Motherhood

“Mom’s Lost It” #38

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.

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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.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Personal Story

“The Conference” #33

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.

Categories: Motherhood, Personal Story

#31

When I arrived in San Antonio for basic training nearly 16 years ago, I didn’t have a name.  Technically, I had one, but nobody there cared what it was.  I was called “female,” if I was called anything at all.  It was very strange how quickly I became used to my new name:  female.  It came with a certain ambiguous identity.  I had a place, but it was along with all the other female basic recruits.  And I didn’t have to settle into that name:  female.  I didn’t have to put it on, button it up, wear it, truly inhabit it, believe in it, or define it.  It already came with a body, and I just had to stay in its shadow.  Then, when I graduated basic training, I was recognized in a new way, the name I was born with:  Thurman.

The military moves in graduations.  We never jump in, head-first, full-bodied into the next phase.  We are gingerly allowed to dip a toe, then up to the knee, then wade to the neck into the too shallow tub of individualism.  In keeping with the tradition of less individuality is more, my first name was not used by my newly created friends, but I was allowed my surname.  Being called by my last name was strange, but not uncharted territory.  I played sports for many years, and the military wasn’t so different from the athletic world in the regard of last names.  But, my teammates called me by my nickname more often than not:  Red.  No one calls me Red anymore.  Maybe I’ve outgrown it; maybe it’s too strange a name to call a nearly 40-year-old woman.  So, what happened to Red?  In fact, what happens to any names I’ve carried, but no longer wear?  I think there is a Lost and Found.

Before I married so many years ago, my fiancé and I discussed what name I would use–it was a discussion initiated by me.   For him, taking on his last name was a foregone conclusion.  A done deal.  No discussion necessary.  I remember trying to talk to him about how nervous it made me to no longer be Thurman after 24 years of being Thurman.  Who was this Clemens person?  What made her tick?  How did she navigate the world?  He saw my nerves as rejection.  His name was a source of pride for him, and he wanted his wife to wear his name.  In love, trusting that I was loved in return, the discussion ended.  I acquiesced.  Passive.  I would no longer wear the name I had worn since birth.  I would just put on a new one.  Clemens was born.

With slightly less ease than he exerted when he gave me his name, the gift that he was convinced made me more his than not his, he jumped away from me, but left his name behind.  And when we divorced, my children, young, strapping Clemens’ boys, were upset at the thought of me shedding the name they had worn since birth.  “If you’re not a Clemens, you won’t be our mom anymore!”  They are worried.  For them, my existence is wrapped up in the name.  And, again, I acquiesce, and wear it, a strip on my military uniform, a flourish on my driver’s license.

Just go back, someone suggested.  Be Thurman again.  If only.  But I’m not Thurman anymore; I abandoned her.  She was less changed, less formed by names she no longer carries.  Will I still fit her?  I worry she will not have me back.  Thurman died at 24.  Can I resurrect her?  I’m not Red anymore, either.  I didn’t leave Red, but she left me when I turned–what–22 or maybe before?  Regardless, I’m too old for cute nicknames, now.  And I’m beginning to grow out of my Clemens’ skin.  Someone else is filling the clothes of Mrs. Clemens now.

What name will I wear moving forward?  When I achieve something, who will get the achievement?  Will I still be the same mother to my Clemens’ boys?  I don’t know.

Categories: Military, Military, Personal Story, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: ,

“The Miracles of Music Recitals” #27

My blog’s title promises stories of things other than the military, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to give a little something different this week.  And because my blog is my therapy, I’m going to figuratively lie down on the shrink’s couch.  This week, I will write about holiday music recitals and the miracles they bring.  My oldest son is in second grade, and last year was the first time I had to attend a music recital.  I went to the 3:00 p.m. performance (amazingly, there was more than 1 performance) to avoid running into my ex-husband and his, at the time, fiancé during the evening performance.  While the singing skills weren’t going to win any choir awards (mumble, mumble, “little turkey,” mumble, mumble, “grandma’s house”), it was a bittersweet moment to watch my boy in his very first school “thing.”  He was still young enough to be excited when he found me in the crowd, waved enthusiastically and, uncaring who was watching, made strange faces at me from his perch on the risers.  But watching that performance was also another moment where, if someone had asked me three years earlier, I wouldn’t have thought I would be sitting alone, watching my children grow up without sharing the moments with my husband.

This year, there were a few changes to the re-visited experience.  My son was now in the second grade and the choir teacher spruced up the song list to include “10 Little Turkeys,” one of my all time faves.  The music teacher also incorporated lyric cue cards to avoid the embarrassment of 2012 when the kids forgot the words, and we had to listen to the off-key hummmmm-hummmmmm-hummmmming of 45 seven-year-olds.  This year, there was also a country theme, so my boy needed to wear his best country and western attire consisting of blue jeans, work boots and a flannel shirt.  The last major change between this year and last year was that I also had to attend the performance at the same time as my ex-husband and his now wife.

I wasn’t sure I was going to make the performance at all because this year I was coming from class at a local university about an hour away (it’s another story so I’ll save it for a future blog post).  As I was slowly maneuvering back through the Denver traffic at rush hour, I seriously considered finding a spot at a neighborhood bar and ordering too many hot wings (aka:  beer).  But I didn’t.  I made it to the school with a full 5-minutes to spare.  When I walked into the gymnasium-turned-auditorium, I expected to find a safe, quiet space at the back of the room and watch my boy in his second ever school “thing.”  But my natural instincts to sit down beat out my self-preservative need to keep my distance—I looked around for an empty seat and saw an entire row of them—right beside my ex and his bride.

Normally, I stress for a bit when I know I’m going to have to see him, planning out how to react, how to make the interaction as short and succinct as possible, planning how to maintain my sanity and not karate chop him somewhere sensitive.  For whatever reason, maybe it was divine guidance because I listened to the book of Matthew all the way to Denver and all the way back, I didn’t think about the delicate waltz of running into him at the choir performance.  That’s the only reason I can come up with for why I did what I did when I saw him and his wife sitting in that nearly empty row at the back of the gymnas-uditorium.

As soon as I saw the back of her head, I went right over to her without hesitation.  It was as if someone yelled, “Action!” and I started performing the part I had been rehearsing for the past year.  I put my hand on her shoulder (not around her neck, as many who know me may have expected) and greeted her warmly…and, dare I say, sincerely?  Then, because Jesus is a performer of miracles, I sat down next to my ex and his wife as if they were saving the empty seat just for me, which they weren’t.  My ex looked back and forth between the two of us and shifted in his seat.  I flashed a smile and asked them about their Christmas plans.  I don’t know who I was in that moment.

When the choir walked in, each finding his and her place on the carpeted steps that passed as risers, I craned my neck to see my boy.  There he was, in his plaid shirt provided by his stepmom and his jeans and work boots provided by me, looking just as country as any choir director could want or need.  Just like last year, he enthusiastically looked around for his expected audience and found his father and stepmother.  He grinned and waved, and then his eyes walked down the row of chairs and saw me.

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Happy to see us.

I was glad I didn’t overthink what I would or wouldn’t do when I saw my ex at the recital.  I was glad I sat down next to him and his wife.  In that moment, my son’s grin went into a full-on monkey smile that took up more than half of his face.  We all reacted to his joy, at once giggling and waving back frantically.  Having us all in one place together probably made our child feel centered.

During the performance, sad thoughts ran through my mind as I watched the two of them, heads together, making comments as if they were his parents and I was the outsider, but I pushed the thoughts away, choosing to stay in the moment of my son feeling safe with all the people he loved and who loved him in close proximity to each other.

Happy boy.

Happy boy.

After the 30-minute singing extravaganza was finished, my son’s stepmother and I made our way to the front of the other parents taking pictures of their little darlings.  We snapped away, and I said my goodbyes as I made my way outside to my car.  Once safely ensconced in the darkness and privacy of my front seat, whatever magic that allowed me to dance through the evening vanished, and I burst into unrestricted tears.  The tidal wave of sadness was unexpected and absolutely complete.  I don’t know why this time in my life is taking so long to pass, or if it will ever pass, but I hold tight to the joy of seeing my son’s face as he saw me sitting with the other people who make him feel loved.

Categories: Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“I felt like running–Forrest Gump” #13

Working for the Chief of Staff was overwhelming, in theory. He was a pretty important man in charge of all the United States forces in Afghanistan, about 60,000 of us at the time. He worked directly for the commander of the war in Afghanistan. In simplest terms, he was a big deal. I, on the far away other hand, made sure his mini-fridge was stocked with Diet Pepsi. He drank a lot of Diet Pepsi, so I was very busy in those first few days. The Chief of Staff was an Army Colonel and former big time West Point football player. He brought his highlight reels with him to Afghanistan and wasn’t shy about sharing them with anyone who showed an inclination to watch, which seemed to be most of the junior Army officers. He also stayed up too late, averaging about three to four hours of sleep each night. He had an uncanny knack for appearing to be asleep in meetings only to join right into an ongoing conversation around the boardroom table. The job suited me because I could quietly fall apart at my desk, and the Chief really didn’t notice.

I fell apart a lot in those early months. Being away from ISAF was better, but it didn’t cure all that ailed me. I talked to my children over the Skype software that connected us through the thousands of empty miles. Every other morning, I awoke at 0500, logged on to the Afghan’s temperamental Internet connection and talked to them at a convenient time for my stranger-husband. It was rejuvenating to talk to my boys, but it broke my heart to be ignored by the man I loved. We never spoke. In fact, I never saw his face on the computer screen, not once. I felt like I had no one who cared about me back in the States, which was ridiculous because I had plenty of family members who were anxious about my safety. All I could see was that my husband wasn’t one of those people. I was beginning to disconnect from reality again, but this time I didn’t have anyone to help ground me. Back home, my friend Kris and I would meet at least once a week for early morning therapy sessions of miles of running and talking. When we weren’t running together, I was running alone. Long, lung-burning runs that never took me away from my reality, but did let me feel pain in something other than my heart for a little bit. I was able to focus only on the strength needed to pick up my legs and put them down for miles and miles. I didn’t have to focus on my husband leaving me. Now in Afghanistan, the only thing I could think to do was run, but I was trapped inside concrete walls and bulletproof vests, behind gates and guards with weapons at the ready. I couldn’t simply take off outside of the compound and go for long, healing runs with Kris. Thankfully, she was far away from Kabul and everything it contained. I was not, and I still needed to figure out some way to make it through the remaining eleven months of my deployment. I started running around the compound.

It took me nine laps around to run six miles. I worked for the Chief from 0700 each morning until nearly 0100 the next day, and then I would run six miles every night, feeling like Forrest Gump. At first, I was very scared–but not terrified. Looking back, I would have welcomed death in those early days, if it had found me. I thought it would be a welcomed relief that I wasn’t getting anywhere else. And dying while running around the road of the compound would be more honorable than to choke on a grape in my kitchen, which was what I thought about now that I lived alone in the States. But I was still scared each time I set off on a run.

The blackness around the “track” was only broken up by the faint illumination of generator-powered lighting scattered around the perimeter of the compound. The only thing separating me from the outside was a concrete wall about twelve to fifteen feet high. It looked like my five-year old could have thrown something over the wall, so it was not much protection against a bomb being tossed over. On those first few runs, my brain was hyper-focused on every sound I heard, every pebble that fell in the distance. Each parked truck I ran past was a possible container for explosives just waiting for a target. But there wasn’t anything separating me from those on the inside of the wall. Most of the guards around the perimeter were Afghans, and their eyes were trained on me from the watchtowers as I ran in my military physical training shorts and t-shirt. I could feel them staring, and oftentimes, see their eyes through the wooden planks of the towers. I tried the friendly, non-threatening head nod if my eyes caught theirs, but it was never returned. Although they were our “allies,” I was still a woman, uncovered and American. With the way they stared, I was more concerned about being raped than being killed by someone or something from the outside. They weren’t lustful stares, more direct and unfriendly. I was not wanted there. I was grateful for the bump bump of the knife in my pocket, reassuring me with each step I ran.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: ,

“Wyoming: Pre-deployment Training” #7

My last few days before leaving went by much as I expected.  I didn’t talk to my husband again before I left, not even when he came to pick up the boys from our house the night before my plane left, and I guess I didn’t really expect to—even now, I don’t understand his ability to erase me, erase us, and move on so totally, but he did.  My therapist said that my husband’s seeming lack of attachment was not “normal.”  I liked her diagnosis better than my own–that I was unlovable–so, I readily accepted it.

When the time came, saying goodbye to my sons was gut wrenching.  I learned the human body can produce endless amounts of tears.  During the days and nights leading up to my departure, there was more crying, mostly after the boys went to bed and my mind raced with all the things I would miss while I was away for so long.  I gave the boys so many hugs and kisses that they were entirely ready for me to leave.  When the doorbell rang and their dad was there to pick them up, I reminded them that they would be staying with daddy for a little bit, but I would be back soon.  To young children, a year and a week are the same.  No sense in trying to explain it by reiterating how long it was.  I didn’t need that either.  Earlier in the evening, when I was packing the last of my supplies in my duffle bag and suitcases, my oldest son grabbed onto my neck and cried, his little body shaking and his warm tears running over my skin where he had tucked his sweet face.  I didn’t break in that moment.  I had compartmentalized my motherhood too much by the time I had to leave.  My emotions were anesthetized, and I just held him tightly, shushing him and rocking back and forth until he, at last, pulled away.  As they grabbed their coats and favorite toys to take to their dad’s, my oldest hugged me again, adding a wet, unpracticed kiss to my cheek.  Then, he walked through the threshold, grabbing onto his dad’s hand and disappearing into the darkness of the front yard.

It is hard to explain to people who have never experienced deployments before that this, being called away, was my mission.  I was peaceful about serving my nation in Afghanistan because, if I were to die there, I would die doing something honorable and respectable.  My sons would have a war hero for a mother, and I could leave them a legacy.  At least those are the things I tried to convince myself were important as I finally boarded the plane.

Pre-deployment training took place in Northern Wyoming.  Wyoming in January is the stuff that old westerns are written about:  a wind chill in the negative double digits, tumbleweeds impersonating grass, and cold–bitter, skin-cutting cold–slicing through layers and layers of clothing.   It was the sort of cold that made the tiny hairs inside your nose snap to violent attention.   The Army loved it, and they loved training the Air Force in it—sometimes too much.  We low-crawled through the bramble, practiced walking in field formation around the frozen ground outside, and conducted land navigation skills through freezing ponds that cracked the skin from your bones.  Once, I sank into snow up to my waist and received an abrupt, hefty shove from one of my teammates so I could make it up the damn hill.  Instead, I made it about two feet forward, face first in the snow.  I loved every minute of it, largely due to the people I met.  At this point in my travels, I had made up my mind that positivity was the key to survival, regardless of how much I wanted to be back home with my boys.  Afghanistan was my assignment for the next year; time to put on my big girl panties—a confusing term used to mean grow up and stop whining—and get the job done.  But even more important than any positive intention was my openness to others around me, an unexpected gift from my heart being broken.  I know that some people respond to heartache with bitterness and self-containment, but it wasn’t in the plan for me to die slowly that way. My impending divorce left gaping holes all over everything, and, if I shut people out and let ugliness invade every cell in my body, reek out of my pores and pollute everyone around me, I would never see those holes filled again.  For whatever reason, I didn’t entertain that sort of darkness.  As my reward, I met P-Dawg and the A Team.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Phone Calls” #6

I hated talking to him over the telephone, or in person, for that matter. His voice sounded the same; it was the same voice that used to tell me he loved me and once proposed marriage to me. It was the same voice that used to call me his girl and tell me I was beautiful. It was the same voice that reassured me, several months earlier, that there was no one else but me. Over the telephone, he still sounded like the man I knew so well and loved so very much, but the things he said now couldn’t be reconciled with the man I had known for over a decade. His ability to sound the same while being completely different was a mental trick, and it made me crazy.

He told me he didn’t love me over the telephone.

I was in a hotel room in Michigan, preparing to present an academic paper about nothing to a room full of over-educated students when he told me. It was a casual topic to him; he just stopped loving me, that’s it. Yes, it was a decade of marriage. Yes, we had two sons. Yes, I thought we were happy. But he just didn’t love me anymore. No other reason. After failing to convince him he was wrong, that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress after his deployment, he hung up. In that moment, I had two choices: stop breathing or pray. I hit my knees and didn’t get up for hours. My legs went numb from the stemming of blood flow. Strangely, my heart continued to beat; the blood traveled through the major veins, then to my lungs, emptying out to my hands and tingling in my feet. Without thinking, almost by an instinct buried deep inside after having been planted in my childhood, I grabbed at the hotel Bible on the desk in front of me and opened it to anywhere. The forty-first book of Isaiah appeared. Isaiah 41:10 was my life preserver. I was drowning in a pain I didn’t know was possible, and I grabbed onto the words I could barely read through the fog in both my eyes:

“Fear not for I am with you; be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you; yes, I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

I just kept reading those words, chanting them, over and over and over to the empty room. I don’t know how long I knelt there, on the floor in East Lansing, rocking back and forth. Sometimes I sobbed, a guttural sound I had never heard myself make before. I cried so hard that I don’t know how I didn’t just simply die from the hurt. But, I didn’t. I was a wounded animal writhing in pain, other times, I was speaking the verse and begging a God I had neglected for nearly all of my life. All that from a phone call.

Now, I had to talk to him over the phone again. Since he moved out several months earlier, we had communicated entirely through email and text messaging. For him, I was easier to manage through the distance of a text message or an email, none of those messy crying situations to ignore, or pretend to ignore. I almost understood his choice, because I could hardly handle the crying myself. But there would be no crying during this phone call. I was determined not to allow him any more tears. Not this evening, anyway. As I waited for him to answer the phone, I expected it to go to voicemail, and I could leave him a message. There was only a couple of weeks remaining before I got on a plane to my pre-deployment training, and he needed that time to prepare to be a full-time father for the next year. I had waited long enough, and leaving a message was more than fine with me. He answered on the fourth ring.

“Hello?”

“Hi, it’s Nancy.” I waited for his reaction. I knew this wasn’t a surprise to him. Caller identification guaranteed the lack of surprise. But I always hoped to hear a hint of excitement and joy when he talked to me, like he used to before the end started. There was none.

“Yeah, I know. How’re things going?” The casual, nonchalant stranger on the phone sounded like my beloved husband, but he was not. I took a deep breath and rushed through my news.

After a long pause, I think he may have been crying, he said, “be careful, Nance.” That was it. This time, I hung up first.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Black Friday” #4

I was starving. The mall harbored a Chinese fast food stand, and I was waiting in line with Emily and several other hungry, cranky, tired and broke shoppers to get some re-heated fried rice and rubbery orange chicken. It was 7 in the morning on Black Friday, the aptly named day after Thanksgiving when all the dedicated deal makers wait for hours in lines outside the Kohl’s stores and Targets, the Wal-marts and Best Buys to get 75 inch television sets for $150 and 6-slice toaster ovens for $10. My aunts, cousins, their friends and I had been out since 3 a.m., standing in lines waiting for stores to open, waiting to pay for things, now waiting to get something to eat. Lines, lines, lines. My buzz from the “special punch” in our Big Gulp cups had dissipated hours ago, the 5 Hour Energy shot Amber made me buy at the gas station in their town had me crashing hard, and my feet were tenderized and swollen. My public politeness had been stored away somewhere with my good judgment, which explained why I had let that saleslady straighten only half of my hair at a mall kiosk. 

After waiting in line, mostly patiently, for my moo goo gai pan, I took a step towards the cash register and was interrupted by two fellow deal hunters. These ladies, brunette ninjas, slipped in front of me with not so much as a sheepish smile in my direction. Until this moment, my first Black Friday experience had been filled with story-making memories like the conversation with the self-described “smart sister” and the “pretty sister,” twins with clangy Arkansas accents in front of Kohl’s who just couldn’t get boyfriends and their mom didn’t understand why, or the unexpected joy of finding an outside electrical outlet where we could plug in a warming blanket for Erica and me to huddle under while we waited for the Target store to open.  Not the least of these memories was the very public parking lot dance Emily did to the latest hip hop song blaring from our mini-van.  I genuinely laughed while she twerked in an empty parking space—a real, healthy belly laugh. The early morning hours had been filled with friendly encounters with southern strangers and good times.

Some of the Arkansans’ southern drawl must have seeped into my subconscious because I spoke to these women, these linecutters, these testers of my charm and pleasant disposition with a full-on southern sass. “I just want YOU to know that I know you cut in front of me. I DO see you cutting in front of me,” I twanged. 

“I’m sorry…what did you say?” One of them drawled.

I felt empowered as I twanged right back, “It’s important that you know, I see you standing in front of me in line when you weren’t there before.” 

“I jist waunted to git a draaank,” she began to reason why it was acceptable for a grown woman to cut in line like a kindergarten kid who didn’t know any better.

“Say what you need to say, lady, I just need you to know that I see what you’re doing, and it’s not okay,” my gaze was direct, but I was surprised at the steadiness of my voice. After almost a year of becoming smaller as my marriage broke, shrinking under the unloving words and gestures of someone I trusted, it felt good to vocalize to this stranger woman that I knew what she was doing. I knew why she was justifying her disregard for me and for my feelings, and her lack of consideration for how I might feel to be cheated in this way. It was a rebuilding moment, even if she did think I was crazy.  If I could find that woman again today, I would thank her by buying her a mall eggroll.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Thanksgiving” #3

My aunt and uncle’s house was filled beyond capacity with ten tame adults and what seemed like 117 wild children running around screaming, laughing, tattling, crying and snotting up the place. Like many family-filled homes, the heartbeat of the house was in the kitchen. My aunt doled out home-cooked food, hugs to everybody, and goodies to the grand-babies (everyone under 12 was a grand-baby, related or not). “I love you’s” were given as comfortably and casually as a glass of sweet tea and an arm thrown over your shoulders. I spent most of that first night half-present. Sometimes, I was catching up with my cousins, who, in my frozen picture of them, were still little girls, but, with the snap of time’s fingers, had somehow grown into women with husbands, children, mortgages, and college educations. I tried to just be with them, enjoy their quick wit and easy laughter. Too often, though, I was pulled back into the darkness of having only 34 days left in the States and the process of accepting the death of this future I had expected as a wife. Thankfully, my Arkansas family was impossible to ignore, and they made it impossible for me to stay in darkness.  Drinking seemed like the best way to move from walking zombie to some semblance of normal. My uncle had rum; my aunt had Coca Cola. Bring on Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving handled itself in the way that most Thanksgivings do:  juicy bird, buttery rolls, mashed potatoes with lumps in all the right places, sweet corn, green beans, a hangover from the night before, and pants with lots of elastic. If food could fill cracks in a heart, than mine was benefitting from some of that spackling with my aunt Linda’s cooking. I almost felt ordinary that day. Not too sad. Not too miserable. The memory of being once content, of being okay, was with me. My boys were enjoying the kid-time and the freedom of being able to squeal and run, laugh and jump. I guess our house in Illinois had turned into a sort of hospital waiting room after their dad moved out–everything hushed and grey.  Waiting for news. The boys appreciated the release of fun they were allowed to express in this house without feeling sad because mom was sad and crying, again. My oldest gave me a lot of hugs that weekend. I remember that so clearly. He must have been starved for the unspoken permission to simply touch me, to give me love, to wrap his arms around me and feel safe. Over the past year, I had walled myself in as a means to protect myself from spilling out in an uncontrollable, slimy mess of psychosis and mental breakdowns. But I had, regrettably, kept my sons outside those walls, too.   My sons began to get their mom back that holiday weekend.

The time spent in the company of unconditional love on Thanksgiving gave me drops of hope in an otherwise empty cup. And my cup spilled all over the place when I let my family talk me into braving the crazies, and joining their ranks, on Black Friday.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Filling in the Spaces” #2

“Do you need me to drive?” My aunt was concerned with my breakdown, and she probably wasn’t expecting to die on this holiday drive to Arkansas because I was sobbing and couldn’t see the road. My tears didn’t surprise me anymore. I had grown used to sobbing. I guess that’s what happens when your marriage is dying, tears become normal and peace becomes strange. “I’m okay,” I tried to reassure Debbie, and then I started talking through it. 

I needed to deal with the facts and place each one where it belonged.  I’ve been called to Afghanistan. I’m in the military. It’s part of my duty to serve wherever I’m called to go. I had deployed four times before. I wasn’t afraid of the danger. Dying in Afghanistan didn’t scare me; I wasn’t really alive in this season of my life anyway. But as soon as I stepped foot on the airplane to take me away from Illinois, I would mark the end of my marriage. I did not have the strength to fight for it from Afghanistan. I talked through all these facts, giving them shape and calming my nerves with the reality of each of them. 

And then my youngest son said something, or did something from the back of the rented mini-van, and he broke through the compartment in my mind where I had placed the boys. I broke again, a fresh wealth of tears where there should have been none remaining, and I thought of my children and everything I would miss while away. A sad movie highlight reel of moments streamed through my mind: my oldest starting kindergarten and mom wasn’t there; my youngest learning to potty train and mom wasn’t there; my sons’ birthday parties, at least one for each, and mom wasn’t there. I could not process the loss yet. Not yet. NOT yet. 

After four hours on the highways between Illinois and Arkansas, we arrived in Rose Bud, a small town of about 400 people situated north of Little Rock. Thanksgiving was the next day, and our family was excited to spend time together eating, drinking, and laughing. But for me, I didn’t think laughing was possible. I was still trying my best to compartmentalize the different disasters in my life as we pulled into my aunt and uncle’s driveway. Be normal, I reminded myself. I didn’t know yet that normal wasn’t needed, laughter was a must, drinking was inevitable and Black Friday shopping was mandatory.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

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