I wrote this a few days ago when B left for a conference. A lot of our friends and B’s former colleagues in the military are deploying again last month and this month so the subject been on our minds a lot lately. Our hearts go out to those of you who are still enduring these deployments.
There are some things that I don’t feel I can or should write about unless I’m feeling the proper set of emotions. Unfortunately, today I’m feeling the right set of emotions to recall what it felt like when B left the country. He’s on his way to an out-of-state conference for the next few days, and I’m in a pitiful state wondering why a 3-day trip has me so emotionally worked-up.
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The sadness and depression would usually begin a couple of weeks before each deployment, and distraction became a key defense. At first I would brush the feelings aside and focus more on my job and my routine. A week to several days before the deployment day we would both start staying home from work. This disruption in our routine was the double-edged sword that finally brought emotions to the surface, along with the thought “This is it. The months have flown by again, and in a few days we’ll be thousands of miles apart.”
The day before each deployment we’d vow to stay awake all night so we wouldn’t miss a minute of our time together. Usually this meant we’d trade off so that when I suffered from insomnia I’d stay up watching him sleep, and when he couldn’t sleep he’d watch me. Time seemed to fly by too quickly and I walked through the world in a daze.
B learned to pack his bags in secret, several days before. Then he’d load everything into the car when I wasn’t around to see it. He knew the reminders, things like his uniforms and gear, would cause me to burst out in tears. I was a roller coaster of emotions and it seemed no matter how hard I tried to stay strong I would find myself crying one minute and then I’d immediately wish he were gone already.
That’s the crazy thing. After I’d cried and felt overwhelming sadness I would usually become angry. I was mad at the military, mad at Iraq, mad at Southern California, and mad at the rest of the world for not stopping to feel our sadness with us. Worst of all, at a certain point I’d even become angry with B. It wasn’t his fault he had to leave and I knew he hated it as much as I did, but I still felt angry with him. He was patient with my mood swings and he hid his own emotions as much as he could. When I was short-tempered he silently hugged me until I melted.
The day of the deployment was torture. I would alternate between feeling like time was flying by and like it was crawling too slowly. When the car was finally loaded with his gear and it was time to drive to meet the buses a silence would fall over us. The anger would have disappeared by this point, leaving me in a state of raw sadness and depression. I’d stare at him, at the reality and the closeness of him, and try to memorize little things like the way my hand fit in his or the way he smelled. It seemed every other moment I was pushing aside the nagging thought that in a short while I wouldn’t be able to hold his hand or smell his scent again for more than half a year. The lump in my throat seemed to lodge there permanently.
Some of the images have faded, but the memory of the last few seconds of our final deployment is burned forever in my brain. The departure had been delayed by a day, but as it often goes in the military word hadn’t been communicated to the team. We’d shown up the day before, said our goodbyes, then found out that we needed to repeat the routine again the following day. Paired with the 103 degree fever and bad cause of pneumonia I’d developed, the change in plans left me feeling completely drained of all energy, physical and emotional. And after all the mental preparation we’d already gone through, by the time we had to say our second set of goodbyes we were both left feeling numb. When the buses appeared we stood there wrapped in each others arms, crying. He told me he’d miss me and that he’d see me soon. The tears he’d carefully hidden until this point lit up his green eyes the second before he kissed me one last time and turned away. Then he boarded a bus and was gone and the next never-ending countdown began again.
I couldn’t hope that by some fluke we’d be told he wasn’t needed overseas after all. I couldn’t scream and kick things. I couldn’t fall down in a heap in the parking lot and lose it. Instead, after waiting a few minutes, I grabbed my keys and marched back to the car. I drove home trying as hard as I could to come up with something, anything positive to dwell on. All I could come up with was that I was grateful for the midday departure and the fact that I had a few hours left until the sun went down and I had to crawl into our bed by myself. (B’s second deployment departure had happened late at night. The team left close to midnight, and when I returned home alone I couldn’t bear to crawl into our bed. Instead I turned on all the lights in the house and stayed awake until I could escape to my desk at work the next morning.)
My coworkers thought I was crazy for returning to work immediately each time B left, and I couldn’t seem to explain my need for distraction in terms they would understand. I looked forward to work and dreaded the end of each day and the end of each week, when I knew I’d be returning alone to the space we’d lived in together.
Immediately after B’s second deployment–my first one alone in California–started, my mother flew out to help me through a rough patch after a freak car accident. (Another story, another time.) I’d begged her not to visit, fearing that after she left I’d only feel like the house had emptied and I was all alone again. Nevertheless I was excited to see her, and I actually slept through the night after she arrived. I awoke the next morning to find her in the spare bedroom, standing over the pile of B’s laundry that I had shoved into a corner and tried to ignore since his departure. At first I was embarrassed that my mother was folding my husband’s underwear, but every time I’d tried to take care of it on my own I’d ended up in a heap on the floor, crying. When I apologized for not putting it away before she arrived, she just hugged me and told me it was okay, she understood. Somehow the simple act of storing B’s clothes had turned into another goodbye, and it was one I couldn’t yet muster the energy to finish.
I read a lot about the psychology of deployments to find out why the rational person I thought I’d once been was now such a basket case of anger, sadness, and depression. Before deployments I crumbled. Immediately after a deployment started I’d retreat to my cave and eat brownie batter in front of the television for several days while I refused phone calls. This was the mourning period. And in much the same way that my grandmother re-arranged and re-decorated her entire house after my grandfather died, I would usually find myself re-arranging and changing our home so that it was less our home and more my space.
For a while I refused to admit this comparison because it focused my thoughts on death. My husband was not out-of-town on vacation or staying with a friend the next state over. He was involved in a war which continues to cost the lives of husbands and wives, mothers, fathers, and children. I could feel sorry for myself all I wanted, but the second I started thinking about our mortality I risked losing my sanity altogether because the very real truth was that he might not come home. Instead I had to focus on the future. The immediate future. Because trying to think seven months ahead was exhausting and frustrating, but thinking a day, a week, and eventually a month ahead, was doable.
After the house-rearranging stage of each deployment I’d slowly pick myself up and get back to my routine, working too late each weekday, busting my tail at the gym, and spending weekends with friends and the dogs. On repeat. Days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into seasons, which finally turned into homecoming countdowns. And after many months of waiting B would come home to me again.
We did this three times.
So here we are. The military is a thing of the past and B’s third and final military deployment ended in October 2008. When he came home for the last time we both felt as if we’d been freed. A month ago we quietly celebrated the end of B’s contract with the military with a kiss and long, silent hug which ended in a happy-dance around our living room. So you’d think I’d have all those nasty deployment feelings behind me already! I promise I did until this morning when I woke up to find B had already cooked a nice breakfast for me on his last day at home.
So while I tried to stop my tears and repeated telling him how silly I felt for crying, B just hugged me and smiled as he kissed my hair and face. With a gentle smile he told me the same thing he always said when we were saying our deployment goodbyes.
“You can cry as much as you need to. There’s nothing silly about how much we love one another.”