It could have been any Soccer Saturday. I was yelling “woo hoo good job baby!” from my collapsible canvass soccer chair in the cold wet grass as the morning fog lifted at midfield. I was wearing the traditional garb: zip-up fleece in a team-appropriate color, rubber boots with jeans jammed hastily down into them, and little to no makeup due to the morning rush to locate shin guards and frantically fill a water bottle and line the car with plastic in an attempt to entrap what would inevitably be muddy cleats and jerseys and legs and arms and fingers. Here I was, as if it was just another Soccer Saturday, clutching my tiny hot cup of coffee, zipped up to my chin, taking video after video of the same mob of blue jerseys with my phone and screaming senseless encouragements that were either completely wrong or unheard by the intended recipient, but made me feel supportive nonetheless.
But I wasn’t watching the field. Not at all. I was watching the clock. With every peek at it, my heart raced. The minutes were ticking away and I could clearly see an image of his face. My visual brain was racing back and forth between the moment I’d first see him, the moment I’d be close enough to lock eyes with him and look deeply into the blueness and see what Skype and electronic words could never deliver, and the moment he would take his big arms and wrap them around me and squeeze. Thinking of these moments my breath drew in involuntarily and my chest constricted and electricity shot through my legs. A goal was scored and I hastily jumped up and shouted “great shot!” before realizing it was the other team that scored. I was excitable.
I finally decided to check Husband’s flight status from my phone. My frozen thumbs limbered up as I typed the airline website and flight number into my phone, and I impatiently watched the page spin and refresh and warble and search and blip. After three tries, I couldn’t believe my eyes. His flight was early. And not just a few minutes early – THIRTY MINUTES early!
Nervous energy gave way to sickening dread as I pictured my husband arriving home from a deployment without anyone to greet him. Well, he wanted low-key and he was about to get it. I yanked Sweet Pea from the field, yelled something incomprehensible to her coach, and dragged my burgeoning menagerie of paraphernalia to the car, which was slowing me down big time. My cumbersome load consisted of: (1) The Preschooler who was whining because he had spilled two-thirds of his strawberry smoothie (with whip cream) on his shirt, down the crotch of his jeans, and into his rubber boots; (2) the chair he had been sitting in, which I was reluctant to fold up, because it was also strawberry-smoothie baptized; (3) my half-folded canvass chair which was not back in its sock with a neat drawstring and carrying strap, but was still undone for no apparent reason other than a failure to think; (4) a muddy soccer player who was mad because she braided her hair for the airport and now all her curls were gone; (5) the mad muddy soccer player’s water bottle, with mud on it; and (6) the newish purple sequin-encrusted sweatshirt of the mad muddy soccer player, which I was trying to hide behind my back so she wouldn’t see the strawberry smoothie that now christened its virgin white fluffy interior.
I stopped, breathed, grabbed each child by the shoulder, and waited for them to both look me in the eye. This was my “I mean business” act.
“Daddy’s early and we have to go. Now. Or we’re going to miss him.” That was all they needed and it was robot city. To the car, cleats off, in seats, buckles on, out of the car, into the house, change of clothes, change of shoes, lip gloss, brush the hair, back in the car, in seats, buckles on, hit the road. The car sat idling in the driveway the entire time and it was an impressive six minute turnaround.
But it was the longest drive of my life. I couldn’t even turn the radio on. The kids were chattering and as their volume increased it filled the car with even more energy. We were not going to make it. I was flying and breaking all kinds of laws and sweating in my great homecoming outfit. My phone was buzzing off the hook with calls and texts and messages because everyone knew it was close. I bounced in my seat.
But as we finally finally approached the bridge, the portion of road which represents that glorious last stretch to Airport Way, the car got quiet and the road became bumpless and I became still and the dreary Northwest air around us puffed and pushed us forward.
Over the course of the last ten years I had made my way down this road so many times to pick him up from a trip. We had been over this bridge to welcome him home from a week’s absence over and over again. The surroundings were all so familiar – yet the feelings were all so different. This wasn’t the end of a week-long trip and this wasn’t a regular Soccer Saturday. And as I crossed the bridge it was like entering a different existence. Everything I had come to know over the course of the last year was about to change and become new. Everything. Again.
I pushed the gas pedal down hard and moved into the exit lane. I was not slowing.
We parked and went running into the airport – really running – holding hands and laughing and remembering how we almost missed his arrival home from R&R under similar circumstances. “I’m going to tackle him!” shouted The Preschooler. “I’m going to tickle him!” announced Sweet Pea. “And I’m going to see it all,” I whispered.
We came down the long hallway at Portland International Airport, and stopped right at the confluence of the security gate causeway. People streamed out of their flights without any regard to the fact that I was looking for my husband without my glasses on. I didn’t see him, but he was walking directly toward us. Sweet Pea suddenly shouted, “there he is!” and took off running.
I saw his smile first. And then his uniform.
I raised my camera to capture the moment on video, walking closer quite slowly so as to keep the video from bouncing around like a kangaroo on a pogo stick, and in doing so I ended up seeing the whole thing through the lens of a video camera. It will be forever etched in my memory through that lens. In that view the rest of the world was absent. There were no other people, no shops, no suitcases or security guards. The entire screen of my memory is filled only with my Husband and my children embracing as the frame slowly gets closer and closer and closer.
He was in his desert uniform, and I couldn’t see his face now as he stooped down to hug his babies. I grabbed my heart as The Preschooler climbed my Husband like a monkey scaling a tree and Sweet Pea clung to his uniform like she was about to be torn from him by a hurricane. And then, with all his paraphernalia, he was moving, toward me.
I started walking now too, and I lowered the camera just in time to see his real live smile and happy blue eyes before his free non-monkey-holding hand reached around behind me and pulled me toward him. “Hi, honey!” he said, as if he had just been outside mowing the lawn and was coming in for dinner. I planted one on him, wrapped my arms around his tanned neck, and drew back again to look at his eyes.
They were dancing. They weren’t distant or cloudy or preoccupied. They were just bouncing – full of energy and light and easy happiness. They were the eyes I remembered from a very long time ago. I closed my eyes and hugged him again. “Mmm. Welcome Home” was all I could manage in that moment.
And in that long-awaited squeeze, that wonderful warm feeling, all of the exhilaration finally drained from my body and I felt calm and certain. I could breathe deeply again. I hugged him again before we headed to the baggage claim, and when I did I inadvertently hit the delete button on the camera. And just like that, homecoming was gone.
But I thought of the flags and smiled. Because it was now a home-going.
In what seemed like slow motion we sauntered toward the baggage claim, clinging to him and feeling as if he were Zuckerman’s Famous Pig and we were bringing him up to the State Fair. We sat on the floor and as I watched I noticed that his hands were constantly moving, going from one child to a gift, to a bag, to the other child, to me, to a zipper or a pouch or a flap. He was sitting, but he couldn’t sit still. He doled out the gifts he brought home right there in the airport, not something any of us expected, and I sat down on the floor next to him as the kids played and I admired my treasures – especially the one sitting next to me. Especially the family I had, which was whole again.
However, we were watched by everyone at the baggage carousel, and I could sense Husband was impatient and uncomfortable and wanted to just get home.
When it finally came out, he quickly gathered his big bag (something I would previously have called a “sea bag”) and hoisted it up on his shoulder. He left the other hand dangling for The Preschooler, who had become a kindergartener while his dad was gone. They both sauntered a little as we made our way to the car. The Preschooler’s little voice reverberated and echoed in the parking garage as he announced, “Daddy, when I grow up, I’m going to be just like you.”
My mother’s heart sunk as I imagined my little boy going away to a desert, or whatever the military conflict would be in about 13 years. About his young wife and about his family. But he was right. In that moment, we all wanted to be like him when we grew up. We were all proud.
Sweet Pea looked at me and whispered, “can I tell him about the flags?”
“Only if you want to ruin the surprise,” I said just as quietly. This wasn’t a good response because I knew she wanted to do exactly that. So I added, “Let’s wait and see what happens when he sees them, okay? Let’s just wait and see if he realizes who they’re for.”