Feb 5, 2018

A Boy in Khaki, a Girl in Lace

The same old sweethearts, the same old place
A boy in khaki, a girl in lace
He bends to kiss her, she lifts her face
The boy in khaki, the girl in lace
Tenderly he sighs, "I will come back to you"
"Oh my darling, please do," she replied
And so we leave them in fond embrace
The boy in khaki, the girl in lace
{Performed by Dinah Shore here and Bing Crosby here, and written by Charles Newman & Allie Wrubel}

In the first few sweltering days of August, we flew a little airplane around the wide, green park at golden hour, the sun splintering into bright shards around our bodies. I watched Walter run with the plane as Sky and Millie tossed a disc back and forth. Everything was covered in warmth and wonder. There was a lush view before me to soak up and savor; I had not seen it for so long. Just a year before, Sky and I had stood at that park, watching the kids run far up the tall, green hill with little friends, explaining to their mom what was in store for us. We mused about timeline and scenarios, and being a veteran's wife, she understood that there is no knowing, only guessing. Only hope, mixed with fear. I remember how surreal it felt to hear the words coming from my mouth before I had the chance to let them sink into my mind. Yet, the panic growing in my stomach assured me they were absolutely real, backed by the weight only the Army can summon.

Standing on the other side of the deployment is like leaning towards the edge of the cliff. There is no way to know exactly how far down, what will bruise or break in the fall, or what is at the bottom. Not long ago, I dreamt that he was really only on leave all this time, and he thought everyone knew, but we didn't. And I was hysterical when he started packing up again. Strange how the fear still lingers. Like labor pains- the ones that everyone told me I'd forget, but I remember clear as day- that heartache is one forever stamped into the morning of our goodbye, and never fading. But there is dancing after mourning.

Surrounded by the feverish, wet heat of a late July night, he came back home. Up until just a few hours before, the dates and times would change, and then change again, exciting us and crushing us over and over. When the morning finally arrived, there was a text-the plane he was supposed to be boarding in mere minutes had mechanical issues. I sat with the phone in my hand, staring at it blankly, never hating air travel more than at that moment. I had taken the kids to the park, too nervous to stay at home and just wait, even though waiting was all I could do. I asked seventy questions. I begged my mom to pray. My phone was silent, tension mounting every second. 

And then, he got a new plane. Ten months of pent up tears found their way to the surface, and I curled up on the park bench, shoulders heaving, bawling like the day he left, because I was going to finally see my husband. Suddenly, impossibly, he was on his way home to Illinois.

{homecoming photos graciously taken by Ryann Kesler Photography}
I was shaking when I put on my white lace dress that evening, trying to breathe deep breaths while I applied waterproof mascara. It had been pointless trying to look presentable the morning he left, and I found it almost as impossible this time as well. I checked that the kids looked put together from outfits laid out in neat rows, grabbed our welcome home signs, and told them that we were heading to the airport for some "practice pictures". They dutifully climbed into the car, excited for a late night trip more than the prospect of sitting still for photos. I looked in the rear-view mirror and wanted to say something, but didn't. My eyes clouded with tears that I tried to hold back. Those sweet babies.

The photographer met me with a handshake and smile, and she snapped a few posed shots, playing along with the notion that this was all a rehearsal. We beamed and held our signs, and I adjusted Walter's suspenders eighteen times. All the while, I thought of how they were missing him just as they were every day of the deployment, while I buzzed around with nervous energy. My phone interrupted the sound of the camera's lens clicking-he texted that he had landed. Another text soon followed- he was there, inside. My heart fluttered as if I was on a first date, instantly feeling unprepared but oh, so ready. I took a breath. As I glimpsed those well worn boots at the top of the stairs, I quickly pointed towards them, and told Millie and Walter, "Pretend like Daddy's coming home right now." They turned.

A heartbeat or two in time. They each shifted to look once or twice before they realized they were looking at their father's face, a face they'd only see on a computer screen for nearly a year, a face they hadn't been able to touch, pixelated and flat. Was it really happening? My heart swelled.

And then, all joy broke loose. He was home.

They had their arms around his neck as he scooped them both up. Everything we had said and done, all the steps we had taken, all the places we'd gone- the whole year stopped in that moment, and began something new yet reassuring, long-awaited and dreamt of, and it was all so beautiful. It was whole again. The heartache instantly soothed. The weightless flurry of pure happiness.

He was sick- he had been since leaving his base several days before- and I could tell he looked more pale than normal, and a little thin. But we held each other so tightly, and I remembered the strength of his arms and the smell of his neck. His uniform and shrieks from the kids attracted attention from the other passengers, and I could hear applause, but it felt far off in the distance. All I could see was the man I loved and missed so intensely. Coming home from a deployment that didn't seem real, this night didn't seem real either. The relief was palpable. It's done.

Millie and Walter had no patience for a luggage carousel's pace, but they cheered when the green duffel bags appeared. Walter tried to carry one on his own, though it was twice his size. Anything to leave sooner and show their daddy the welcome home banner and balloons in the apartment.

We buckled them into their seats and pushed his bags into the trunk. The car doors slammed shut, and I looked at him in the brief silence. He was smiling. That airport has broken my heart more than once, but then, it was the most romantic place I could imagine. And in the night air that smelled faintly of jet fuel, Illinois cornfields, and summertime, he kissed me. We were going home, under the same glow of stars and moon at the same time. He slipped his hand into mine on the drive back, fitting just as perfectly as always.

His boots came off by the door. He wouldn't need them for a while.

Welcome home, Sky. It's nice to have you back again.

Jul 14, 2017

We Won the War

“And one by one the nights between our separated cities are joined to the night that unites us.” 

He's been sending boxes home.

Inside, there is a familiar smell. I cut off a zip tie and instantly felt a rush of memories hit me with the scent of dusty lands, sweat, and fuel, all baked in 120 degree heat. Just like the boxes that were shipped to me all those years ago, these are full of uniform pieces he no longer needs, stacks of letters he saved, and a few non-perishables he kept from care packages, like a pretty leather Bible he plans to give to Millie when he gets here, and stuffed animals for both kids. (Millie asked him, sweetly and hopefully, if he could please bring back more unicorn Beanie Babies like the one someone tucked in a box he received, as if they grow there.) Washing all his clothing, folding it, and tucking it away in his closet felt like a scared privilege. Knowing that he will be home soon to use it is indescribable.

I keep thinking about what has happened during this deployment. In many ways, life will look exactly the same. But in smaller ways, perhaps, a lot has changed.

Millie has never been one to cuddle, even as a newborn. She is quite the daddy's girl, though. In the last year, however- maybe because I was simply the only parent available- she began reaching for hugs first, most times out of the blue. The girl who is too busy to stop for any sort of affection often snuggles up to my arm when we read together, or slips her hand into mine as we walk. I am so thankful.

It was a silent year. As an introvert, hushed moments are precious. I usually do quite well on my own, and love the space for my own thoughts. But I had the irony of feeling like I didn't have much quiet time, while feeling like the time I did have was very lonely. Busy, yes. But it didn't take away the loneliness.

Some things can be measured in numbers. 10 pizzas ordered. Copious amounts of Chinese food, too. A few gallons of Starbucks, hallelujah. (If deployments had sponsors, mine would be Starbucks, so it wasn't all bad. And to all of you who so kindly sent me Starbucks cards, letters, and care packages- thank you. You humbled me. It truly made a world of difference on the bad days.)

I have 323 pictures in the 'deployment' folder on my phone. Sometimes, he sent photos of unrecognizable dinners. A couple times, camels and palm trees. The truck he drove in that barely had room for a driver. The goofy smiles, the tired eyes. I saved each one, and every so often, the kids would cuddle beside me and ask to look at them. They needed the reminder that he was still out there somewhere. Maybe I did, too.

We stayed busy. We did much more than I would normally do. Several factors in life often limit where I go, but I pushed, we did, and I hope they'll have good memories. We showed up for even more library events than usual, we met friends at the park, we swam, and we saw fireworks. (Though the "staying busy" answer to deployment is kind of silly in my opinion. Staying busy may make an hour go faster, but not a week, and not a 2 am cry at night. We felt his absence constantly.)

{photo credit: my dad}
He missed so much. He missed several tooth fairy visits. Dentist and doctor appointments, growth spurts and shots. Swim lessons (missed those last year, too). Birthdays- Walter's and, in a couple days, his own. Thanksgiving, Christmas, our anniversary, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, 4th of July, and more. Millie's homeschool group program. Church on Sundays. Afternoons at the park, impromptu ice cream stops, watching the kids ride their bikes. Lost toy crises, scraped knees, backseat giggles. Bedtime kisses and prayers. Mornings of waking to a little blue-eyed love sneaking into the room and pulling blankets to his chin, asking to hold hands.

They are taller, smarter, and still as sweet. Walter dresses himself every morning now. He is so much more of a little boy than the baby he was a year ago. He zooms around confidently on his new scooter. Millie stumbles over far fewer words when she reads, and reaches for chapter books. She gleefully spread cream cheese on a bagel when she asked if she could make her own breakfast one day. She took her first jump off a diving board. There were a million and one moments that my heart would swell, and then sink a little because I knew he wouldn't see it.

But for Father's Day, Millie sorted through a handful of cards with funny pictures of animals and cute notes in the "from daughter" section, until we spotted a lone card in the Target aisle that said "military dad". Inside was something about a hero and a uniform. After hugging it to her chest, we took it home and she wrote Sky a lengthy note. There were some stick figures, a misspelled "you protect us", and an "I love you." And at the bottom, four short words. "We won the war."

It's been a long deployment. Some days, we barely made it until bedtime. Those babies of mine are brave and strong, though, and though we have had some long nights and longer days, they have handled it with more grace than I did, and even helped me smile during a lot of sadness. And of course, I admire Sky, for leaving all the things I never could, for working through difficult circumstances and frustrating people in a country that isn't his home, and for making us feel loved and cared for through four inches of a cell phone screen. I don't know if I have said it out loud, because it'd probably make both of us uncomfortable, so I'll just write it instead: he is truly heroic to me.

One of our biggest battles is over now, and what a hard, beautiful, heartbreaking, soul-searching year it has been.The tears that were sewn when we said our goodbyes will come back in a homecoming to rival them all. Soon, the map hanging in their hallway can come down, because oceans will no longer separate us. Instead, we'll fight the daily fights of the lovely mundane- teeth brushing, sibling quarrels, budget worries, burnt dinners, and car troubles. We'll do all of it side by side, in the sweet chaos and easy quiet of a life we've built together, remembering how we've all four been through our own kind of war, and how blessed we are to see the end.

Jun 20, 2017

The Buttons

"She was feeling the pressure of the world outside 
and she wanted to see him and feel his presence beside her 
and be reassured that she was doing the right thing after all." 

Sometimes, when they ask how I am, I wish I could explain to them about the buttons.

During this deployment, Sky is gone to a lot of people in a lot of places. He is conspicuously absent from his job. The seat beside me at church is consistently empty. All the drills and training at his unit have breezed by without any planning and writing on our calendar for the last year. Emails about tasks to finish and projects to begin are deleted, not pertaining to him far, far away. The list of what he has missed seems to grow by the hour, something I plan to write more about in another post. But the most noticeable parts of his absence were those least noticeable to the rest of the world.

The buttons. I would twist my hand in different directions, hoping to feel the little, round disc and the loop it's meant for. Sometimes, I've called Millie and asked her for help, even though I know she is usually needing to ask me. And after a few failed attempts, I've felt the sting of tears. I would stop to take a breath, and find something else in the closet to slip on. It wasn't about the dress. That didn't matter. It was just one more thing that reinforced the constant of reality now- he wasn't with me.

How can I explain something that is so fused to our year, so intertwined in daily life that it's hard to pull from my chest and hold up to the light? It is every small instance of wishing him here. Forgetting what it feels like to belong to someone, to be one half of two during any social gatherings, fidgeting with my rings to remind myself that he loves me. Feeling sick but having somewhere to be or someone to meet, knowing that if I don't get in the car anyway, I'll have two disappointed kids. Moving my hand towards the other side of the bed and not having his meet mine. Reaching those parenting moments when I'm tempted to lock myself in the bathroom with a hard cider, facial mask, and a podcast, but remembering I'm always on duty. Trying to calm an upset child who is asking to talk to their daddy, but explaining that he will be asleep until hours after they're in bed. Hearing or watching something that is hysterical, but relaying it to him in the past tense, rather than glancing over to see him wiping away tears from laughter. Everything feels past tense these days.

And as for Millie and Walter? I would imagine it's also the little things, like feeling his hands lifting them up in the air, sneaking a sugary snack with him when I have my back turned, or having another soothing presence there for brushing teeth and bedtime prayers. The pride of hanging on to him and thinking he's the greatest ever. Maybe it's also the small victory of tucking their daddy dolls in the closet until the next time he has to go.

What a strange feeling it is to have someone in your life without having their presence there, too. While he's been away, it's as if a pause button was pressed. We can still talk, and laugh, and even argue, but the substance isn't there in quite the same way. Funny, because if you had asked me five or ten years ago, I would tell you that words are all the substance there is, or at least all I need. But something shifted, and I think maybe, there's just as much value in sitting in someone's company, completely silent and still, as there is in all the long conversations in the world. (Come to think of it, there are people in heaven right now that I would love to talk with, but even more, to simply experience again.) To watch someone, to study their features, expressions, and actions, can often conjure up vivid stories in my imagination, because they give much away with those little clues. As simple as it sounds, one of the things I miss most is to have my head on his chest while he twirls a piece of my hair in his fingers. That's become home, and home has been missing for such a long time.

I am so grateful that, other than a few days here and there, we've been able to count on working internet to exchange words. The communication has been pretty steady, and reassuring for that reason alone. But I'm ready for my husband to be home. To say, "Here, I've got it." And one by one, to feel the buttons being pulled through buttonholes, and a gentle pat on the back when every one is done. That's when all is right again.

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."
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