I heard the alarm. Felt the bed move as you sat up and swung your feet over the edge. You were sitting there in the dark, eyes foggy, head cloudy. Probably wondering why 3 a.m. even exists, anyway.
I listened as you dressed in the dark. Felt you lean over to my side of the bed while you whispered to me to have a good day and felt a kiss on my face. I watched you leave the room and begin to descend the stairs in your uniform. Heard the hum from your car as it started.
It may have seemed like I just went back to bed at this time every day, but in truth, I never could until I was assured that you were completely gone. I always laid there and listened to the engine of your car fade. I always waited. I had to hear it. And I couldn’t wait to hear it again nine hours later.
You returned later that day smelling of oil and grease and sweat. Cover off of your head, finally free from your blouse. Boots still on your feet. Smiling.
Somehow, I feel like I remember you always smiling.
I’m sure it wasn’t always that way while you were in the service. I actually know now that it wasn’t. And that a lot of those times that you were smiling you were actually heavy-hearted and carrying so much on the inside.
I remember your fledgling days when you first separated from the service. Flung back out into a world that didn’t exactly understand, full of people with different priorities than you, who felt the weight of responsibility differently than you. Appreciated all that they had a bit less than you.
I remember what it was like to watch cable news with someone who took its content seriously and even personally as events unraveled and transpired in the middle east. Your frustration at a nation who was slowly forgetting herself and that what makes her great is what makes her distinct. And her choice to always genuinely strive to be the best. Something that you have done time and time again.
You probably never told anybody how in the pit of your stomach you worried just a bit if you could do this. If you could find a nitch in the world again that felt right. If you’d find friends who could understand you, that you could understand in return.
It’s been almost eight years since we drove home. Since we said goodbye to the golden state. And you jumped in with both feet. If you were scared, I never really noticed at the time.
People always seem to think that women are the only ones who are an ocean of complexities, secrets and hopes unseen. How wrong they are.
I see you.
And as the years pass, I see you in ways that I have never seen you before. Even the you from eight years ago. The me of now appreciates and understands and sees just a bit more of the you from then. How I sometimes mourn the fact that I could have been smarter, more intuitive, better equipped to help you, to appreciate you at the time.
Now that you’re the father of my children, I see it all so much more. I have seen you be man and Marine.
I’ve seen you be strong. I’ve seen you be brave. I’ve been comforted by you when you were the one about to deploy into God knows what for who knows how long. How you reassured me. How you assured me that it would one day be in our rear view mirror and we’d be passed it and be all the better for it. I remember that I didn’t want to admit that I believed you, because admitting it meant I had to accept that you were going to go away.
I’ve seen you be vulnerable. When you’d tell me stories about those who didn’t make it back, when you’d wonder if things could have turned out different if you had done something different. The things that you saw and heard and how at times they wrenched your insides, and how they steeled your resolve at others. How the smoke and the destruction and the crawling through the mud and the calloused, tired feet and the obstacles made you remember time and time again that you made the right choice.
I’ve seen you be gritty. I’ve smelled grease in your hair and the sweat on your neck. When you worked long days, mastering a skill set that you now don’t get to use but at the time was a matter of life and death, efficiency and necessity. You spent your days working with foul-mouthed Marines and, let’s be honest, you yourself were foul-mouthed, too. But you all understood one another. There was affection and brotherhood amongst you grisly, brazen men.
I’ve seen you be gentle. With our baby girl. With our son when you showed him how to plant green beans in the backyard. With our daughter when you run a comb gently through her cascade of golden knots, and braid it before bed time.
I’ve seen you lead. I’ve seen that fire in you. The kind that looks calamity and danger in the face and says, “not today. Not on my watch.” I’ve seen what made you a Marine, even in the ho-hum of everyday life. I have seen the type of person that would leave everything behind for a passion and cause that he believes in, like those men in the history books who decided that they would give up their lives if that mean securing safe passage for the mantle of freedom to the next generation. I have seen that men like that are still alive today.
I’ve seen you submit yourself to education and instruction and the leadership of others. Showing that true men know when to lead, but also most assuredly know when to follow. Because sometimes, following, and learning and seeking wisdom make you better. I have seen you give credit where credit is due.
I’ve seen you in a uniform. Dress blues or cami’s. For a Marine Ball or a dining out banquet. Spending time and using the discipline it takes to ready yourself, full of admiration, respect and care for the uniform and for what it means.
I’ve seen you in casual clothes. Where one would only know that you were a Marine if they had a trained, astute eye for such things.
I’ve seen you laugh. This is probably my favorite. How someone who has walked through so much, seen so much, done so much can still love so much. Can still live life in such a way that he still smiles and takes joy in all he sees whenever he can. At his child who just learned how to wiggle his bottom. At his daughter and her affinity for standing with her hands on her hips, barking orders. At your wife, who puts butter in the cabinet by mistake because she is clueless.
You’ve never given that up. You have never given up on us. And I hope that you never do.
As the years pass, and we move further and further away from your dates of service, my understanding of it changes. When we were in the thick of it, it felt so different. It was something that slipped on like a glove. It was what it was. It was our way of life. Because we were around people of the same mind. There wasn’t the need to make a fuss.
Now that it isn’t our daily way of life anymore, and the uniforms are tucked into the back of the closet, the plaques sitting on the shelf in the study, the way that things go when they are sometimes quietly forgotten about I just feel the urge to tell you every day that I remember. Remnants of a season that has passed. Though the dust of time may settle, though you have gone back to quietly living your life without much fuss and have even made a new life for yourself, I remember what you did. I feel the urge to revisit it.
To tell you that you really were right. That time is now in our rearview mirror.
And we really are all the better for it.