Apr 26, 2017

Hope of a Harvest


Because of you, in gardens of blossoming
Flowers I ache from the perfumes of spring.
I have forgotten your face, I no longer
Remember your hands; how did your lips
Feel on mine? [...]
I have forgotten your voice, your happy voice;
I have forgotten your eyes.
Like a flower to its perfume, I am bound to
My vague memory of you. [...]
I have forgotten your love, yet I seem to
Glimpse you in every window."

The crop sprayer, looking like a overgrown bug ready to devour little cars, moved slowly down the street, and we dutifully took note as Illinoisans should. John Deere green seems to sprout up everywhere this time of year. Without a thought, I remarked to anyone listening how noble it is to be a farmer. How hard working they are, with dirt under their nails, calloused hands, beat up bib overalls, and a hat advertising some insecticide brand. How they never really know, from year to year, what the end result will be. Their entire profession is based on faith and hope. If heavy rains or sudden drought destroy half their fields, then that corn or those soybeans they expected to glean is lost. Other years, they may have an abundant harvest, with shimmering golds thrown high into the combine and poured into tall, lonely silos. Millie said, "It must be sad to be a farmer." "No," I told her, "Some years are good and some are not, but they have one of the most important jobs." I listed off a dozen ways we all benefit from their work, and both kids chimed in with more examples. We saw a rusty tractor bumping through some acreage after that, and watched in quiet reverence.

A few days before, I glanced out at the endless miles of farmland flickering past our car. We were on the way home from an afternoon out and a McDonald's dinner. At the shop, a lady smiled and told me she loved my lipstick, a light berry shade to contrast with the black I'm always drawn to wear. For the briefest moment, I wondered if I should tell her. Should I describe the four hours it took me to move from my bed to the closet, the overwhelming feeling of picking out a shirt, or the fact that I halfheartedly reached for the closest lip pencil and mascara, and prayed no one I knew would see me? The last few weeks have taken all of my strength, and the fragments that are left are not worth much. I pulled out my debit card, thanked her, and silently resolved to compliment people more often, because it might be the only anchor that holds them to a good moment that day.

I spent this afternoon readying our balcony for all the newness that spring ushers in; moving the potted hens and chickens to our little table, pinching off the crumbing brown leaves to make room for bight green buds. I added a bit of soil to them, showered them in cool water, and peered closely at them as if they would grow before my eyes. There are trees bursting into bloom everywhere in town, the breeze carrying their sugary scents through the air. The daffodils have appeared already, and the grass is looking lush- so many signs that spring is here. We're confident enough, even here in the Midwest, to put up our snow boots and wool coats, trade them in for trenches and rain jackets, and walk the fine line between scarves and sandals. It's a back and forth dance every day, but everything is thawing, getting brighter, and becoming alive.

This spring is different for me. I hold my breath wait for the smallest green dots of cornstalks to appear in rows in the tilled brown-black earth, because I know they'll still be there when he gets home, and they'll be taller than all of us. He and I have a few fond memories of those fields from what seems like ages ago, zooming through old country roads in the little red car he bought when he came home from Afghanistan, both of us intoxicated with the new life we had together, still young enough to feel careless and have a million stories to tell without repeating anything. (If you had told us we'd be introduced to a little girl named Millie a year from those rides, we'd never have believed you.)

The three of us here at home are getting weary. The days have been getting longer, the nights peppered with wake-ups and melt-downs, and easy tasks feel monumental at times. The depression that follows me through life, sometimes walking several paces behind, has caught up now and nearly matches me step for step at times. Millie and Walter ask more questions, about dates and plans and all things unanswerable. Millie cries because he'll likely miss her birthday, and writes him somber letters. We've spent some evenings, long past bedtime, sitting side by side on the floor in my room, backs against the wall. I've stroked her curls as she tells me her heart, and I try to make her believe what I can't. Walter recently carried around a picture of our family most of a day, sitting with me and studying it for a while before asking, "Can Daddy see me looking at him?" The teddy bear he plays every night has some background noise from the store we recorded it in, and he once wondered aloud if his daddy actually sounded like that, or if he sounds like we do. Memories are getting hazy, time is stretching, twisting, and turning, and we are tired.

But spring is insistent. The sun warms our bodies and sweeps us along through the calendar's pages. Soon, there will be swim lessons, popsicles, sidewalk chalk, sweat, and sweet tea. Walter's blonde hair will look even blonder against his skinny tan body, and a few more pretty freckles will be sprinkled over Millie's nose and cheeks. The hope that we have forgotten will climb over our hearts in tall, winding, overgrown vines, until we can't see anything else. Maybe this will have all been a bad dream in the end. We will sprint through vivid daylight, through the firefly laden evenings, through the perfect sunsets over nearly-ripe fields and the deep, damp nights with cicadas calling. We'll run and leave the heartache, the time lost, and the trials in the dust, and wait breathlessly until an airplane touches the tarmac amid blinking lights and tears. We'll wait until he rounds the corner and the fuzzy memories become crystal clear, tangible, kissable, and so sweet. We'll load welcome home signs and heavy green bags into the trunk.

And on the way home, at least one of us is bound to remark, "Isn't the corn so tall now? It's already nearly time for the harvest."

Mar 19, 2017

You Would Have Loved It

 "The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, 
as if the things we'd done were less real and important [...]" 

It's a little silly to feel broken over a bumblebee purse. Things like this always sneak up on me.

Millie has a bright red, sequined frame bag on a chain. It's a little purse that is usually involved in any dress up endeavors (both with her and with Walter). But one day at an overpriced children's clothing store at the mall, she found a denim one with lace or sparkles, maybe unicorns. She begged and pleaded. But a six year old doesn't need a purse, in my opinion, so we left the store without it, her girl's heart bruised from mourning what she would never have. And then, the next day, while she was busy at her homeschool group, I stopped by a resale shop, saw a little patent leather bag with a daisy, and decided it was worth the dollar price tag. When she opened the door and saw it, she clasped it to her chest, took it with her everywhere, and was quite the fancy lady. That was, until Walter scribbled all over her prized possession with a ballpoint pen.

Then, tonight, we browsed the Goodwill aisles when I spotted it- a bumblebee purse. It couldn't have been cuter. Bursting with more excitement than most adults should have over a bumblebee bag, I proudly presented it to Millie. "Look," I gushed to her, "Isn't this the best? You could fit twice as many things in this one! And it's just right for summer! You could even bring it to church!" (Why she would need to, I had no idea. The words were spilling out.) She looked at me skeptically. "It's okay," she began, "but...I don't know. It's for a little kid."I stared at her in shock. Never mind that I didn't want her to have one at all. Suddenly, I needed her to have this one. $2.99 to preserve a smidgen of childhood? Absolutely. And whether it was for her or for myself (okay, we all know it was for me), she finally consented that we should probably take it home. 

I thought about it all evening, and why I was so manic and insistent about something so ridiculous. I realized that I was slightly scared. Any day now, she wouldn't agree to take that bag home even if it did mean something to me. Sometimes I forget, in the quiet day in and day out of our small lives, she and Walter are growing up. Every second is farther away from the littleness, and closer to big kids who don't have time for silly things like a bee shaped purse. 

Ah. There it is. Just when I think I've managed to be angry and sad about every part of this deployment, I find another layer. Another reason he should be here, not there. Another small way to grieve.

They were both sad and confused when I had to let them know he will miss their birthdays this year. And really, he will never much know Millie, the six year old and Walter, the three year old. They will mostly exist in photos and grainy video calls, these parts of their stories and personalities witnessed only by me. When he's home later, I know I'll begin laughing at a memory only to realize it's one we don't share. He and I will have aged a year's time, but it will matter little- maybe another wrinkle here or there. Yet a year of their very few years feels like all the time in the world. They've outgrown so many shoes and pairs of jeans, and we keep etching new marks on the growth chart on the wall. Millie no longer stumbling on the bigger words in her stories, and reads to Walter with ease, and he has new habits and loves and fears. Sky will meet new people when he returns, people who didn't exist when he left.

It's such an odd ache, desperately wanting time to move forward to the day he comes home, but hoping it will slow down so they stay small a little longer. There is no way to balance it, so there's a constant battle in my heart. If only it was the end of summer. And if only summer would take longer to get here, because they're already so much bigger than when he left.

We took a short walk after naptime, soaking in the sunshine and pondering when the dandelions would return. At the little creek down the road, we saw that the tall, brown cattails we've passed every day had turned white, and were ripe for the picking. Millie cautiously stepped down to the edge of where grass meets mud, and snapped off a few reeds, one for each of us. I watched as they stroked the velvet soft outside before pinching a part of fluff and watching it sail into the air all around them. The bits of feathery whiteness floated up into the blue, slowly and then suddenly gone, as if they had never existed upright and still in the water moments before.

Sometimes, the proof we have of the past is just as tangible. Maybe it's merely to say, "It's not here anymore. But when it was, it was beautiful. The breeze danced away with it all, and now there's not a trace. And I wish I could describe how that looked. 

You would have loved it."

Jan 26, 2017

A Little Sad, But Mostly Okay

 “I don’t know what they are called, the spaces between seconds– 
but I think of you always in those intervals.” 
― Salvador PlascenciaThe People of Paper 

Sometimes, when it's been a particularity rough day, I try to picture it, to imagine the whole crazy scene- a weary husband comes home from a day at the office or the factory. He dutifully, slowly tells his wife that he has to move to another country for a year. His boss told him to, and there is little time to prepare now. Anything his boss wants, his boss gets.

But it's okay, right? That's his job, and he signed up for it, and so did she for that matter. There is no need to get upset. Just be proud, set your jaw, and embrace the suck. Cue the canned laughter.

My feelings since Sky left haven't really calmed down. I'm still a bit heartbroken and angry. I often feel, though, like I'm expected to be a little sad, but mostly okay. And sometimes that feels unbelievably strange to me. There are times when I am a little sad but mostly okay; after all, when you have kids, there is no luxury for all of your emotion, no time to comprehend it all until they're in bed. But also? I have had days where I've cried through every moment they weren't awake. Where I've had to run to the bathroom to let it out for a moment before pulling myself together to make a box of macaroni or load them into the car for Sonic the third time in one week.

When you marry someone, it isn't because you can't handle life on your own. Most of us do what we need to do to get by as adults, and most of us have lived alone for at least a small part of our lives. You marry them because you love that person. Because you want to spend time with them. And then the military calls one day to tell you that you can't. And you're supposed to be okay. A little sad, but mostly okay. I occasionally wonder how often people think of what it would feel like to have their spouse leave and get a new mailing address. Of course, I can't imagine the many other scenarios that people have had to face in their own lives, either. So many battles we'll never know.

War is incredibly abstract. From a distance, the military is what politicians praise (while secretly slashing their benefits) and people cheer for or blame. It's something we are used to seeing on the news, flashes of uniforms and armored vehicles and bombs. None of it can feel very real, though, because if that face they showed on the screen happened to be someone's husband, brother, son, or father, it would hurt too much to fathom.

The problem is, they do belong to someone, to many someones. I do my best to keep the TV off, but Walter saw a magazine cover with a soldier on it at the grocery store today. He exclaimed excitedly, "Mama, it's like Daddy! It's an Army guy!" I nodded, distracted by unloading gallons of milk in the checkout lane. "Why does he have a gun?" he asked. I stared at his sweet face. They know so little about it all, and thank goodness. To them, Daddy is a hero, probably someone a little larger than life, and someone we spend a lot of time missing.

We feel his absence every single day.

In the morning, he's not there. There isn't a morning kiss, a lazy Saturday with orange rolls to be shared, or a reason to brew a full pot of coffee. There isn't someone else getting them ready for church or running down the road to the next town over for doughnuts as a treat.

At dinner, he's already been asleep for hours there. No sound of the door opening, the cheers because he's home, or someone to compliment me on my (lately barley existent) cooking a full meal. No one else helps Walter with his bath, or does stories with funny voices, or oohs and ahhs over something Millie did in school that day.

At night, it hits all of us the hardest. There are whispered, broken confessions. "I miss Daddy." They each press a paw on their teddy bears that play a little message he recorded, and we stay silent in the dark to listen to his muffled voice say he misses us and he'll see us soon. When I crawl into bed, a day's worth of exhaustion or grief or anger overwhelms my body, running through me. Then I hear the familiar ding on my phone because it's early morning there, and he's saying he loves me before he heads off to PT.

And I think about him, and what it must be like there. A landscape totally unfamiliar. The droning on and on at meetings. The coming home at night to what home is temporarily. The same uniform day after maddening day. The time apart from two small souls who think the world of him.

We're still fine here. The kids still have three meals daily, still have a ball spending time at grandpa's house, and we always manage to get through the day and begin a new one over and over. Sometimes, we have fun, exciting times, or at least afternoons that can distract us. But I can't pretend it feels normal to have a fourth of our family thousands of miles away for a year. (Thank God it doesn't.) The part about deployment getting easier as it goes doesn't exactly feel true in the least, however. We have the days it hurts less and the days it hurts just as much as the time we said goodbye. Maybe it's the expectations, or maybe it's realizing how pathetic I sound, but I'm embarrassed to feel this much, this often. I'm painfully aware that I should be over it by now.

So when they asked me how I am doing, I pause and then give whatever answer I think is supposed to be appropriate. To this blog, I write infinitely too much. To Sky, I probably say more than I should. To my parents, I tell the truth. To my close friends, I say it's hard. And to everyone else, I say something about hanging in there.

A little sad, but mostly okay.

Dec 8, 2016

The Good In It All

{photo by kdarling photography}
"I believe that words are strong, 
that they can overwhelm what we fear 
when fear seems more awful than life is good." 
— Andrew Solomon 

I thought writing would come easier to me once he left, but it hasn't. I've focused a lot on the feelings that hurt. And maybe that's just because there are a lot of those. When Millie crept into my room crying after I'd been away for only a couple of hours, it's one of a million reminders that life right now isn't normal. It's a lot more fragile, with a lot more grace needed and a lot more hope required.

I never imagined I would be an Army wife. I've never even been overly patriotic, really- I do think our country is so blessed, but it's also very flawed. Lately, though? Seeing a flag gently waving in someone's yard is akin to having them play our song. Politicians love to talk, but the real, tangible support comes from Betty at the post office, who stamps my customs forms every week. It comes from people at church and at our homeschooling group who have offered to babysit if I need a break. It comes from my mom, who lets me cry, and hung a blue star flag in her window all the way in the mountains of Oregon. It comes from my dad, who keeps me laughing and watches the kids on a weekly basis, so I can clean the house and lug groceries up the stairs.

A few weeks ago, the head librarian in the next town over called, excitedly telling me that Millie and Walter were in the little weekly paper there. We had visited a Veterans Day presentation; a man looked at the kids and said, "Do you know the hardest thing your Daddy has to do? He has to go to bed every night without giving your mother a kiss. But he does it because he loves you and he loves this country." And so she texted me the page. She told me to let her know if we needed anything. Then she confided that her brother had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. So many people tell me that now. It's like a secret code of, "I understand." And they do, better than most people.

The real support doesn't just come from a military wife or family member, though. I'm learning that it comes from everyone who has been good to our family. Friends of mine who have never even met Sky are sending him care packages. It's so humbling to me. Family members have emailed or texted to check on us. Military spouses who are dealing with their own husbands being away have prayed for us. A new friend has a husband with a civilian job that constantly takes him overseas, and she prefaced her words with, "Of course, it's nothing like what you are going through." But it is- so much so. Because the pain of missing someone is something nearly everyone has felt, whether it's for a few days or the rest of life on this earth.

Today, I had a stranger (via the internet, of course) tell me to "be an adult, suck it up, buttercup", etc. when I commented on an article about the negative effects of deployments on families. Never mind that it was a scientific study and not someone's random opinion. What bothered me, on an already low day, was that someone I don't even know thought it was okay to chastise me for being sad because my husband is gone. I think one of the ugliest, worst things a human being can do is dismiss someone else's sadness, to downplay their experience and their emotions, or even go so far as to lecture them for it. But I guess on the internet, it doesn't matter if it's a deployment, or cancer, or losing a loved one- anything is fair game for a vicious attack.

Yet on this same morning of discouragement, I opened my door and found a package from an amazing milspouse friend on the other side of the country. She has quietly sent kindness after kindness to our mailbox over the years, with all sorts of great hand-me-downs for the kids and notes for me. Minutes after reading those words full of hate, I was able to open her card and read words of love. Words that soothed and put things in perspective. Words that actually matter. 

I've had more than one Starbucks card show up for me since Sky left, a sugary and caffeinated balm for those days that it's hard to keep going (praise the Lord for Starbucks, amen). I have had countless people remind me that they are praying for him and for all of us. I've been grateful to our sweet photographer friend who snapped shots of just us three for our Christmas card this year. We attended Sky's unit Christmas party last week, and the commander, leaders, and their wives shook my hand, and told me they're always there if we need anything. The outpouring of empathy has been nothing less than God-sent. When someone simply acknowledges that it's hard- hard for him to be away, and hard for us to miss him- they are really saying thank you. They're saying they appreciate what he is doing.

Some days, that makes it feel a little more worth it. But even on the days it doesn't feel very worth it at all, those kindnesses, large and small, help me get through this for one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more month. I look at the deployment calendar every night on my phone, hoping somehow that fifty days have gone by since I last checked. It's still a day at a time. The good in it all is what makes it possible to wake up the next morning and begin again.

Oct 19, 2016

The Moon

"And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, 
They danced by the light of the moon." 
— Edward Lear

It was the last flight. I was on my way home from spending seventy two hours with Sky before he would board a plane for a different hemisphere. The trip was somewhat of a surprise, something that we were aware of at our last goodbye, but doubtful to actually happen. We filled those seventy two hours with lots of good food, a couple trips to the movies, zooming around that Texas town in our rental Corolla, shopping and laughing and trying to forget. He looked so handsome in his new uniform, and it felt like a rare and holy privilege to see my husband, to hold his hand. We didn't do anything monumental- there is no dramatic Romeo and Juliet story to tell. But we went to bed and woke up next to each other a few more times. We talked more about the deployment, though we had no more information than we did before. And we were mostly able to push the inevitable away until the drive to the airport. Then we said goodbye again, knowing it was the last time we'd lay eyes on each other until this deployment ends.

The plane took off late, and it was dusk by the time we reached altitude. Dallas looked like a breathtaking, deep navy gown, with a hundred thousand sequins of silver, of gold, of unnatural oranges and shiny blues. I never cared much for Texas, but every city is a different kind of lady at night, and all of them beautiful, even as the lights blurred with the tears I held back. I watched as they scattered, growing farther and farther apart, until the ground was enveloped in darkness. I sighed and looked around me, the dim cabin bulbs giving glimpses of the passengers nearby.

A middle aged man on the other side of the aisle was grading math tests and reading through papers, while the man sitting beside me watched a movie, using headphones to dull the sound of the roaring engine of our plane. Two white-haired men in front of me, one with some sort of heavy accent, were talking loudly, having intellectual conversations full of complexities, when one of them turned his head to the window and let out a soft "ahh". "It's quite a sight," he said of the full moon, glowing brightly as we seemed to follow it through the sky. The other man, still itching for something scientific to say, replied that it is a psychological affect, an optical illusion- that when the moon is near the horizon, we have something to compare it to, like the skyline, and it is so large, it feels like it could collide with the earth. But high above, it is alone, and therefore looks smaller. I smiled to myself a little at the poetry of what he had said. It seemed like a beautiful metaphor for something, but I was too tried to think of what it was, and my thoughts were occupied with other things.

Only a few hours before, I was in Sky's arms, and now, I was alone again. It was a different sort of goodbye in a different town. Soldiers were everywhere we went- the military had infiltrated every part of it decades ago. The post itself was a little like another world. A world with rules, with flag poles and helicopters, with customs and traditions, with pride, and with so many farewells.

And ours was one of them. Wives and girlfriends hugged the ones they came to see, and went through security with red eyes, all of us saying similar things to the men who were leaving, most crying openly like I did. One small child cried "daddy!" as they were separated in the TSA line. A woman nearby remarked how awful it was. I had nothing to say. Sky was already gone, and I couldn't pretend for another second that he would be coming home soon. 

It's hard to reconcile being by his side just a short time ago, when I'm back into my regular life here, and he's back into his there. He's in his uniform again, with the new boots he bought to replace to ones he wore as he walked through Afghanistan's sandy valleys. I am home with Millie and Walter, falling into the same routine as always, and staying up until the early hours of the morning because it hurts too much to go to sleep. I still think about the deployment every minute of every day. I think about Christmas a lot. And I think about how many days we have, how many cycles of this waking up and going to bed I will have to do, how insurmountable it feels to spend so long without our normal life.

I don't know how we can do this year. I don't want to do it, and he doesn't either. And I wish there was a way to be together tonight. But the only way I've ever found to get through the most difficult times is simply to do so because there is no other choice; it frightens me and comforts me at the same time. The necessity of the things that have to be done, the kids that need me, the house that needs cleaned- there is no running away, no alternative. Emerson said, "Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could." That, I think, is how we will get by in these days to come.

The emotions, worries, and tears were overwhelming last night. I closed my eyes, and I thought about Sky, and I thought about new sandy places his new boots will tread upon. And then I thought about the moon, and poetry, and metaphors. I thought about how maybe it was a picture for how small I feel, and how large and looming this pain can be. But maybe, I thought (or more accurately, hoped), this deployment looks so enormous next to the landscape of my life, and the quiet daily bits that make it up. If I can hold it up to the night, though, and tell myself that the sun will come back again, maybe it will shrink to a size I can carry. Maybe someday, there will be a gentle glow around what was once harsh and sharp.

And maybe, when he and I next stand with our fingers entwined, watching Millie and Walter and talking of these days in the past tense, the moon will be just the right size again, and beautiful, and the world will be right again, too.
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