Last week’s column (“One Family’s Joy is Sorrow for Another”), and especially civilian readers’ reactions to it (“I don’t know how military spouses do it,” “It’s hard enough having my husband gone for a week!”) got me thinking about Dustin’s past deployments. On this Memorial Day, I feel especially compelled to shed light on what it means to have a loved one serving in the military.
Fittingly, on Friday night the boys asked to look at the scrapbooks I had made of their first year of life. Dustin is absent from most of the pictures because he left for deployment when Ford was 5 months old, and then again a year and a half later, when Owen was 6 weeks old.
Under a photograph of Ford crawling into a toy basket is the caption, “You learned to crawl while we were in Virginia.” I remember writing those words and pasting the picture onto the page. I also remember trying to explain to Dustin through e-mail as best I could what his first son looked like as he crawled. When Dustin left, Ford couldn’t even sit up. By the time he got home, Ford was walking and talking.
On a page in Owen’s scrapbook there is a picture of the three of us: Ford, baby Owen and me. We were at a neighborhood family picnic. I was the only one there without a spouse. While other mothers passed off their babies to grab a bite to eat, or asked their husband to push a child on the swing, I carried Owen on my hip, fed Ford with one hand, and probably wiped my brow with the other. (I don’t remember eating much during that deployment.) We were a family of three. The absence of our fourth was ever present.
Feelings from that period in my life came rushing back to me as I looked at the pictures. I always felt slightly cheated when I was alone in my living room, marveling at my first baby crawling, and had no one to lean over to and say, “Did you see that? Isn’t he cute? Look at that face! Can you believe he’s crawling?”
I remember being so tired during those years that sometimes I fell asleep at the kitchen table. When I spoke of “Daddy,” my young children didn’t understand who that was. My own parents were in Virginia; I was in Florida. There was no one (except other military spouses) to help. I carried Ford and Owen with me everywhere. They sat patiently in hard plastic chairs at my doctor appointments. They waited at the bank. They came to the grocery store. They crawled on the floor while I got my hair cut. I was never “off-duty.”
For all the times I got frustrated about being a “single” parent, however, I knew that my husband was several time zones away wishing more than anything that he could play with the boys in the backyard or take them for a walk while I went to the grocery store. I was experiencing kid overload; Dustin didn’t really know our kids at all yet. He knew them from pictures and stories relayed over e-mail. But even the best of pictures and descriptions couldn’t convey the way Ford pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth and tipped his head back when he smiled. Or how Owen always scooted away and then smirked over his shoulder at me.
As selfish as it sounds, I was frequently bitter. Civilian friends just didn’t get it, I thought. I cringed every time one of them complained about their husband going on a weekend business trip.
People were nice enough to include me in special occasions — Easter, Fourth of July picnics, etc. — but on most days, families that were intact retreated to their living rooms at dusk while I sat alone on the couch hoping my husband would call.
It kind of makes me wonder why we put ourselves through this at all. Plenty of military friends have gotten out of the military. Why not us? Why continue to live this less-than-desirable life of separations, missed birthdays and holidays?
Ford flipped the page in his scrapbook. There was a picture of my friend Laura from when she came to visit me in Florida. It was Sept. 10, 2001. I knew what was coming next. Ford flipped the page again. There was a postcard sent from Dustin overseas. It read:
“Ford, You don’t understand what happened the other day, but it was a horrible event unlike anything your mom and I have seen in our lifetime. The reason I’m out here is to protect our country from people like that. I miss you and your mom very much, but right now I’ve got a job to do before I come home. You make your mom and me very happy. I love you both. Love, Dad.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.