The first time Dustin deployed, I had a 5-month-old baby. The second time he deployed, Owen was 6 weeks old. Soon, Dustin will leave again for a yearlong deployment — his first since 2003 — and I will have a 10-, 8- and 4-year old.
As we enter pre-deployment mode — the time when every occasion is marked by thoughts of “next time” (“Next Memorial Day you will be gone”) and reading over Dustin’s will and power-of-attorney at the breakfast table seems “normal” — I realize how different this experience will be with older children.
Going to the grocery store won’t be my biggest challenge.
When Dustin was gone and I had babies, I was tired all day, every day. There was no mental or emotional relief. There was no one to take “their turn” getting up with a crying baby in the middle of the night. There was no one to stay home with the baby while I went to the grocery store. And when I talked about “Daddy,” my children did not know who he was.
The boys will be more independent this time. Ford and Owen are capable of making their own breakfast, getting themselves to baseball practice and helping with their younger brother when asked. I expect to have many more physical breaks.
But the kids definitely know who Dad is (he’s the guy who comes home from work and goes straight to the backyard to play catch with them), and that means the mental and emotional challenges will be much greater.
I make a lousy stand-in for Dad. I unwittingly cheer for foul balls — an endless irritation for Ford — and my “Star Wars” references are sometimes misplaced and misquoted. My neighbor Tony has offered to help, but I wonder whether he’s truly ready to find these Padawans at his doorstep on a regular basis.
I won’t be able to fudge time.
During the first deployment, I had the great idea to fill a bowl with the same amount of M&M candies as there were days until Dustin came home. I allowed Ford to eat one candy each day. “When the bowl is empty, Dad will be home,” I told him.
It was good in theory. But there were a few problems.
First, what kid is happy to eat just one small M&M when they’re staring at a bowl full of them?
Second, in my emotionally drained and physically tired state, I had no restraint after Ford was asleep. Sometimes I poured the candies directly into my mouth. Then I had to recount and replenish.
And finally, Dustin’s deployment was extended. So just as Ford saw the light, if you will, at the bottom of the bowl, I had to add more, which was devastating for my waistline.
Today, a bowl of unattended M&Ms would never survive — not if Lindell is nearby. Plus, the boys already know that a year is a “really long time.”
See my Facebook page, www.Facebook.com/sarah.is.smiley, for a great alternative to the M&Ms idea!
I can’t skip holidays or stop time.
Eight years ago, it was easy to convince Owen that his birthday was in June so that we could wait and celebrate with Dustin. And when Ford suddenly stood to take his first step just days before Dustin’s return, a room full of military wives stuck out their feet to prevent him. (Dustin had already missed everything else — the first smile, first laugh, first word — we wanted to save something for him.)
These Jedi mind tricks won’t work next year. Ford is well aware that his dad is leaving the day before an important family date. (I’d like to tell you which date, but OPSEC guidelines state that I should not. The fact that I’m thinking about OPSEC is another sign of pre-deployment). Owen knows how many holidays Dustin will miss. And I’d rather poke out my eye with a rusted spoon than not send Lindell on his way to his first day of kindergarten. (How else will I go to the grocery store? Get a haircut?)
This time, I cannot keep our boys in a holding pattern. They exist in a bigger world, one that includes school, sports teams and friends. Even the most valiant effort to shield them from all their father is missing would fail.
“It’s not fair that Dad will miss ______,” Owen says.
“And what about my birthday?” Ford asks.
Which reminds me of one aspect of deployments that never changes: In the end, birthdays, holidays and anniversaries are, oddly, the happiest days. People remember you. They call and send encouraging notes. They invite you to dinner to pass the time. Those days are filled with friends and activities.
It will be the ordinary Sunday afternoon when my boys miss Dustin most. It will be the regular baseball game when Ford looks over and Dad is not standing behind the fence at third base. It will be Friday morning, when Dustin is not at breakfast calling out spelling words to Owen. It will be Wednesday evening, when Lindell is waiting for dinner, and Dustin is not there to race him up and down the sidewalk.
These are the times we will cry. And, unfortunately, I cannot shield my growing children from that.
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 email@example.com.