I crushed a baseball cap over my bed head as I grabbed keys. The early morning air nipped at my fingers as I carried the handheld vacuum down the driveway. I opened the door to my husband’s car and scanned it for trash. There was one paper coffee cup from a gas station. In his console were a few masks, folded and stacked, a Chapstick, and a phone charger. I turned the vacuum on and collected a moderate amount of dirt and dust on the driver’s and passenger side. The backseat was pretty spotless, but I went over it anyway for good measure, shaking out the foot mats.
As I locked the car and walked back to the house, I looked inside the vacuum. It did not have a single goldfish cracker, Cheerio, or Lego piece.
When I clean our van, I walk away with a trash bag full of wrappers and random kid art doodles. My arms are always laden with water bottles, sippy cups, jackets, blankets, and small dirty socks. I carried the one used coffee cup in my hand and threw it in the garbage.
Is this what it is like to be the person that leaves? Not just a clean car, but a clean break?
I urged myself to keep moving. Cleaning the car was his added bonus, the gift of service I decided to surprise him with. I knew he would appreciate it.
Back inside, I pulled out two reusable grocery bags and a cooler. I opened the pantry and pulled out some of my husband’s favorite snacks, a few bottled waters, and instant coffee packs. I chopped veggies as the breakfast skillet warmed. I heard feet on the stairs and saw him, suitcase in one hand, boots in the other. I turned to assemble an egg sandwich.
He looked down at the bags of snacks and the cooler. “I can’t take all that,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked, “You are going to be in the barracks this time. You have your own vehicle – no one cares how much you bring in.”
He squatted down and rifled through the bags, pulling out items, rearranging others. “You can’t prep everything I need for two months,” he said as he stood up.
I turned away and sucked in a breath. “I know that.” I cracked another few eggs in the pan and scrambled the yolks. I could hear him working behind me.
“I’ll take this much,” he said. I turned to see he had consolidated my items into one bag. The other bag lay empty and rumpled on the floor.
“Okay,” I shrugged and pulled out plates for the kids.
“Hey,” he said, closing the gap between us, putting his hand on my shoulder. “You are going to be okay.”
“I know that,” I said, looking at the plates in my hand. “I’ve done this before.” I have done these military separations before. He kept his hand on my shoulder and reached up with his other hand to pull me into his chest. I wrapped my hands around his back, still clutching the plates, and allowed myself to melt into him.
I pressed my forehead into his sternum and said “I know I can do this. I just don’t want to.”
There it was. The honest truth. I had been working on him leaving for a month. I spent days preparing meals and cleaning the house. The baby would most likely start crawling while he was gone, so we rearranged the living room. I got an oil change. I tried to finish deadlines and added events to our calendar to look forward to.
The preparation phase was worthy work. I would be thankful for it in the long run. But it reminded me of how much my spouse helps out. It reminded me that I love having him home.
It reminded me that after all this time, resentment, bitterness, grief, longing, fatigue – they are always looming.
“Wave bye bye to Daddy,” I said as I gripped the baby on my hip and held our big girl’s hand.
I watched my husband’s car turn the corner and head out of sight before leading them back into the house for breakfast. We took the day slow and headed over to our friend’s house for a playdate.
The next morning I surprised the kids with donuts and a hike.
On the third day we made crafts and visited a playground.
On the fourth day- we emotionally crashed.
We survived that day by eating copious bowls of cereal and popcorn, watching a double feature of Frozen and Frozen II, and laying around in pajamas. That night, as I tucked my daughter in, she requested to see a calendar.
“When does daddy get back?” she asked. I flipped the months over to show her the star marked in the future. “That’s a lot of days,” she said.
“I know,” I said squeezing her. “But here is when we leave for Mimi and Papaw’s house. And here is when we’re going to the aquarium. All these nights you have gymnastics and-”
She pulled a blanket up over her head. From beneath the duvet she said, ‘I’m excited to see everyone but,’ she poked the top of her eyes up from the blanket, ‘but no one is daddy. When he’s gone, there’s a hole in our family.’
I took a deep breath before sliding down beneath the blanket with her. “That’s true,” I said. “But daddy wants us to live the best we can when he’s not here. Can we do that?” I asked.
“We can try,” she said. I kissed her head before turning out the lights.
We have lived military life for seventeen years, and sometimes I think that means it should be easier, or I should be better at saying “hello” and “goodbye” to my spouse.
I am stronger at strategy. I am better at knowing what I have to lay down to pick up the family reins as a solo parent. But sometimes, I am really tired of having to do it. I don’t think I should say that either, but there it is.
I lay down in our bed alone that night, and I thought about all my good intentions for another chapter apart. I would lead my kids and myself through another separation, but we can never outrun or out-prepare the emotions that come with sharing our family with the military.