Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Homecoming (Babble)

What a great week!  Lots of stress woven through bits of it and happiness to the point of feeling drained sometimes, but overall some amazing memories were made this week in our family.

Contrary to the look of final homecoming in these photos, that was actually the prelude to one last little goodbye.  Ian’s trip home took about a week.  For some reason the Army found it cheapest to get him back here by flying him from Mosul to Kuwait, then to Ireland, New Jersey, Atlanta, Minnesota, and finally LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where he was transported to Ft McCoy to turn in his weapon and receive some awards over the course of a few days.  My plan was to drive out to Minneapolis with the kids to spend a few days with my cousin and her family, greet Ian at the airport in LaCrosse on the way, and pick him up at Ft McCoy on the way back when he was ready.

The problem is that planning anything around the Army is complicated because there are no firm dates or times and things are up in the air until the last minute.  I got a call from Ian early on Sunday morning telling me that he was in New Jersey, and he promised to call me again from Atlanta.  When he did, he informed me sadly that he wouldn’t be in LaCrosse until almost eleven at night, and that would be too hard to do with all the kids and still get to my cousin’s house.  He happened to say something offhand about Minneapolis, and I said, “Wait, what?  You have another stop in Minnesota?”  I looked at my watch and realized if we didn’t really stop anywhere on the way we might just be able to catch him at the airport there.  I’d had the car packed since breakfast so I hung up the phone, told all the kids to use the bathroom and grab their shoes and we took off in our big black rental SUV thing.  We grabbed some lunch from a drive through, did one stop a few hours in to use a rest room, but otherwise just raced across Wisconsin.

I have to say I lucked out in the ‘traveling with children lottery,’ because my kids are great on long car trips.  They were no trouble in any way.  They napped a little, they pointed out cows, they played little games together.  My brothers and I were nowhere near that nice to each other in the car growing up.  I seem to recall my dad yelling at us to look out our respective windows a great deal.  Anyway, between their excellent behavior and the rental car’s satellite radio, it was a great drive.  Rural Wisconsin is beautiful, and the weather was gorgeous.  (I know there are more dramatic landscapes in the world, that Banff is stunning, and you can’t get your mind around the Grand Canyon even as you stand on the edge of it, vistas in Italy will make you melt, and I’ve driven through tea plantations in India that are lovely beyond words….  But Wisconsin farmland with its rolling hills and acres of corn is beautiful in an accessible and cozy way that is unlike anything else, and the kids were thrilled to see it and so was I.)

(Not the best photo since I just randomly clicked my camera without looking during a flat area, but still pretty.)

We experienced a rare moment of perfect timing.  All we had to go on was that Ian was flying into Minneapolis on Delta sometime around 7:15 pm.   We left Milwaukee at 2:00, parked at the airport at 7:20, found a desk with the word ‘Delta’ over it and got someone to figure out Ian’s gate and print us up a visitor’s pass. As we walked the last 20 paces or so to the gate, Ian called me on my cell phone to say he was about to step off his plane.  The kids and I waited maybe half a minute before we spotted him.  We got to spend a little over an hour together and eat a little dinner in the food court as a family before he had to get on the plane to LaCrosse.  I still can’t believe that all worked out.  I know he was pleased to see us at such an unlikely time.

I do have to say that people in military uniforms are more exposed than other people in an airport.  It was nice of strangers who took the time to stop and thank Ian for his service, but after awhile I kind of wished they would do it a little more quickly because our time was so limited.   I’m sure Ian would have liked that hour we had together to have been more private, but he was gracious to everyone who stopped to admire our little reunion.  He represents his uniform well.

Even though I must have warned the kids about two dozen times that we weren’t going to get to keep daddy just yet, they were still surprised when they had to say goodbye to him again and put him on another plane.  But this time we knew it was just for a few days.  That combined with his being here and not headed off to a war zone made this separation much easier than any of the past ones.

Once Ian was safely on the plane we went off in search of our rental car.  Maybe I was just too worn out at that point to appreciate whatever logic there is to the parking structure at the Minneapolis/St Paul Airport, but I found it to be the most confusing place I’ve ever left a car.  Luckily I knew I was somewhere on the ground level and at the end of a row which narrowed it down, and the kids and I walked around while I kept pushing the lock and unlock buttons on the key until we heard the car beeping.  It was in a direction I never would have thought to walk, so I’m glad the rental car came with such a feature or we might still be there.

The next few days we spent with my cousin, Ann, and her family.  (They are the same people who came all the way out to Milwaukee in February to help me move.)  I could not have asked for a better distraction.  If we had waited at home while Ian was at Ft McCoy I would have been climbing the walls.  The past couple of weeks have been really stressful in anticipation of him coming home.  The kids were acting out a little, I was not sleeping…. 

It’s hard to explain to people, because it seems like knowing our family would be reunited again should be all good–and it is good–but good is not the same thing as easy.  Ian told me from the soldiers’ perspective that leaving for the first deployment is stressful, and leaving for additional deployments isn’t as bad, but every return home is difficult.  He said many soldiers assume the physical symptoms they have before they return are due to the change of routine and diet that come with travel, but that often times it has more to do with stress.  There are a lot of unknowns about what ‘home’ is anymore, and that’s hard to deal with.

Staying at my cousin’s house removed me from the responsibilities and worries that come with being at home.  We could just relax, drink lemonade, and eat sandwiches made from tomatoes and basil from their garden.  Can you believe the view from their backyard?

My kids spent every minute possible in the swimming pool.  At one point we took all the kids out to a playground just for variety’s sake, and after a few minutes of watching them half-heartedly playing to please me we said it was time to go back to the house and they lit up and ran to the car.  They played Marco-Polo, they came up with a water dance show that required many rehearsals, and there was a lot of ‘look at me, Mom!’ stuff. 

It was one of those experiences where you didn’t realize how much you needed something until you got it.  Those few days of pleasant conversation and company and playtime for the kids in a peaceful setting were exactly what we needed.  I will always be grateful for that bit of time we spent in Minneapolis.  When we finally got the call from Ian that he was done with out-processing and we could come pick him up, the kids protested until I verbally shook them out of their idyllic daze to remind them that we were leaving to get daddy and bring him home with us.  To stay.  To keep.  That got them into the car.

The drive to Ft McCoy was beautiful, but the last leg of it got confusing.  The GPS took us through winding roads up in the hills above lots of farmland, and then five minutes from our destination kept telling me to turn where there was no road.  I passed the spot it wanted me to turn twice before I finally crept up on it very slowly and realized there was a grown over gravel path at that spot in the woods.  I pulled the car over and walked down the path far enough to see a gate with a stop sign on it, and past that was a real road.  Neat.

I decided that was not the best direction to take with three small kids in a car I was not familiar with in a spot where my cell phone wasn’t getting any signal.  I asked the GPS to find and alternative route, and almost half an hour later we finally pulled up to the main gate of Ft McCoy.

I discovered that my military spouse ID was expired (who knew such a thing expired?) but they let us in to pick up Ian anyway.  On his phone he talked us past the PX and lots of barracks and desert colored military vehicles until eventually we saw him waving near the road.  Christmas morning is a good analogy for how excited my kids were when they spotted him.  None of them could sit still.  I got to meet one of the soldiers he worked with (she seemed very nice, and you’d never guess she was the best person you could ask for manning the gun turret on a truck) then we loaded up all of his Army boxes and headed toward home.

It’s a little surreal.  He’s really home.  In some ways it was like he never left, because certain habits instantly fall back into place, but other things will take time.  I picked up food at the grocery store this morning and it took much longer than normal because while we were away they rearranged the whole place.  Cereal is where the greeting cards used to be, where pasta was is now a giant section labeled simply ‘Hispanic,’ and things like crackers are broken up into categories I couldn’t quite follow.  Most of what was on my list I stumbled into by chance.  While I was waiting at the checkout it hit me that if I found the new layout of the grocery store disorienting, how odd is it for Ian to come home to a whole different house?  It’s like a huge scavenger hunt for all your own things.  He laughed in the kitchen at one point because he started to empty the dishwasher and realized he didn’t know where anything was supposed to go, so he just stopped.  It will take time for Ian to get to know not just what the rhythm of our days are like here, but even just where the outlets are and in what drawer we store the light bulbs.

In the meantime it will be days before we finish sorting through all of the giant Army boxes of gear and military items that need to find a place in this house.  Ian’s going to be camped out in the living room for awhile, sorting through piles of paper and camoflage patterned clothing.  Not to mention all the boxes of mystery cords and books and computer items that have been waiting for him in the basement since the winter months.  I told him to take it slowly, we’d tackle it all together, and he can stop and take a nap whenever he likes.

It’s only been a couple of days, but in terms of the adjustment process, so far, so good.  I told him he needs to give the kids a chance to get used to the sound of him, and over time he can assume more of the old role he used to play in terms of exerting some authority.  Right now he’s just available to them if they want him, and he helps me when I need it, but we’re taking a slow approach with his involvement in our routine.  There is no pattern of him being in this home, and he has no experience with the kids being the ages they are now.  We haven’t had any problems yet, but I’m doing my best to head any off before they can develop.  At the moment I’m just proud of myself that he hasn’t had any allergic reactions to anything in the house.  (I remembered!) 

There’s more to tell, but it will have to wait.  Everyone is sleeping but me and it’s time for me to join them.  There are few things greater than the joy of knowing everyone who is supposed to be here is under the same roof.  We’re a whole family again.  It’s one of those things that makes me want to smile and cry at the same time.  There is no one on earth more fortunate than I am right now.  Life is grand.

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