Welcome to Military Momma: Adventures of Nanny Panny. I think my writing will give you some idea of who I am and what I’m about. Ideally, I’d like to start my very first blog in a nice, easy manner, gently inducting my zero followers into what promises to be a journey of oversharing, laughter and tears. But life’s short and I’m busy so read on, enjoy (hopefully), and then tell your friends! It wouldn’t be the worst idea to start from the first post and read them in order…
We had been called into the gym at 0445 with our “go bags”–bags that we were supposed to have packed at all times, filled with so many pairs of socks, underwear, uniforms, a toothbrush, deodorant, enough stuff that if you were called away for deployment on short notice, you’d have enough to last you 30 days. We’d been called in for drills like these a couple of times before. When you deployed as often as we did, every 4 to 6 months, you were used to an accelerated operations tempo, and most of us just lugged in the bags that we hadn’t unpacked from our last trip to Kuwait. Mostly, we were a gym full of sleepy, slightly irritated Airmen. I sat in the corner, sullen, grouchy, and wishing I was back in my warm bed just across the street from base.
Around 0500 we were loaded on buses and taken over to the pre-deployment hangar–another ruse in the squadron’s scheme to make us think this time was THE time when it wasn’t a drill. Our squadron liked to test our preparation; it was like playing chicken, but with toiletries. We’d even heard they might go so far as to load us in a C-130, takeoff, and fly us around for a couple of hours just to scare us enough to really pack our bags with the right stuff. Again, most of us still had the six bars of soap and bag of disposable razors that we hadn’t used from the last deployment, and we weren’t skerred. At the time, I smoked about a half pack of cigarettes a day, and as we drew nearer to the hangar, I could feel my anxiety build. Once we got there, we wouldn’t be allowed to go back outside until this drill was over. If anything had the power to make us nervous, it was the idea of being locked inside a non-smoking facility. This drill-business just got real for a lot of us.
We processed through the pre-deployment line like hot knives through butter: shot records updated–check; emergency data information updated–check; are you aware of the services the chaplain can provide while deployed–yes; take a pamphlet; take a magnet; take a contact card–check, check, check. Eventually, I made my way to the folding chairs, neatly lined up in good, military formation for the next wait. Anyone in the military has heard the adage, “hurry up and wait.” We’re really good at waiting. Be ready to wait. Always hurrying to wait, wait, wait. That day was no exception, as we were moved into the pre-load area of the hangar, a new place to carry out more waiting, we were happy to see a push cart with a television and VCR. We figured we had another 2 or 3 hours to go before they finally called it quits, and someone was prepared with a tape of Blow or the first Fast and Furious, or some other action flick. I could probably make it as long as Johnny Depp wasn’t smoking through the entire thing. I was becoming more irritable and wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped off to a far corner and lit up.
During those years, cell phones were still relatively new for me. I had only recently bought my very first cellphone weeks before. Each time I used the tiny clamshell phone, it was like being on the bridge of the Starfleet Enterprise–real space age technology. Most of us had jumped on the cellphone bandwagon because of our frequent deployments. It was nice to be able to stay in contact with our family and friends as we waited for hours in terminal after terminal, on our way to Kuwait or Bosnia. But during the bag drag exercises we weren’t supposed to have any of the “new-fangled doohickies,” as my grandma called them. Smartphones hadn’t been invented yet, so there really was no reason to have them unless we were going to make phone calls–something we were simply not allowed to do. Our directive was to turn off all cellphones before entering the holding area. Even if we could call someone, most of the folks at home were still asleep, or they were just starting to put the coffee on and flip on the morning news. It was only 0545.
We hadn’t put in the video yet, so the room was filled with silence–folks were too tired and irritated to carry on conversations with each other–too tired even to walk across the room, plug in the television set, and pop in a tape. We hunkered down against our GI duffles and dozed. Just as I had almost decided to try my hand at smoking a cigarette in the farthest corner by the door, an officer came into the hangar and told us the United States was under attack. Geez–I guess they were really going all out with this drill scenario. Sometimes, we were given a scenario that some country with lots of sand was being overrun by another country with even more sand, and we had been tasked to deploy to support intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance requirements. But an attack on home soil was a new one for me. I think I rolled my eyes. That would never happen; they need to do better if I’m going to be brought in at the buttcrack of dawn. Almost as soon as the words were out of the officer’s mouth the first phone went off, startling everyone in the bay. It had one of those tinkling rings that ran up the notes like a quick-handed musician on a xylophone. The Sgt whose phone was ringing frantically tried to reach his hand in his pocket to silence it. Phones were supposed to be turned off. But before he could shut it down, another phone went off–again, the xylophone. Then, like a rippling wave gaining momentum before it unrolls onto the shore, phones starting ringing and buzzing, popcorning the room with jangling techno sounds.
“This is not a drill,” someone shouted, “my wife says she’s watching the news and a plane just hit the Twin Towers.” More people’s phones are ringing–families are frantically trying to get in touch with their loved ones to make sure that the world isn’t crazy. But it is.
I remember being released to head home immediately. We were instructed to get our affairs in order, for real, none of this bullshit 6 bars of soap and an old bag of razors. Take care of your stuff because we’re most likely moving out. Everyone was on call. Eventually the base was locked down, but many of us made it out of the gates before that happened. I lived right across the street in some nearby apartments, and I rushed home to turn on the news. Within minutes the second plane hit the other tower. This was real, not the horrific accident of some tweaked out pilot like I had hoped. I had hoped for tweaked out; what I got was unfathomable. I tried to call my husband who was working a mid-shift on the communications help desk. When I finally was able to speak with him, he informed me that they had locked down the base and no one was being allowed off or on. He didn’t know when he would be home, but everyone was going nuts there–activating all their emergency procedures. All I could do was stare at the television screen and cover my mouth with my hands. I couldn’t scream loud enough to encapsulate the horror I was witnessing. I sat on the bed and watched the news for the rest of the day. I waited for the call from leadership that would put me on a plane to somewhere, and I lit up a smoke.
Less than 2 months later, I was seated in an air operations center in Saudi Arabia, watching the unmanned aerial vehicle track targets along the mountainous dirt roads in Afghanistan. The shock of 9.1.1. was still with me. The entire country was still reeling from a sucker punch to the gut. What I remember about those days was the support we received as a nation; on the air operations floor nearly every country in the United Nation coalition was represented, and they seemed to be banded together with us. I had not really experienced that type of empathy in earlier deployments. Or maybe I was just not sensitive to it. And, at the same time that I was witnessing the great international machine come together in earnest, back home the nation was oftentimes splitting apart–if you were Muslim, you were in trouble. The same people who would hang up a flag and declare their undying devotion to the colors wouldn’t seem to hesitate in stomping on the freedom of other, fellow Americans. To add to deployment tensions, several of my friends were coming up on their separation dates, but because of the Global War on Terror, the military instituted a “stop loss” preventing them from leaving until they were no longer needed to fight. So many people, civilian and military, were so very angry. Fear manifests in a myriad of ways, and people were scared and unsure of the future. But we kept doing our jobs, limping along until the bone was able to set. Eventually, stop loss was lifted and people put away their flags. But I think we still have a limp.
Today, 14 years after the planes hit the towers, I’m serving with a generation who was in elementary school when the towers fell. They peripherally remember their parents’ reactions to the horrors of that day, and many of them joined because of 9.1.1. That historic day led them to a life direction. My career, nearly my entire adulthood experience, has been shaped by the events of that day. For me, I feel the great benefit of knowing life before 9.1.1. and watching life evolve afterwards. And because I can remember the before and after, I appreciate the carefree ignorance or denial that came before as well as better understand the cautious vigilance that has followed.
A few years ago, I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York City. Its serenity and peacefulness in the midst of the most electric city in the world stole my breath. I couldn’t help but think of the people murdered there, of how so many knew they were to die and thought to call family and friends for last words of love. And I was grateful to them for making me think of that, of who I would call, of what that love looked like in the face of such unbelievable circumstances. I’m grateful to the men and women who died on September 11, 2001, because every year, on this day, I hug my kids a little tighter, I walk a little taller, and I breathe in a little deeper. Rest in heavenly peace, brave ones. We will never forget.
Alabama is not like Colorado. There are no mountains here. There are not yet any cool breezes swinging through the valleys of the front range here. There is no Alamo Drafthouse Movie Theater here where I can order fried dill spears and apricot wheat beer while participating in a Pitch Perfect sing-a-long. There is not yet too much laughter here between me and my friends & coworkers over whether or not I’m being passive aggressive in staff meetings or while we’re sharing life points over warm muffins and quiche at Mimi’s Cafe. The nearest hot wings and beer are no longer 10 minutes away, but now in the next town over. My hair stylist is not here, and my gray hairs did not get the memo to slow down their regeneration. My church is not here; to be fair, my church wasn’t in Colorado either. I left it in Illinois two moves ago. My gym is not here with all its fancy equipment, newly renovated locker rooms and plethora of Zumba classes. My University of Denver classmates aren’t here, and I’m feeling a little isolated and out of touch as I embark on the next phase in this dissertation journey–a lone woman in a sea of not.
And there are other ways that Alabama is not like Colorado–some terrifying, others lovely. As an example, in Colorado, you will be hard-pressed to find American Cockroaches. Here in Alabama, they can grow to be as big as 2 inches, and they like to welcome you home as you approach your front door–hanging out just about head-level on the brick walls of your house–much more friendly than in Colorado where THEY DO NOT EXIST. Not to be outdone by their distant insect cousins, the friendliness of the spiders in Alabama is certainly not mirrored in Colorado. Colorado spiders will hide out in nooks and crevices of the windows and behind door frames if you don’t clean well enough (so I’ve heard); however, Alabama spiders will weave elaborate and enduring webs around your kitchen faucet or the legs of your kitchen chairs–you know, the things you use every day so you won’t feel lonely. They will also decorate your door frames and patio furniture in such a ninja-like way that you won’t even see them until you have a face full of their habitat artwork. They are so welcoming and persistent, they refuse to be dissuaded despite the Terminix guarantee right there on the receipt. And Colorado cannot hope to compete with Alabama’s humidity that activates the sweat glands the moment you step out of a freezing cold shower, literally chasing down and obliterating the dry spot just created with the towel. Alabama has the gift of sweat: sweat on the upper lip, sweat down the middle of the back, sweat under both armpits, sweat down the back of the neck, sweat running down the shins—sweat. But there is also not too many hills to run on…and running outside is easier without Colorado’s altitude–I’m up to 4 miles a day again. And without the altitude, I somehow feel…lighter…not thinner–don’t get it twisted–but lighter here at sea-level.
Perhaps the lighter feeling comes with other things Alabama offers that Colorado just cannot: space and distance. My boys wake up in our home every morning, and I pick them up from school every afternoon. Every weekend they drive me crazy wanting to play the WiiU at 6 a.m. on Saturday. And while the ideal would be for the boys to have both their parents within easy reach, we’re making the best of another person’s choices. I easily meet my own gaze in the mirror each morning (mascara-smudged as it sometimes is), and, best of all, I happily meet the gazes of my boys every day, every single day, without interruption. After I pack tomorrow’s lunches, fix our dinner, oversee their homework, and read our bedtime stories, we say our prayers each night. We say prayers of love and hope and blessings for all the people the boys love in their lives, whether in Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Pittsburgh, Florida, or down the hall. Their world keeps expanding with each move, each type of parent, each new sibling, each grandparent, cousin, and family friend. And my world gains distance on the heartbreak that has been a fairly constant companion over the last several years. No, Alabama is not like Colorado. And that’s beginning to be okay with me.
Disclaimer: Please do not notify child services
The other day, I was talking to one of my coworkers about parenting. There’s really no good end to that sort of conversation. Somebody’s going to feel like crap afterwards, and that somebody is usually me. I second guess most everything I do as a mom. While I know I’m not alone, it can definitely feel like castaway island when I take stock of my various parenting mistakes…so many errors. While my friend was sharing a sweet story about how he grew slightly impatient with his little child as she was learning to potty train, I tried to make him feel better by recounting a time my kids still remind me of by saying, “Mom, remember when Grayson was sick?” They love to bring it up; they love to remind me of this particular failing in my parenting career. They’re sweet like that.
My oldest had it first, the ninja-like flu-bug that struck when least expected, and it was fine when it happened while he was spending the weekend at his dad’s house. I didn’t know there was a three-day dormant period where the virus would drag its infected self over puke buckets, Spiderman blankets, Luigi plush figures, and Incredible Hulk toothbrushes, eventually settling in the unsuspecting stomach of little Grayson. All day, the little boy was energetic and upbeat. I don’t remember him complaining about his stomach feeling anything other than invisible. I didn’t hear any complaints when he and his brother played Mario Cart or Disney Infinity. I didn’t hear any complaints when he asked for his third cup of milk. And I didn’t hear any complaints when he ate the abundance of Oreos that made him so thirsty. I do remember the boys being so cute and sweet, and me missing them so much after they had been at their dad’s for a couple of days, that I let them sleep with me in my bed that night.
I had taken some over-the-counter sleep medicine, so at 2 a.m. I was in full-dead-to-the-world-mouth-open-drool-happening-sleep. I was dragged away from my dreams of, well…not vomit, into the harsh reality of…vomit–black, Oreo-coated, milk-supported, virus-induced, projectile-vomit. I’ve seen those sitcoms where the parents are running to get a bucket, or the kid pukes in the car, but I’ve not seen a cinematic representation of a child puking across his mother’s chest, pillow, and hair in the middle of the night. That could only happen in reality, I guess. And in that moment of hyper-reality, who I am as a care-giver could not be stifled. My true self was awakened. I did not have time to put on my mommy-brain, and I did not have time to censor myself, to connect the right neurons in my brain to the right responses one should have when one’s 6-year-old is feeling unwell. In that moment, I had the opportunity to be my best self. Instead, I was the unpeeled, mini-alien monster that rips through that guy’s stomach in the 1979 hit “Alien,” starring Tom Skerritt and Sigourney Weaver. As my baby sat up next to me, pumping out black gut juice all over me and the bed, with his eyes trained to my face, my true parenting sense uncurled itself from my diaphragm and exploded from my mouth, “F*&(())!” I yelled it loud enough to awaken my oldest son. Within a few seconds, my brain was un-fogged, and I could discern the situation more clearly. “F*&(())!,” I yelled again while simultaneously picking up the vile little puke monster and staggering to the open toilet. Not a good look for me, to be sure.
After that overshare, my co-worker, hopefully, felt a little less awful about the lowered eyebrow he gave to his precious as she wet her pants. I’m certain he felt like he was doing a better job than me, even if he was too polite to express that thought. Despite my parenting failure, there were great things that came out of “puke gate.” I know to be on high-alert when one kid’s been ill, even if the other one shows no signs of that illness. Don’t.Trust.It. I know that Oreos + milk + virus = No Bueno (to be fair, I already knew that one). I also know that who I am, at my core, is still there–sometimes, through marriage, divorce, motherhood, time, maturity (seriously), and the everyday responsibilities that come with life, I can lose touch with that girl who would confidently walk into the club and be the first one on the dance floor. And that girl would have said “F*&(())!” if some kid, even her own, had woken her up from a dead sleep by vomiting blackness all over her. And, I learned that my kids like that girl; they like to revisit her antics that night; they like to relive her reaction because she’s someone they don’t get to see between swim lessons, homework, and bath time. I also learned that letting my boys see my mistakes and admitting those mistakes opens up an avenue of conversation that brings us closer as a unit. And I try to let that confident girl with the club swag come out every once in awhile, but I do make her watch her mouth.
Grayson recovered after a day or two of being with his foul-mouthed momma, eating chicken noodle soup, sipping 7-Up, and abstaining from Oreos for a few days. His brother recovered from the trauma of being woken up in the middle of the night by my shouts and the smell of regurgitated cookies. I recovered from being puked on, which, let’s face it, was way more nightmare-inducing than any word I uttered in the heat of the moment. I’m also happy to report that Grayson first said that word months before he heard me say it that night, so I didn’t say anything to him that he, unfortunately, hadn’t heard before–probably from that kid, Eddie, who he sits next to in his first grade class. Little Eddie probably hears that kind of language at home. Some parents are just bad influences…
So, the next time you have a low parenting point, just re-read this. I got you.
Putting words into the atmosphere, and expressing my thoughts and feelings with another person helps me process. I’m one of those…writers, I think they’re called. But, sometimes, I need immediate feedback, so verbalizing my thoughts in therapy sessions has been useful. I’ve seen a therapist during four “divorce seasons” in my life. The first time I went to talk things through with a therapist was when I was a child and my mother and her husband divorced. The second was more than 20 years later when my husband agreed to try marital counseling, sort of.
Our marital counseling sessions consisted mostly of me praying in the bathroom before we started: begging God to show up, begging Him to change my husband’s heart or my heart, or give me the right words to make some immediate, fog-shredding miracle happen, begging Him for a breakthrough. They consisted of me weeping throughout while my husband sat next to me, an uncommunicative, sequestered echo of who I had known for nearly 11 years. Once, the therapist was so overcome he actually began to cry when he was trying to convince the man poised for flight next to me not to throw away this life we were building together. Later, when I asked my husband if he was affected by the therapist’s emotional response to our situation, he said, “No. I think he’s been doing this too long, and he was dealing with his own stuff, not ours.” Marital counseling didn’t look promising after that point, but we continued to go for a few more sessions.
The third season came when I was working through our divorce, and I realized that fantasizing about drifting over the dividing line into oncoming traffic wasn’t normal, and I needed help. I was beginning to separate from reality, to float above it, a sad storm-cloud with no thunder and no lightning, the Eeyore of storm clouds. I needed someone to talk to–a pro. And she had a big job. I had a lot of issues, and she carefully, patiently helped me clear through the lenses of pain, betrayal, and desecrated confidence that muffled everything in my life at that time.
For the first couple sessions, I focused on her youth and freedom. She was nearly 10 years younger than me and unmarried. Sometimes, my mind would slink sideways and recall how hopeful I was in my mid-20s, how unsuspecting I was that life could, and would, punch me so hard in the throat. Sessions with Lauren (of course that was her name), started with me sobbing, continued with me sobbing, sometimes so hard that I couldn’t speak for minutes at a time, and ended with me hiding my reddened eyes behind my sunglasses as I passed the next patient in the lobby.
Weekly we would meet in a prayer room in my church. She agreed to drive in from St Louis, where her regular practice was located, to see more clients in my local area. Even though we met in a prayer room, I didn’t pray before those sessions. I don’t know why not. Maybe because I was only existing, and only moderately. And I needed therapy, because I knew I wasn’t going to be all right on my own. I had to do the work so I could take care of my children. I didn’t want to be unhealthy for them. I didn’t want to shrivel up from the inside out and deform into an “abandoned wife.” I also didn’t want my boys to be the sole source of my emotional worth, little crutches to help me walk through the hurt. I didn’t want them to carry the burden of my unmet needs and unexpected disappointments, my imbued sorrow and soggy hope. They were only children, and it wouldn’t be fair. So, I did the work. Most days, when I left those sessions I felt like a skinned tomato, an unsheltered, bloody discombobulation of nerve endings. Eventually, I stopped sobbing through every session, and I stopped needing to hide my eyes as I walked through the lobby afterwards. But most importantly, I stopped thinking of crossing the center line as I drove to work.
The fourth season of therapy is now: post-divorce. It’s really post-everything: childhood, teenage years, first loves, first times, my roaring 20s, marriage, motherhood (an ongoing excuse to see a therapist), divorce, five deployments, a few promotions, some diplomas, and the end of my 30s. No trauma is imminent or transpiring (except turning 40 in a couple of years–which I’m really looking forward to)…and no trauma has recently transpired (unless you count the disciplinary meeting I had to attend with my ex about our first-grader–but if I counted that I’d have a trauma at least once a week). I’m not recovering from anything, and I’m not worried or scared, sad or depressed. But I am in therapy. I’m in it. Fully vested. Bought in. Committed to doing more work.
I found her on the internet. She was listed through some sort of Therapists-R-Us site that seemed legit. Her profile said she had both counseling credentials and a PhD in her field. I liked that. She was all in, too. She looked mother-y in her photo. I like mother-y women. They make me feel cared for and safe. And her office wasn’t very far from my work, so I could pop over during my lunch break without too much navigation through traffic–all solid reasons to select a therapist.
Dr G is a calming whirlwind. She pulses energy through her eccentric jewelry, to the streaks of brownish red in her otherwise blond hair. She sports a trendy bob with an asymmetrical style that’s shorter in the back and lengthens on either side of her jaw line. I never smell her perfume, if she wears any. She sits in her office chair with one leg tucked underneath, and she gives me book suggestions about psychology theory. When I talk, she sits quietly, sometimes writing, sometimes nodding, sometimes waiting to ask me a question. A calming whirlwind, luring me further inward, into me. She told me she thinks of me as a fellow woman, not a patient. And our sessions are nothing more than two women talking about things. I think of her as an authority figure. I want her to have the right answers and give them to me. We’re still getting to know each other and navigating our relationship.
The first time I visited her, I was embarrassed and tried to distract myself by focusing on anything else other than walking into a therapist’s office. Instead I made eye contact with those I passed on the stairs or saw in the lobby, greeting each one with a smile and a nod. “See? I’m a ‘normal’ person seeing a therapist. See how I meet your eyes and smile? That’s because I’m ‘normal’.” In the past, I was obviously drowning, overwhelmed by wave upon broken wave, and in my drowning state, I reached out to therapy as a life-preserver. I was at the bottom of whatever life I had, and there was no room for embarrassment. Embarrassment would have been a step up during those times. But now…Is it okay to go to therapy, even if I have nothing terrible going on in my life? Am I allowed to simply want to be better? Is therapy really necessary?
And each time I bounce up the stairs to her office, check in with the receptionist, and wait for Dr G to usher me in, I know the answer: yes. It’s okay because it helps me be a light in my sons’ lives and in my own. I’m allowed and encouraged to be better. And it’s necessary if I say it is.
I’m still too concerned about other’s thoughts and feelings, Dr G points out. She calls me out on my self-doubt, and my tendency to minimize hard things I’ve experienced. She gives me permission to examine them under a microscope if I want, or casually, like window shopping when I’m not ready to go inside. Her office has become a ruby-warm cave where I am allowed to focus on myself, my thoughts, my frustrations, my joy, and, sometimes, my pain. I’m still doing the work to be healthier, to be an improved statement of myself, to be my own best thesis. Dr G assures me that 38 is a terrific age because I’ve evened out the irresponsible pace of my 20s, and I’m ending the uncertainty of my 30s. I’m preparing for the rest of my wonderful life, she says. That all sounds so good to me; I’m ready. Let’s get to work.
Ugh. Ugh and yuck and ugh. When I think about dating after divorce, I become super articulate. It’s like all the elements of the uncomfortable reality overtakes the part of my brain that can formulate anything more than “ugh.” The last time I really dated, I was in my early twenties. I looked young and alive and…firm. I was fit and free of baggage–emotional and physical. Yeah, my hair was sometimes unruly, and I sometimes needed makeup tips (I, apparently, liked to put on eyeshadow after a few cocktails), but I could wear almost anything and feel good. And dating was really nothing more than meeting a cutie at the club, busting some moves, playfully laughing at him as he tried to keep up and eventually reverted to grinding his pelvic area into my backside, and then maybe he’d ask for my number or want to buy me a flat beer for a quarter. It was all really romantic. Okay…the opposite of romantic, but it was easy. Less business, less algorithms, and more stupid, empty pleasure. I miss stupid, empty pleasure, if I’m being honest.
The chemistry either happened right there on the dance floor, or it happened across the crowded basement of some house party as you danced an impromptu routine to Prince’s Kiss. Chemistry was obvious, or at least less difficult. Sometimes, you could help it along with a few Dixie cups of beer, Boone’s Farm, or a shot of Jaeger. Where did those days go? Wherever they went, I can’t go back there after a decade of marriage, a divorce, two kids, and generally less firmness. What to do now?
Apparently, I don’t live a life that’s conducive to meeting single, felony- and STD-free, heterosexual men in person. It could have something to do with the “I’m-at-the-grocery-store-not-a-beauty-pageant” and “I-really-do-believe-the-gym-is-for-working-out” style and attitude I undoubtedly go around with in the world. When I’m not at the grocery store or the gym, I’m teaching 19 year olds English stuff or sitting in some Lit class with my fellow PhD candidates (all of whom are married and/or 26). Both places are not big pick up scenes for me. But when I look into the crystal ball of my future, I’m less than thrilled with what I see. In my mind’s eye, my youngest son is packing up his hand-me-down SUV that his older brother left behind when he went away to Harvard two years before. He is excited to settle in to UNC or USC or UC Berkeley where he received a full academic scholarship. I am excited to take that long-saved college fund and travel around Europe for the next three months, and after my final “baby” turns to give me an authentic, not at all obligatory hug before putting pedal to metal, I go to wrap my arms around the beautiful, solid, nurturing man by my side–except—um, there isn’t one of those there. Instead, I am forced to wrap my arms around myself ’cause I am alone. A. Loney. Lone. Lone. Lone. All by myself. Yep.
Possible desperate future times call for definite desperate present measures. So…I paid my membership fee and filled out my online profile. Who am I looking for? Let’s see, a non-murderer/rapist, please. I’d like not to be attacked at any point. After that, I’d like a man who’s single and divorced only once, if at all. I’d like him to have NOT cheated on his wife and left his kids. I’d like him to make upwards of $100K so he doesn’t feel threatened by my salary at all–and he doesn’t need any of it. I’d like him to have a full head of hair and not be skittish about Caesarian scars. I’d like him not to post any shirtless pics or pics of him with other women. That would be great. I’d like him to be secure enough in who he is that he is willing to follow me around as I carry on with my career. I’d like him to be assertive without being a domineering ass. I’d like him to have a master’s degree in something fascinating like rocket propulsion or history or gender studies. I’d like him to be more than okay with a woman who has kids, but in no way think she needed help from him to raise them. I’d like him to be funny, but not goofy. I’d like him to be wicked smart. Maybe even with a Bostonian accent. And be totally accessible. And honest. And self-aware. And faithful. And grown up. And I’d like him to choose me every single day, but be okay with using the bathroom and closet down the hall because he knows I’ve grown used to spreading out my crap. Too scary specific and demanding? Fine. The dating site forced me to narrow down my wish list into pithy little characteristics anyway: I’m a woman seeking a man between the ages of 35-45. Just checking that box makes me feel like my grandparents. When I was a kid, I remember my grandparents being in their 40s. And now I’m looking to date someone who used to be my grandpa’s age. In my head, that’s just old and weird even though being in your 40s is not old or weird. In my head, sometimes I’m still 11 and waiting for puberty to hit, and other times I’m in my 20s and still look like I’m in my 20s. Either delusional way, dating a 40-something is ugh. And yuck and ugh. But my profile is up. Make it rain, dating site. Make it rain.
Currently online, it’s not quite drizzling. Once, on an early morning run in Illinois, it was misting. It was the time of night/morning when the dew was fully present, but the sun was not even close to being awake. The air was wet. You couldn’t tell whether moisture was coming down from the heavens or whether the dew was being stirred up from the ground. The water was like fine dust, whirling around everywhere without committing to being real rain. The only way I could really feel the wet was when I ran my hands over my hair, condensing the mist and making it gather just enough to equal raindrops. For me, it’s the same annoyance as dating online. I’m getting poked and winked at, but it’s not raining. Right now, I would have to run my fingers across the keyboards to get some rain started and generate some email chatter. And I’m not willing to do that yet. If I have to make the first, solid move, he’s probably not going to be up to the challenge of dating me. Until then, I’m stuck with the three emails I’ve received so far. The first reads, “You’re beautiful and I’m not looking for anything serious;” the second one states, “hello.” I presume he wrote such a short note because mystery is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. The final email reads, “For some reason, I can imagine you with a European accent.” Yikes.
Looks like my imaginary future of wrapping my arms around only myself is coming closer and closer with each click. Oh well, at least I won’t have to share the long-saved college fund.
When I clicked open my work email today, amongst the many missives from anxious students checking to see if I received their final essays for our English class and the military members who wanted to ensure that I knew about the upcoming Spooktacular 10k and mandatory anti-terrorism training on Thursday, there was a climate assessment survey waiting for me, urging me, gently cajoling me to weigh in on the atmosphere of my workplace, begging to know how I thought things were progressing in my daily environment. After absolutely agreeing, agreeing, disagreeing, or absolutely disagreeing with the many statements like “Everyone in my workplace has the same opportunities, regardless of gender, race, religion,” I came to a question I had to really think about: “What do you enjoy most about working here?” It wasn’t that the question was overly complicated. It was one of those teacher-questions I routinely ask my students: “what were your biggest challenges while writing the assignment? What did you do well in your writing? What challenges did you face?” Or those mom-questions I ask my kids every day: “How was school? What did you do with your friends? What happened that made you laugh/cry/fart/frown/succumb to your childlike rage and throw milk across the table in the cafeteria?” This survey question had an answer; I just didn’t quite know which one to pick.
What did I enjoy most? What a personal question for a survey to ask. Why do you want to judge me, survey? What did I ever do to you? I felt a little exposed and vulnerable as I began to type in my answer. Definitely the part I enjoyed the most was showing my students what they were capable of in their writing. Definitely. Yep. That was it. It wasn’t the fact that this assignment left me room to gulp greedy handfuls of stress-free air in a way that none of my previous assignments allowed. I didn’t have to figure out how to host a holiday party for a four-star’s wife and her friends over the holiday break, with minimal staff. I didn’t have to chart the route from Homebase, Afghanistan, to a nearby girls’ school, avoiding well-known hotspots and threatening, white Isuzu trucks loaded with who-knew-what-explosives. I also didn’t have to stand in front of a crowd of 200 and give a memorial speech for a young man who fell victim to inexperience and wet streets on his recently purchased, lime green, motorcycle. It certainly couldn’t be the predicability of a 7:30 to 4:30 pm schedule every day (with a few annual exceptions). It probably shouldn’t be the fact that I was working with some great friends, relationships cultivated and deepened over the few years that I’ve been here (I almost typed that one first). It had to be that I was able to show my students what they were capable of achieving, what they held within, that propensity humans have for unexplored potential. That had to be it. That’s what a good teacher would say. And I need to be a good teacher.
I need to be. I have nothing else. Or that’s sometimes the dialogue that runs through my head. This is it, woman. You’re coming to the end of the tracks, military-career wise. You better figure out what you want to be when you grow up. I’ve decided I want to be a teacher. If I’m being honest, I want to be one of those people who collect checks for doing very little to basically nothing, but those positions are filled by the Gwyneth Paltrows and Tom Cruises of the world (I’m still annoyed with their comments about how tough it is to be actors while I’ve watched my service members experience unspeakable things for far, far less reward). And since those positions of laissez-faire seemed to be filled, I gotta get to work, again, in just a few years. And I’m afraid.
I’m afraid of not being successful. I’ve enjoyed success in my military career. I’ve tasted it, and it is yummy. I’ve achieved things I wanted to achieve, and I’ve been rewarded for my level-headedness, my multi-tasking ability, my adaptability, my follow-through, my leadership and followership abilities, my physical strength, and my endurance. Many of these traits are supposedly coveted by the civilian sector, but I’ve watched those before me slide back to Go, forced to begin again, forced to prove their worth in a society that claimed to love and revere them when they had symbols on their collars and stripes on their sleeves. So, I’m scared that if I don’t know what I want to be, I’ll listen to what those employers will tell me I am: no longer in the military, just one of the crowd of folks searching for a job.
I need to be a good teacher for other reasons, like the big one: I’m good in a classroom. It comes easier to me than parenting, being divorced, being a daughter/sister, doing math, re-learning French, or planning a weekly menu of dinners for me and the boys. I’m almost fully alive in a classroom. I feel heard and seen (except for the occasional Monday morning class where some try to disappear inside their chairs or desks). I know how to grab the students’ attention and hold it for a little while, maybe even 20 minutes straight, by being shockingly, unabashedly honest and sincere with the crazy things coming from my mouth. I know how to teach writing, how to leak out my passion for it, how to tell a class just enough about the things to notice in this world and in themselves that their heads will expand, but not necessarily explode. I think. I hope.
Now, I’m straddling the military-civilian fence. I’m teaching in two very different environments: a classroom of students working towards personal goals of education and serving their country, and the other group, largely filled with students who have goals to do who-knows-what because they don’t have to tell me. One group consists of assured (or most nearly assured) attentiveness, and the other…not so much. No guarantees, lady.
I fearfully gave that latter group the opportunity to assess me today. During our class, I asked them to anonymously identify things they wanted to stop, start, and continue for the rest of the quarter in our creative non-fiction class. I don’t know if they suspected my fear. I tried to represent a level of insouciance by making a joke about crying quietly at home, with my children watching, and a bottle of wine as I read their comments. I totally think I pulled it off. But when I got to the parking lot, climbed in my car and opened the box containing their critique-filled index cards, my hands trembled a little bit. What if I wasn’t any good at this? What if I wasn’t successful with those students who aren’t impressed with a military uniform? What if this isn’t what I’m going to be when I grow up?
And why do I need it so much? That was one question that should have been on the survey waiting for me in my email: why do you need this, Nancy?
My dog died today. Her name was Bluebell—Blue. When I went to bed she was fine, I thought, peacefully gnawing on her bone in the backyard. I was wrong. She was stuck in the backyard; stuck by paralyzed back legs, courtesy of an invisible erosion of her spine–invisible until today’s X-ray. Last night, she was stuck, alone, and scared, and I was asleep in the house. I should have sensed her trauma. She sleeps at the side of my bed, faithfully every night. But not last night. Last night, I thought she was outside chewing the bone I gave her, so I didn’t call her. I didn’t notice the missing slap-slap-slap of the doggy door indicating she was inside with me, walking around–walking. I didn’t look for her until this morning.
This morning, there was no Blue to watch out for as I stepped out of bed. She wasn’t on her doggie bed in the living room, either. “Blue!” I called her curtly, annoyed that she wasn’t wagging her tail “good morning.” Instead, she was laying down in a corner of the backyard, paralyzed. When I came to the door to call her, her head popped up and her tail jumped up and back down again, a groundhog covered in feces. But she didn’t get up. She couldn’t. She pushed herself up with her front legs, but could do nothing more. My legs nearly mimicked hers. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to go to her, to magnify the reality of what today would be, but I wouldn’t stop myself. Her whimpering and wagging tail whirl-pooled me towards the new nucleus of my world: Bluebell and her legs.
The new center, Bluebell’s corner of the yard, seemed countries away from the house. I just wanted to bring her inside, place her on her doggie bed, or at the side of my bed, and restart this day. I wasn’t ready.
I found Blue at a softball field in Las Vegas, Nevada, twelve years ago. A woman was trying to get rid of the “runt,” and Blue was going to the pound if she couldn’t find someone to take her that day. I paid the woman $100, and she gave me the sweetest, little black face and a worm-infested belly in return. My step-son named her after the popular “Blue’s Clues” character, and over a decade-long love story began.
The first few days were uneventful. The worms were tamping down her enthusiasm. Once they were cleared up, she was crazy. She dug a hole in the carpet of our brand new home. She chewed the stucco off the back of our brand new home. She would literally run circles (tracing patterns) in the gravel of the backyard, carving rivets into the ground of our brand new home. She was a pain in the ass. And I loved her so very much.
When I had my second child, we also had two black labs in a very tiny townhouse in Maryland. After much conversation, we decided to find Blue (and my then-husband’s dog, Bean) a new family who we felt had more time and space for the girls. I cried after we drove away from Blue’s new home. By that time, Bluebell had been mine for six years. I underestimated the hold she had on my heart. And I completely disregarded the hold I had on hers. Within two weeks, she had run away from her new place, and the pound tracked me down through the chip embedded in her neck. We picked her up from the pound and returned her to her new family. Blue would not be deterred. Within five weeks, she had run away three times. She was looking for me. I couldn’t go through a fourth phone call. She won and we would simply keep her home, where she clearly belonged. That was the only time I mistakenly thought I didn’t have enough room for Blue.
When my ex moved out, Blue’s name was among the possessions he wanted to take with him when he left. The guest bedroom set, the piano, the X-box, the big screen television, Blue, the extra set of pots and pans, the lawn mower…I put up no resistance about anything on the list, except one thing that was not a possession, but a piece of my heart. And when I was in Afghanistan for a year, Blue was loved and cared for by my aunt, uncle and cousins in Indiana–she was spoiled with stuffed animals and food off the table. I worried she would run away from them, like she had so many years before, thinking I was trying to abandon her. But she didn’t. She must have known I was coming back. When I did, I was greeted by her tail wagging so hard that it would leave marks on my shins, knock down little toddlers, and break lamps foolishly placed on end tables. Her spirit was in her tail.
Her spirit was there this morning, as she lay stuck in the backyard, but the strength was gone. I had heard stories of mothers who exercised super-human strength, lifting cars off their children when they were in danger. My strength didn’t activate. I couldn’t lift Blue’s 60 lb body. I could barely hold my head up. Instead, I knelt next to her and cried. I wasn’t ready for today. And I needed help. I fetched a blanket and was able to lift her onto it in order to drag her across the backyard. She cried softly along the way.
My neighbors weren’t home to answer my knock, yet Blue was whimpering. She was scared and still, her tail un-moving. A guardian angel in the form of a man taking a walk with his daughter, came over the hill. When I tried to ask him for help, I couldn’t get the words out, choking on all the memories: obedience training at six months, running buddy in Maryland, grief counselor during the divorce, big sister to the boys, and her recent difficulty getting in and out of the car during trips to the dog park. All I could say was, “I need your help. My dog can’t walk.” Blue would have been so happy to have more visitors. But she didn’t even lift her head when we lifted her into the car. Her tail was quiet.
I wasn’t ready for Bluebell to die today. I was getting myself ready, for two years from now. Not now. The vet reminded me that this was the best way to go: fine one day and down the next. No suffering, no gradual decline of quality of life. Fine one day and down the next. When the boys and I entered the room to say our goodbyes, her head came up and her tail popped–just once, but it jumped up then down in a final wave. I cried over her as she took her last breaths, her paws already cold. Her spine had deteriorated due to some tumor, some thing I could not see growing inside her body, eating away her bones from the inside. The vet promised me that I took the best care of her. She promised me Blue had a good life. She promised me I did right by Blue. But all I could focus on was the stillness of her tail. Its silence fills her space in my heart, and my heart mirrors Blue’s legs: fine one day, down the next.
I have two boys, one in second grade and the youngest started kindergarten this year. When my oldest son started school, I was in Afghanistan, so I don’t know if he caused his kindergarten teacher as much grief as his little brother certainly does for poor Mrs. Vogel and her assistant, Ms. Harper. Within the first two weeks of school, I received at least three phone calls about my kindergartner and his propensity to chew on his shirt sleeves and paper towels. Apparently, he would gather clumps of cloth from his sleeve, put them in his mouth, and suck, saturating his shirts up to the elbow. I guess I should have asked more questions when he came home in a too large “Drug Free” t-shirt with “Property of DV Elementary” written on the back. I think the ladies could handle the shirt sleeves (even though they thought it strange), but it was too much for them to ignore when the kid had brown wads of soggy paper stuffed in his cheeks. So, my baby was tagged for “monitoring.” It was nothing official; his name wasn’t written on some secret list of wack-a-doo kindergartners. But, when it came time for the parent/teacher conferences, it became abundantly clear that my boy was on the elementary school equivalent to the “no fly list.” He was a marked man.
As a rule, I hate parent/teacher conferences. For me, it’s equivalent to being on trial for my poor mothering skills. “So, Ms Clemens, J. is doing great in reading, but he doesn’t seem to be grasping the math concepts we worked on last week. Did you work with him for the suggested 20 minutes a night on fractions?” No. No, I didn’t. After working all day, teaching other people’s “babies” English, then picking the boys up from after-school care at 5 p.m., I spent what felt like 15 minutes loading them in the car, another 15 minutes getting them out of the car and into the house, 10 minutes telling them “that is not where your shoes/backpack/jacket/underwear belong,” and 10 more minutes scolding the oldest for “forgetting” his math homework at school. Finally, I threw a pizza in the oven, and tried to resist the urge to run, screaming from my house while bouncing back and forth between kindergarten homework (WTH?!?!) at the kitchen table and making my second grader read for 20 minutes, post a response on his classroom blog, and practice his spelling words. After serving the once-frozen-now-so-hot-it-melts-the roof-of-your-mouth-pizza, I tossed the boys in the tub, force-fed them into their pajamas (Can I sleep naked? No!), read them their nightly bedtime story about Spiderman and Dr Octopus, and crawled upstairs to sit on my couch. If I’m lucky, I watched the end of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. So, no. We didn’t get to work on the fractions as much as I would have liked. In short, I do not enjoy parent/teacher conferences.
Unfortunately, my sons attend a school that schedules conferences every other week. Or at least it seems that way. As I arrived outside my kindergartner’s classroom, I poked my head in to find Mrs. Vogel still in conference with the lucky victim before me. I noted the parent was not biting her nails, sweating through her shirt, or crying shamefully into her hands. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad for me. Turns out, betting on a “maybe” isn’t a great way to prepare for a parent/teacher conference. I was so very wrong. While waiting for the other mom’s conference to end, I found a seat in the hallway in one of those too tiny chairs that makes me feel like a tottering hippo wearing a tutu. The experience only got worse from that point. While trying to make only half of my posterior comfortable, I saw the mom saying her goodbyes to Mrs. Vogel, still tear-free. And as I prepared to take my turn, I was unexpectedly joined by the school counselor and PE teacher. Three against one. My inner child wanted to shout, “NO FAIR!” We situated ourselves around a crescent shaped table, and I had to get reacquainted with another too small/hippo chair, while Mrs. Vogel sat beside me with a baggy full of, what I could only guess was, a rat’s chew toys. The first order of business: we had to discuss my kid’s chewing habit. He chewed everything: crayons, erasers, the metal that cradled the eraser, the pencil itself, and rock salt from the sidewalk. I had seen that one for myself. I tried to tell him it was poison, but he said the blue was “pretty,” and he wanted to taste it. How could I argue with that reasoning? While Mrs. Vogel was gravely concerned with my kid’s penchant for eating things, I tried to put her mind at ease by reassuring her that my boy knew if something was food and if it wasn’t. If he was chewing his pencils and choked on an eraser, than it was God’s way of telling me that he was probably not going to make it in the wild. She didn’t find me funny. Bad mother. Bad, bad mother. When the PE teacher took her turn telling me that my son was a little cheater during gym games by taking three beanbags instead of one during a relay race, I tried to make a joke about him trying to economize his energy. She didn’t find me funny either. By the time the school counselor slid the pamphlet for a behavioral therapist across the moon-shaped table to me, my right butt cheek was asleep from the too tiny chair, and I was sweating through my ABUs. I would have agreed to anything. And I did agree to have him observed by a professional for all his “wicked ways” in the gym, in the classroom, in the hallways, in whatever situation my little thug found himself in during his busy school day.
I dutifully contacted the behavioral therapist, and she observed my little guy over a couple of weeks. When my cell phone rang one evening, and she wanted to give me her professional opinion about my kindergartner, I took a deep, unsteady breath and said, “Okay. Lay it on me, doc.” Turns out, my kid did have a problem. He’s six. He’s a perfectly normal, six year old boy. And there ain’t no pamphlet for that.
Some time ago, I sat across from my professor and talked about different types of fear. He was very interested in how I, as a member of the military, processed fear in a deployed environment. Like most of the things my professors asked me, I hadn’t thought about my fear before. But I want to try to think about it now, and what I’ve concluded is: There isn’t much that scares me anymore.
I used to play around with fear. If there was a group going to the haunted houses for Halloween, I was there. Game of flashlight tag in a cemetery? Let’s do it. Scary movie marathon? Can’t wait. Death-defying roller coaster drop? Let’s go again. The charge of electrons that sparked in my brain when it came to being scared was something I sought after as much as I could, in very safe and predictable ways. In all those situations, the thing that I allowed to scare me was controlled. I was secure in the knowledge that the roller coaster would wind its way back to the start, and I would soon find myself safe on the loading platform again. I knew the scary movie wasn’t real, and the folks in the cemetery were not the same as those from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, waiting to break through their dirt-packed resting places and snatch at my ankles (That video was terrifying when I was a kid!). Those safe experiences brought a younger type of fear. It was flimsy and tin-foil thin, and it could be broken through anytime I wanted simply by reminding myself that it wasn’t real.
During my deployments, there were times when I was nervous about being harmed; times when I was grateful for the weight of my small bowie-knife bouncing against the outside of my leg as I walked through a darkened compound alone under watchful eyes; times when I was grateful for my M-4 grasped firmly in my semi-steady hands and the ammunition snuggled inside her; and times when I was happy for the heaviness of the helmet and Kevlar vest weighing me down as our aircraft flew low over enemies with high vantage points. There were several moments when I thought violence towards me was a real possibility and life, as I knew it, could be changed forever, but those fears were never allowed to fully materialize. They were simply breath-catching minutes that passed with little more than a racing heart, brief body shakes, and a mental sense of relief that something I couldn’t fully fathom hadn’t come to pass. That fear was the type of fear that I wouldn’t allow myself to linger in because what would be the point? Nothing happened. I wasn’t shot or raped by the Saudi guard at the checkpoint who was angry to see a woman alone, driving a car, and pointed his weapon at me while yelling for some explanation I could not provide. I didn’t have to fire my weapon at the young men greedily watching us walk across the bridge towards a village of Al Qaeda sympathizers. My limbs weren’t blown off by an IED (improvised explosive device) as our SUV bounced along the streets of Kabul days after an attack on an American convoy. No good could come of being traumatized by the possibility of terror. It was all around me when I was deployed, and I would not be able to function in other ways if I was overcome by possibilities rather than realities.
For me, the possible deployment atrocities where more shallow moments when compared to the fears-come-to-life I had already lived through. I wrapped those realized fears over my shoulders, tattered shreds hanging down my back, slipping over my chest and down my arms, enshrouding my body and everything in it like an invisible, bullet-riddled bed sheet. As far as I knew, I had already been through the worst sort of trauma, and it had numbed me to everything to follow behind it. When I was married, I had a fear that he would find someone else. And then he did. And after the divorce, there were the fears about him moving on, falling in love, re-marrying, and my children getting a stepmother whom they loved. All those things came to pass. These fears weren’t the same controlled fears of my youth, and they weren’t the distant fears of being killed in a foreign land. They were the fears of actuality. They really happened to me, emptying me of all the things that had filled me since I was a little girl. During those immediate months after the divorce, I was often like a wild animal, unable to control my thoughts or emotions. I would writhe in pain, sometimes physically rolling around the floor of my bedroom after my children were asleep, grabbing at my chest, begging for release, begging for my breathing to stop and for my heart to quit its insufferable beating. My fear was embodied within me. I could touch it, and stare it down in the mirror. I wrestled with it, and it kicked my ass. But with each new terror that came true, the struggle began to subside. I stopped fighting the fear and began to recognize it as a foreshadowing of strength to come. The fears happened, and I had to experience them fully, undiluted and unchecked by any protection. And the happenings made me braver and more certain that I was being held by something so much stronger than me because the fear didn’t kill me.
I didn’t die of a broken heart, just as I didn’t die from an IED. I didn’t die at the hands of my enemies, either home or abroad. Instead, the sun came up every morning and switched places with the moon every night. The trash kept getting picked up from the curb, and the mail kept getting delivered. My kids kept calling me mom, and the dog continued to need food and water. So, when one of my friends off-handedly remarked that I didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, I guess he was right. I may have a moment of panic, but I soon come around to the certainty that things will be better than fine. I am not afraid of things (most things) because I live in the reality that something much bigger, much greater, much more powerful than me and my capabilities keeps things going. I can take a deep, sometimes ragged, breath and step into the street in Kabul or sit down to a cup of coffee with my sons’ stepmom, because I have met the type of fear that I thought would destroy me and lived to tell the tale. Things kept going. Things keep going. I am one of the lucky ones.