The faint green light from my clock confirmed that it was morning, despite the complete absence of any light except the moon’s. It was only 4:59, but it still counted. It was morning. It was officially the day my husband was coming home.
I closed my eyes and tried to remember how many dark nights and mornings I stared in frustration at the ceiling, unable to sleep. I tried to remember how many times I laid awake thinking of the desert, thinking of the distance, thinking of the day he’d come home. And now it was here and I closed my eyes in relief – disbelief.
I turned around slowly in the bed to survey the carnage. I squinted with my night eyes to see my two children sprawled across each other, limbs splayed, mouths hanging open, hair tangled and bodies contorted in unnatural poses – almost as if they had waged an ancient war in their sleep and been left this way for the vultures. I scratched my head and tried to push through the fog to remember how they arrived in my bed.
I had a faint vision of them falling asleep there after begging me for one last night of “sleeping in the big bed” before Daddy came home. They knew they would be exiled to their own beds once he came through the door, and they suspected that this night I would be a sucker. They suspected that this night their impassioned pleas would fall on the receptive ears of an emotionally exhausted basket case who needed to hold them closely, tightly, just as badly as they needed to cling back. And now as it came back to me I remembered their sweet faces and their stuffed animals and their tiny noses and their character jammies. I remembered their hands held up in prayer to me, begging “puh-leeeeeez, Mommy?” It was an easy decision to let them stay, while they still wanted to, but I protested as if this was a very special exception as we slipped off into our last night alone in the house.
And now, as I stared at them for a bit in the dark, they didn’t seem so troublesome. I could have stayed there staring for a long time. But I was finally coaxed out of the warm bed by a combination of the two miniature heels pressing into me, the turn of my stomach under the anxiousness of the day, the suffocating heat of my feather comforter as my muscles began to twitch, and the pounding in my chest. I pushed the covers down slowly behind me to cover the tiny feet that were kicking me out of bed, and made my way into the bathroom. I caught myself in the bathroom mirror, and thought to take one last inventory of all the new wrinkles, blemishes, and battle wounds that were added to my face over the course of the last thirteen months. I did it knowing full well that thinking is always where I get myself in trouble. “That’s what you get for thinking ….” I could hear Husband say. I forgot how he used to tease me that way. It was all coming back to me, now.
My brain recalled the year and how hard I had been on my body … there was the half-marathon, the shoulder injury, and the fractured knee cap. There were Nightly News worry lines and semi-single-parent scowls that had permanently marked my forehead and invaded the corners of my eyes. There was the slightly-whiter-than-necessary spot on my tooth that evidenced the chip I endured during a particularly stressful dream of some sort. And there was the fact, alone, that I had turned forty while he was away. I squinted to see myself and thought, “I’ve aged this year.”
But it was twilight, and the bathroom light was still off, and before I looked too closely I considered the danger of thinking too much. And I felt, instead. The air coming into my lungs felt like icy cold air that brushed its way passed the warm comfortable cells inside my body, irritating and agitating them to wake. My skin felt charged and pulsing, ready to be touched and held and grasped. My feet felt sturdy, planted firmly and unafraid in front of a full-length mirror. As my eyes adjusted to the light I saw a girl smirking back at me in the mirror. Her eyes were saying, “Screw you, old lady. I did this year with style despite you. And I’m not done with you, yet. ” It was dark and I couldn’t find my glasses. But damn, I looked amazing in that moment.
And that’s how the rest of the day felt. I admit, most of the morning is now a whirlwind blur in my memory … the grooming and primping, the breakfast and the cleaning up, putting out freshly made peanut butter cookies, sticking flags in the lawn, and getting out the door. But with the year behind me and the smirk of a woman who knew what it took, I scoffed at the cleaning that didn’t get done and stole a peanut butter cookie for myself instead.
There was one more thing to do. We were headed to make sure there was one more surprise set up for our hero when he came home.
We arrived at our little town’s Community Center where Bruce, the Commander of the American Legion, already had his truck packed full of United States flags. He quickly instructed us how to properly unfurl and sink each one, and soon an entire team of volunteers were assembled to help install over 100 flags along our route. The Preschooler demanded to do it himself and I followed him around nervously like a rodeo clown with a pooper scooper, making sure no red, white, or blue threads touched the ground. In contrast Sweet Pea just smiled and accepted each flag handed to her, quietly doing her part. She turned to me as we walked across the street and whispered, “do you think Daddy will be surprised? Do you think he will like it?”
I thought of the day the van drove away, and the text message Husband sent after Sweet Pea and The Preschooler and I stood in the driveway waving. He said he was numb. He said saying goodbye was harder than he thought it would be. I thought about the visual impact of seeing him being driven away. And I thought about the visual impact of 100 flags upon his return.
“Yes baby girl, he will be surprised. And he will like it more than he will be able to say.”
We finished putting all the flags in place and thanked our American Legionnaires one last time. We waved out the window and shouted “thankyou” but couldn’t find a way to truly let them know what this meant to us. Throughout the year they had given us calls and letters, a blue star banner to display, even provided car help when I needed it. And now they had helped me find a way to honor my husband’s arrival without the fanfare and signs and crowd at the airport that he so adamantly shied away from. It was the perfect gesture that would let him know he was appreciated: all of Main Street was lined with flags. Only a few of us would know what they were for, but I knew that’s exactly how he would want it.
We lingered for a while in the coffee shop, drinking too much coffee with the locals and listening to them tell stories about my husband, about seeing us in the paper and being proud, about visiting my blog and realizing we were the family from their town with a family member serving overseas. They said what everyone seems to say at the end of a deployment: “Wow, it’s been a year, already?” And that day I didn’t correct them and say it was longer than a year. That day I didn’t mind. That day I just smiled and said, “Yes, it’s been a long time.”
We left for Sweet Pea’s soccer game, the last event we would endure without Husband, and we watched the homecoming countdown dwindle down from hours to minutes. I tried in earnest to watch but my mind wasn’t on the game. My mind was on the blue-eyed boy sitting quietly in his seat, waiting to step off the airplane and into our open arms.
to be continued …