Posts Tagged With: #family

“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.


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: , ,

“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.


“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: , ,

“Back to Reality” #5

Like Santa’s elves, we hauled the goods from Black Friday shopping back to my aunt and uncle’s house in Rose Bud. The rest of the day was filled with a few unfulfilling hours of exhausted sleep, then plates of leftover turkey, potatoes and corn, and, finally, calls to my family in Indiana. I hadn’t wanted to ruin Thanksgiving for them, or me, by telling anyone about my upcoming yearlong deployment. Whenever a substantial struggle presented itself in my life (divorce, sickness, a year in a war zone away from my sons), it was important that, before I told anyone the news, I was able to handle the concerned reactions. Sometimes, the love of others was too heavy to carry when I was barely able to lift my own chin. All my energy went to simply functioning. Until my marriage was breaking, I never realized the strength needed just to share my life with others. I barely survived telling family and friends when my husband moved out, and now I had to tell them about my deployment, while calming their fears that I wasn’t going to have a nervous breakdown. Unsure if I was rebuilt enough to handle this next struggle, I started dialing the numbers, and the phone calls to family and friends were, as expected, exhausting.

“I’ve been selected for a 365 to Afghanistan. I leave for pre-deployment training on the third of January.” It didn’t matter very much who received the news; the responses were interchangeable. 

“Oh, Nancy, honey! Where are the boys going to go? Won’t you miss their birthdays and holidays? How are you going to get ready to leave in just 30 days? Gone for a whole year! Why would you need to go for an entire year? Will you be in danger? You won’t recognize the boys when you get back.”

I knew they didn’t mean to be cruel. The concern simply voiced every fear and doubt that resided in my head. But I knew the fears and doubts I held inside were also held by the people who loved me. They wanted me to give calming, reasonable, panic-dampening answers to reassure them that I was okay with the deployment. If I was okay, they could be okay, too. I could bear the weight of nearly all their concerns except one: “What does your husband say?” 

The phone call to my stranger-like husband wouldn’t come until after we returned to Illinois. I needed time. I needed to pretend, for just awhile longer, that I could laugh again, and feel content again, and be normal again, because it had been so long that I almost forgot that I could. I needed the extra days to wrap my mind around the implications of this deployment. I had never deployed as a mother before. I had never deployed for a year before, and I was being sent to the same location where my husband became a stranger in the first place. My hand shook as I dialed the number to his cell phone.

Categories: Military, 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: , ,

“Notification” #1

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.

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

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