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.

Sep 25, 2016

Day In and Day Out

"And when they ask us what we're doing, you can say, We're remembering. 
That's where we'll win out in the long run."  

When I heard the alarm that morning, and saw him roll to turn it off, my heart sank. We looked into each other's eyes for a minute, saying nothing because there was nothing that could be said. I watched him gather his bags and put on that familiar uniform, and he watched me put my makeup on as if it wouldn't be ruined by tears soon. It's an indescribable moment when we closed the front door, knowing he wouldn't cross the threshold again for months, knowing that I would open that door an hour later feeling more lonely than I ever have in my entire life.

The airport is within view of our home, so the drive there took mere seconds. The violent pinks and reds of the sunrise competed with the hazy glow of the terminal lights. He carried his heavy luggage to security, and we stood near the escalators, holding each other. All I could think to say was, "I don't want to do this." We hugged as long as we could, and I tried to memorize the way it felt to wrap my arms around his shoulders, to soak up the scent of his cologne, to brush my hand over his hair that was cut shorter than usual. I reached for his hand one last time, and felt the warm metal of his wedding ring. And then he had to turn away and go. That split second held more heartbreak than I could have ever imagined. I stood there, feeling paralyzed and ill. A lady who had been behind us at the ticket counter approached me and asked if I needed a hug. "I'll be praying for him," she said gently. In a matter of minutes, he stood on the other side of security, metal detectors and TSA agents and walls of glass separating us. I saw him sink into a chair, looking defeated.

Finally, I had to leave. The plane, visible from the car, began to sound its loud engines. A weight settled on my shoulders, and a kind of panic was washing over me in waves. I turned my head to stare into the blinding sunlight peeking over the cornfields, the rest of the sky still believing it was night, and gathered a breath. It was hard to accept it all as reality, and hard to think that this happens all over the country every day. Tears were rolling down my cheeks before I had a chance to stop them.

Suddenly, I remembered every detail of that early morning eight years ago, when I watched my brother tie his boots in the hotel room. We drove in the dark to where the buses were waiting, where a few families were still saying their goodbyes, where dozens of soldiers (including Sky, although I was unaware then) loaded their duffels below and climbed aboard the bus. I remember staring at their silhouettes, so similar and yet so different, feeling such tenseness, such ache, such hope. As the buses left the smoke behind and turned onto the next street, then the next, then the highway, I wondered how my feet were standing still when I wanted nothing more than to chase them the whole way, to stop them somehow. There was a sickness in my heart that didn't leave for a whole year, until I saw those buses drive through the summer heat and park next to a high school football field, worn soldiers and dirty bags spilling out, my brother and Sky home safe and sound.

Those days were so long. These few have been so long, too. I get stuck in the smallest of decisions. I hesitated, if for only a moment, to throw away his half empty pop can left in the car. I opened the glove box and his sunglasses tumbled out, and it felt like I'd been punched in the gut over something so small. Every song, every couple walking by, every time that Millie and Walter bring him up- all of it is a sort of sensory overload that cripples me. These are the times I think of civilian families. I wonder if they think about the last load of laundry we do with their clothes, or how we hesitate to wash that sweatshirt that still smells like them. Do they think about how quiet it is at night, or what it feels like to know it's unlikely we're able to talk to our spouse when we want to or need to? Do they think about how the kids feel? Do they think about what it's like to get ready for church on Sundays alone, to have to think about cooking meals for the kids when the instinct is to ball up on the couch and cry, to spend the days and nights in a house that looks essentially the same, but no longer feels like home?

When he texted me on his last day of work and told me he was on his way, I cried knowing that I wouldn't hear that again in a very long time. It's strange to be so connected to someone and suddenly know nothing about where they are, what they're doing, who they meet, or what they see. Our days are so separate, so different now. The common things that we would normally discuss or laugh over fade away, and they're replaced by questions. It's a split screen life; while he texts me about his flight, while I see pictures of my husband with ACUs and a weapon, I'm sitting in the congregation at church, and they're singing. How do I pull my mind to my here and now when all I can think of is his?

These days will be survived. Some of them will be easier than this day, and some of them will be harder, but we'll live through each one of them until the next one begins, and do that over and over until deployment finally ends. Until then, I'll be living my life in halves. Half of me in the present, doing what needs to be done, making breakfast, helping with schoolwork, singing Christmas carols with a lump in my throat.

And the other half remembering. The the sound of the door opening at five thirty. The protection from rain when he held an umbrella over my head. What it felt like to be at this certain place with him, to eat here, to shop there. The late night laughter. The easy weekends. The day in and day out of he and I, together.

Sep 6, 2016

The Questions

"There are years that ask questions and years that answer." 

Nearly every night, as I tuck Walter into his bed and say a quiet prayer with him, I see his lip trembling in the murky glow from his nightlight on the wall. His voice begins to shake and then he asks me. "Is Daddy coming home tomorrow?" I reassure him that he is, and that he'll be home for dinner as usual. "But I miss him," he says, his tiny murmur breaking a little. Every time, the same. He's not leaving just yet, love. He'll be home tomorrow. But I'm running out of days I can promise that.

People have asked the questions even before I was his wife. He's coming home soon, though? He doesn't have to deploy at all, because he's not active duty? Or, he doesn't have to deploy again because he's already been to Afghanistan, right? As if there is an Army punch card like the kind they hand out at a smoothie shop, and once you've checked that box of deployment, it's just counting the days until retirement and easiness. 

He has been away most of this summer, partly due to pre-deployment, and partly for "regular" military training. During the last time, as we talked in the car, Millie said she missed him, but she was getting used to him being gone. My heart sank. She told me the Army makes her sad because he has to go places a lot, and all I could do is nod from the front seat, and try to let her know I agree without crying in front of her. The night after he came home, Walter asked, "You don't have to go back to Georgia for a while, do you?" He needed that reassurance, even at three years old. And we had to break the news about the deployment the next day.

But it's their questions, the most innocent questions, that break me. Where is Daddy's toothbrush? Why is his car here? Is he on an airplane? Where is Georgia? Where is Virginia? Where is Afghanistan? Did Daddy fight people? Can Daddy fix this toy when he gets back? What chair is the one Daddy sits in- I forget? Where is he going this time? Where is that country? Why does he have to go?

For someone who usually finds respite and refuge in words, I'm suddenly without them. 

He probably won't get leave to visit us halfway through and make it a little easier. I can't dress that up to make it prettier. I can't shrink the distance, or improve the wifi signal for Skype, or change the time zone there to match ours. Instead, we'll sleep as he wakes, and he'll go to bed as we're getting up. He'll be doing his job in the heat of the day while we are quiet in our beds, and when he rests, we will be busy with school, and errands, and life that has to continue to be lived in Illinois.

We took a small trip to St. Louis last weekend. I desperately wanted the kids to have a large, shining memory of our family and our time with him before he leaves, and it was just that. We laughed, and ate too much, and visited family. Most of the time, I could push the deployment towards the back of my mind, and while never completely gone, I felt the weight drop from my shoulders a little. Now, as we return back to every day life for a brief amount of time, all I can do is look at the calendar with dread. The tears are back, and it's turned from a bitter rage to a choking panic. We talk about it late at night, and he lets me cry and say all the things I need to say until I'm able to catch my breath.

I am running out of questions to ask, because no matter the details, I know he simply won't be home with us. So instead, I try to answer theirs. I tell them we'll send boxes because he'll miss the holidays. I encourage them to go on a walk with him or read an extra story at bedtime. I assure them he will be safe. I set my jaw so that I can answer all the questions without worrying them.

But then, when it's just the two of us, I ask him over and over- do you have to go? Then I close my eyes and hope that the answer will be different than all the nights before, and hug him tight while I still can.   

Aug 4, 2016

Strange and Breathless Days

{photos by kdarling photography}
 "The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days." 

Every summer, I wait. Impatiently and with expectation, I live through the heat and sweat until that first crisp, cool day, when the air smells faintly of cinnamon and apples and the leaves begin to turn. Fall has always been my most favorite season, and I revel in pulling out plaid shirts and cozy scarves. This year, I think I'll feel the cold even more without the warmth of his hand in mine.

The night he told me, he was states away for drill with his new unit. He told me over the phone, and I kept it together until we hung up. Then, in the dark, I felt my way through the hall and into the living room. I switched the light on and held up our tiny globe, tracing a line from Illinois across the blue ocean, all the way to the other side of the world, letting my fingers land in that country as I took a breath. It's too far. He'll be too far.

I didn't go to bed until four the next morning. All night, my mind raced with what this would mean for us. A few days later, I had to take his will to the safe deposit box. I followed the cheerful bank clerk down the stairs as he made small talk, folding the will in half so he wouldn't see what I held, and it was about that moment when it began to sink in that my husband really is leaving.

There are days that this swallows me whole. I am so terrified, so heartbroken thinking about the dark cloud looming over the next year, that I sometimes cannot breathe. And instead of being able to calm my racing heart, it's reminding me that this panic won't be for the future what ifs, but for the reality of day in and day out until he is home. It often feels grueling to live for the moment when I see a wild tornado spinning on the horizon.

So this is what it's like. I have been an emotional wreck in between the normal. I can usually hold it together for about an hour before reality insists on being felt, and I have to run to my room to wipe the tears away. I want to cling to Sky every second, and at the same time, put up walls in the hope that I won't miss him as much that way. I rehearse where and when and how we'll tell Millie and Walter that they won't see their dad until next year. I stop thumbing through a rack of clothes because there's a sad country song playing, and what's the point in buying something he's not even going to see me wear anyway? I've stopped picking him up much from the store, because what would he be able to use in 130 degree heat and sand? I want to talk about the deployment every five minutes (hence this blog post) because it is all I can think about, and because the planner in me wants to micromanage every second of his absence. I ask him to make me promise after promise. And despite all of this, a very tiny part of me still has a hope that this is all a giant misunderstanding, that they won't need him after all, that this isn't happening

Soon, he'll be gone for training, and then home for a just a little while before he's officially in deployment mode. The time feels so short. We're trying to plan a trip away, a last hurrah, because the military didn't give enough notice to be able to send us to their weekend of information and bonding. I've felt so utterly alone when it comes to getting support from the Army, which is made more frustrating by the fact that we are a Reserve family, living no where near a base or anyone who could help. It's so strange that my husband is being sent to the other half of the earth and no one will breathe a word to me, and barely to him. We are having to plan and decide and gather completely on our own, and going from our normal life to a temporary active duty family is the biggest adjustment and challenge.

I am hoping, maybe after a month or two into deployment, that I'll find my strength, leave some of the sadness behind, and feel confident and calm about being here while he's there. For now, this is what I'm capable of, and I can't apologize for it. I've tried to come up with metaphors to describe it in non-military ways, but they all sound overly dramatic and probably silly. So I will just say this- it hurts, and it's confusing, and I am trying to cherish our remaining days.

When Millie's tooth came out the night before her birthday, I sat in the other room and looked up, whispering a prayer of thanks that he was home. It is one less thing he'll miss in an ocean of those moments. He was here for their birthdays this year, even if he may miss the next ones. And though it is part of what makes the timing of this especially crushing, I am so glad that we are happy. So many years of struggle went before, but we have spent these last months in true happiness. It devastates me to finally reach this place only to have it taken from us, but it also makes me so grateful that our parting will be one of love and hope. Our next anniversary won't be spent together, but it will be one of the hardest, sweetest, and most meaningful.

So this year, autumn will be chilly long before I sip a hot cider. I'll have to learn how to love it in different ways, and learn how to love it despite what it will be taking away from me. I will have to feel the snap of confetti-colored leaves beneath my feet, lift my face to the harvest moon, and know that, by next autumn, I'll feel his warmth beside me again.

Until then, I'll carry these last searing days we have together like hot coals, watching them glow, feeling every last ember in my hands until the leaves turn yet again.
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