Some kids go to the principal’s office. My kids have the principal come to dinner … for our 23rd Dinner with the Smileys.
I had hoped that the presence of Lynn Silk, principal of Fourteenth Street School in Bangor, would encourage extra good behavior from the boys. Sadly, I underestimated 5-year-old Lindell’s ability to embarrass me when I least expect it.
Lynn, however, knows something about managing a house full of boys. She also raised three sons, all of whom went on to serve their country and their community as policemen and soldiers. Lynn’s oldest son, Staff Sgt. Brandon Silk, died in a helicopter crash on June 21, 2010, while serving with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan. Her two younger sons, David and Blaine, are now deployed overseas.
David’s wife, Jaclyn, came with Lynn to dinner, making this only the second Dinner with the Smileys that we have spent with someone who is either currently dealing with a deployment or recently has. (Our sixth Dinner with the Smileys was with the Mazzei family, whose husband/father, Lincoln, was deployed last year.) Being with people who know firsthand what you’re going through is critical for military families.
Lynn, Jaclyn and I bypassed explanations of lingo and policies often necessary for the uninitiated to military life, and we got down to the real conversation: Skype is great, but not perfect; dinnertime is the hardest time to be alone; and when people say, “Thirteen months will pass really quickly,” do they think about what they’re actually saying?
Maybe Lindell sensed the comfort and acceptance of being with another military family. Or maybe the water balloons Jaclyn brought for the boys took over his common sense. But by the end of the night, Lindell was wearing only his swim trunks and spraying his principal with a water gun.
I was in nonstop apology mode, despite Lynn’s good nature and her obvious delight in seeing three boys play together. Jaclyn’s participation in the water fight, which ended with her wearing soaking-wet jeans and shirt, convinced me that what was unfolding on the front lawn was welcomed. And, in hindsight, perhaps it was exactly what everyone needed after our dinner conversation about Brandon’s death.
Earlier in the day, I told the older boys it would be OK to ask Mrs. Silk about her son. Ford and Owen looked at me with disgust. “Why would we ask her about that?” Ford said. They thought it would be rude to “make Mrs. Silk sad,” despite my insistence that she probably loves talking about her son. So at dinner, while the older boys awkwardly stared at their lasagna, I brought it up for them.
Lynn told us about Brandon as a person — how he broke records in track, how he loved to make people laugh, how he imitated his mom — and she shared with us the details of the helicopter crash that killed him.
Dustin is a helicopter pilot.
After a long pause, Owen looked up at Mrs. Silk and said, “How can a helicopter make someone die?”
Sometimes, there is no way to protect your children from reality. Many times, we shouldn’t anyway.
Lynn and Jaclyn had brought with them what they called their “flat boys,” almost-to-scale (depending on which brother you ask) cardboard cutouts of Lynn’s younger sons. Time prohibited them from getting a “flat Dustin” for Ford, Owen and Lindell, but they brought Dustin’s likeness nonetheless: an ice cream cake with an edible photo image of Dustin on the top.
What happened next was worse than biting the ears off a helpless chocolate bunny, worse than lighting a candle shaped like Santa Claus and watching his head melt into his shoulders. I held a butcher’s knife above the frozen-solid cake with my husband’s image on it, and when Owen and Lindell realized the horror of what was about to happen, they both screamed, “No, don’t do it!”
There was no good, less horrific place to cut. I pushed the knife into the cake and cringed. It was morbid and horrible. Still, the tears of laughter — a release from all the emotion earlier in the meal — streamed down my cheeks.
“It had seemed like a good idea at the store,” Lynn said, laughing, too.
“I will not eat any part with Dad on it,” Owen said, which considering the size of the image, was going to be a difficult request.
“I’ll take his head,” Ford bravely said. And then, “Dad’s going to give me a piece of his mind.”
As I cut around the cake, slicing the image into a dozen wedges, I realized the next problem: Forget Dustin’s head, who was going to eat the piece with his, well, um, you know.
“Go ahead, Sarah,” Jaclyn said, smiling. “Take one for the team and for all the military wives out there.”
I flopped the piece with my husband’s lower half onto my plate.
Lynn and Jaclyn left after the water-gun fight outside. It was, after all, a school night for Mrs. Silk, too. When the boys and I were back inside, Lindell, still in his bathing suit, climbed into my lap. His back was dotted with bug bites, and he had dark, tired half moons beneath his eyes. I pulled him closer to me and he rested his head on my shoulder. “Will my Daddy die in a crash?” he said.
I patted his back, unsure how to answer, and shushed him to sleep.
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 www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.