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.
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.