One family’s joy is sorrow for another

Posted May 23, 2010, at 7:58 p.m.

About six months ago, my husband, Dustin, and I rendezvoused in the gym parking lot to swap cars and child care duties. I was on my way to a group fitness class; Dustin was on his way home from work.

The kids waited patiently in their seats in the minivan while Dustin and I exchanged key rings and a fleeting kiss hello and goodbye. Then, as I flung my gym bag over my shoulder and Dustin eased himself into the driver’s seat of the van, he leaned out the window and said this in a hushed voice so the kids wouldn’t hear: “Oh, I have some news. I’ll probably be sent on a yearlong deployment in a few months.”

I dropped my bag. And my jaw. Was he really telling me this right here in the gym parking lot? I thought. Surely it’s a joke.

It wasn’t.

“We’ll talk more about it when you get home,” Dustin said.

As I watched him drive away, I had a sense that his timing might have been intentional. Best to detonate the bomb, escape, and let the ashes settle before coming back into the area, right?

I walked into the gym surrounded by such a mental fog, I felt like I had cotton balls stuck in my ears. My mind reeled with the possibilities of what this news would mean for our family. What about my graduate school? Or Dustin coaching Ford’s team? Our travel plans this summer? Christmas?

In that moment in the gym parking lot, with that short sentence (“I have news”), the calendar hanging in the pantry at home — the one already filled to a year out with appointments, plans and vacations — became irrelevant. Nothing was certain anymore.

By the time I got home one hour later, I was already in a different mental state. Military counselors recognize distinct phases of “pre-deployment,” one of which involves unwittingly making yourself emotionally distant from your spouse. It’s a coping technique. Saying goodbye to someone is less painful if you don’t need them.

It’s even easier to say goodbye if you are angry with that person, which is why military spouses often fight in the weeks leading up to a deployment. I knew that I would spend the next few months phasing Dustin out of my daily life, acclimating myself to a routine that doesn’t involve him. This might sound heartless to civilians, but anyone who has been through a military deployment is likely nodding their head in agreement.

All this, and we weren’t even sure Dustin would actually leave for deployment! At this point, there was only a “strong chance.” After 34 years as a military dependent, however, I cling to this bit of advice from my military-wife mother: Expect the worst and hope for the best. I would not be caught unprepared for a deployment. It was best not to get mired down in any hopes for something different.

But “chances” in the military are as unpredictable as a slot machine. Nothing — not a move across country, a new assignment, or a deployment — is certain until you hold the orders in your hand. And so it was with the chance of Dustin’s yearlong deployment. A few weeks after he dropped the bomb on me in the gym parking lot, Dustin searched through the refrigerator for something to eat, and said offhandedly, “Oh, did I tell you that someone else was tagged for that deployment?”

There was another adjustment period as I wrapped my mind back around the idea of Dustin being home for the next year. Should I still spend a few weeks at my parents’ house? I wondered. Should I add more hours to my class load now? And, of course, there was the military-spouse version of “survivor guilt” when I realized that another spouse was receiving word that her husband’s “chance” or deployment had just turned into orders. Mostly (and selfishly) I was relieved that the threat had passed for us, even as I know there is always “a chance” while my husband is still serving. For now, at least, we were spared.

Then I got word that my good friend’s husband is being deployed. It is a different assignment from the one Dustin had been considered for, but the process is the same: emotional detachment, pre-deployment breakdowns, anxiety and arguments. Indeed, thousands of military families are going through this at any given time, all year long. It’s what binds us.

I can’t stop thinking about my friend and her family, in part because I identify, but also because I feel guilty that it isn’t us. This is the cruel irony of the military. One person’s homecoming is another person’s departure. One family’s happiness is another family’s sorrow. One ship returns to port; another ship leaves. Good news and bad news come in alternating waves, and eventually, they touch all military families.

I will be there for my friend while her husband is gone. I will share her experience, even if indirectly. And I know that when Dustin’s chance comes around again, my friend will do the same.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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