After 195 long days, it had all come down to one last short drive to North Island to wait on a plane carrying the most precious of cargo. My husband, who had been deployed for the past six months, was finally coming home. Our family would be together again after spending the holidays, birthdays, Mother’s Day, the majority of Kindergarten and an entire t-ball season apart. Our cherished video chats over Facetime would soon be real hugs and kisses. Our emails detailing the accounts of our day would turn into real conversations. And the miles that had been between us for so long would dissolve away as we were reunited at last. My boys, especially my 6 year old, were head over heels with excitement, ready to see their Dad. And I was ready too. So ready that we arrived on base more than an hour before his plane was due to land. Yeah. I don’t like to be late.
Deployments are certainly one of the trade-offs of the military life I feel so honored to live. And we had certainly been spoiled. With a combination of shore duty and long cycles between deployments, it had been nearly 5 years since we had endured such a long separation. So when November 2013 rolled around, we knew it was our turn. I remember feeling so out of practice, wondering how I would ever survive six months – half of a year – managing things at home on my own. We had a whole new set of circumstances from the last time he deployed. We have two boys, who are now 6 and almost 2. This would be a longer duration than some of his previous deployments. And this time, we are 3,000 miles away from family (although our military friends and church community have quickly become our second family). My husband lovingly reassured me that it “wouldn’t be that bad” whenever my emotions would take over in the last days leading up to him leaving (which every military spouse can tell you are.the.worst.). We each spent our time preparing ourselves mentally for the new reality that was about to set in. We talked as openly as we thought was right with our then 5 year old about how Daddy was going to be gone for a long time. I silently wondered how it would affect our youngest, who was then only 16 months old. He was going to change the most during this time. Would he even know what was going on? What could and should we do to make sure he still knew who Daddy was? Would he remember his father when he returned home? And as much as I wanted my husband to be able to stay, I was ready for him to just leave so we could get it over with. It’s like knowing you have to rip off a bandaid – you know it’s going to hurt, but once it’s over, you can start to feel better.
So when the day and the hour arrived for us to say our goodbyes, I felt ready even though my heart was breaking. And yet I felt so unprepared, like all of a sudden I was the most incapable person ever to walk the face of this earth. “Wait! Where did you say we kept the combination to the safe? How do I start the lawn mower? How often should I drive the other car? Do you have any idea how much I love you? Please don’t go…”
I remember thinking I would rather watch my husband walk away from me and me alone a thousand times than ever watch him say goodbye to his children. Not that bad? This was torture!
So, when the Navy gifted us with one more day just moments after our last hugs and kisses for 6 months because there was an issue with the plane (yep, that happens) all I could do was laugh. Of course. Everything we just did, felt, thought, said to each other– that was just the dress rehearsal. We got to go back home and do it all over again the next day. Don’t get me wrong, we were grateful for the extra time, but it was just delaying the inevitable. And, it was a bit confusing for our 5 year old.
“I thought Daddy was leaving?”
“He is. But not today. Tomorrow. Isn’t that great?”
Welcome to the Navy, son.
In hindsight, which is always 20/20, the deployment went over just fine. As any spouse left at home will tell you, the days can be long but the weeks fly by. And with the advances of modern technology, being able to video chat made him seem like he wasn’t so far away. And those fears that I had of our toddler not being able to stay connected to Dad were quelled whenever he would squeal with excitement upon seeing Daddy's face on the computer screen. We sailed through the holidays, learned to walk, assembled care packages, celebrated a 6th birthday, knocked home runs out of the park and even managed most of the Kindergarten homework relatively unscathed. And lo and behold, I even learned (or, in some cases, re-learned) a few great lessons along the way.
I learned a long time ago that when you’re holding down the fort, adjusting your expectations for what can reasonably be accomplished during a deployment can mean the difference between keeping your cool or losing your mind. As far as running a household goes, it just simply isn’t possible to get it all done as perfectly as you might like. No matter what Pinterest says. Anyone who knows me knows I am a bit particular, so this was definitely a good exercise for me. And the good thing is that the kids don’t care if there are dishes in the sink.
I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends
One of the most admirable traits I see in many fellow military spouses is the capability to handle all of the challenges life throws at you during a deployment. We just keep on keepin’ on. Figure out the taxes? I’m on it. Need to take the car in for a major repair? No big deal. Doctor’s appointments, vet visits, school obligations…I could do that in my sleep. But it’s all fun and games until everyone gets the stomach flu. Because things only break and kids only get sick when your husband is gone. It’s an unwritten rule. I could almost hear the record player screech to a halt as I finally realized – I need help. I can barely stand, my son can't even keep down water and all I want to do is just sleep for the next 37 days. Well played, deployment. Accepting help can be hard for me to do, maybe because I don’t want to inconvenience anyone. After all, I live amongst other military families who have their own schedules, challenges and agendas. I’m certainly not the only one who’s having a rough day. But accepting help isn’t a form of weakness, it’s part of being human. We’ve all been there at one time or another. So when some of my amazing friends came to the rescue with food and medicine without me even having to ask, I realized once again how important it is to be a part of a community that really looks out for one another. And I vowed then and there to pay it forward whenever and as often as I can.
Finally, an easy one! With two kids and their activities, work and all the demands of keeping up with the house, staying busy was actually something I didn’t have to even think about. It just happened. And while at times I often felt overwhelmed, just wishing I had someone to tag-team, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a task-oriented person by nature, and filling up the time with things that needed to be done allowed that time to fly by. And it made me feel good to know that I could handle (for the most part) whatever needed to be done so my husband didn’t have to worry about us back home.
Deployments can be a great opportunity to engage in some self reflection. With more than 7,000 miles and a 15 hour time difference between you, it’s a chance for some major gut checks. You’re forced to communicate with each other in a different way, and on limited time. And as the old adage goes, absence really does make the heart grow fonder. It gives you a chance to think about the things that really matter and how much you appreciate one another while you’re given a break from all the silly spousal stuff that you now know is insignificant. It’s a chance to discover things about yourself that you never really knew were there. I do know how to start the lawn mower, by the way, but I never realized how much fun the weedeater could be! And I always kept my little audience in mind – my two boys were looking to me, whether they were aware of it or not, for everything they needed. I can either crumble under the pressure or rise to the occasion. I realized early on that this period of time was the perfect opportunity to teach them by example how to be strong and resilient. That how I handle these challenges now will teach them how to handle their problems in the future.
Let it Go
We did watch Frozen (approximately 874 times) but I’m not talking about that little ditty Elsa sang while twirling around in her ice castle. I’m talking about the “G” word. GUILT. The kind of guilt that sets in after they’re home and you’re replaying the various situations and scenarios that have popped up over the course of the last six months when you’re debriefing in your mind. Was I too impatient with the kids? That “crisis” that felt so stressful at the time was really no big deal. I wish I would have handled that differently. I feel bad that I didn’t send him more care packages. It must have looked like to everyone that I’ve been in my own little world. Everyone else seems to make it look so easy. I feel like I complained a LOT. It’s always easier to look back at a situation when it’s completed and nit-pick all the things that you would have changed. But, when you’re in the thick of it, you just do the best you can. Take bits and pieces from each situation and try to learn from them so you can do better the next time. And then, move on. Nobody ever said deployments were easy.
My husband has been home just about two weeks now and I have to say the transition back into “normal life” has been extremely smooth. It fills my heart with joy to hear my boys playing together again with Dad, doing all the “guy stuff” that they have been craving for so long. Try as I might, I just can’t throw a football. We seem to have picked up right where we left off, only better and stronger than we have ever been, because the time you spend apart has a way of drawing you even closer together.
Photo credits: Leigh-Anne Johnson Photography
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