This week I went to the second grade chapel assembly due to the unwritten rule requiring attendance at the presentation sponsored by your own child’s class. This was my self-appointed date with good Christian motherhood. Don’t get me wrong, I love that my kids go to chapel once a week, and I love seeing them in brown paper pilgrim bags, picking their noses, and stumbling over memorized verses. It’s some kind of Christian school right of passage to publicly embarrass yourself while attempting to read aloud certain Biblical characters and places.
But the Second Grade does the annual Veterans Day chapel. I knew this would be a pretty rough one for a certain little girl who was the only one in the class with a deployed daddy, let alone for me. So to make up for it (I’m a classic overachiever), I coordinated with the school to have Husband make a big screen Skype appearance. ‘Cuz I am the mom-bomb. But at noon the day before the assembly, I got an email marked “urgent” that said Husband’s unit was headed in country for a few days. There would be no Skype. Thank goodness I’ve learned over the years not to tell the kids about events that rely upon military coordination for success.
Undeterred to fulfill my duty, I showed up. The program opened with an adorable little girl with sparkly silver pants who led us in the “Pledges of Allegiance.” She put her left hand over her non-heart, and stood frozen in horror for a good three seconds before deciding to surreptitiously change hands. Next, a child describing the holiday concluded with, “And that’s why we honor our vet – vet – vet – veterinarians!”
And oh, the cheesy patriotic hymns took me off guard. There’s a long list of patriots in our family: my grandpa and great uncles were at Normandy and the South Pacific, my grandmother went with her sisters to the shipyards during WWII, my father was a Naval Aviator, Husband’s father flew the controversial B52 in Vietnam, and of course there is Husband.
But what started as a swell of pride turned quickly to a gut punch when they announced a class reading of a book called “America’s White Table.” I honestly think I didn’t breathe for ten whole seconds as the children filed out of the row to take their places up front. If you’re not familiar, most formal dining events in the military contain a small white table, chair tipped inward, perfectly set but never occupied. Even those who don’t understand the significance of each item on the table can appreciate its iconic value once they see it. A projection of the book’s cover washed us all with light, and I realized this was going to be exactly what I had feared.
Sweet Pea was sitting next to me, and as I looked down at her over the tears that were already welling up in my eyes, I had to suck it in, really suck it in hard. I could not lose it; I just got done lecturing her that we shouldn’t be sad all the time because Daddy would want us to be happy and healthy until he returns. So I sucked that snot right up into my nose, and gave her a pained fake smile. She clearly wasn’t buying it, so I winked. But unfortunately a tear I had been holding in took that opportunity to pop out.
She squeezed our family signal into my hand three times:
once for “I” once for “love” and once for “you.”
And then one by one, as the book was read, children deposited various items on the table:a white linen for purity of motive; a slice of lemon for the bitter fate of the missing; a pinch of salt for the tears of their families; an inverted glass for the missed meal; a red rose for the hopes and prayers of those awaiting their loved one’s return; a red ribbon tied to the vase for our determination in finding them; a black napkin for the prisoners of war; and a lit candle, to remind us that America is a light in a world of darkness.
By this time there was no hiding the tears that were clearly streaming down my face. All I could do was turn slightly away from Sweet Pea, who was very clearly looking to me to be the glue that held her own little moment in place. I couldn’t even hold my own together, with the “what ifs” flooding in. I failed miserably at that task, offering instead four gentle squeezes of the hand: “I love you, too.”
I couldn’t decide what had overcome me most. I was honored by my heritage, thankful for Husband’s life and safety, appreciative of those who had sacrificed theirs, guilty for feeling happy about having my husband in one piece, annoyed that I didn’t see it coming, sorry for my children, and lonely – all at the same time.
As I finally left the school, I sent some text messages to those who I know have done multiple tours. It didn’t provide nearly the satisfaction I was hoping for.
I was left pondering how else to be truly thankful.
I think the best we can do is to be thankful ourselves. Veteran’s day really is a great lead-in to Thanksgiving. Both are uniquely American holidays that give us an entire season to be grateful for our lives. I challenge you today to find the long list of blessings around you that you take for granted. And then, would you please take some time in the upcoming week to say thank you to a Vet? It’s easy: just find the older man wearing the navy blue cap with the name of his ship on the brim.
If they were brave enough to serve their country in a foreign land, you just might find the courage to approach a stranger