Thursday, September 20, 2007

Return to the Home Front (Babble)

During the fifteen months my husband was deployed to Iraq, I had to function as a single parent. It was an exhausting, stressful time – so exhausting, in fact, that my sleep-researcher brother totaled up the number of hours of sleep I was averaging during Ian’s deployment and declared I should be dead. But as hard as it was having Ian away (see the Babble essay I wrote back in the spring for details), the idea of having him back at the end of the summer also caused me to worry about what readjustment would be like for all of us.

There’s a stock image of the family reunited. As the wife awaiting her husband’s return from war, I was supposed to be giddy, all happy preparations and excitement. In truth, I was extremely irritable the week before Ian’s plane finally landed in Milwaukee. Anticipation drawn out over such a long period of time can make you feel sick. The sheer exhaustion was catching up with me and I worried I would collapse in the home stretch. I ate too much, was short-tempered with the kids (now closing in on six, four and one), and a little scared. It’s hard to welcome someone back into the most intimate folds of your life when you’re not sure who that person might be anymore.

The scene where the wife and kids meet the returning soldier did not go at all as planned. My husband wanted to see us at the gate as he stepped off the plane, but the guest passes we needed to pass through security took more than an hour to get. The kids got squirrelly. The baby got hungry. There were a lot of little shoes to take off and put back on. The stroller had to be collapsed. My daughter’s backpack full of stuffed animals had to be searched for bombs. We got lost trying to find the gate. We missed Ian, paged him. He missed us, paged us. By the time we all found each other at the information desk, I was shaken and frustrated.

Aden ran to her daddy and hugged him. Mona followed her big sister’s lead. By the time I got my arms around Ian, all I could do was sob. I was happy to see him and angry that he’d been gone. I wept with relief and joy and regret and fatigue. (The scene was politely ignored by passing strangers.) On the drive home, there was too much to say, and no way to say it in a van full of small children. Ian was able to let go of the frustration of the airport instantly. He said in Iraq you learned to let the past be history because you needed all your attention in the new moment. Still grouchy, I worried we were already on a different page.

And in the weeks that followed, there were plenty of things to get used to. Ian marveled at the quiet as we went to sleep, because he’d lived so long with mortar fire and the constant whine of generators and military jets. I kept forgetting that he didn’t know where things belonged and that he still had to be introduced to some of the people and places the kids and I know best.

But we quickly established a new routine. School started. We potty-trained our toddler. The children adjusted remarkably well. It’s hard to believe Quinn’s daddy was a stranger to him only a few weeks ago. He rides around in his father’s arms as if it’s the most natural place from which to survey the world. The baby has crying spells that Ian at first took personally, but I reminded him that it’s hard to compete with a breast-feeding mother no matter who you are.

Considering Mona was only two when her dad left, she’s accepted him back into her life with surprising ease. She has moments when she comes to me saying she’s “scared of Daddy,” but they seem calculated for dramatic effect to get out of chores.

Aden, now almost six, had the hardest time with the separation and the reunion has been more complicated for her than for her siblings. When life got hard and her emotions were overwhelming, she used to cry about Daddy being gone. Now, when she’s upset she seems to flail about for good excuses to cry, but they are harder to come by. She has also come to the realization that although having Daddy home is fun, sometimes it just means one more parent around telling her what to do.

And the two of us as a couple are doing fine, although with three kids there is less time to be alone than we would like. One more person around to take care of the endless work that needs to be done to keep a household running is a huge relief. I haven’t touched the laundry since Ian came home, and I’m finally getting some sleep. I’m still not over the shock of being able to walk out of the house alone, unencumbered by children every time we need to mail a package or buy milk.

Recently, I got up the nerve to ask Ian about his chances of being redeployed. He said it was a possibility. I told him I didn’t know if I could do it again – that if he loved me, he wouldn’t ask me to. I wanted to ask him to leave the Reserves for the sake of our family, but I couldn’t. Ian has told me his presence saved lives in Iraq, so I’m stuck with a dilemma as old as war itself: I need him home with me to help raise our kids; he needs to use his talents to make a difference in the world. I don’t know which one of us is being selfish.

After weeks of trying to readjust to being a family of five, it’s finally starting to sink in that I’m not on my own any more. Today, while I was picking a few things up at Target, Ian took Mona and the baby with him to pick up Aden at school. As I stood against the front of the store, protected from the rain, waiting for them to return, I realized that for the first time in many, many months I was alone and smiling. All the responsibility for the kids and their schedules was, at last, not just on my shoulders.

The van pulled up. Quinn was asleep. Mona cried out, “Mama! You’re back!” When I asked Aden how school was, she said, “I did good,” with a satisfied smile. Ian was wet, but looked proud that he’d successfully picked Aden up in the rain despite being burdened with a sleeping baby and a three-year-old in mid-tantrum. The van was warm and dry. In the back was a fresh supply of diapers. The girls were the embodiment of a joyful noise and all I wanted to do was kiss my husband. Ian may have come home last month, but I feel like I just arrived.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Home Front (Babble)

It had been a long week with the kids and it was only Tuesday. I had a cold and my right shoulder hurt, so I couldn’t lift the baby without pain. I was tired of dishes and diapers, of my five-year-old’s whine and her younger sister’s excellent imitation, of their tireless mission to unravel all our diaper genie refills. It was a relief to finally get them tucked in bed and kissed goodnight. Finally, I could open my laptop and check email while the baby kicked at my side. I had one message. It read: “Happy Birthday, from your secret admirer.” At first, I was confused – not because my secret admirer is much of a secret (it’s my husband), but because my birthday wasn’t until the following day. Then I remembered: where he is, it’s tomorrow. 
Ian is an Army Reserve Captain stationed at Camp Anaconda, about fifty miles north of Baghdad. As far as I can tell, his job is to sit in front of a bank of computer screens that show him events from around Iraq in real time. He analyzes what he sees and makes recommendations to the general above him. The job is an ideal match for his talents, but sometimes he feels guilty being in a position where he’s relatively protected. I don’t share his guilt. I just want him to be safe. 

When we met in college, I was a music major and Ian was wearing an ROTC uniform. I didn’t run into soldiers in the orchestra, so I didn’t think much about it. All the term “cadet” meant to me was that, three mornings a week, Ian left my bed early to exercise, and that he ironed his uniform every Wednesday night.

About a year after we started dating, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and I had the first flash of what it meant to love a soldier. Ian assured me, correctly, that the government wasn’t going to yank him out of college to fight, but I realized then that when I chose to make a life with a man in the Army Reserves, I was donning a uniform by proxy. It’s a volunteer army, but soldiers’ families are drafted.

On September 11th, I was seven months pregnant with our first child. Ian was contacted by his superiors and told to put on his uniform and spend the evening at the Reserve center “just in case.” I cried alone in front of the television and wondered if the stress would harm the baby squirming in my belly.

The next few years were a mix of joy and uncertainty. We had one daughter, then another. I was doing a variety of part-time work – teaching, performing and repairing violins. Ian couldn’t find a job in his field (I suspect, but can’t prove, that no one wanted to hire a reservist in wartime). During the week he was a stay-at-home dad, and he spent many weekends doing reserve work for the unit he commanded.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq, we knew it was only a matter of time before Ian would be called overseas. I didn’t want him to leave, and I’ve never approved of the war, but Ian was frustrated honing skills he wasn’t using and watching other soldiers go off to do jobs he knew he was qualified to do. And, in a way, we were tired of waiting for the inevitable.
Ian was called up in April of 2006, when I was two months pregnant with our third child. We had less than a week to prepare. He showed me where the fuse box was. He explained the bills and our bank accounts. He handed me power of attorney papers and his official Army will. At five in the morning, I dragged our little girls out of bed and we took their daddy to the airport. This is what it means to be parenting alone: if I had to go to the airport, we were all going to the airport.

We don’t have family in town and it’s hard to repeatedly ask neighbors and friends for favors, so when I had performance and teaching commitments, I scrambled for sitters. I was up at 5:30 every morning to make breakfast and stayed up past midnight every night to get the house in enough order to tackle another day. By the end of my pregnancy, there were times I literally couldn’t walk and our unborn son didn’t let me sleep.

To make things worse, for the first time in our relationship, Ian and I grew distant. He’d entered a world I couldn’t relate to. He emailed me about inconceivable heat and about learning to sleep through the sound of mortar fire. He was required to wear full body armor just to walk to the bathroom; a rifle was his constant companion. I chose not to burden him with anything that might distract him from his job, but that made life at home even lonelier. I tried not to let the girls see me cry.

Ian’s deployment was not typical. We don’t live on a base like so many army families, but rather in a working-class neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, not far from where my grandfather was born and raised during the Depression. Ian was plucked out of his reserve unit and assigned to fill a slot in an active-duty unit in Texas. That unit has a support network for relatives, which is known as a “family readiness group,” and the Army has a twenty-four-hour hotline, but these things haven’t been helpful to me. Every so often, I would get a call from a well-meaning Army outreach person asking how I was holding up. They didn’t seem to know what to do with my usual answer: “Not well.” A pleasant officer in Ohio once asked what he could do. I told him: unless he could lug the laundry up from the basement, not much.

Fortunately, Ian was able to arrange his two weeks of leave to overlap with our son’s birth. Quinn was born big and healthy and pink, and I loved seeing Ian so proud and happy. I left the hospital after only two nights – much too soon considering I’d had a C-section, but I hated sitting alone in my room watching reruns of Law & Order when I knew I was missing time with Ian. It was wonderful having him home. He got to visit our oldest daughter’s new school, carry the younger one on his shoulders and cuddle his newborn son for a few days. We found ourselves at the airport again much too soon. I can’t imagine what it was like for him to walk away from all of us for what we knew would be at least nine more months. For us, it was beyond painful.

To help me prepare for the longest stretch without Ian, my mother came for a couple of weeks. We cleared his things out of the closet and emptied his dresser so I would have more space. We packed up his office for use as a guest room. I don’t run across his shoes anymore, or his books. I use a different, girlier bedspread. On my own, I’ve had to handle trips to the emergency room, school events, a mice infestation, car problems and sewage backup in the basement. When something goes wrong, my first instinct is no longer to consult Ian.

The kids are getting by, too, but not without sacrifices. Quinn won’t know his father at all when he gets home. Our baby boy, now four months old and full of smiles and giggles, is sweet and remarkable, but Ian won’t have any firsthand memories of him at this stage. Instead of holding the baby’s pudgy hands and feeling that warm weight in his arms, Ian just has some emailed jpegs and the home movies I send him on DVD.

Mona was only two when Ian left for his training in Texas. She’ll be starting school by the time her dad finally comes home. The changes she has undergone are the most difficult for me to try and describe for Ian. When he came back from Texas for a couple of days after being gone for a month, the two were already having a little trouble connecting. He poured syrup on her waffles for her and she threw a tantrum. I had to explain that she had learned to do that on her own in his absence. I don’t think at this point Mona remembers her dad as a member of our household, and I worry about what she’ll make of him occupying his place at the table when he returns.

Aden was four when Ian left and she misses her father desperately. When she sees other children playing with their dads, she’s quick to tell them she has a dad too, but that he’s deployed. The weekend after he left, I took Aden with me to the store to pick out any picture frame she wanted so that we could put a nice photo of Ian by her bed. She was excited by the idea, but when we got the frame home and put the picture inside, she became very quiet. The next morning, she hid the picture in our family room while the rest of us were still in bed. When I asked her about it, she said, “When I see it, I just want my real daddy in my room and it makes me sad.” He’s grown in her mind into a more perfect version of himself. When Aden and I don’t get along, she tells me how when daddy gets back, he’ll make her happy.

And it’s not getting any easier. Both our pet rabbits died last year, which Aden lumped with her father’s absence into a great ball of grief. Ian used to email me about once a day. Since the “surge,” I hear from him far less. The other day, when I asked her to say goodbye to a little girl she was playing with, she burst into tears and said, “I don’t want to say goodbye to the little girl! I’ll miss her! Like I miss the bunnies and I miss daddy and all the things I’ve lost!” She cried in my arms, repeating “I want my daddy” over and over while Mona playfully ran in circles and Quinn looked on serenely.

Ian used to email me about once a day. Since the “surge,” I hear from him far less. There was no corresponding surge in any of the supporting areas, which means he has much more work to do every night. Every few weeks, if I’m lucky, I get a phone call from him, usually late in the evening. I used to think it would be nice if he called early enough so that Aden could talk to him too, but at this point she just wants her daddy home, period. Anything short of that she sees as a cruel tease.

For my part, as much as I miss him, I’ve started to worry about how we’ll all adjust when he comes back. He’s missed a great deal here, but our experiences aren’t beyond his imagination. I can’t fathom what he’s going through. There’s now such a large portion of his life that I don’t share and can never understand. I’m worried that when he comes home, the kids and I won’t recognize him completely, that he won’t know us.

Last night, Ian called. He sounded exhausted, but he can’t tell me much about what he does these days – it’s classified. So we just talked about the kids and I tried to paint a colorful picture of our day – laundry, diapers, giggles, time outs, meals, baths, bedtime. And while we were talking, I suddenly realized with great clarity how I have the better end of the deal. I know that seems obvious – he’s a soldier at war, after all – but I’ve been so overwhelmed and isolated that it’s been easy to forget: I’m the lucky one.