my back increase. I was suddenly almost leaning forward as I walked, and his hand was propelling me forward.
I realized it was not there for affection. It was purposeful.
Way down the hall I saw a friend from church holding her little girl, a spitfire who rivals our son in the famous quotes department. Upon seeing Husband, the little girl’s eyes lit up and her mouth opened and she put up a hand to welcome him home. At that very moment he had already leaned forward to whispered in my ear, “Keep going. Don’t stop. Let’s go.” I knew he didn’t see her, and as we closed in, there was this moment where I was trying to avoid being smashed by the weight of his urgency and still smile at the little glowing face that was waiting so expectantly to be recognized.
I stopped and he almost ran into me. I felt the weight of disobeying a direct order. Our friend laughed at our Two Stooges shenanigans. “Welcome home!” she said as her daughter bounced in her arms.
I attempted to explain away my buffoonery, as if I actually knew what was happening myself, and I failed miserably when I blurted out something relatively incomprehensible about Husband getting hugged by a stranger and not recognizing anyone because he didn’t actually know anyone here but maybe he thought he should know people but not including her of course, and I didn’t mean her, I meant this other woman, and how it was really good to have him home and it was the first time we had really gone anywhere and, you know … I trailed off. She smiled.
After an awkward silence we returned to the car. I wondered what had just happened. I looked at him.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, not knowing if I wanted the answer.
“I didn’t realize I’d be seeing people here.”
“People? Like, do you mean, as in, parents?”
This conversation was really getting dumb, and fast. Did I really just say that? Did he really just say that? I attempted to justify my remark. And by “justify” I mean I was snarky. It’s how I roll.
“Well that is what happens in the morning. Parents drop off their kids. Who did you think was going to be here?”
“We were supposed to meet teachers.”
“There were other people. I didn’t shave.”
He didn’t say it unpleasantly. Just matter-of-factly. And as I stared at him I realized he was dead serious. It made me want to laugh hysterically and cry all at the same time. I considered my odds of getting a cup of morning coffee if I erupted into idle-brained cackling. I could always feign insanity. But I was truly astounded by his understanding of how the morning was gonna go. This was truly foreign territory for me. He was walking into the scenario without the appropriate briefing and frankly, so was I. I couldn’t believe he was serious, but he was.
What must our daily life look like to a man who just returned from a place where nothing happened without a multi-level contingency plan having been considered, briefed, and followed? I remembered his hand on my back. He was exiting the unbriefed environment. Quickly.
And at that moment, I realized it. We were officially reintegrating. Nifty.