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.

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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

Preintegration

reintegration

photo courtesy of annstheclaf at Flikr

Young men came home from World War II in boats. They laid in the belly of a ship and they decompressed over cards and cigarettes for weeks and they talked and they told stories. They heard stories. And they had time to think about their girls back home.

But thanks to modern travel, today’s veterans can be plucked right out of a war environment in the desert and plopped down in the middle of a luxury shopping mall a dizzying twenty-four hours later. Not too great for the romantic homecoming everyone dreams of.

Thank goodness our military is smart enough to realize that our warriors need that decompression chamber. Unfortunately the modern equivalent of the Queen Mary is a combination of red tape, medical exams, and DoD-sanctioned debriefs mixed with mandatory periods of relaxation. However, after seeing what 24 hours of planes trains and automobiles looks like (hint: R&R), I was thankful to have a Husband who was well-rested, clear-eyed, on the right side of the clock, and ready to be here.

I’m told we are now in the phase called Reintegration, but it doesn’t feel like we are integrating anything yet. We’re sort of just standing here looking at each other. When we hold hands, there is still a space between us. It’s really more like Preintegration.

I am quiet mostly because I can’t imagine being inside the mind of a servicemember who first realizes people actually struggle to make decisions like what kind of latte they want to consume that day. It must be unreal to make life and death decisions on a daily basis and then come home to discover you have no control over the mind of your six year-old. If it were me, I would put it all off and just smile and hug my family for a few days, too. So. Preintegration it is.

I’ve been reading all about what is supposed to come next, because the last time I did all this I was a newly married girl with no kids. I mean I don’t even REMEMBER reintegration the last time around. I’m entering unknown territory. Again. Just like everything else in this deployment, I’m totally winging it. At least I get points for consistency.

laughing children

his hands were full

So when Husband came home we basically just hung out for a couple of days. We saw friends. We snuggled. We sat on the couch. We watched football. We tickled. We made and ate some of his favorite foods. We listened to stories. We went on walks. We basically just relaxed.

In all of that, I realized that I didn’t remember how to just “be” with him. When we were alone I sat awkwardly and waited for him to speak. I just stared at him. It wasn’t the “oh I’m so gaga in love with you” kind of staring, either. It was more like the “I wonder what happens if you poke it with a stick and pour salt on it” kind of staring. Not that he’s a slug … gah. I’m so romantic that way.

But when he woke up early one morning and made me a cup of coffee, that’s when I knew my husband was returning. And that meant I could return with him. “Thanks for making me coffee,” I said, smiling and batting my eyes. “It’s my job” he joked.

Oh yeah, it’s his job. Oh yeah! It’s his job!

You see, I pretend that being the honored recipient of this tradition puts me on par with the likes of Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, who I’ve heard routinely have their morning cup of First Lady coffee made lovingly by their presidential husbands. Because yeah. Me and the First Lady. We’re like this.

But the best part of this beautiful ritual is that I have never once asked my husband to make coffee. Not once. One morning I simply woke up tired and late, and he made me a steaming sweet cup of wake up. I must have been in a good mood because I took a sip and said, “Oh. Thank you so much. I love it when you make me coffee. It makes me feel like a princess.”

After that, he started making the coffee. Every single morning, without being asked. And I always said thank you. And I always meant it.

By the way, don’t get any bright ideas and blame me if this method doesn’t work for you. For example I tried it with “I love it when you put the toilet lid down because it makes me feel like such a princess.” But it’s pretty hard to refer to a repository for stinky bodily functions and simultaneously refer to yourself as royalty.

Finding a fresh pot of coffee became such a lovely ritual for me that I remember standing over my kitchen sink crying that first morning after he left, like I didn’t know how to operate a simple piece of machinery. That’s why this morning, here, now, was so beautiful. When I woke up and smelled the steam that was wafting up, I sighed out loud. When I saw the heavy moisture that rises up when hot water pours over beautiful shards of crushed brown beans, I smiled. And then I almost cried again.

I know there will be more days. There will be days where I stare into my reflection in the bottom of the cup and wonder how I’m going to convince my husband that logic is not the only factor in decision-making. There will be days where I do poke him with a stick in an attempt to see if he will actually bleed, or cry, or express an emotion I haven’t seen in a while. And there will be days when I get up and grumble, and forget to say thank you for my cup of coffee.

But for now, we have Preintegration. For now, we have the honeymoon. And for now, I will sip and smile and remember that I’m not the one making the coffee.

Mmmmm. That’s nice. Thank you.

He’s Not a Hero

military homecomingOne of the really cool things about having a deployed husband is the fun you get to have preparing for a military homecoming.

My dad was a Naval Aviator and we got to stand out on the flight line together, waiting to see them soar across the sky, land in front of our very eyes, jump out of their planes, and come sauntering across the tarmac, as we ran at long last to tackle them in their flight suits. There was a party at the hangar and there was a fancy dinner later in the month, and as we drove home there were signs leading all the way from the squadron parking lot to the gate, welcoming them home and celebrating their return. Local business marquees welcomed home the unit with a discount or two, and TV stations played clips of the returning heroes and covered the classic reunion kisses and the dads-meeting-babies-for-the-first-time moments.

But IA deployments are different. That stands for “Individual Augmentee.” That means Husband filled a single spot to augment another service, and his reserve unit stayed here. That means he’s coming home alone, just like he left alone. Just him. There’s no group of spouses to wait with, cheer with, or make signs with. There aren’t any parties planned. And there aren’t any dinners honoring him and the work he did. There’s just us and our ten inch American flags.

And this is all perfectly fine with Husband. “Don’t make this more than it is. It’s just another event. I would prefer to meet only my two favorite girls and one crazy boy at the airport.”

Wah? He’s clearly been hanging out with those spec ops guys too much.

So he wants to go low-key, huh? I get it. He’s not a hero. Just a guy doing his job. His duty. He didn’t give his life so he didn’t really sacrifice enough. He’s just a dude, getting on an airplane and coming home. “Nothing to see here, people!”

american legionOf course his primary objective the last 360 days has been getting bad guys and trying to come up with ways to keep him and his dudes alive. And he’s been away from his home for over a year. And he’s been doing it nearly half way around the world in a place where he has endured 125 degree days in twelve or sixteen hour shifts. And he’s seen things I’ll never (want to) know about. But yeah. No biggie. Nothing to celebrate.

So. I’ve found a solution that works for me. I’ve decided to just pretend he’s emerging from a one year coma. It seems about right. I mean, by definition it’s a prolonged period of unconsciousness.

I figure we’ll come to the airport and hold up signs that say “welcome back from your coma!” and “hooray for modern medical miracles!” and “happy recovery!”

Once he has recovered, I can hit the speech circuit to discuss “How to Survive When You’re Husband is in a One Year Coma.” That will of course lead to me authoring a made for television mini-series based loosely on our fight against comatosis. It could be called “He’s Not a Hero, He’s Just in a Coma: The True Life Story of A Woman on a Mission to Get Her Husband Back Home and the Man who Didn’t Want to Make a Big Deal Out of It.” Sandra Bullock of “While You Were Sleeping” fame could play me, and since Husband is pretty hunky, he could be played by Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt or Matthew McConaughey.

On second thought, I should probably play myself. That would probably be best.

*   *   *

Oh, Husband. I can’t wait for you to get here.

And it doesn’t matter to me one bit what you say, baby. You’re a hero to me and two little kids I know, and lots and lots of other folks who’ve been praying and waiting for your return. We don’t have to call you one to make it true. Because, you know …

It is what it is.

You are My Military Family

They arrived one by one, each bearing gifts: chocolate, wine, hummus and veggies, homemade baked goods, a pitcher of our favorite margarita recipe, and a pitcher of sangria. And despite having a wide array of beverages at our disposal, we quickly realized we were missing one thing: dinner.

As we waited for pizza, we stood in the kitchen chatting and hovering over the goodies, leaning our elbows on the kitchen island, picking at the hummus and asking about the ingredients in the homemade cookies. Our faces were close, much closer than we would have been pretentiously perched around a room on overstuffed couches sipping tea. We could see each other’s eyes and we could follow more than one conversation at a time, and we could skip from topic to topic with mounting volume and enthusiasm. It was warm like the family dinner table. It was cleansing like church.

We leaned against the island and each other, and we laughed. No matter how many times my friend tells the story of inadvertently getting her breasts massaged by a beautiful woman on a Greek cruise ship, I laugh. I know that she’s going to make the phhhhht sound of a nearly empty ketchup-style bottle to describe how the oil was applied, and I know that she’s going to tell about the instant at which she realized what was about to happen – the moment that her boobs would be sculpted by a woman resembling Richard Dreyfus making a mashed-potato mound in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But still, she says it, and still, my side hurts and still, I’m gasping for air. And I look, and she is holding her side and gasping, too.

Though she loves to tell this tale, I think I’ll leave exactly which friend tells this story enshrouded in internet mystery. You know, for the sake of her heretofore anonymous breasts.

Too Fast to Capture on Film

We got down to the business at hand, and the project du noir was a clean sweep of the playroom, something that I knew a pile of merciless moms would be up for. We started with a room where you couldn’t see the floor and ended up with a room right out of the Cluttery Homes and Gardens “don’t let this happen to you” feature of the month. It was fabulous, and it was done. There was half-completed project. There was pile of toys for a garage sale someday. Everything was whisked away to Goodwill, never to be seen again.

When the pizza arrived my girlfriends evacuated the kitchen and ran to the door like teenage girls grasping for a ringing phone. But it wasn’t the pizza that held their attention. It was the smiling man in shorts with a food catalog who happened to arrive at the same moment as dinner. They came back and forth to me like chickens shouting, “LORI! LORI! IT’S GARY THE SCHWAN MAN! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! IT’S GARY THE SCHWAN MAN!”

gary the schwan man

The Man of My Ice Cream Dreams

That’s right. It was Gary, The Schwan Man. I wrote about him two weeks prior and unfortunately many of my girlfriends read my blog. And here he was, perched sheepishly at my front door, hesitating to guess why women he had never met were running around my house shouting his name.

By the time I got there, he was definitely blushing, and so were some of my girlfriends. I tried to decide whether to tell him he had been the subject of a blog post in which I had compared him to a UPS man of delectable deserts, or whether to let him go on thinking I was secretly lusting after his foodstuffs and describing to my girlfriends how happy he made me. But I just couldn’t choose. Both were kinda true. And before I could say a word, my friends were telling him all the sordid details.

“When does your husband come home?” he asked. “Soon,” I said. “Good, ma’am,” he said.

He left faster than any man I’ve ever seen who was working on commission.

As we stood and ate our pizza and laughed some more about the fortuitous arrival of the Schwan delivery truck, time hovered and sputtered for an instant and I looked around the room at my friends. I took an inventory of memories.

These are souls that I’ve known for so many years that I can tell you what kind of underwear they prefer and what kinds of pain relievers they stock in their home medicine cabinet. I thought about a dinner where we debated the inherent evils of public nakedness. I remembered scaring the pants off my friend from behind as I ran by her under the bridge. I recalled relying on one friend’s driving skills as we chased my husband down a dirt road for a dress left in his back seat. I remembered the only friend who could keep my cranky newborn appeased during a “relaxing” visit to the beach, and I remembered the friend that brought me stool softener at midnight. I remembered the boat in Mexico that nearly capsized and drown a dozen of us, and the lasagna test of wills, and the peach fizz fiasco. I remembered all of us weeping upon learning that cancer would take one of our husbands. And I remembered the looks on their faces when I told them my husband was being mobilized to the desert for a year.

I soaked in the looks on the faces around me. Several were laughing so hard they were crying, and one was dabbing the leaking mascara from the outside corners of her eyes. One was holding her side with one hand and covering her mouth in disbelief with the other. One was lurching and gasping for air. The story-teller was waving her hands between fits of laughter, and I found my cheeks red and throbbing from terminal smiling. I haven’t felt that way in a long time. It was breathtaking. And not at all because we were (probably) talking about sex.

lori volkmanThese are my friends.

I love them, and they are mine.

They feel like my family.

Not the one I was given,

But the one I chose.

The one that chose me.

Thank you to all of my friends for your support during this deployment. Thank you for holding me up when I wasn’t ready for what was ahead. Thank you for screwing my brain back in when I was ahead of myself. Thank you for raising my children when I was absentee. Thank you to all of those who used their gifts and talents rather than trying to poke a square peg in a round hole, and thank you to everyone who hugged and prayed and called at just the right time. Thank you to the men and women of the internet who reached out and cajoled and encouraged me. And most of all, thank you to the readers who came back again and again. Your rising numbers forced me to push the nonsense out of my mind. The exercise of attempting to put my “problems” into words has helped me to realize how truly small they are.

Military families are made in the midst of challenge. And I consider you all a part of mine.

Call in the Professionals

schwansThis week I was blackmailed by one child and the other made a statement so painfully honest that I preferred the extortion. It got me thinking about what’s real and what’s pretend around here, and I didn’t mind thinking about it for a change. I think it’s because we are on Deployment Cycle Phase One Million: What You See Is What You Get.

One thing you get with me: I suck at parenting sometimes.

I want to confess that I’m a real sucker for child-parent bargaining. It shows creativity and ingenuity to find the trigger point. Negotiation is all about finding someone else’s pain and then finding a way to remove it. I learned this from Husband. But extortion and blackmail, that’s different.

Enter, the Schwan’s popsicle.

Now I’ve been told there are some people who don’t know what Schwan’s is, and that my friends is a real tragedy. Because if you’ve never consumed a Golden Nugget Bar, well, you just haven’t lived.

If you must know, Schwan’s is an amazing drive-up purveyor of the world’s finest freezer confections. And when I say drive-up, I mean they come to you. Think traditional ice cream truck but add UPS man charm, COSTCO size quantities, ice cream sandwiches so fresh the cookies are still crunchy, and a space-age truck of deep freeze nirvana which is probably capable of preserving your body for future medical advances should the need arise. It’s not the cheapest food available but I justify the purchase because when Gary (yes, we are on a first name basis) comes to my door I order pork chops and asparagus and things. And then I flip hastily to the back of the catalog like the ice cream addict that I am. “I’m not ordering ice cream today, Gary,” I say helplessly. “Yes ma’am,” he responds, pointing out the specials.

One of my kids’ favorites is the caramel apple pop. It’s a flourescent green tube of tartness wrapped around a frozen ribbon of soft sugary caramel. I offer them as bribes whenever rooms have been cleaned and dirty laundry has been deposited in the right place and bathroom messes have been remedied.

Which means one box lasts a really long time around here.

This particular Saturday rooms were cleaned and caramel apple popsicles were distributed. The sucking and slurping sounds of happiness filled my kitchen and I raised an eyebrow as The Kindergartener salvaged a long stripe of bright green drips from his forearm, rescuing my clean floor from certain sticky doom. He chomped down the last bite and announced, “Mom, I want another one.” He opened his toothless grin and formed his green lips into a big “say yes because you love me” smile. I think his teeth were a little green, too. “And you will have another one.” I teased. “Next Saturday.” And I fake-smiled back.

He was not at all impressed by my response. “That’s sarcasm, Mom.” The smile transformed at lightening speed into a pout, and through the furrowed brow I could see that his neurons were firing overtime. He was scheming.

Meanwhile, I was preparing to go brain-dead, a parenting technique that makes my kids crazy. I would keep repeating the same phrase, regardless of the whine, until he gave up. But then he struck mercilessly at the point of weakness:

“Mom, if you don’t give me another popsicle I’m telling Daddy what a horrible job you did while he was gone.”

I stopped chopping the veggies. I looked down at the cutting board, staring at the knife in my hand and wondered how soon he could be shipped to military boarding school. And I stared. Silently.

When I’m completely taken off guard my recent response is uncharacteristic silence. My father used it as a parenting technique and I always believed it was because he was filled with murderous rage, unable to articulate a response for fear of homicidal mania against me, his precious first-born. I know now that he was just as dumbfounded as I am by the things kids say. Brain dead, indeed.

Taking advantage of the silence, the extortioner threatened, “I’m getting a popsicle.”

But Sweet Pea immediately came to my rescue. Or she really didn’t want him to get a second popsicle, which is very possible. She wielded her nearly stripped popsicle stick at The Kindergartener and righteously declared, “Hey! Don’t say that! Look around. She’s doing the best she can!”

“Yeah, I’m ….Wait. What? Hey!” I said. Brilliant. Articulate.

I looked around. We all looked around.

Something unrecognizable and pink was slimed to the front of the cabinet. End of summer flies seeking indoor refuge were buzzing around in the living room, probably after breeding in my garbage disposal. None of them were sticking to the disgusting fly strips hanging haphazardly around the room. I had no clean dish towels. But that didn’t matter because I had no clean dishes to dry, anyway. Speaking of dry, the geranium pots were crispy and looked only slightly better than the lawn. And best of all, I had this lippy kid who I had to bribe to get him to pick his own dirty underwear up off the floor.

“WELL THANKS FOR THE VOTE OF CONFIDENCE!” I shouted back at both of them. Sweet Pea’s last popsicle remnant plopped onto the counter. They stared at me open-mouthed wondering what confidence was and how to vote for it. “Mom, that’s sarcasm again,” came the brave voice of the defiant one. I pointed my knife at him across the counter and shouted back “AWAY WITH YOU” and I banished them to the basement and reached for the corked bottle of wine. As I poured I punctuated the conversation by shouting after them down the stairs, still motioning with the knife in the other hand: “Anyway, too many popsicles will give you lumpy breasts and hairy armpits!” I hoped that covered the deep, secret fears of both children enough to pacify their confectionary cravings yet keep them out of therapy. I’m sure I failed.

And then I plopped down. And I left the mess there.

And I really think this is the difference between the last time Husband came home and this time. A part of me really thinks that it would be fabulous for him to see the house this way. He would particularly enjoy the fly strips and the pink cabinet slime. I mean, I don’t think for a moment he believes that we live in the sanitized home he sees when he comes home. But after being away from it for a year he can’t truly appreciate the effort required to get it that way. Or keep it that way. It just doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort to create something that isn’t even real. Shouldn’t he see it the way it really is?

So, if it gets cleaned up this time around, well, let’s just say that’s what professionals are for.

casual dayBut what about me? I’ve got some pink smudge and some useless flystrips hanging around, too. And I’m not that motivated to do anything about it. And a part of me really thinks that it would be fabulous for him to see me this way. An unsanitized train wreck. I’d love to show up in my jeans and flip-flops at the airport and stand there, in the middle of the aisle, as the kids run to hug him. And I’d wait. I’d wait for him come to me. Because after being away from me for a year he can’t truly appreciate the effort required to clean up this mess. Or keep me this way. And it just doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort to create something that isn’t even real. Shouldn’t he see me the way I really am?

So, if I get cleaned up this time around, well, let’s just say that’s what professionals are for.

Forget this glass of wine. I need another popsicle. I hope I don’t get lumpy breasts and hairy armpits.

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