The “D” Word

I’ve worked on this blog for two weeks. I started it at the request of a friend whose daughter-in-law is going through her first deployment. My friend thought it would help her to read words of wisdom from an experienced military spouse. I’ve written multiple versions, deleted, re-written, started over. I have two others saved on my computer that may, someday, find their way to my readers, but for now, this is all I can say…

If you walk up to any random military spouse and say, “Let’s talk about the ‘D’ word,” I bet you $10 they will immediately know you mean “deployment.” Jay and I have been married for 21 years and survived six deployments. Deployments are dreadful. You dread the first one because you don’t know what to expect. You dread the rest because you know exactly what to expect.

Often, when I say that Jay is deploying soon and I see that look of sympathy cross someone’s face, I quickly and cavalierly say with a shrug, “Oh, you get used to it,” because I really don’t want to talk about the gut-wrenching emotion that I’m feeling. I’m a bottler. I bottle up my stress, anxiety, and, yes, fear, until I have dropped Jay off, hugged him, and said, “See you later.” I calmly get back in my car, drive home, hug our girls, excuse myself, go into my bedroom, close and lock the door, and then, and only then, do I cry my heart out. I give myself that one good cry, then I dry it up, head back out to our girls, and we get on with it. The first time Jay deployed I cried every day for a week.

So, while it’s true that you never truly “get used to it,” you do get better at it. You get to the point where you can establish a rhythm and routine faster. You just accept it quicker. In fact, after your first couple, you start making jokes about how easy the next one will be. “Nine months? That’s it?? I can do that standing on my head!” And, really, you can. After a couple of 12-monthers, nine seems like nothing. It still stinks, and you don’t want to do it, but you know how to do it.

The first week is always the hardest because you have to adjust to flying solo, and because something will inevitably go wrong. I call it “Military Murphy’s Law.” You see, the moment your soldier leaves, there is an accident waiting to happen. It might be something simple like the battery in your car dying or your washing machine kicking the bucket, or it could be big, like a surgery or your ceiling falling in because of a leak from the upstairs bathroom. (Yeah, I’ve dealt with both of those.) But large or small, something… will… happen.

I look back on my deployment mishaps and misadventures and recount them for younger wives like a crusty ole first sergeant telling a war story.

“I remember our third deployment, back in ’07. Jay’s battalion was the first unit in as part of the Surge, and I came down with these awful chronic sinus infections and had to have surgery…” Or

“In 2009, Jay was in Afghanistan, and I went out to the garage one Saturday and felt water dripping on my head. I looked up, and there was a huge bulge in the ceiling. I ran inside and called the plumber right as it gave way…”

Yeah, that happened…Jay and I had finished the upstairs of our house and had a bathroom installed. The plumber didn’t seat and seal the tub properly; so, when my sister came to visit and showered up there every day for a week, the water just ran right under the tub and out over the garage ceiling. That was fun. I use that story with young spouses to emphasize the importance of knowing their financial details and having access to important papers and accounts.

Another story I love to tell to encourage spouses to make friends and form a support system is from our fifth deployment. Both the girls came down with a heinous stomach bug. Grace was only two and had it first for just a couple of days. Then Breanna got it. It hit her harder. She was down for a week. I thought I’d gotten lucky and been spared, but a few days after Breanna got well, I attended her school open house. In the middle of the principal’s plea for PTO volunteers I started having terrible stomach cramps. By 2AM, I was curled up in the bathroom floor. I had a neighbor, a fellow milspouse, who dropped off dinner for my kids every night while I was sick. By the fourth day, I was no better and truly felt like death. I called my neighbor and said, “I really think I might die today. I need you to take the kids and send a Red Cross message to Jay.” She kind of chuckled at me and said, “You’re not going to die. You just want to.” I more firmly asserted my belief in my impending demise. This time she got annoyed, “You are not going to die! I’ll be there in half an hour.”

True to her word, she showed up 30 minutes later, wearing a mask and gloves and carrying grocery bags containing Pepto, Immodium, chicken broth, and Gatorade. She instructed me in no uncertain terms to take the medicine and drink the liquids. She said, “I don’t care if it comes back on you, drink it, then drink more! I’m taking the baby for the day, and I’m getting Breanna from school. You rest. I’ll bring them back after dinner.” With that, she picked up Grace and left. I followed her instructions, and she checked on me throughout the day. By that evening I was on the road to recovery, and I had a new forever friend. Five years later, she and I still keep in touch, and our kids write letters.

I could tell all kinds of stories, some truly awful, some funny, and a few heroic tales of friendship, but the bottom line is this: if you married someone in the military, deployments will happen, and, to use one of my favorite Army phrases, you just have to suck it up and drive on. With every caved-in ceiling, flat tire on the side of the road, and time that you’re so sick you can’t even sit up but still manage to take care of your kids, you get stronger, more resilient, and a little better at figuring out how to survive the “D” word. You might even make a few amazing friends along the way.  And you do it for the love a soldier, sailor, airman, pilot, or marine who couldn’t do his or her job without you.







Jay and Goliath

Jay and I have a comical history with Christmas trees. Our first tree was about four feet tall and artificial. My boss loaned it to us along with some ornaments. I worked for a gift shop at the time, and the tree and decorations had been part of the previous year’s window display. The decorations were, shall we say, not to our taste, but, hey, it was all free. We were in college and not exactly rolling in the dough. It did make our tiny apartment a bit more festive for our first Christmas as a married couple. That January we started saving for a tree and ornaments of our own for the next Christmas though. Jay vowed to never have an artificial tree or “snooty falooty ornaments” again. And, so, over the years we’ve accumulated quite a hodgepodge collection of ornaments, each with a story or memory tied to it from places we’ve lived or visited, units we’ve served in, and things the kids have made.

Christmas of 2017, the Army saw fit to move us from sunny Georgia to the arctic environs of Kansas. That’s a story for another day, but, as a salve to our wounds, they did give us a beautiful, 5,000 square foot, historic home. It truly is a lovely old house with gorgeous hardwood floors, stately rooms, and high ceilings. So, this Christmas, we decided to get a tree that would do it justice.

A friend told me about a tree farm not too far out of town where you can cut your own tree. We headed out there on a Saturday night with wet, slushy snow falling, and by the time we arrived the already damp ground was downright soggy. The farm is owned and operated by three generations of the same family, and the grandsons very politely suggested that we start our search in the barn where they had a few trees already cut. Anxious to avoid the muddy fields and hoping to find the perfect tree ready and waiting, we went in and inspected the inventory. The trees were nice and full and very fresh and the building smelled heavenly. We had an eight- or nine-foot tree in mind, but we’d come late to the party. They’d had a rush Thanksgiving weekend, and all the eight or nine-foot trees were gone.

We wandered through the aisles inspecting mostly six-foot trees and declaring them all too short. They’d be dwarfed by our soaring ceilings, which we declared “must be 15 feet high, at least!” At the very back of the barn, leaning against the wall we finally found three really tall trees. Two that were 11 feet tall, and one that was 12. Jay’s face lit up with childish delight, and I immediately laughed and tamped down his enthusiasm.

“They’re too tall, honey,” I said, shaking my head. “We don’t have enough decorations for a tree that big. It’ll look silly.”

Jay sighed and acquiesced and out into the muddy field we went. We roamed up and down the rows, slogging through mud and blinking past cotton ball sized snowflakes, but alas, no eight- or nine-foot trees. We headed back to the barn and huddled around a heater while we debated our next move. I’d seen a couple of tree lots in town, and I suggested trying one of those. As we discussed our options, Jay’s eyes strayed back to the Goliaths at the back. I followed his gaze and said, “You really want one of those trees, don’t you?” Jay’s eyes brightened again, and he vigorously nodded with a sheepish grin. I studied the trees.

“Well, we aren’t likely to ever have a house this big again, and one of those would be pretty impressive…”

Jay got a big grin…. “Okay, why not!?” I agreed, catching Jay’s enthusiasm.

We chose one of the 11-foot trees, and the son of the owner came to load it for us. He asked what kind of vehicle we drove. I told him it was a 4Runner. He gaped at me a minute, then recovered himself and said, “Well, um…alright, ma’am, uh…let’s take a look and see if we can get this tree on the roof.” I turned to Jay and said, “I’ll go pay while you and he go try to load this thing.” An image of the Griswold family flitted through my mind.

The girls and I left the tree barn while Jay and his new friend went to inspect the truck. We entered a small trailer and found a charming older man behind the counter and his wife next to him, making wreaths. I handed him the tag from the tree.

“Oh, so, you’re taking one of the bigguns,” he said.

“So, it would seem,” I answered. “If we can get it on top of the truck that is.”

“Whatcha driving?” he asked.

My lips twitched as I tried to contain my mirth, “A 4Runner,” I answered.

His eyes widened, “Uh, you know, we’ll hold it for you if you want to come back with a big truck.”

I grinned. “My husband drives a Tacoma,” I replied.

He looked crestfallen. “Oh, well, that’d probably be worse.” He thought for a minute. “Where do you live? I might could deliver it for you.”

I told him, and he knew the place exactly. Turns out he’d worked on post for years and retired from government service. Just then Jay came in and triumphantly announced that they had successfully tied the tree to the top of the truck. I paid for the tree and a wreath, but as I turned to leave a thought struck me. I very much feared our tree stand would not be up to the challenge of holding up Goliath. I turned back and asked if they had any tree stands made for large trees. Turns out, they did, and after a few minutes of debate and inspection of the device, we made the purchase.

As we finally headed out the door, the old gentleman said, “If it fits, and you decide you want another one that big next year, just give me a call Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll bring it to you on the trailer.”

As we stopped at the gate to post and showed the guard our ID’s, he looked up at our tree and said, “That’s a nice, big tree you have there, sir,” without even the hint of a smirk, but I saw him laughing in the rearview as we drove away.

Once home, the first task was, of course, removing the tree from the top of the vehicle. We decided the best course of action was to cut the twine and roll it off the side. Then, we’d carry it to the house and prop it up on our screened-in porch so it could dry off before we carried it inside. It was pretty wet from the snow. The roll off successful with no damage to tree or vehicle, I bent to pick up my end, after Jay assured me it wasn’t heavy. I tugged, managed to lift it about six inches, and dropped it. I suggested Jay either call a buddy or just drag it to the porch, but not willing to lose anymore needles than necessary and determined that we could get it, Jay persuaded me to try again. It ended up taking Jay, our 13-year-old, and me to maneuver the behemoth onto the porch. When we finally stood it up, it hit the ceiling. This gave me a moment’s pause, but I reassured myself that it was only because the porch ceiling slopes. Happy with our purchase and looking forward to the next day’s decorating, we trotted off to supper.

The next afternoon, we began “operation: decorate for Christmas.” First on the agenda was moving Goliath to its position in the dining room. I had posted pictures on Facebook of the tree on top of my truck and sitting on the porch, and my friends were all atwitter to find out if the tree would actually fit in the house and anxiously anticipated pictures. I suspect they may also have been taking bets on whether it would fit.

On the way home from church that day, I’d had a moment of uncertainty that turned into full blown panic that the tree would be too big and look ridiculous. “What if it’s a Clark Griswold tree?” I fretted. So, to assuage my worry, Jay measured the ceiling height to prove to me that the tree would, in fact, fit. The ceiling measured 10 feet. Jay measured again. 10 feet. Jay dejectedly went outside to cut Goliath down to size, thereby lowering it to the aforementioned desired height of nine feet.

The tree cutting complete, it was time to bring it inside. We began by moving all the furniture along our path so we’d have more room to maneuver. Then, Jay, Breanna, and I once again took up our positions around Goliath and lugged it into the house, through the “reception hall” and into the dining room, where we positioned it a corner in front of two windows. Jay had insisted on “at least trying” our old tree stand and had left the new one in the back of my truck. After a bit of back, forward, left, right, we managed to get the tree seated and tighten the bolts. It appeared that our old stand would, indeed, hold the now shorter Goliath, and I planned to return the new stand the next day. We were pretty tired by then, so we decided to hold off on the decorating till the following evening.

The next morning, as I passed through the dining room on the way to the kitchen, I paused in mid-stride and looked at the tree. I cocked my head. I took two steps back and assessed it from a different angle. It was leaning, but it did not appear on the verge of actually falling, so I proceeded into the kitchen and poured two cups of coffee. I took one upstairs to Jay, set it on his nightstand, and said nonchalantly on my way to the bathroom, “The tree is leaning.” Mentally, I decided to hold on to the big tree stand.

Over the course of the week, we began a nightly game of “adjust the tree.” Jay would come home from work, and at some point, I would conversationally let it be known that Goliath was, once again, leaning. By Thursday, Jay had had enough.

“Fine!” he said in exasperation. “We’ll use the new stand!”

I refrained from saying, “I told you so,” and went out to retrieve the contraption from the back of my truck. It became a whole big thing, to use one of my sister’s favorite expressions, to move the tree from one stand to the other, and then to properly tighten the chains meant to hold it secure and upright. By the time it was all said and done, we were sweating and not at all in the mood to start dealing with tangled Christmas lights.

We finally decorated the tree on Friday night, and I dutifully posted pictures on Facebook to end everyone’s suspense. It turned out beautifully, and we got lots of compliments. It was just the right size.

Praying for a Village

I wrote this blog over a year ago and saved it, intending to post it once we were settled. Obviously, I forgot about it once the boxes arrived and the frantic need to unpack and decorate set in, but regardless, it holds true, no matter which move we’re on or where we’re headed:

Jay and I are in the middle of our tenth…no, ninth?…eleventh?…oh, who knows? At any rate, we are in the middle of yet another military move, right at Christmas, perfect timing. Jay is in Kansas, signing into our new quarters, while I’m still in Georgia, signing us out of our old ones. I walked through the house yesterday, saying good-bye, and I realized that this house, unlike all the others, had become home.

It’s not just the house that makes a home. It’s the people, certainly the people who live in the house, but it’s also the neighbors. We had wonderful neighbors here, families who looked out for each other and spent time together. We’ve had the most fun on random Friday nights, when someone would pull out a couple of camp chairs and sit out in their yard. One by one the neighbors would saunter over to chat. Then more chairs would appear. Before long, someone was pulling out corn hole boards or a fire pit, someone else would order pizza, and we’d end up sitting outside way past dark, letting the kids play, just talking and laughing.

We said it was like living in the 1950s. Our kids played outside every day. They would come home from school, have a snack, do homework, and out they’d go. On Saturdays, they’d be out for hours. Every family had kids, and they all came out to play. They had races and battles. They rode bikes, scooters, and pogo sticks. They built forts and jumped on trampolines. We knew everyone on the street, and the number one rule was: don’t go past the stop sign. Otherwise they were free to roam. We knew where they were from the happy sounds of playing coming from the backyards. When the street lights came on, moms would come out the front doors and start calling in their progeny, tired and filthy, ready for dinner, baths, and bed. They’ve lived an idyllic childhood on this street, and we made some of the closest friendships of our adult lives.

I had other moms I could call on when I was running late or had an appointment, who were always willing to pick up my kids when they picked up their own and look after them till I got back. I could send our oldest next door to ask for an onion or a tomato when I found myself short of an ingredient. Once, when our neighbor’s wife went out of town for a funeral, he was left home with their toddler, and she got sick. All the moms rallied around and told him what to do, giving him popsicles to feed her when she wouldn’t eat or drink and her fever got too high. That’s how life should be. That’s the real meaning of “neighbors.”

As we move on to our next assignment, I find myself praying, not for a bigger kitchen or more closet space, which would, of course, be nice, but what I really hope for is a family of neighbors. I’m praying for my kids. That they can still have the idyllic childhood, where they can get out and run and play with friends, learning how to converse and solve problems and work as a team. I’m praying for people who’ll help me when I need it and who I can help. I’m praying for a village.