This post is the third in a three-part series chronicling my husband’s homecoming from a year-long deployment in the Middle East as a Navy Reservist. You can see the first homecoming post, “Anticipation” and the second homecoming post, “Exhilaration” on this site.
I had a contest on my Facebook page and I’m happy to announce that Amy Dixon has contributed the winning title of today’s post. It so perfectly fit the theme of my husband’s discovery of his homecoming flags. I’m also a real sucker for things that come in threes, so it was a no-brainer when it ended in “tion.” You can “like” Witty Little Secret on Facebook for more fun comments, contests, and questions. Thank you Amy!
As he lugged his green bag up into the trunk of our SUV, I took note of how small it suddenly seemed in light of the fact that it contained most of his belongings for the past year. I stood stupidly half in and half out of the roadway observing our little scene. It was nothing special at all. It wasn’t like the flourish and surprise we gave him at R&R when 35 friends, welcome home signs, and cheering fans greeted him on the ramp. And yet here, now … it was still so spectacular. The smiles told me so.
He helped the kids into their car seats, lifting them up with his big hands. And I smiled. I remembered how it was the daily things that I missed the most when he first left. It made perfect sense to me that something so insignificant would make me so happy now. I even felt a little dumb being so happy about him doing something so small. But for the moment it stood for the idea that we could pick up right where we left off. I knew it wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t that easy. But here, in this moment, it was true. There was at least this one small thing that was just as it was before. And he was a part of it, right now. It was such an unexpected and satisfying feeling to have in the first thirty minutes.
My fairy-tale moment in the middle of the road came to a screeching halt when I realized I had to make my way to the driver’s seat, and fast. There were two potential routes home, and one of them would take us down a beautiful country road that would make us miss the whole carefully erected homecoming flag display – completely. I knew he’d take that route without obvious intervention, so I would need to be in control in order to make it less obvious. I needed to move that way now, and act like it was normal for me to be in the drivers’ seat.
But it was not normal at all, and we both knew it. Husband always drove, and I liked it that way. When there’s a Navy pilot in your front seat you learn very quickly that there isn’t much you can do to ensure a smooth, hassle-free ride. You will be responsible to call the ball, be smooth, and attend to the various instruments with skill and finesse. It requires advance route briefing and equipment and fuel assessment and weather contingency planning and lots of other things I really don’t care about. I feel I reached wifely maturity when I finally realized it’s just easier to let him pilot the craft.
I looked down and realized I already had the keys in my hand. I don’t even know when I’m in control sometimes (because most of the time, I’m not, and painfully so). But now I was. Here was the evidence, right here in my hand. I bee-lined to the driver’s side and buckled myself in. I breathed and smiled as he got in. It worked. We were moving. Our whole family was in the car, and I was driving, and we were moving. We were going home.
“So what’s with the open window?” Husband asked. All feeling of accomplishment and control vanished. I started to sweat. He noticed that we weren’t rolling up a certain window on a rainy 40 degree day.
Damn military and their situational awareness training.
Two nights prior it had stopped working due to the kid (who shall remain nameless on the day of his father’s homecoming) who kept crawling in and out of the car through the window instead of opening the car door, despite his mother’s attempts to discipline him for such activities. I explained that we had successfully kept it rolled up until this particular morning when, on the way to the airport, it sunk slowly and completely down into the door, never to be seen again.
So what? We wore coats. It worked for us. He looked at me. I sweat some more, waiting for his response. I smiled. Kinda. I said, “Uhhhh. Welcome home!?”
Husband started rattling off the possible suggestions for fixing the problem and my “kinda” smile was replaced by a big Cheshire grin. Instantly I remembered that this was his job: fixing things. Making things better. Solving problems. “Have you taken it in? Did it roll up? Can you hear the window motor run when you push the button? How long has it been this way? What does it sound like? Do you have a plan? Have you called Toyota? Are they open on Saturdays? Do you have their number in your phone?”
And we weren’t even out of the parking garage yet.
What happened next sent my heart into defib. He suggested we drive by the Toyota dealer on our way home and have it looked at. My face must have sunken into a twisted mask of extreme displeasure as I contemplated the timing of our arrival and the disappearance of the masterfully-planned flag display. The Legion had volunteers to take the flags down and I had no idea how long they’d be up. I imagined us spending two hours at the dealership waiting for the car window to be repaired and driving into town without ever having seen the flags.
He became situationally aware of my obvious dissatisfaction, and I saw him struggle with how to respond to the fact that we had only one car at the moment, and it was broken. “NO LET’S GO HOME!” I said a little too loud, and a little too excited. He paused. I sensed he was trying to remember how to have these kinds of conversations without producing an order. “Uh. You don’t want to go by and get it fixed? We can’t really go anywhere and park it like that,” he reasoned.
Damn military and their logic and reason.
Now I was stuck. I was going to have to look like an unreasonable idiot to make it past this one. Luckily, I’ve played the role of the emotionally challenged crazy wife over the years, and I knew he was being easy and agreeable as befitting his homecoming status. I just looked at him and shook my head with a pathetic “please not today” face. He shrugged and said “OK” and rode along, smiling at us.
I knew he was secretly contemplating MISSION FIX CAR WINDOW while I was secretly jubilant about my ability to be such an idiot.
Our drive turned surreal as we chatted and talked about who we would see first and what we would do in the afternoon and whether we wanted chicken or roast beef for lunch. I sat wondering how long it would take for these conversations to feel “normal” again.
Early that morning we had helped the American Legion put up the 100 flags along this route. Husband didn’t want fanfare. He didn’t want celebration. He didn’t even really want recognition. But here, now, we could honor him. He could see the flags and know they were for him. Here, now, he could ride in his car and be anonymous, and know that he was appreciated. He could be welcomed home by a symbol for much more than we could ever say.
As we approached, the car got quiet. The kids watched his face in the mirror. He stopped talking, and he looked. “These are for you” I said, in an effort to erase any doubts he might have. “We put them up” said Sweet Pea from the back seat, grinning wide with satisfaction and pride. The Preschooler was, uncharacteristically, mute.
I watched the realization wash over him, and he smiled. His face was filled with “thank you” and he reached back and touched the kids with his hand. It was awkwardly bent and twisted in order to squeeze them both, and yet it looked easy and natural.
I thought about the day he left. I thought about him riding in the opposite direction, wondering whether he’d see this street again. I thought about him turning around in his seat and facing forward as they drove him away. I thought of him leaving this town behind – leaving us behind. And then I thought about who he did it for. He did it for some people half way around the world in a foreign country, many of whom hated him, most of whom he would never know or meet. And he did it for the same kind of people in our own country, too. He did it for me. He did it for the hands he was holding onto.
All 100 flags seemed to envelope us as we drove down the street. The little silver plaques on each one bore the name of a servicemember, and their glint reminded me that the flags were more than symbols. They were people, standing alongside the road, saluting us.
They were in front of us, leading the way. They were behind us, marking where we had been. And they were beside us, standing tall and straight. They were clean and bright and they were welcoming my hero home. They were sturdy and strong and they were thanking me for letting him leave. They were motionless and silent and they remembered. They would never forget.
Veterans Day means something new this year. It feels shallow to say that I didn’t appreciate it before, because I’ve been through deployments and I’ve been raised a military brat. But this deployment was different, somehow. I was older. I knew more about what was at stake. I knew more about what was being required of him. Of me.
When Husband left, I said I never wanted to forget the feelings I had for him: how much I loved him, how much I wanted and needed him in my life, and how terribly deep the wound felt on the day that he left. I knew that when he came back we would settle back into old routines, and the longing in my heart would soon be replaced by complaints or complacency. I vowed to hang on to that memory of pain in my heart, and remember how strong it was. Always.
And now, this Veterans Day, just weeks after my husband’s homecoming, I also want to remember this feeling. I want to remember how the flags felt as we drove into our home. To remember how quickly my heart swells when I hear the National Anthem, and how differently I look at a man in the grocery store wearing a WWII cap. I want to remember how lonely Christmas and birthdays feel when you’re alone, and how strong it feels to come out the other side. I want to remember seeing him hold his children through a camera lens, and I want to remember his hand straining into the back seat to touch his children after so many months of looking at them through a computer screen.
I’ve wanted this year to be over so badly for so long. But now I also don’t want to forget. I vow to hang on to this memory in my heart, and remember how strong it is.