It was late. It took hours. There was no way in hell it wasn’t getting done.
For months, weeks, I had anticipated all that would be required to pull it off – all by myself.
But when I sat back and looked at the finished product, it was all wrong. Backwards. BACK. WARDS.
“Babe. I’m sorry, I really have to go. Just… it won’t matter. It’ll be too cold for him to ride tomorrow anyway and he has other toys. Please don’t be upset.”
I took a deep breath and swallowed the hot, angry tears and turned with a smile – to my laptop where my husband’s tired sad eyes looked back at me from a world away.
“You’re right. I’ll get with the neighbors tomorrow to see if they can help. Wow! I didn’t realize it was so late. Sorry to keep you up, get some sleep and we’ll call you to open presents in the morning. I love you. Merry Christmas.”
“I love you too. Merry Christmas baby.”
The minute the Skype screen went blank, I calmly picked up the nearest object and threw it as hard as I could across the room. Then I picked up another. And another. Until I was grasping at the carpet, desperate. Why was there nothing else to throw?!? The tears came hot and fast and I took a deep breath, gulped in the failure, the guilt, and finally laid face down on the carpet and cried because I just wasn’t enough. I couldn’t do it all by myself. I shouldn’t have to. And there was certainly no reason that a Green Machine bike should be so damn hard to assemble. Bitterly, I thought about how quickly my husband would have put it together – and not backwards. Twice.
That was eight years ago. It was not the first time my husband watched Christmas unfold on a tiny screen from overseas. It wasn’t the last either. I look around today, eight years of life experience later, and I’m grateful for growth and maturity. I hope that I’ve shown myself, my fellow military spouses, and my children over the years that happiness and gratitude is a choice – regardless of the circumstances – but that’s not why I’m writing this. This isn’t about that. This isn’t even about the troops overseas this holiday season. This is for the ones left behind. The brave faces, the constipated emotions, the smiles so sharp they could cut glass, and the holes in the wall that have to get patched at 3am on Christmas morning. This is for you.
One of the most ironic things about social media is how easily you can be overlooked when people are talking about you. Here’s what I mean: It’s December 2nd and the “Don’t forget the Troops” posts are already circulating. I’ve seen Christmas card pictures posted that say “We’re so blessed to be together this year!” and others with two photos – one of the family and one of the solider overseas. Even still, there are posts that demand the happiness and gratitude of those whose families are all together this year, because others are not. EVEN STILL, there are posts that suggest military families are scoffing at ‘civilians’ who are separated from their families for the first time due to COVID-related travel restrictions and precautions.
There is so much noise out there, especially this time of year. So much to tell us all how to feel and what to think, but nothing that sees us. Again, this is for you.
I know there are still events to put on, a Christmas tree to get up, and lights to hang. Our most basic instinct is to try, for ourselves and for our children, to keep the traditions alive and make everything ‘feel’ as normal as possible. It’s exhausting. It’s maddening. It’s sad. And I swear they lie when they say assembly is quick and easy. LIES, ya’ll.
Why is there so much pressure to appear normal when we’re not? Why do we feel the need to take care of everything when we can’t? The first Christmas I spent without my husband at home, he had already been gone for eight months when Christmas came around. I was pretty much in survival mode by then. It was the one and only year I didn’t put up our own tree – my kids were very young and we went to my parents’ house – but those weeks leading up to Christmas, my house was not jolly. That year I learned that traditions matter – so I’ve always put up a tree, strung the lights, sent the cards, and made the cookies because I needed to make sure my husband knew we were still living the life he was fighting for. Two years later, I learned that “some assembly required” means that I need to bribe a neighbor with cookies and beer to help assemble. In subsequent years, I’ve learned to look up and be grateful for those lessons. You are learning too – even when you’re hurting and sad and completely fed up.
What I mean to say here is that what you’re doing is beautiful. It matters. And it is so, so brave. The knowledge of what we are living without and the fear of what we might not get back weighs heavier at this time of year as we are bombarded by so much implied happiness and gratitude. While so much emphasis is placed on those who are away and what they’re missing out on, I want to take this space for you to say that however you choose to carry on, you’re doing it right. If you go stay with family or stay home on your own, if you string 4 lights or 40,000, if your tree looks like a Pinterest win or an epic fail, if you put on a brave smile or fall apart, if your egg nog isn’t fit for minor consumption (and you’re not sharing anyway), if you skipped the photos with Santa or the gift wrapping volunteer booth, if you wrap the Green Machine (bike) box with a giant dent in the side (that looks a lot like the boot you threw at it) at 3am and curse the guy who wrote “some assembly required” for all of eternity – you’re doing it right. Your strength and courage, the brave smile and the broken one, your inability to give up, fills my heart with more reassurance and pride than anything I can describe. As much as the soldier sacrifices for all of us, going away to fight battles we’ll never see or understand, you are the glue. You are what holds all of the pieces, however precariously, with total and complete grace, and in various stages of calm and chaos. Perfection isn’t just a myth – it’s overrated. Years from now, you’ll see the humor in the heartbreak and smile at how hard you tried, failed, and persevered. Don’t let the noise of this season drown out how remarkable you are, how beautiful YOUR service to this country is, and that however you’re doing it – you’re doing it right.
If you’re reading this through a tiny screen from overseas, there are no words to adequately express my gratitude. I promise that I am living fully in every moment and that I never forget the freedom that fills my lungs is won every day by your courage and selflessness.
When you talk to your family – especially “the glue” – tell her she’s amazing. Because she is.
Merry Christmas. And God Bless America.
Counting the days.
Maybe this year will be different
And I won’t be, be alone again.
Under the mistletoe
Let it snow
Come on home.
Every Christmas, I’ll wait.”
~Kelly Clarkson, “Every Christmas”
I don’t know if she wrote this one about us/this, but I like to think so.
I sing it obnoxiously loud every single year in honor of all the “glue” out there
– holding it together and making spirits freaking bright.
Thank you, Kelly, for singing exponentially more beautifully than me,
and expressing exactly what my heart feels with your words and music!