I was looking back at the pictures from his homecoming, expecting to feel sad thinking about that happy day as we sit in these first gloomy days of his going, but I didn’t. Instead I felt a deep sense of awe.
You see, it’s been quite a year. A year I never expected full of things I wouldn’t have guessed.
When I snapped the photos of our welcome home banners, we were just a few weeks away from packing up a third of our belongings and heading south to California. My husband was supposed to go away to a school immediately after his return from deployment, but we weren’t willing to be apart for an additional 6 months on the heels of a deployment, so we packed up, found a small apartment, and went with him. It was an off the grid, not exactly sanctioned by the Navy, move.
A year ago I was full of joy at his return but also anxiety and trepidation about the move. It took a hefty bite out of our finances. It was an interruption to our regularly scheduled life which I struggled not to resent. I was pretty freaked out about it in general. And it turned out there was good reason for that.
Our time in California was just about how I expected it to be. It was wonderful and it was terrible and that dichotomy started with the drive down. As we made our way, we had a wonderful time exploring little side trip places… a cheese factory, a Sea Lion Cave, and some gorgeous coastal places. Also all of my girls.. and me... got head lice… Picking out nits in the dark lighting of various hotel rooms was not part of the ‘adventure’ I’d signed up for.
Once we got there, it was wonderful to be together. But the stress our family had been under began to show up in ways we didn’t expect. Re-integration was tougher than it had ever been. My husband and I struggled. I felt hopeless about how he was feeling. How I was feeling. How we felt collectively.
Then my daughter began exhibiting behaviours that we’d never seen before. Less than a month after we got there, I was looking for doctors, taking her to a local children’s hospital for an MRI to rule out a brain tumor, and then learning all I could about a mental health condition I could barely pronounce. It wasn’t a brain tumor, but it was--is a life-long chronic condition that she will always battle.
We were told that while the cause of my daughter’s illness was genetic and not anything we caused, that one of the contributing factors was stress and anxiety. “Was she under any stress?” the doctors asked? Her Dad had just returned home from six months at sea we’d just picked up her whole world and moved her into a tiny apartment in a town where she had no friends…. My husband and I felt a crushing amount of guilt. It was one thing for this life that we had chosen to take it’s toll on our physical and mental health, but to see it affecting our baby in such a devastating way was crushing. Had we made the wrong decision to make the move? Had we made the wrong decision to even be a military family? What price were our kids paying for our choices?
The questions had no easy answers. They still don’t.
That was the terrible.
The wonderful happened on the weekends when we would strike out and explore. The Redwood Forest, Yosemite, Pinnacles National Park… We hiked in sun and rain and snow. And we explored what was around us in the little Navy Town we found ourselves in. The town square was beautiful with a permanent standing Merry-go-round that kids could ride for free on the weekend. We experienced In-and-Out Burgers for the first time. We drank more Cherry Lime-Ades at Sonic than a person should in a lifetime.
Before we knew it the time was up and we headed back home, or as my kids put it, back “home, home, home”.
Being back home gave us a chance to seek out a specialist for our daughter’s illness. We began driving 2 and a half hours both directions weekly to bring her to the one doctor in the region who had experience treating her condition. She made tremendous progress
My husband checked into his new squadron and we found out that Work-ups would start immediately and fold into a deployment in the fall. His time away started back up and some of the dark feelings crept back in. We readjusted to his coming and going and kept busy.
I cut back in my work responsibilities which felt like both wisdom in giving myself and my family more margin, and also a free fall as I stepped away from work I found to be incredibly important.
During my husband’s second work up, I packed the kids, the dog, and the car up and drove 2000 miles. I’d never driven that far by myself with my kids. I found it exhilarating. We explored the badlands and the corn palace. We saw the glorious hills of Montana and Wyoming, and made our way through the cornfields of Iowa and Illinois. We drove back to the place I’d grown up. I reveled in lightning bugs,thunderstorms, and people I loved. I walked a journey to re-discover places and people who helped make me who I am. I ended the trip feeling more grounded and whole than I had in a long, long time.
And then we came back and we prepared for another deployment. We both found it harder to sleep, the kids got weepy when they thought about Daddy being gone again, the sea bag came out again, but also…
He took leave and we took another trip. This time close to home. More hiking, time with trees, the sea, and one another.
Then back to working long hours. The circles deepened under his eyes and the pit of dread returned to my stomach because he was leaving…. Again.
We said good-bye. Again.
And that’s where we are now…. He’s gone, and really, we’re ok.
I looked at the picture of his return, just a year ago, and instead of seeing a sad reminder of a homecoming in the shadow of his departure, what I saw was all the other pictures of the year that had passed between that hello and this good-bye. Pictures of 15 different states(!), beaches, mountains, cornfields…. Pictures of hiking, exploring, laughing and being silly. And pictures of challenges, emotions, and uncertainties.
This life is HARD. It is crazy HARD. Even the wonderful things have their flipside of terror and heartache. That hard has taken it’s toll on all of us--him, me, our kids.
But despite all that hard there is happiness. There is adventure. There is relationship. There is the overcoming of challenges.
We find again and again that we are really ok.
I have no idea what photo I’ll be looking at a year from now. I can’t imagine what we’ll see and do this year, or how we’ll grow. I’m not sure what will rear it’s head during this deployment. I don’t know what will scare us or what dread will keep us from sleeping at night. I can’t predict how broken we may be when another year has passed, or what challenges we may be facing.
After some time looking back on these crazy hard years… these stretches between hello and goodbye and hello again… what I’m grateful to know is this: Along with any hard we may face will come snapshots of beautiful things. There will be albums and albums filled with glimpses of the glorious world around us, the smiles on my kids faces during our adventures together, and the look of pride and accomplishment we will share when we get through another storm together.