I was driving down the highway in a rented mini-van, my aunt Debbie in the passenger seat and my two young sons situated in the back. The bricks of my 10-year marriage were crumbling underneath me more and more with each passing day, and I was trying to maintain some façade of being fine. Get out of bed. Brush my teeth. Put on my military uniform. Get the boys dressed. Smile at them. Hug them. Feed them. Take them to daycare. Go to work. Speak to people. Speak. Speak to them. I was a cat hanging from a tree by the tips of my claws, terrified of a strong wind. On this day, we were traveling to Arkansas to visit some of my family who I hadn’t seen in years. It was the day before Thanksgiving. We had been on the road for about an hour when my cell phone rang. It was a work number, the deputy commander for my squadron. “Hello, sir, is something wrong?” Even in the military, we don’t typically get calls while we are on leave from duty around the holidays unless it’s less than great news. This call was no exception. “Hello, Capt,” his voice was low-toned and matter-of-fact, “you’ve been selected for a 365 to Afghanistan, and the report date is 5 Dec.” He was rushing to get all the unfortunate information out in one breath. He didn’t want to give my brain or emotions any hope that good news was just around the next phrase. “Sir, I’m on my way to Arkansas now, do I need to turn around?” I was proud of myself. My military bearing was intact. The dam in my throat held strong. No tears. No hysteria. No guttural screams. Not now. My aunt began listening with curiosity and concern. “No, no,” he continues, “Don’t do that. Nothing will get accomplished over Thanksgiving anyway. The report date will have to be extended. We’re asking for a new date of 5 January. Go to Arkansas and enjoy your leave.”
Enjoy my leave. January 5 was only 34 days away. I had 34 days, minus the Thanksgiving holiday, minus the rush and bustle of Christmas, which always made the time go faster, minus the survival needed to get through New Year’s with Dick Clark struggling to continue the countdown and me hoping that 2011 couldn’t possibly be worse than 2010. I had 34 days to say goodbye to my children for a year. To say goodbye to so many things. And I had another four hours in this mini-van to think about it. I hung up the phone and the dam broke.