Many things surprised me when I first saw Dustin — home for his middeployment rest and recuperation period, or R&R — at the airport after nearly seven months apart. Sure, he was wearing clothes and a smile I instantly recognized, but he was slightly thinner, definitely tanner and totally unshaven from 37 hours of traveling.
New flecks of grey had sprouted around his ears, and patches of it had settled throughout his beard. The lines making a starburst from the corner of his eyes seemed more prominent, but his neck and skin around his collarbones, which I could see through his stretched-out collar, seemed sunken.
On the way to the resort, where we would spend two full days together before reuniting with the kids, even Dustin’s stories and mannerisms felt new. He mentioned names I hadn’t heard before. “Wait, who is [name]?” I asked several times. Dustin, realizing how separate our day-to-day lives had been, would backtrack and retell the story, this time filling in the blanks as if we were on a first date.
His clothes smelled musty and damp. I knew they needed a good washing in hot, color-safe bleach. I didn’t even recognize his suitcase. Was it one from home?
Nothing, however, was quite as surprising and unfamiliar as what Dustin said as soon as we got into the resort hotel room suitable for a honeymoon: “I’ve been thinking maybe we should have a fourth child.”
(This is where the record comes to a loud, screeching stop, and the sound of crickets fills the air.)
Let’s rewind, shall we?
The day before I picked up Dustin at the airport, I couldn’t stop thinking about our time at the resort. Mostly, I fantasized about:
• Sleeping past 7:00 a.m.
• Not watching cartoons.
• Not asking for the kids’ menu.
• Floating in a pool without three children screaming, “Mom, watch me do this,” and “Mooooom! You weren’t looking!”
• Not being responsible for someone else’s private matters in the bathroom.
The last was a big one. I’ve been changing diapers or helping little people who look like my husband use the bathroom for almost 12 years straight. I’ve been someone’s food supply for almost a quarter of those years. At last, as fall approaches and my youngest will begin kindergarten, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. From 9 a.m.-3 p.m. each day, I just might have time to do something for myself, something drastic like sit in a quiet living room and do nothing.
While the crickets in our hotel room chirped and my mind raced, I tried to understand the words that had just come from Dustin’s lips. Up until about a year ago, I was still unsure about being “done.” I didn’t want to close the door. Verbalizing it even — as in “I’m done having babies” — felt profane. So we just didn’t say anything at all, and I wondered when I would wake up and know, without a doubt, that the shop was out of business.
Yet, in that moment, at the resort, while the proverbial crickets filled the space between me and Dustin, I thought, “I’m done,” and I had never really been so sure of anything.
Then I looked at Dustin. He was smiling and searching my face for answers. I tried to understand this man, the one who, incidentally, had hoped our third son with the January due date would be born on the better side of the tax season. That’s when I realized, for seven months, all Dustin had seen were the happy moments: the pictures of Ford rounding third base and running toward home. The recording of Owen’s new “Cartoon Dad” and “Cartoon Owen,” each of which had a British accent. The video of Lindell doing a goal kick at his soccer game. First he stretched his arms and checked his shoelaces. Then he checked the wind with his finger.
Dustin had missed: spilled cereal and milk on the kitchen floor, tantrums in the grocery store, fights on the couch and screaming in the car— “He’s on my side! He touched me! He’s looking at me!” He hadn’t been caught “not looking” at an “amazing dive” at the pool or throwing away some “treasured” artwork from school (“Yes, how DID that get in the trash?”).
I had not videotaped or photographed any of these moments.
The next morning — our first together — Dustin asked me what was most surprising about having him home again. I told him it was the whole fourth-child-thing, and I nearly choked on the words.
One week into R&R, during an exceptionally impressive display of lung power and stubbornness by Lindell, I looked at Dustin and mouthed, “fourth child?”
He smiled sheepishly and said, “Yeah, I guess that would be kind of difficult.”
It’s not that we don’t love our boys. You know we do. It’s just that we’ve graduated to a new phase of parenthood, one that doesn’t involve wipes and binkies, and going back doesn’t feel right.
I couldn’t say it before, but I’m ready now — we’ll stop while we’re (mostly) ahead.
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.