Here we go. He’s leaving again.
When is he leaving?
Where is he going?
How long this time?
Nothing I can answer because this is the life we chose, military life—the life we both love and built for ourselves and our family.
This round, however, feels different. Maybe, because of 2020, COVID-19, the lockdowns, and all of the change. The last year has been so trying. But as soon as we heard the words, “Your unit is active,” I have been in planning mode. That’s what I do, I plan. It controls my anxiety. It allows me to get through the days leading up to whenever he may leave.
The first time my husband was told his unit was going to deploy was a crisp, fall weekend in October. For weeks, it sat on my calendar, taunting me. The potential to get the call. So, we planned a going away party with friends, just in case. The day came and went, and the call never came, such is military life.
We celebrated fall, Halloween, and Thanksgiving together. So many pictures, laughs, and memories were made. Then the call finally came—his unit would be leaving in January, just after our youngest son’s birthday—and the date went back onto the calendar.
In a flash, we went from months to weeks to days to he leaves in only two weeks.
We were told we would need to quarantine for the two weeks before his unit left for the mission’s needs: unless it was an emergency, you must quarantine within your home.
Just like that, our usual plan of filling our days leading up to the see you soon and having a way to cope (individual therapies, small groups, etc.) to needing to quarantine within our home by ourselves with no coping strategies or support. It was an emotional roller coaster.
I began playing the goodbye in my head.
I was attempting to prepare myself for what would come. I needed to see what it would be like for each of them and what they would need. And then, my focus switched to helping my husband prepare. There were so many last-minute things, little things that needed to be done, that he couldn’t worry about.
Toiletries, new bags, new socks, new shirts . . . it’s OK, I’ve got this. It was a job I happily took on to take something off his shoulders.
The days all seemed to run together, so I added a countdown to my phone. I just needed to remind myself of the days we had left. Meanwhile, I tried my best to fill our days with a relatively flexible schedule at home to ease my anxiety and worry. We started an easy school schedule, watched movies, colored, cooked, and played games.
It was pleasant and comfortable.
But the days still counted down.
Our youngest son’s birthday, thankfully, happened the weekend just before he left. No big celebration or trip, but we were together as a family, and I am so grateful for that. He requested birthday chili and cupcakes, and I was happy to oblige.
The days following his birthday seemed to fly by, and suddenly we were on Wednesday, the night before.
We went to bed that night together, my stomach tied tightly in knots, tears held in my eyes and just at the back of my throat. As soon as the house fell quiet, I went to finish last-minute things.
I needed to finish his letters. I’ve always written him letters when he’s gone away. The boys have been helping me this time. We write letters for all of the coming months. We include drawings and photos, quotes, and jokes to cheer him up (Google, of course, I am TERRIBLE at jokes!), and sweet nothings from me. I put all of this into envelopes marked with dates far into the future.
The first of each month, rough days, sad days, challenging days, happy days, funny days, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter. You write about all the holidays you think they may miss because you are never sure when they may come home. As I wrote his Easter card, I thought about how many of these we’d done before this one.
We were sitting in cars with toddlers in the back seat of our old Dodge Magnum, no pictures, just a picture in my mind of a tear-streaked face kissing him as he walked away. Whispered goodbyes in the wee hours of the morning so as not to wake them because we already said our goodbyes the night before. Airport terminal goodbyes—those were the hardest.
Our boys are older now, and it is so much harder emotionally when he has to leave. They understand all too well what being in the military means.
From a young age, long hours were regular, and Dad being away wasn’t weird. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect them, and so much more now that they need him.
This is the part people don’t see. The emotional roller coaster that leads up to the sudden change in our lives. The TDY’s (temporary duties), short/long term assignments, and deployments are often just as hard, if not more challenging, than the actual goodbye. This is especially true of our oldest son. He is autistic, change is so incredibly hard for him, and the military life is nothing but change.
But my husband, ever the cheerleader of our house, helped us get through the challenging moments. As the tears flowed at our last “See you later,” he gave the great movie moment speech and said, “It will fly by guys! We will have Skype, Facebook Messenger, and I will call you every day. Plus, your mom will be there every day! It’s going to be OK. I love you so much. To infinity and beyond.”
There were so many tears in the airport terminal from our youngest son, tears that have never been shed before. Our oldest, never emotional at the moment, was pacing and overly talkative. His way of telling us he was sad and anxious over the change and Dad leaving. The tears came much later when he was ready to share that emotion.
Back in the moment, I finished making the cards and put them in a bag for him, and tucked them safely into his carry-on luggage. And I sat there in the sea of bags, the quietness of the house, and I let the tears come.
I needed to cry today because tomorrow, I would need to be strong.
I finally went back to sleep just before the sun came up. I knew tomorrow would be hard.
The next day, with our countdown in the hours, my anxiety was at a 10. I honestly couldn’t believe we were finally here.
We drove to the drop-off point, and we sat and waited. We talked about all the necessary stuff, when we were going to speak next, texting, our plans to talk each day, and about all the memories that would carry us through to our next time together.
Just as quickly as we arrived, it was time.
I watched all around us as others hugged and kissed, pictures being snapped. I could feel the tears and heartache all around us, and I fought the tears hard. I knew that other hard conversations and tough days were ahead for those around me, and I hurt for them. Many families had to do this, and I was having a hard time hiding my heavy heart.
Our goodbye was pretty quick, mostly because it had been dragged out over the five months. My husband gave me one final kiss, and then we watched him walk away.
There was a strange relief in watching him walk away and in the goodbye being over because we could begin to countdown to the days until he was home.
I immediately called my best friend (my lifeline) to make sure I could still come through. This was how I spent my after the goodbyes now. I found my way to her kitchen table, and my kids ran off to find their cousin-by-friendship.
As soon as I heard their footsteps in the distance. I cried.
I cried for the meltdowns coming for my oldest son because he missed his dad, because he was overwhelmed, his routines were disrupted, or his anxiety was becoming worse again.
I cried for my youngest, whose heart was now traveling overseas. His dad was his favorite—I’m genuinely OK with that—and he needed him now that he was hitting those tough pre-teen years. I cried, and the tears flowed easily.
I cried for the empty bed, for the laughs not heard, for the tickling not felt, for the cuddling on the couch, for all the small moments gone for an undetermined time.
Then, my best friend pulled me out of it because that wasn’t me. She told me in the way she has always told me, I’ve got this. She reminded me of all the support systems we have in place—her, her family, our group, therapists, and ABA. We are surrounded by love. Then, we went into all the plans we have for while he is away because that allows us to pass the time. I smiled, thinking about all the memories we would make together.
Our talk slipped quickly to nothing, and it was exactly what I needed.
On the way home, we stopped at Sonic to get ice cream because that was our routine. I kept things cheery and light for them, and we talked about how we would spend the rest of the day. While there were a few moments of sadness, completely normal, I mostly just felt, and still feel, incredibly proud of my children and my husband.
I wrote a card for the plane ride, and I talked about my love for him. I wrote, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope from Maya Angelou.”
I told him that we are lucky, and I truly feel that we are. I know that no matter what life brings us, we will be able to get through anything.
Because we are a military family.
We are resilient, loyal, we love deeply, and we care for each other beyond measure. I feel so fortunate to be able to say that.