By Kaci Curtis
I have watched my husband’s back disappear into bustling airports more times than I could accurately count. Neither of us are fond of farewells, and a quick hug and kiss is about all we can stand before we let go and turn away to handle our separate responsibilities. He boards a plane to serve his country (again), and I turn to the little boy crying in the backseat.
“Let’s go get donuts,” I suggest every time, and it makes it feel a little bit easier to breathe. To think. To drive my car without missing any exits and to angrily skip any melancholy songs that dare play on the radio. My four year old, Finn, hates when his dad has to leave. But he does love donuts.
As hard as it is, saying that big “Goodbye” is not the hardest part about deployment when you’re a military spouse with children.
That first week is not for the faint of heart either. It’s all about adjusting: establishing routines, distractions, and playdates, so that I don’t rip my hair out after being asked to play the same board game for the 867th time. It’s about checking that the doors are locked at least three times before finally falling asleep in a bed that seems huge and somehow less comfortable. It’s struggling not to sound too breathless and eager when a Skype call rings on my phone.
But as torturous and long as that first week is, it’s also not the hardest part of deployment.
It’s not the initial “Goodbye,” that breaks me. No, that would be too simple. What really breaks me apart is every subsequent “How could you?” I wonder bitterly while he is gone.
Finn and I are more familiar than most with how absence can shape lives. My husband was deployed for most of my pregnancy, returning home two weeks before Finn was born. He deployed again when Finn was eight months old, missing his first birthday. He was gone for months over Finn’s second birthday, deployed again during his third. Finn is four now, and just celebrated his birthday for the first time with his Dad at home.
And he’s never once complained about it. He’s never asked me why some of his friends’ dads are always home for dinner. Or why we continue to buy so many donuts on our way back home from the airport. Finn is far, far tougher than me.
Because when Finn began to take his first steps and my husband was on another continent, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How could you miss this?” And when Finn blew out his first birthday candles, I thought, “How could you not be here?” Every time that Finn’s face would crumple when I attempted to explain how much longer he would have to wait, I’d launch that impossible question from my heart: “How could you?”
As if it was my husband’s fault. As if he had any say in the matter. As if he wasn’t providing for us and missing us as much as we were missing him. Trust me, I’m aware and grateful for all that my husband does.
But there’s a lot that he’s never had to do.
He’s never had to worry through days or even weeks of silence, wishing for the phone to ring. He’s never had to hide that fear and pretend that it didn’t exist. And he’s never had to quell the hopes of our little boy when Finn asks, “Is Daddy coming home today?”
“No, baby,” I’ve answered hundreds of times. “Not today.”
And always, that silent accusation lingers, the unfair and unhelpful resentment that I carry on behalf of my child, and a bit for myself: “How could you?”
How could you leave us? How could you miss out on these moments? How could you cause our son such pain, and then do it again? And again. And again.
I wish I could say that I have an answer for that relentless, unjust question. I’d love to honestly say that it doesn’t still plague me on long nights in an empty bed. I’d give a lot to always be calm and collected, to say the right thing when my son asks questions, and to banish resentment from my heart.
I’m not a perfect wife. I’m not a perfect mom. I hold onto things that I shouldn’t, possibly because of just how much I’ve had to let go.
But when that question looms in my mind, I’ve begun to try and re-phrase it. Instead of “How could you miss this?” I try to whisper, “I’m sorry you’re missing this.”
“How could you not be here?” becomes a gentler, “I wish you could be here.”
And the big one, the one that nobody ever hears because it only exists within me, a struggling reminder: “I know that you didn’t want to go.”
These fragile phrases are a bridge back to myself. Back to my husband, and to sharing Finn with him. They are a path away from the relentless independence that would strip me of my empathy and my compassion. Yes, deployment is hard. That first “Goodbye” is hard; that first week is hard. And so is every week after that.
But through all of those hard things, I know that my husband wishes he could be here.
I’ll never be perfect. But with every “Goodbye,” and every donut, I keep trying to build that bridge.
Kaci Curtis is a bibliophile, writer, military spouse, outdoor enthusiast, and Enneagram 6. She is the main caretaker of the farm where she currently lives with her family in southern Mississippi. You can find more of her writing here.
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