When Dustin is gone, I get creative with ways to count down the time. The standard way, of course, is with a paper chain. But a chain with 390 paper links could probably wrap around our small house three times and still have length left over for the dog to chew on. Plus, whoever thinks kids, staplers and scissors belong happily in the same sentence probably was the same person who invented those snowflake templates with Star Wars designs on them.
Once, when Ford was a baby, I counted down trash days until Dustin was home. “Just 25 more times of taking out the trash,” I’d yell to my neighbors as I wheeled the big green can to the curb. However, when that deployment was extended by a month, the last four times I took out the trash it felt like the driveway had lengthened by two miles. Plus, as it turns out, I take out the trash when Dustin is home, too.
Counting M&Ms was equally inefficient. There were multiple problems: (1) Who eats just one M&M at a time? (2) a lonely wife and a jar of M&Ms should never be left alone together, and (3) when that deployment was extended (are you sensing a pattern here?) and then unexpectedly shortened, I had to first dump more candies into the bowl while Ford was sleeping, and then — oh, the tragedy! — eat all the extras a few weeks later.
For this deployment — the longest Dustin has ever been assigned to — I knew I had to come up with something different. Thirteen months is a really long time, and frankly, eating M&Ms and stapling paper chains can’t disguise this fact. What we needed this time was not a unit of measurement but a distraction.
I started thinking of all the things we would miss during Dustin’s time away, because perhaps we could find a way to fill the void. Dustin’s dry, unexpected and well-timed humor was at the top of the list. But how do you replace Dad’s corny jokes? I mean, who else would take the time to go into the garage before coming into the house after work, cut holes in a paper bag and wear it over his head as he came through the front door to hide a bad haircut? Who else could repeat Saturday Night Live skits at the most opportune time?
Well, Dustin is certainly training his boys well in this area, but so far, no one can match Dustin’s total disregard for humility when it comes to grabbing a punchline. All the clowns and comedians in the world could not get the same deep belly laugh from my kids that Dustin can.
Dustin’s affinity for competition will also be missed. Who else can turn anything into a game? (On a recent cold, rainy Saturday morning, Dustin said, “Let’s make like the reality TV people and vote someone out of the house every hour.” When I jabbed him with my elbow and said, “That’s terrible,” he said, “No, you don’t understand; I’ll vote myself out first.”) Who else will drop everything to play catch with Ford or kick a soccer ball with Owen?
Certainly our friends and neighbors have offered to fill in where needed. And a trip to the batting cage with our friend Lincoln would be a bright spot in the spring. So is the attention and care from the boys’ coaches. But when Ford looks over his shoulder at third base, he is looking for no one else but his dad.
Family dinners are another time to miss Dustin. There is no more special place in our home then the old wooden farm table in the kitchen. We sit there for dinner as a family at least five nights a week. And we all have our special places: Dustin sits at the head of the table. Ford is next to me. Lindell and Owen are across from us.
Who would fill Dustin’s chair? Or, more importantly, would I even make dinner for “just the four of us”?
That’s when the idea came to me. To count down the days until Dustin’s return, we will host one guest a week for dinner. That’s 52 special dinners, 52 opportunities for the boys to see someone where their dad would have been.
I presented the idea to Ford, Owen and Lindell, and then we got busy creating a guest list. It grew from “our teachers” to “the mayor, the president, a senator…” And why not? We have 52 dinners to plan.
The boys are writing the invitations themselves, and the first round has already been sent. Over the course of the next year, I’ll be excited to share with you some tales from this special adventure. On Jan. 3, we are expecting a very exciting guest — our first one — and I can’t wait to write about that dinner in the new year.
We are calling this “Dinner with the Smileys,” and it has already proven to be a great distraction. Dustin’s chair is empty and cold, and we are happy to offer it to our 52 guests. Even if we know that it can’t truly filled until that 53rd dinner, when Dustin is home again.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.