"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.