THEM: I don’t know how you do it.
US: It’s all we’ve ever known.
This one is for us. ~KP
You know the images all too well. The airport, the hangar, the school, the front porch. Over the past 18 years, videos of military homecomings have been breaking, mending, filling, and healing our hearts. I for one, cannot bring myself to scroll past someone’s sweet moment of reunion without pausing to watch, cry a little, smile, and sigh. They’re everywhere and they are a huge happy piece of the story of our country. If you’ve been on the receiving end of “that first hug,” then you know. There is nothing like it. Standing in a hangar at 3AM with hundreds of other people, all collectively holding their breaths, as they have been for months, all waiting to breathe again. They open the doors, slowly and deliberately, the music plays, and there they are. A formation of warriors, survivors. There are cheers and screams and this ache that makes you feel like your insides are about to explode. You’re searching faces, one by one, looking for yours. The music stops, the formation stands at attention, someone important says something that no one hears, until finally… “fall out.”
Pandemonium ensues. I’m on my tippy toes, looking, rooted to my spot because I know he’ll find me. And there. The face I could never forget. The biggest smile I’ve ever seen. The first touch, first smell, first embrace. It melts you down to your toes. Finally. The wait is over. Everything you have been waiting and hoping and praying for – it’s all over and your life is back in your arms. Chaos is everywhere but its the happiest chaos you’ll ever know. There are bags to be picked up, signs & banners to collect, and homes to get back to. Hand in hand, we walk, we smile, we laugh. Welcome home. We drive away from that moment, from that war – a battle fought and won – towards the next war. The silent war of the homefront.
My husband and I started dating in 2003. Our courtship started out a little different than most. He was in Afghanistan and I was taking summer classes at the University of Georgia. We met in high school and lost touch for a couple of years before we reconnected as friends who occasionally flirted. On Valentine’s Day of 2003, I called him only to find that his number had been disconnected. For several days, I stewed over why he would change his number instead of just telling me he didn’t want to talk to me anymore, and then I did what any mature and reasonable twenty year-old woman would do: I sent him a snarky, nasty email, detailing with only slightly restrained rage how immature, rude, and typical he was, while I obviously remained capable of mature, clear-headed communication. The next month I was emailing him again, begging his forgiveness and a word that he was OK. He didn’t change his number. He went to war. I have never watched the news as religiously as I did during those months from March-May 2003. I sent so. many. emails. One day in May I got one back. It said, “Hey, I’m OK. Stop watching the news.” Over the next several months, he relocated to Afghanistan and slowing acquired more regular internet access which meant email and AIM (that’s AOL Instant Messenger for anyone born after 1985). We exchanged messages daily and eventually, he had access to a phone so we could talk. I fell in love with him over the phone. We talked about everything – our families, our friends, our heartbreaks, our plans – and eventually we started talking about when we would see each other again. In October he was called home for a family emergency. I’ll never forget my panic at hearing his voice, “I should be in North Carolina by dinnertime tomorrow. I’ll call you.” He did. And so began a wild road trip – before Google Maps, Garmins, and navigation systems – with me navigating him via MapQuest. His phone died as he arrived in Athens. It was 2AM. I jumped in my car and drove in the direction I knew he would be coming from. He passed through an intersection and I flashed my lights at him like a mad woman. His brake lights lit up the dark street and I slammed on my brakes. Time stood still. I got out of the car. I can still feel the cool night air rushing over my skin and through my hair as I raced across the pavement without any idea what to expect from the man standing in the shadows beyond the glow of the street light. I remember that I was wearing a read knit sweater over a tank top. He remembers that it flopped off my shoulders as I ran towards him. He stood, under the traffic light at the intersection of College Station Road and Agriculture Drive, with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen and his arms open for me. His lips brushed my cheek and we held each other, saying nothing. Breathless when we realized we were both holding our breaths, he pulled my sweater over my shoulder and smiled. And I think I said, “Welcome home, Pal.” That was nearly 17 years ago. He has been coming home to me ever since.
A Thousand Beautiful Stories.
Later this month, my husband and I will celebrate 15 years of marriage. I like to joke sometimes that married years in the military are more like dog years, so by that math we have been married for 105 years. It seems like that must be true to fit all of the life we’ve lived into our time together – and apart. He has been deployed to combat for a total of 4 and a half years. He has been away from home another 2-3 years for schools, training exercises, and courses – preparing to deploy to combat. For nearly half of our married life, we have been apart. That’s a lot of homecomings.
We have moved 11 times in 15 years. I have bought and sold houses and cars. I have moved across the country. I have attended weddings, funerals, and family vacations by myself more often than with him. I have replaced broken appliances, gotten the water out of the basement, changed jobs, diapers, daycares, and potty trained puppies, on my own. We have 2 children. They have attended 5 schools and just finished the 7th & 5th grades. They have lived in more houses in their short lives than I have for the whole of mine. They have met more people, made and lost more friends. They take life in stride. We all do. We are the lucky ones because we have gotten him back every single time he’s left us. I could tell a thousand beautiful stories of our good and bad times, full of laughter and tears, anger and worry, victory and triumph. But this is the true story that I don’t think many will tell. This is the story of the moments after the homecoming. The surveying of a different battleground. This is the story of the war we fight on the homefront.
For 15 years, I have been married to my best friend. We have a beautiful life. Our children are smart, beautiful, incredibly resilient human beings. We have known more than our share of good times and blessings. We have made wonderful memories over the years. We have been through a lot – together and apart – we have run the gamut of every trial, tribulation, and emotion. The one thing we have never truly known is peace. I am part of a generation of spouses who have never not expected to send their husbands away, again and again. There has always been a war to go back to. My children are part of a generation who have never known a world without this war. There is plenty of discourse available on this subject, but I don’t want to speak to that. There isn’t a pretty, witty, or even organized way to write this explanation – or maybe it’s a confession – so stay with me. There is nothing tame about this story.
I am writing this for me, for my children, and for everyone who has ever had to answer the “I don’t know how you do it” question with the stoic and matter-of-fact, “It’s all we’ve ever known.” This is for us. For you. I know that right now, your eyes are full of tears and your insides are shaking. I know, I know. I. Know.
We. Don’t. Talk. About. This. Part.
Just because someone carries it well doesn’t mean it’s not heavy.
Stay with me. We’re going to be OK. And I am 100% talking about it.
Have you ever thought about the gravity of that statement? “It’s all we’ve ever known.” Have you thought what price is paid for a life that has never known peace? We fight for some semblance of normal. Some life that is worthy of the price he has paid, the horror he has seen, and the countless moments he has missed, and that battle never ends. Have you ever felt that your truths are unwelcome? They see the yellow ribbons and the flying flags, the homecoming videos, the special privileges – the discounts! – the reliable health insurance and retirement plans, the lives “we signed up for,” and the romanticized picture of the long waits and sweet reunions of military life.
Here is what they don’t see. Here is the part we don’t talk about.
They don’t see the face of the father whose child doesn’t recognize him or the fear on the face of that child as you hand them over to a stranger that they are expected to trust and love.
They don’t know what its like to look into the face of your spouse and see your soul, but not recognize them at all.
They don’t know that life doesn’t just go on while they’re away, it moves at warp speed.
They don’t know that he pressed pause when he left and came home to a life that went on without him.
They don’t know what you tell your 4yr old when he asks you if his daddy is a killer.
They don’t know what its like to see the pleading in the eyes of your children when they don’t know their dad and are always afraid of being misunderstood and saying the wrong thing.
They don’t know what’s it like to be the bridge between your children and their father – and to bear the burden of his frustration and theirs. To constantly swear that everything will be OK. To beg time to just keep moving so you can keep surviving. To want so badly to have the answer but never finding the right words.
They don’t know the guilt we feel for putting our children through this life… and for making their resilience a requirement and a point of pride.
They don’t know that you have an identify crisis because all you ever do is reinvent yourself, one duty station after the next.
They don’t know that you have spent as much time planning his funeral as you have his homecoming.
They don’t know how many times you have wanted to give up, leave, and run away, because the process of rebuilding and healing is so impossibly big.
They don’t know that you keep secrets – because how the hell are you supposed to know what to tell him while he’s gone? What if your problems are petty to what he’s facing? What if you worry him and he gets distracted? What if he figures out that you’re completing screwing it up? What if he thinks you’re not raising the kids well? What if you should have told him about the family drama but didn’t? What if he doesn’t like the house you bought? What if he doesn’t like you anymore? What if he isn’t the same?
Secrets. So many secrets. Our secrets are the price we pay when we say, “It’s all we’ve ever known.” The family we carefully piece together time and again will always be pulled apart again. You never find all of the old parts and the puzzle never looks the same. Sometimes I wonder how we can live so loudly and still not be seen or heard. I wonder what my children will say when they look back on their childhood and the life we gave them. I wonder if there is enough therapy in the world to mend my mistakes. I wonder if he’ll always come home… and if we’ll ever be whole. I wonder how long it will go on and how many generations of people will know these secrets.
You just can’t know the weight of “all we’ve ever known” unless you’ve carried it yourself.
I see you. I know you. I’m with you.
Truth and Peace.
I have been writing this story for about a year, in bits and pieces. In truth, I guess I’ve been writing it for 17 years. I’ve only recently come to understand why it is such a hard one to share and talk about openly. It’s not the lovely, heartwarming, uplifting vision born in the arms of a homecoming’s embrace. It’s not the hero who comes home but of the one who protects it while he or she is away. It’s not the story that everyone wants to hear and sometimes those stories are the ones that need to be told the most. And it’s not mine alone. Maybe that’s where we find our truth and peace – in the honest telling of it. In the light.
In my darkest moments, I know where to go to find the light of my heart and soul.
On a dark night, under a sea of stars, the path that my feet somehow knew to take, to my destiny that waited in the shadows of a traffic light. Arms as wide as his smile. Waiting for me, waiting for him.
Where all is quiet on the homefront.