Grave Contemplation

Memorial DayThis weekend I was annoyed.

I listened to so many people – very educated people – thanking active duty servicemembers, the deployed, and our Veterans, all without mentioning the dead. And while it’s just peachy to honor everyone who serves, and to thank them for their continuing sacrifice, it always confounds me when it happens on Memorial Day without mention of the dead. Memorial Day is set aside to remember the dead. It’s like a nation afraid to say the word. Dead.

It bothers me that more people don’t observe that fact. It bothers me when people say “Happy Memorial Day.” It bothers me that it’s symptomatic of an American population that doesn’t understand the military. And so, I find myself annoyed on Memorial Day again.

I live in a rural area nowhere near a military base. Here the military is a distant ideal borne mostly by VFW and American Legion volunteers who stand near the coffee shop trying to pass out red tissue paper flowers. There are no active duty servicemembers walking about. The word “ma’am” is uttered mostly by polite older men to older women. There are no military uniforms. There are farmers in coveralls and a hardware store where you can still buy things “on account” and a high school team named after potatoes. It’s Americana and it’s quaint and it’s patriotic. Yet it’s getting harder and harder to find the military memory here, and in other American towns just like it across the country.

As the kids and I walked up the gravelly road into the cemetery for the Memorial Day ceremony, I noted the inscriptions on the moss-infected graves as we passed each one: WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I was thankful there were no fresh graves, no visible connections to Iraq or Afghanistan. But I also understood that it was the reason for the widening gap between our military and civilian populations. Because for most of our nation the dead are not friends and brothers as much as they are cold headstones or sanitized news stories or touching Facebook photos. Even in a cemetery full of flags on a misty Memorial Day, the military sacrifice was conceptual. Theoretical. Second-hand.

We came to a stop in front of a tipsy podium rigged with extension cords, standing alone amidst the headstones. Men in blue covers gathered behind it, their pristine white gloves matching their hair. The moist flags hung heavily and as people gathered, we all stood motionless and stale. The ceremony began and my children clung to me for warmth, or maybe more. Their father was in the Middle East last Memorial Day. This year he was only on a business trip. But the lump in our throats was still very fresh.

I looked around. At 41 years of age, I was the youngest adult by many years. It was pathetic and embarrassing. I felt angry.

The speaker told the familiar story of a young man who didn’t come home after throwing himself onto a grenade. I was thinking of the young man’s mother when my seven year-old looked up at me and tugged on my shirt. I could see tears welling up in his eyes as he whispered, “what does ‘absorb the blast’ mean?”

My eyes glazed over as I realized that once again I was the only thing standing between him and a truth he already suspected. I replied quietly, “It means that he laid his body down on a grenade.” He looked at me, blinked, and waited for the confirmation. I felt like a surgeon who had just excised a tumor, trying carefully not to use the word “cancer.” I decided to be clear, because it was important. I leaned down so I could look him in the eyes and I whispered the truth. “It killed him. He did it knowing he would die. And it saved other people from dying. Do you understand?” My son nodded and turned away, but was soon squeezing my leg even tighter than before.

After the ceremony he stood staring quietly at the grave of a World War I veteran for a very long time. As I watched him it struck me how a story, some hushed words of truth, and something he could touch and see impacted him. In that moment, that dead man was a real person. And in that moment, that dead man in the ground stood in the gap between my son and the mere concept of sacrifice.

memorial day

Grave Contemplation

So on Memorial Day I will probably always be annoyed by the sales and the drunken barbeques and the well-wishers. But I will lessen the blow by always honoring the dead, and by teaching my children that it’s not just a theoretical, patriotic practice. It’s real. The dead are real. Like a mother answering an unwanted but inevitable question, the dead stand between us and a truth we already suspect – speaking plain and clear, even in their whispers.

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Lonely Things Come in Small Packages

Late Saturday night I lay in bed under the only light in the house that was still on, staring at my thighs. On the night before Jesus’ resurrection from the dead I was thinking about my own burgeoning thighs.

“They were smaller once too,” I thought. I’d been previously staring at my sleeping boy. This night he managed to convince me to let him crawl into my bed, and successfully cajoled me into letting him stay a little longer, a little longer … a little longer … until he was now asleep, his lanky legs tenderly infringing on my personal space, threatening to keep growing until they could no longer fit in my lap.

And my thoughts drifted away from my thighs. Because staring at my long-legged children always makes me wonder what it must feel like to be Husband. To have missed things I cannot imagine missing, and to miss them without any way to reclaim them. I looked down at my phone, and my fingers typed out the first thing that came to my mind: “I can’t remember the last time you were home for Easter. That can’t be good.” Send.

It was dispatched across the Pacific Ocean. I couldn’t take it back.

I flopped my head back on the pillow trying hard to recall our Easters past, rubbing the little ankles sprawled over my thighs without looking at them. I sometimes stare upwards for mental support in my moments of greatest need, like there’s an answer up there, in my ceiling fan.

There was that first kid Easter. He was home then. Sweet Pea was in her little red poppy dress and white gloves, trying to eat purple hard-boiled eggs with the shells on as she wobbled to sit upright in the cool wet grass. That was seven years ago. There were a few minutes of silence as I struggled to think of another Easter, when my phone buzz-interrupted. I slowly shifted my gaze from the hypnotizing ceiling fan to a solitary word on my phone’s screen: “Sorry.”

He couldn’t remember, either.

I put the phone down. There was no follow-up I could muster just then.

He’ll be on a training exercise while I sit through the Easter service, admonishing my kids not to snicker at the lady with the big purple hat. He’ll be in a windowless room for twelve hours while I smile at children scrambling mercilessly over each other in search of neon plastic eggs. He’ll come back at the end of a day to musty quarters eating a commissary snack plate out of a plastic dish while I prepare for a houseful of friends, smelling the rosemary as the sun floods my kitchen with yellow light. He’s the one missing all this. I’m here. Staring at my thighs.

It’s just. I’m just. You know. I’m alone. Again. Still. Or not alone, but. Lonely. A lot. Still.

It’s my ridiculous first world “complaint.” I feel lonely. WAH WAH WAH. But it’s still real. And I still feel it. I still look around Starbucks and hate the couple that sits on the same side of the table. I still drive with the radio on too loud  after I’ve dropped the kids off at school, hurtling down the freeway screaming lyrics of unrequited Adele love, tears streaming down my face, until I realize I have a meeting in ten minutes with an unrepresented man who wants to discuss the Magna Carta. “Do you even read French?” I like to say to distract him from my running mascara. I wish I could actually say that in French. That would be cool.

But then, there’s this moment. There’s always this instant where the momentum from the lonely is too much and it all turns. I rarely see it coming, but it comes …

On this night Sweet Pea came in to scope out whether her brother had managed to secure a spot in the coveted Bed of Mom. Because there must be complete and absolute fairness at all times between siblings when a father is away and there is a potentially empty portion of mom’s bed to be occupied.  She’s  learning to be subtle, though. She smiled and slipped under the covers next to me, wiggling in under my free arm. “Mom, guess what? We’re doing reports at school. And I got Louisa May Alcott!”

A hushed frenetic conversation about Little Women ensued between us in quiet whispers so as not to wake Captain Exacto Ninja Star Master of the Transformers’ Deathstar of Doom. I was enthralled to have a connection. And it was a book! It was like there was this panoramic camera hovering over our heads, rising straight up into the atmosphere. We were there, huddled together in our frenzy of favorite characters. In one moment, I could see every blemish and flaw with amazing high-definition clarity. In the next I was looking into the concave lens with myopic dysfunction. And in the next, I couldn’t focus at all. The camera kept rising: there was the street, and then the other houses, and then our sleepy little town. And the higher it went, the more generic things got. Blurrier. Prettier.

I always look prettier in low resolution.

And then, as the camera was rising up high into the sky, she spoke. “And I was thinking” she said, “that for my presentation,” she said, “I could use the guinea pigs as the Little Women and reenact a scene from the book and we could buy them little mini outfits on eBay and Buddy could be Beth!”

Guineas. In clothes. And she was deadly serious.

This was going to be what saved me. This was going to be that moment where I toggled over from thinking I wanted to die of loneliness to wanting to die of embarrassment from the snot slinging right out of my left nostril. Wait. This was going to be what saved me? The guinea pigs? The guinea pigs that tortured me the day Husband left? The brilliant (stupid) idea that Husband had to provide an endless array of distraction for our children upon his departure was now the thing distracting me?

Husband was brilliant. Latent, but brilliant. Again.

The camera hovered very high up there in the sky that night as we relished those last few moments before bed, laughing and snuggling and discussing the merits and design flaws of miniature turn-of-the-century guinea pig bonnets. I reiterated that any “sewing” on my part would be accomplished solely via glue gun. And then, as always, I said something out loud that made me stop.

“It’s all going to be very, very small, isn’t it?”

And in that moment I realized the gravity of my statement. Because someday it will all seem so very small. Very small indeed. Ahem. Just like my thighs. Were.

The Sound and the Fury

humerus
Photo by AJ Gazmen/Flickr

I have a penchant for humor. People around me slap me on the back and say “Oh, you’re sooooo funny.” And that’s usually when I’m just being wry or sarcastic.

But it’s partly true only because I observe and remember things around me. Sometimes I sit and watch events unfold and they seem hysterical to me, though nobody else is laughing. I can find humor in the mundane, the trite, and the ridiculously predictable habits of humans. We are fickle and flawed and yet so determined to be clear and bright. But the key is not only in observing these things; it is in remembering them. And I’m good at it. Or at least, I used to be.

Over the course of the last four months I’ve been so focused on the transition of my husband and my family and my marriage and myself (in that order it seems) back into this non-deployment life that I seem to have lost my funny bone. I’ve either not seen the funny, or I’ve forgotten it. And that’s a crying shame because a good funny bone is an awful thing to waste. I once wrote that my motto was “quit taking yourself so seriously.” Huh. I guess I forgot about that.

Figures that I forgot to take my own good advice.

But today, I remembered. Today, I found humor in the mundane. Because today my six year old protested against his normally yummy after school snack so vehemently that it required cross examination which, after tears were shed, revealed that the true reason for his disgust was the slimy load of boogers he stealthily and invisibly smeared all over the granola bar when he thought said snack was designated for his sister’s snacking pleasure. I momentarily and silently considered making him eat it anyway, until his sister (drunk with power upon observing the scowl on my face) suggested exactly that notion which I was contemplating. Once I saw the resulting look of horror on my second born’s face, it was like a free test drive and I was relieved that I had not suggested it. So of course I did what all good mothers do: I admonished the first-born for uttering such a terrible thing.

At this point, one child was crying and the other was pouting. And suddenly, I laughed.

Oh sure, the gesture drew ire from the crying, booger-infested peanut gallery. But I laughed anyway. I laughed at myself. I laughed at the seriousness with which I approached a courtroom-like exchange regarding boogers. I laughed at the pure maniacal genius of my son and the ironic twist of fate which befalls all evil geniuses: being ensnared in their own booger trap. And I laughed at the thought that he had been unwittingly undone by his nemesis, who, after becoming momentarily power-hungry, had turned to the dark side.

Ah humor, I’ve missed you so. You are so lovely.

What is it about this ridiculous reintegration process that so completely occupies the entire space of my mind and prohibits these exchanges from making it into my memory synapses? Because these are the things worth remembering and talking about, aren’t they? These are the events that will become dinner table fare, homecoming date fodder, and legendary family fable. These are the things I want to think about. Tell you about.

So I’m resolving to focus on the mundane. Not so much because it’s entertaining, but because it’s not reintegration. If I find the funny along the way, we’ll all benefit. But as I told you last year, the shortest distance between two inevitable points is an impossibly long line of distractions. Back then it was in reference to Husband’s departure. This time, it’s in reference to his full return.

To my full return.

Fish-infested Waters

I haven’t written much since my husband came home from the Middle East. Yeah, there was the rush from settling in after homecoming and the visitors and the family and the friends. And then there was Husband’s return to his civilian job and the whole readjustment-thingy. But really, it was the usual insanity. The real reason I didn’t write: reintegration sucked the whole living life out of me.

I really haven’t felt like writing about it. Or anything else for that matter.

Look it’s hard to explain if you haven’t done it, but when your lover first comes home from a long military deployment, and the shininess wears off, you start to stare when he’s not watching. I’m waiting to see if he unravels. And if he doesn’t, I might even pull on that dangling string.

I want to know if he’s here, with us, or still out there, in the desert.

Let me try to explain.

I spent most of my Navy Brat summers in coastal towns with beautiful beaches. I bounced around between Corpus Christi Texas, Orange Park Florida, Coronado California, and Honolulu Hawaii. I laugh when people ask me if it was hard being a military brat considering my residential repertoire. I often fall asleep to my wave machine and dream of beach memories.

In the absence of a “home town” that percussive sound is the glue that sticks my childhood together.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school, I was a sunburned haole girl living in Hawaii. I had a hand-me-down surf board which wasn’t anything glamorous and I wasn’t any good at all. But we all had surf boards and bubble-gum scented wax, and we all had sand rashes on our bellies. And we had no idea how much fun we were having.

Somewhere along the way that summer I befriended a group of locals from Haliewa who convinced me to come surfing. And I found myself out on the North Shore with four Portagee boys who knew all the unmarked public access points to the hidden beaches along that coast. I went to some “secret beach” with them that summer, which still horrifies my father.

This was summer, so we didn’t expect big waves, but this day was particularly lazy, even for summer. We sat in a flat glassy spot in a neat line, the waves bunching up slowly and slushing out underneath us. We gripped the pointy points of our boards and dipped the backs of them into the water, our legs dangling down and swirling us around. As we talked we squinted for a set, shifting our gaze between the horizon and our own floating shadows on the sand below.

Suddenly the boy to my left pointed a sharp finger at the water, and I saw a huge dark black fish off my starboard side, its crisp edges contrasting sharply with the bright sand that seemed to glow underneath it. It jerked and flipped its tail, and the boy called “shark” much like a kid calling “car” in a street basketball game.

My veins popped and adrenaline made my ears swell with sound. My instinct was to practically climb inside of myself, sucking my limbs up tight. I laid still, keeping every body part out of the water except for my poor little fingertips, which I was forced to dip into the water in order to hang on and keep from plunging headlong into the ocean. I still remember the gritty wax against my cheek as I looked across at Portagee Bo, who had laid his own face down on his board sideways. He was looking into my eyes, just like a murder scene in a movie where the camera does a close up of a dying man as his eyeballs go vacant.

I remember the next moment clearly. I looked into his eyes, and I peed. I wondered if sharks could smell pee in the water like they smelled blood. And I wondered if Portagee Bo could smell pee, too.

Somebody finally got up the courage to look, and no more big black fishies were in sight. A small wave set of minimal worth rolled in, and we rode it expertly all the way to shore without putting a single toe in the water.

PTSD

Flickr photographer: Slapshots

And that’s just like reintegration. You’re there, sitting on that surf board, not expecting any big waves and just enjoying the company. But soon the slush that comes along is disappointing and unsatisfying. So you start to spend time glancing at your own floating shadow, imagining that some latent PTSD is lurking below.I go back and forth between the comfort in knowing that PTSD would explain the gap between me and my husband, and the fear that it might not be the reason we are still so disconnected.

Some days I’ve curled up into a tiny ball and defenselessly prayed that I would not be fatally wounded by my own fear. I’ve instinctively sucked inside of myself and just waited for the bad feelings to go away. I’ve looked over at other spouses nearby and seen the vacant look in their eyes. And I’ve been too afraid to peek over the edge of the board. I have held every muscle in my body tight, trying desperately not to fall off. And I’ve been forced to dip my fingertips into the water, because it’s the only thing that would save me from making that fatal splash.

But finally, you garner the courage to look down into the water. You just can’t sit there waiting to be eaten by a creature that may not even exist. Nobody is coming by to rescue you. You have to be willing to stick your neck out and peer straight into the water.

So far, it’s empty down there. There’s my own hovering shadow, but no sharks. In fact, I’m aware there’s a very real possibility it was just a fish the whole time. And as time passes, I do get braver. I know this. I can feel it deep inside of me. Plus, there’s the fact that I haven’t peed myself in a very, very long time.

Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear

Photo provided by Erica Lucas

Right after Husband’s regular coffee duties resumed, I started to notice that flickering light fixtures were shining brightly, the hot tub was mysteriously operational, and the lawn was lush and manicured. Tools were being used, cars were getting washed with pre-kid precision, and project lists were making appearances around my kitchen, often scratched on the backs of Home Depot receipts with a carpenter’s pencil. The car window was fixed. We had batteries of every kind available again.

“We” were adjusting perfectly well. Perfectly. Well.

After a few days the kids needed to return to school and we made plans to drop them off together so that Husband could meet their teachers. We managed to get out the door with a moderate amount of mayhem, and arrived at school a squeaky clean four minutes before the final bell.

Let me preface this portion of our tale by stating that I recognize Kindergarten hallways are not for the faint of heart. I accept full responsibility for failing to prepare Husband for the insanity he foolishly walked into:

  • One or more wild-eyed children seem to feel Kindergarten is the emotional equivalent of being ripped from the arms of their mothers by child protective services.
  • Said children who are being inexplicably ripped from the intertwined arms of their loving mothers are excellent at verbally expressing this emotion.
  • One or more moms apparently feel the same way but are less excellent at verbally expressing this emotion.
  • Most parents are lurching and tripping to avoid a small unidentified pool of liquid which is of questionable origin and was strategically delivered right in the middle of a designated backpack-unpacking zone.
  • As the bell rings, the hallway transforms from silent whispering onlookers perched neatly at the glass entry doors to a bustling explosion of parents jockeying for the bumper-car gauntlet.
  • This obligatory flurry of parents are hovering over their five year-old dawdlers nervously, bursting with frustration at the prospect of uttering the phrase “hurry up” for the forty-ninth time in fifteen minutes.

first day of schoolBasically we are a bunch of smiling, greeting, crying, shuffling, bumping, cajoling sardines. That’s what we are. For fifteen minutes, it is the friendliest chaos in the elementary school.

And so there we were, attempting to fit four family members where two might usually go, and my son walked fearlessly through the morass and said, “hey there,” to one of the twins, raising his hand nonchalantly and winking sideways at her. (Or me. I couldn’t tell. I reassured myself he was winking at me. I know he wasn’t.) “That’s not my girlfriend” he whispered informatively. I sighed in relief. “I like her sister better,” he said.

I looked at another parent who I’m sure heard the entire exchange and was likely to be the twins’ mother. I smiled and gave her the “what are you gonna do” look. Like the Kindergarten Stepford Mom that I am, I used it as an excuse to say “hurry up now, baby.”

I turned to introduce my husband to the teacher and realized he was not within reach because he was standing flush against the back wall staying wisely out of the way. He looked like he’d rather be on display in an underwater cage encircled by starving sharks.

We did introductions quickly and headed for the third grade hallway. Half way done.

I thought things were going great until I looked back at Husband. He had this weird smile pasted on his face. I didn’t realize it at first, but people were giving him the surprised open-mouth “WELL HI THERE!” smile as he passed them in the hallway.

Many of the families at our school were keenly aware of Husband’s deployment. We don’t live in a military community so it’s a little bit unusual at our school to begin with. But on top of that some had seen our picture in the newspaper, so in our little enclave he had become somewhat of a celebrity without really knowing it. Moms stopped us in the hallway. “Oh, my goodness! You’re home!” and “Welcome back!” and “It’s so good to see you!” resonated down the hallway as we attempted to walk with Sweet Pea pulling and tugging us along. Husband managed a “ha ha, good to see you too” and a “oh, uh, thank you” but was otherwise just nodding and smiling stiffly. One woman hugged him and some of them hugged me, and one even raised her hands to cover her mouth as if she was going to cry. “I’ve been praying for you!” she blurted out.

I looked at my husband’s pasted smile. He looked like a scarecrow. Friendly, but equally friendly to everyone.

The more people approached him, the more he looked like the guy in the shark tank, the more he looked like he was holding a struggling, wounded fish and the blood was trailing through the water mercilessly. I felt horrible. The bell was about to ring. We used that as an excuse to keep moving.

When we finally arrived in the third grade hallway a few of Sweet Pea’s girlfriends were milling about comparing shoes in the hallway. As we approached several of them stood with their mouths hanging open. One particularly sparkly girl hugged Sweet Pea and winked at me over her shoulder. “I just knew he’d be coming home!” she proclaimed, as if this was an unreliable conspiracy leaked by the third grade rumor society.

After goodbye kisses, I glanced back at the beaming face of my Sweet Pea, and I sensed a new easiness in her demeanor. I lingered in the doorway for a moment watching her gather up her things, and I caught a glimpse of what my little girl looks like when she rests in her father’s presence rather than his absence. I felt husband’s hand on my back, and I felt his presence, too.

Some jogging students flew passed us as the bell rang, the wind from their speeding backpacks blowing the homemade tissue paper artwork adorning the walls like a playful rustling of leaves. Moms once harried now milled about saying hello and procrastinating their morning workouts. I was sauntering carelessly, too. Until I felt the pressure of his hand on my back increase. I was suddenly almost leaning forward as I walked, and his hand was propelling me forward.

I realized it was not there for affection. It was purposeful.

Way down the hall I saw a friend from church holding her little girl, a spitfire who rivals our son in the famous quotes department. Upon seeing Husband, the little girl’s eyes lit up and her mouth opened and she put up a hand to welcome him home. At that very moment he had already leaned forward to whispered in my ear, “Keep going. Don’t stop. Let’s go.” I knew he didn’t see her, and as we closed in, there was this moment where I was trying to avoid being smashed by the weight of his urgency and still smile at the little glowing face that was waiting so expectantly to be recognized.

I stopped and he almost ran into me. I felt the weight of disobeying a direct order. Our friend laughed at our Two Stooges shenanigans. “Welcome home!” she said as her daughter bounced in her arms.

I attempted to explain away my buffoonery, as if I actually knew what was happening myself, and I failed miserably when I blurted out something relatively incomprehensible about Husband getting hugged by a stranger and not recognizing anyone because he didn’t actually know anyone here but maybe he thought he should know people but not including her of course, and I didn’t mean her, I meant this other woman, and how it was really good to have him home and it was the first time we had really gone anywhere and, you know … I trailed off. She smiled.

After an awkward silence we returned to the car. I wondered what had just happened. I looked at him.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, not knowing if I wanted the answer.

“I didn’t realize I’d be seeing people here.”

“People? Like, do you mean, as in, parents?”

This conversation was really getting dumb, and fast. Did I really just say that? Did he really just say that? I attempted to justify my remark. And by “justify” I mean I was snarky. It’s how I roll.

“Well that is what happens in the morning. Parents drop off their kids. Who did you think was going to be here?”

“We were supposed to meet teachers.”

“We did.”

“There were other people. I didn’t shave.”

He didn’t say it unpleasantly. Just matter-of-factly. And as I stared at him I realized he was dead serious. It made me want to laugh hysterically and cry all at the same time. I considered my odds of getting a cup of morning coffee if I erupted into idle-brained cackling. I could always feign insanity. But I was truly astounded by his understanding of how the morning was gonna go. This was truly foreign territory for me. He was walking into the scenario without the appropriate briefing and frankly, so was I. I couldn’t believe he was serious, but he was.

What must our daily life look like to a man who just returned from a place where nothing happened without a multi-level contingency plan having been considered, briefed, and followed? I remembered his hand on my back. He was exiting the unbriefed environment. Quickly.

And at that moment, I realized it. We were officially reintegrating. Nifty.

first day of school

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