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.

Jul 11, 2016

The Blue

"Joy has been a habit.
This rain."

The four of us were stretched out on plastic lawn chairs at the swimming pool. The sun was warming our bodies and drying our swimsuits. Sky had one hand resting on my arm. The rest of them were facing the opposite direction, while I stared into the baby pool, sobbing silently behind my oversized sunglasses. And when my aunt texted me later in the evening and told me I'm strong, it felt difficult to believe it. Honestly, who cries at the pool?

We were planning the night before he told me. Sitting in bed, with my planner opened to August, we were discussing a date for Millie's birthday party, and hoping for a mini vacation to St. Louis before we began the school year. What I thought would be a quiet, perhaps even dull summer has instead been quite busy, and there was still so much we wanted to do.

The next evening, the night before Walter's birthday, he walked in the door with a strange look on his face. "I need to talk to you about something. Don't say no yet." I looked at him. "No," I joked, nervously. He told me there was an opportunity to deploy, and the air immediately left the room. We discussed the few little details he had, and he said they wanted to know the very next day. I cried about four times that night, and we talked for hours, discussing the pros and cons. In the morning, over breakfast, we talked a bit more, and he announced that he would tell the unit no.

But the information began to change hour by hour, as things often do when it comes to the military. The dates that sounded far away began inching closer and closer. What sounded like a possibility quickly became a certainty. What first sounded voluntary was clearly mandatory. And so we sat at the kitchen table, singing happy birthday to our little boy, with a stunned hush afterward because we'll have to tell them soon.

I look at the two of them and instantly feel tears welling up. They don't even know what is being asked of them, and once they do, they won't understand why. How could they when I can't? It will be the longest separation from Sky that they've had in their lives, by far. And when he was gone just for the month of June, it was hard. They missed him, they cried, and there was only so much I can do to soothe it. People always remark how great it is now compared to years ago, when there was no internet or Skype or even phone calls, when letters could take weeks to arrive. But all of those things (if they even are available) are such small comforts, especially to a little girl and little boy who can't hug their daddy for months at a time.

We don't even technically know the day he leaves or where he'll be yet (and I won't be able to discuss it here on the blog even when we do), but we do know that it most likely won't be in a dangerous place, and I can find some peace in that. I still vividly remember the feelings I had when my brother and Sky were deployed. I woke every morning terrified of what I might hear on the news that day, worried sick that someone would call me and give me bad news. That fear, and that crushing worry of missing people who could be hurt or killed by some awful enemy, turned me into someone who was always on the edge of furious. For that year they were gone, I had a much shorter fuse. I would be irritated at anyone who dare breathe a word about the war, or soldiers, or politics at all. When I would go out with friends and a man might approach me, I would seethe that he could think to do so while people's lives were in danger. I learned that when I get that sad- truly, deeply, maddeningly sad- it turns to rage.

This time, without the threat of a war zone, I am still angry at how quickly this all happened, and without any warning. But mostly, I am grieving already. I'm grieving the summer that was stolen from us, grieving the holidays and birthdays and special times that will be missed. I'm grieving the loss of date nights, of inside jokes missed, of holding hands, of parenting talks and decisions, of late trips out for ice cream or slushies, of laughing over something ridiculous before we sigh and kiss goodnight. I'm aching at knowing, quite soon, we will have to curl up with Millie and Walter on the couch, and explain to them that he'll be away for a very long time. (Yes, I'm technically telling you before I've told them, because it's easier to find the words here.) I am finding myself panicked and desperate to do all the fun, quality family time things that we can find to do before he goes, as if giving them a tiny bank of silly memories will help somehow. And maybe it will. But it doesn't feel like anything will help right now. It's just hard knowing that I can't 'protect' them from Sky's absence. I can't shorten the days he'll be gone, not by a single hour.

I planned to type out words about this deployment with facts, with timelines and maps and assurances that the four of us will be fine. And deep down in my heart, I know we will. But I just can't pretend that this is normal. Even though he enlisted all those years ago. Even though we've been apart so many times. Even though it's part of his job as a solider in the Army. Even though many military families have done this half a dozen times over. I know all that. I just can't resign myself to feeling that it's okay my husband won't be here. My mind can search for reasons and almost find them, but my heart cannot.

When Sky and my brother were overseas, I still lived my life. I went to work every day, shopped for groceries, went to garage sales with my dad, and called my mom. I woke up thinking about the boys, though, and went to bed every night the same way. And throughout it all, there was a somber haze over that year. There was plenty of good, plenty of growth, and some distractions, but always, that filmy shade of blue that tinted all I did and everywhere I went. I know that Millie, Walter, and I will be fine. I know we'll have good times, and even great ones. I know I'm capable, and that I have a great family to support me.

But I also know the blue will be there, quiet and insistent, weaving in and out of our days until he's home.

Jun 16, 2016

Yellow Fireflies & Green Corn

"those moments, so
many and so long ago, still come back, but briefly, like fireflies
in the perfumed heat of summer night." 

June is supposed to be a month when time slows. We sit on long front porches with glasses of sweet tea, talking a little more slowly, our posture a little more relaxed, with less to do and less to think. That's how it should be, in my mind. But instead, June has been a series of busy moments, of loud, brief thunderstorms, blinding sunlight, and humid nights beginning to glow with the gentle luminescence of fireflies looking wistfully at the stars.

So much has happened since I last wrote- none of it very important but to our little family. Still, there are milestones, memories, birthdays, and long stretches of time apart that compel me to stretch out on my bed and type for a while.

First, we recently wrapped up our beginning year of homeschooling, and more importantly, Millie's kindergarten year. It's strange to think that she was a newborn in my arms nearly six years ago, that those years have gone by like days, and that she will begin first grade in the fall. We spent a lot of time on reading, of course, and there is nothing that compares to witnessing that process. I watched her bloom into reading sentences after sounding out three letter words over and over again. Perhaps most amazing was seeing her handwriting that I've helped form, leaning with her over the lines and the curves until she's confident enough, after a few misspellings, to write "I love you Mommy" on a construction paper card, with magazine scraps cut out and glued to it. She also attended a homeschooling co-op, and it was wonderful to make friends who are learning the same way.

Walter, who still feels like my baby, will be three this month. The last two days, I've sold a dresser and rocking chair to make space in his room for a twin bed. They were both pieces- probably the only ones left- that we used when each baby came home from the hospital. I had a little cry after they were gone. Sky and I haven't completely shut the door to the notion of having one more child, but it's slowly creaking to a close and days like today remind me of that. I was never one to imagine my children, or to dream about how many I would have someday. But when I quickly learned just how fast they grow, my heart doesn't want to forget what it's like with a newborn on my chest, soft and warm and impossibly perfect. Thank goodness Walter still loves to snuggle with me.

{photos by Kristin of k darling photography}
Sky has been away all month, completing more training for his Army career. It's always interesting to see how the time apart will be, because every time he leaves means leaving kids of different ages than what they were the time before. I never exactly know what to expect, and this time was no exception. Millie, Walter, and I were really down when he first left. It's kind of a helpless, lost feeling. Thankfully, we planned swim lessons for Millie during two of the weeks he'd be gone, and that has helped us stay busy and entertained. She finished them up today, triumphant and elated that she can swim underwater now. Walter and I splashed in the baby pool, I got a slight tan and then a less-than-slight sunburn, and we were happy and thankful for the fresh air, albeit in 90 degrees.

The biggest differences with this time away are the quiet nights and subdued moments of the day, when I pause for a breath and remember my husband isn't here. So many times, earlier in our marriage, I would wonder if the only thing keeping us together was the forced time away from each other. But in the early morning hours after he drove to the airport, the tears rolled down my cheeks, and all I could do was whisper, "Thank you, God." I know that my heart needs his, and that is a gift and a miracle. The three of us here are so proud of him, and we're ready for him to come home.

The photos here were shot by someone who has not only been taking pictures for our family since Walter was in my belly, but by someone who has become a friend, too. She's been on much of the journey with us, and though we have had lots of beautiful pictures of the kids as they've grown, I couldn't help but stare at the one of our whole family that she took a couple days before Sky had to go. I love where we are now, and the hope of where we'll be. How blessed we are to be together.

So perhaps June hasn't been lazy and calm the way it is in stories. For us, it's been a time of growth, of beating sun and the smell of chlorine, of long distance phone calls and 'goodnight's from far away, and a time with two little people who seem to be a bit bigger and older every second. It's bittersweet, and it is filled with the broken and beautiful moments that string one day onto the next. The cornfields are so green and climbing high, and if the corn is good, it must be a good summer in Illinois.
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