Veteran’s Day

When he stood on yellow footprints after filing off a bus hundreds of miles away from home. When drill instructors got in his face, and tossed everyone’s personal belongings in a heap in the middle of the floor.

I wasn’t there.

I didn’t drill with him.

I didn’t crawl through muck and filth on my belly and feel my clothes catch on barbed wire.

I didn’t do the push up’s with him. The runs. The PT.

I wasn’t with him when they placed the globe and anchor in his hand no larger than a fifty cent piece, but large with the weight of the spirits from thousands of men who went before him, and the divine plight of those of us who are sheepdogs called to protect.

I wasn’t there when he was deployed. When he worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When he stood watch in the cold under an Iraqi sky, and practically melted in the 120 degree heat.

When he carried his weapon with him everywhere, and his brain never ceased with the thought that any moment, he might be woken to find hell unfolding, and this could be the day he doesn’t come back.

I’ve never had to wonder what I might do in the case of all possible eventualities, and whether or not every important person in my life knows how much I love them in case I never get the chance to tell them again.

I wasn’t there to see he and his comrades form a bond that goes beyond friendships and brotherly bonds. When he was sharing tight quarters with men who snored and stank, and made him laugh and pissed him off because they were all beyond bone tired, and missed home and the taste of mom’s apple pie. Only he’d have readily died for any of them without hesitation even if they did occasionally fuck up and grated each others nerves.

I wasn’t there for the close call. The phone calls home after where he couldn’t talk about it. The bullets that whipped by his head. The anguish of trying to discern a civilian from the enemy, and for every caution ringing in his head like alarm bells.

I came into view when he was mostly through his four years of serving.

And we’ve since left that time in the rear view mirror of our Chevy blazer as we pulled out of our California driveway, and there was so much my young heart didn’t know then. I didn’t know how to help someone adjust from living that kind of high octane life back into living the life of an every day American who had never had to worry about such things.

I didn’t know how to quell the heart that didn’t know what it was to relax anymore. I didn’t realize the privilege I had in feeling safe in nearly every place I went. Where I could trust the stranger to the left of me in standing in line at the movie theater. I’ve never had to relearn how to drive a car without feeling like I wanted to pull my skin off for fear that the vehicle or pile of highway debris next to my car might explode.

I can’t fathom the depths of his ache for the faces that didn’t come home. I can’t walk in his shoes every day as he builds his life knowing that there were others who never got that chance to do the same. I can’t imagine sledging ahead forward, trying to leave those things behind in a race that feels like it’s run in circles.

I see the uniforms tucked in the back recesses of the closet, and try to never ask questions unless he seems ripe for my curiosity. I remind myself I couldn’t never understand in the way no man could ever understand what it’s like to see a yowling infant pulled from you and placed across your chest, and feeling the brevity of the universe cascade into one crescendo moment where you were suddenly sure that was all you were born to do.

And there he was, practically fresh from being out of high school, signing away eight years of his life and I wasn’t with him to see the pen in his hand flick across the line.

And still, it aches inside of me. Because I want the world to know. To see him. To understand what it’s cost him and taken away from him and done to him and molded it into. I want all of the thanks and gratitude for what my husband has endured, even though it would never be enough.

I’ve learned to be the casual observer and I see the way he gets quiet after watching certain movies or the news. I know what when fall encroaches at the end of summer and the leaves begin to change, something recedes inside of him. I have tried to imprint that on me, his silent struggle. I have tried to prepare myself to catch him should he need it.

And time marches on, and he knows I’m here. But what could he ever say? And what could I do to understand? When it seems like just yesterday I was washing uniforms and we were driving through the gates on base to get home. My role here is so small.

I try to understand what it would be like if the biggest parts of me, the stuff that makes me who I am, became a date on the calendar. If they hung in the back of the closet. A constant reminder that I don’t need to think that way anymore. Act that way anymore. If the world expected me to carry on and act accordingly. If I was the only one that knew those things hung like drapes in the back of the closet.

It’s something that never turns off.

The best I can do is tell him how proud I am of him. That it means something that he has never wasted a moment he was given since he came home that wasn’t given to someone else. He has lived a hundred sunshine, cloud filled and bracing lifetimes for those who never could.

In awe of those who never will.

And I have held his hand. Not knowing what I could ever do but stand beside him.

And told him that was enough.

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Motherhood is not enough for me

“I can’t remember the last time I felt productive, like I fully accomplished something, not since the last time I clocked out and collected a paycheck.”

So read my text, from one(exhausted, overextended, exasperated whatever) mother to another. A confidant. Who wouldn’t bristle when I spit out the many utterances that could melt down into one: sometimes, this just isn’t enough for me.

I would be held, not rebuffed, when such words escaped my fingers. There would be no attempt to problem solve on her end. It’s a cathartic thing when someone else understands you on an instinctual level.

Why isn’t it enough for me? Caring for humans. To dive daily for the pearls hidden amidst the sweat and sleep deprivation as my children turn into fully fledged people day by day. To watch them ripen. Come into being, though they already are.

Why can’t this be enough for me?

I sat rocking the youngest. She wanted another story. Another minute in my arms. I wanted to disengage. It’s the story that’s as old as the first time a woman (probably) wrestled a demanding toddler into their bed – please, I love you, but let this part be over with.

Because I can’t. Even just one more time. For even one more minute. Not right now.

Raising children is like swaying in a rocking chair. You rock for miles and miles, always some part of you in motion, being or body, heart or mind. You can only hope that the view is a decent one as you swish.

I wondered, again, why this can’t be enough for me. I wondered what is out there beyond these four walls that could possibly be so great, anyways. I wondered why I felt past my prime, my story already fulfilled, like a triumphant let down. Like the journey stopped the moment they swept that first baby up underneath my chin.

This isn’t enough for me. The pit in my stomach braced, a brick lodged in my throat as I let that truth fully register with me.

We can’t hope for parenting to be enough for us. Ever.

A voice came from the void.

We have to pray that we will be enough for it.

There it was.

The reversion of the current.

Cleaning soggy Cheerio’s out of the strainer in the sink and pinching dog hair out of blue play-doh is never going to be enough for me.

Having the same arguments with the same child on a different day ending in “Y” will never fully satisfy me.

It will never make me feel seen to scrub behind the toilet, to sweep the goldfish out of the van when we are parked at a gas station. It will never make you feel like the stars shine only for you as you trudge, unshowered and sleep deprived, through the aisles of a Walgreens to buy Motrin on a Tuesday night.

Parenting is not a confidence builder.

The best that we can hope for is that every square foot of these sticky floors, from one dust bunny filled corner to the other, is laden with a thousand whispered prayers that we will be enough. For the tantrums. The hard conversations. The late nights and sickness. For the hard moments when their little, growing hearts break.

When you tell them that their favorite pet is going to go to heaven. When they tell you how annoyed their siblings make them. When you try five different ways to explain the same concept to them in the span of fifteen minutes.

That in the hardest parts, we can be enough. Enough to hold them. Enough to reassure them. Enough to carry them.

Until the day they won’t need us to be anymore.

 

 

Grief is not the end of you

I’ve been trapped in the same hospital room for a year.

I can still see the two rows of glass standing guard on either side of me, my fractured reflection in each pane as I walked past the silent sadness in each room. Doors and windows and off white curtains running into each other down a beige hallway. Dated floor tiles with brown specks become a river as the smell of antiseptic and thin cotton perfumed the air.

I can tell each hospital I have visited over the last ten years apart by the aesthetics Even though they all seem the same to me now. Even if it doesn’t matter anymore.

On my worst days, this is where I end up.

I replay this scene, and many others, over and over again in a devastating loop. And I hate myself for it. For being so weak.

A long road with nine years of hospital stays, visitor badges, and frantic phone calls that came late at night or early in the morning. How else would bad news travel save for 6 a.m. Sunday morning phone calls or 11 p.m. texts on a Tuesday? The faintly blue walls and fake flowers on side tables in hospital hallways were like lipstick on a pig.

Because no one could ever assure us that it would get any better.

It was a slow siphoning. A meandering descent.

Like a giant bucket full of water, with a minuscule hole drilled in the bottom, we didn’t notice the changes at first. We didn’t notice that the silver thread of my father’s life was nearly gone until one day it suddenly was. But we had silently been careening to that moment for nearly a decade.

And still, we weren’t ready for the impact.

On my worst days, I’m back by his side, swallowing a brick of tears and burning anguish as we all waited for the lines on his monitor to flatten and anger singed a bitter blister inside of me.

I couldn’t decide if I wanted him to stay or go, to keep holding on or to infinitely release, even though that had been his life for the last decade. Even though I had already asked that of him again and again. I couldn’t ask that from him even once more because he had done all of that, and more. What else can a father give?

On my best days, I remember that it won’t always be this way.

After his funeral, we made our way to a familiar small, sandy beach. The sky churned in a wild sea of gray, the clouds turning over like a river of lava, like they were hot and flowing until they piled on top of one another, building something unknown. The water was murky. The grainy sand bone white as it crunched beneath our feet.

Somehow, the fact that it was a less than ideal day that we had chosen to spread his ashes was actually comforting.

I’m new to this grief thing.

Before that day, I had thought that maybe, by the time we stood at the edge of the water he loved so much and let him go, eight months and a few mornings after he had left us, that it would begin to feel like true closure. When in truth, letting go of some of the last tangible pieces of him was a painful act more than it was transcendent.

The day was a confusing mess of gray, rain that spit from the sky, and winds that churned the waters below. The air stung our faces, and we let him go into something wild. We gave him over to the uncertainty, and that seemed to make a modicum of sense after eight months of being confused over how someone can truly be gone.

It didn’t mean that it was over. But it meant that we began to accept that truth of the matter. That we all fade, no matter what. That those around us will fade, and we might have to be here to watch. That life was still infinitely mysterious in its at times unforgiving nature. But in the tangled web of uncertainty and beauty, something beautiful still throbs even when we are broken. In darkness, something hopeful and light pulses even still.

We accepted the inevitable that we couldn’t escape. But by setting him free into the mist, right in the middle of it, we agreed that we were trying to figure it out. To discover our way through it. To make peace with everything.

I sat on that same beach, two months later. On Father’s Day.

Aviator shades on, shoulders out, freckled skin hot, the weather and the day could not have been any more different. This was my first time back to that same place, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. Or in what state I would find myself.

Only on that day, in the place of my sorrow months before, I wasn’t alone on the beach. Families lounging on plastic chairs and beach blankets dotted the shore. People played in the warm and clear water. I found a spot beneath a tree and sat. Watching.

You would never have believed this was the same place.

I took my children swimming yesterday. Three busy bodied children in fluorescent swimsuits stood at the edge of the shore. The older two hesitantly let the water lap around their ankles, while my third child alligator crawled through the water, the soft sand pillowing under her knees.

My two oldest were afraid of the jelly fish. They were afraid of what they could not see. My youngest child hardly took notice of their worries, instead enjoying herself on a perfect day.

She hasn’t learned to be afraid yet. She just dives right in – to anything.

I assured my children that I was watching over them. That the waters were clearer than they thought. That they were safe. From jellyfish, from waves and all manner of scaled and clawed sea creatures.

They doubted me, while my youngest continued her fun, soaking up the moments and almost becoming too brave as she inched further out.

I marveled at how brave we are before we learn to be afraid.

I realized that I might never be like that again.

 

I remember being like them. Being stung by a jellyfish hidden in the gray waters. Rocked over by the waves until I swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater. Raw wounds on my shoulders and knees as the ocean flung me back and then began to pull me out again.

I remember feeling helpless. So many times in the last year, I have felt so helpless.

How weak we feel when life mercilessly knocks us to our knees. How it clutches¬† at us and shakes us until the air is ripped from our lungs. How it rubs us raw even while we still suffer. We feel small, like will never be brave again. Like we couldn’t ever be again even if we had the choice.

But really, it is after life has shaken us, has devastated us, has reminded us that its language was always uncertainty, that we should feel the most brave.

Grief is a torch that will only light our steps so much.

But it is peace the illuminates the way.

Grief is not the end of us.

Even as we make bedfellows with it for many days in the dark. Even as we begin to comfortably wear it. Even as we swallow it, hold it close to ourselves and count it only as ours.

I’ve marked my grief these last twelve months. I’ve made it my own, unwilling to share it. To talk about it. To expose it would leave me helpless. It has become a shield, something to wield. As I let myself cower behind it. As I try to forgive myself over and over again for feeling so weak that I can’t move forward. When I tell myself that I can’t. I can’t move on from when he left me. What if my life is unrecognizable without him? What might he think?¬†

How does one move on without a place for the ones they have lost?

Grief is a torch that shows us the path, but it is peace that illuminates the way ahead. It is peace that compels us to move and find our footing again. It is peace that wills us to be brave. It is peace that tells us that we must trust the uncertainty.

One day, I pray I will be far away from that room. Where our bodies were crowded close together. Where we held his hands and whispered to him as we silently prayed that maybe he heard us one last time. That he heard us tell him that it was okay, that we weren’t going to ask him to stay one more time.

Peace tells me that grief isn’t the end. My ashes become an adornment. The thin soot of my pain. It tells me that fire can be both devastating and cleansing, and that death can make the things left behind beautiful. It can be a catalyst. The fire that sparks. The end is only the beginning, for him in eternity and now for me, still on Earth.

Grief is the end of the chapter. But not the story.

Not of me.