Someone asked me recently to describe the most challenging aspect of deployment from the perspective of the military family. I was on the phone at the time, and I looked out across the jungle that had become my back yard. I decided that “yard work” was probably not an acceptable response.
It took me a moment to identify something specific because the easiest way to get through something is to avoid thinking about it altogether. Deny deny deny. I looked back at the lawn and surmised that this coping mechanism may not work out very well. I made a mental note to examine just how long and lush the blades of jealousy and resentment were growing in my own heart. And I immediately decided to take care of it … later.
Most military families will tell you that events with dates attached to them – holidays, anniversaries, recognitions, and milestones – are the hardest. I often discount the importance of a particular day because Husband’s civilian job as a UPS pilot takes him away from home often and we just wait to celebrate until he gets home. But as the events cumulate and stack up against him, I can feel his guilt mounting and the childrens’ resentment building. It’s not fair to Husband, but it happens nonetheless. I seem to be able to deal with it. But the harder it gets for my children, the harder it gets for me. I willingly made the choice to marry a pilot, but they didn’t.
It’s difficult to ask a child to make a sacrifice that is not voluntary.
Case in point, one day after school Sweet Pea stared out the car window. She wasn’t just staring out the window blankly. This was not the wide-eyed wondering look of a child on a road trip without a DVD player, nor the irritated “I’m ignoring you because you’re stupid” mask that she puts on when her brother is attempting to karate-chop her homework folder from his buckled-in car seat. This was the “I’ve just lost my best friend” kind of stare. She was hurting, and she seemed a thousand miles away.
Or maybe something like 7,600 miles away.
I knew by the look in her eyes that we were about to have another conversation about sacrifice, temporary conditions, bravery, family support, patriotism, freedom, and trust in God. These are heavy subjects for a seven year-old who still draws kittens with bows and likes sparkles embedded in her clothing. But she knows them. So of course I avoided those issues completely and went directly to humor, coping mechanism of the stars. It directly follows ridiculous unadulterated denial of the obvious, so it was worth a try.“Hey, what’s going on? Did you flunk out of second grade today?” “Huh-uh.” “No? Accidentally eat a vegetable at lunch?” “No, Mom.”
Hm. Terse. No grin. Nothing. I resorted to some gross body humor. This always works.“Toot in class?” “Ew.” “Get caught picking your nose?” “Mom!” “Oh, oh. Don’t tell me. I know – you peed your pants in P.E. Must have been totally embarrassing.”
Silence. Crickets. Thousand mile stare. My heart dropped. I was out of jokes.“Well?” “I just don’t want to have my birthday this year. That’s all. It’s not the same.”
And there it was. I slowed my car and pulled over, and as I came to a stop and turned around, Sweet Pea wasn’t looking out the window. She was looking directly at me, and she was preparing to head me off at the pass. As the daughter of a lawyer she has learned the value of pre-emptive argument and I could see the wheels turning. She leaned forward in her seat to deliver the blow, but I could see that she was fighting to maintain control. The raw emotions were welling up, forcing wet spots to form in the corners of her precious blue eyes. Her Daddy’s precious blue eyes.
“I don’t care if he will be here next year. It’s not the same. I’ll never be eight again. This is the only time. It’s just not the same without Daddy here.” Her voice finally broke and she wiped a tear, blurting out one last salvo: “It doesn’t even feel like a birthday!”
And she was right. Husband has this way of making everything lighter and happier. He may be an officer in the United States Navy and he may wear a uniform and have people salute him at work, but at home he’s a goofy guy with a soft spot for tickle fights and a talent for unique flatulence timing. It’s my job to roll my eyes while the kids giggle and blame me while fake-fanning my rear end.
So I just agreed with her. I told her it wasn’t the same. Inside it hurt that I couldn’t make it all better, but I realized there was value in learning that sometimes you can’t fix things. I realized that learning how to feel and move on was crucial to growth. So I told her it was OK to feel bad and that I appreciated how angry she was about it. I told her that nobody expected her to pretend everything was just fine when it wasn’t. And I told her I felt the same way sometimes. She attempted to level me with a final sucker-punch to the gut:
“But you don’t know, Mom! You don’t know what it’s like not having your daddy home for your birthday!”
And I smiled. Because I did know. I remembered my own eighth birthday in Jacksonville, Florida when my dad was deployed on the USS America and I put my knee into a red ant hill. I remembered that birthday.
“Honey, my daddy was in the Navy too, remember? And Papa missed lots of holidays when I was a little girl. In fact, he even missed my eighth birthday. So I do know. I know exactly what it feels like.”
It stunned her into silence and we just stared at each other for a moment. Uncomfortable, I turned around, put the car back in gear, and started moving the car forward. I was unsatisfied with what felt like emotional one-upmanship.
But then I remembered something that saved us so many times before. Husband sings a song … “Don’t worry, about a thing. ‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright.” And he sings it, and sings it, and sings it again, until the grumpy moping child relents and sings along. And it works. It actually works.
So I did it. I started singing. I sang quietly at first, almost to myself, and I watched the kids in the mirror. They were watching quietly, suspiciously, but not joining in. I could feel my heart rising as I anticipated the eventual response and I continued undaunted with a smirk on my face. I opened the windows a crack, even though it was drizzling outside, so the wind could blow through our hair. Each stanza was progressively louder and more annoying and the setting sun blasted through the trees, their shadows beating out a strobe-like effect on our faces as we picked up speed. By the time we hit the freeway I was bobbing back and forth beating the steering wheel for rhythm, singing like a midnight karaoke idiot. Both kids (and the occupants of several other cars) were staring at me now in disbelief but I continued, undeterred by their looks of horror. I shouted, “altogether now!” between stanzas, and The Preschooler timidly joined in. I barked out my command to sing along “louder!” if they wanted me to stop, and Sweet Pea finally participated in protest. We sang it again and again until I saw her eye rolls transition into a smile. And within minutes we were screaming down the highway with the windows all the way down in the rain, both kids’ flailing and bouncing in the back seat, raising their chins and happily declaring “every little thing is gonna be alright!”
We laughed. And as we sang I captured their faces in my memory. I had an overwhelming feeling that we really were going to make it. I had learned a lesson once before – that there was value in saying things out loud – and it was serving me well to remember it now. I believed it. We all believed it.
The next day we did our best to make Sweet Pea’s birthday a special event. But I wasn’t completely sure how she felt about it until I saw the words that she wrote out as we were making a welcome home message for her Daddy on the sliding glass doors later that night:
“Dear Dad, I missed you very very much. I’m glad your home with us. I cryed much times when you where gone. I was trying to be as strong as I could … I am very very proud of you for protecting our country. I’m soooooooo glad your home! We will have so much fun together. I love you a lot Daddy. I’m sad you missed my birthday butt you had to do your good Navy stuff … I could never say how proud I am of you. The hole family missed you butt we where brave because we trust in God to protect and provied for you and your Navy friends!”
I looked through her words on the glass doors back out onto the lawn in my dark back yard. I realized it was time to act on my mental note to take an honest inventory of my own bad feelings about this deployment and see just how long the weeds there had become. I’m a little ashamed to say that I didn’t really like what I found there.
I found resentment, jealousy, and a sense of abandonment. I found anger for being the one left behind to deal with the bills and the doctors appointments and the boo-boos and the mortgage, and the laundry and the floors and the toilets. And then I found guilt for feeling that way. I found exhaustion. I found the loneliness of living without him that I often ignored. On holidays. On weekdays. On weekends. In the mornings. And late at night.
But I looked back at the words written by my little girl, and it struck me. I realized all of these things were okay. I thought of my own sage advice to admit defeat and look your feelings in the face. And I realized I didn’t have to laugh my way out of them. I didn’t have to deny they existed. And I didn’t have to feel like I was the only one.
I stepped out onto the deck where the kids couldn’t see me, and I stared out into the darkness for a moment. This year would be over soon. This feeling would be a memory. I closed my eyes, and I sang softly under my breath, imagining it was him standing behind me, whispering in my ear: “Don’t worry … about a thing. ‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”
And it was gonna be alright. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have to be. It was real, and it wasn’t going to be there forever, and there would be time for it to heal. So I didn’t have to worry. Not any more.