“I know not all that may be coming, but be what it will. I’ll go to it laughing.” Stubb ‘Moby Dick’
That’s what I found in my right front MCU pocket this morning. She puts these little quotes in my pockets and boots when I deploy. I’ve found them in my uniform breast pocket, in my socks, combat boots even rolled up in the quilt her mom made me. One deployment I found one in my cold weather gloves seven months into my tour. She’s amazing like that. Always there, always when I need her and here I am leaving her, again.
Today, well, I’m deploying…again. My fifth. Our fifth.
I’m getting so tired of these deployments. I’m tired of leaving, tired of being away, just…tired.
I’m a blip on the radar of my boys’ lives. A memory, someone they grieve the loss of even though I’m still alive.
Looking at my boarding pass I see we are going to gate twenty-two.
“What number, Dad?” Dylan asks.
He’s five. He took the trash out today with no help for the first time. What will he be able to do in a year?
“Twenty two, buddy,” I answer.
I can hear him mumbling the numbers as they descend. “26, 25, 24, 23….there it is! 22!” he exclaims. “You see it?” He points.
I smile looking up. “Hey, you found it. Good job.” I ruffle his shaggy brown hair. He beams at me so proud of himself.
“There’s space over there.” Ashlee points to an empty area by an unoccupied gate. We have an hour until my flight. We brought lunch, although I can’t eat. My stomach feels as though it collapsed upon itself. Guilt does that to a person.
I was talking with my mom the other day. She so graciously pointed out that I chose to be in the Army that I essentially did this to myself. I couldn’t agree with her more, although it did piss off Ashlee like I’ve never seen before. She wasn’t raised on tough love something we clash on every now and again, not that I ever win. The next day I found a Robert Frost ‘Road less traveled’ quote by my pocketknife and keys. She always knows what I’m thinking and how to make it all better.
We settle down to eat or picnic as the boys call it. God! I can’t leave them.
Turning my back and walking away from them is the hardest part of all this. Even though I love my job and the guys. We will go through so much over the next year. I can’t let them down either. I am constantly ripped from one life and thrust into another. I have trouble being in one without worrying about the other. Guilt weighs me down, it makes my heart constrict and my fist clench and tremble with rage.
I can’t do anything about it. I have no choice.
After wrestling and playing with the boys I hear it: My destiny, my sentence.
“Flight 233 to JFK is now boarding. All pre-boarding passengers please report to gate 22”
I look at Ashlee. She gives me a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.
I swallow. “That’s me guys.” I tell the boys.
We walk to the gate and I say my goodbyes to the boys first. I remind Dylan to help around the house and walk our dog Aussee. My blue-eyed clone of a son Chase gives me a huge hug showing every ounce of strength a three year old can muster. He’s learning to ride his bike without training wheels. I encourage him to practice so he can show me when I come home on mid tour leave.
My eyes are clouding as I do everything I can to stay strong for the boys and not worry or scare them.
Ashlee takes the boys to a couple of chairs, gives them the iPad and slowly walks to me.
My heart is pounding. I can’t look her in the eye and see the pain I put her through.
She looks like she’s gathering her courage for something. Kneading her hands together she places her forehead to mine and whispers, “hey.”
I croak out a “hey” in response.
“You doing alright?” she asks concerned.
I lie and say, “yeah.”
What am I suppose to say?
No! I’m dying inside. I can’t breath and I don’t know if I’ll be coming back. I don’t know what the boys will be like when I return. Will they remember me? Will I be able to recognize them? How badly am I hurting you? Will you be here when I return?
I can’t say that. She has enough to worry about.
She leans back and looks me in the eye and I can’t look away. I’ve never been able to look away. Not since the first day we met. She looks at me like she sees into my soul, and maybe she does. I wouldn’t put it past her.
She takes a deep breath. What is up with her? I wonder.
“I need you to do something for me.” She says with a little smile like she’s going to say something off the wall that I most likely won’t understand but will go along with regardless. I’d go anywhere and do anything for her.
“Anything.” I vow.
“Listen and let me finish before you speak.” She instructs.
Oh that’s never good. What’s going on? I wonder again.
“I am going to kiss you.”
I smile thinking about how a kiss from a mother makes a child’s boo boo feel better. If only they knew the effect this woman has on me when she kisses me, my whole world is healed.
“You’re going to look into my eyes and remember everything you see. The love the pride and the confidence I have in you.” She continues.
I can see her struggle.
“Then you’re going to close your eyes and picture me and boys and how much fun we had this morning. When you open them again, I’ll be gone.”
GONE!!! What the hell does she mean, gone? I’ve finally done it. I’ve pushed for the last time. She’s leaving! GONE?
No, no, no, no!
I start to speak but she stops me. What would I say anyway? I can’t change what’s happening. She’s just leaving before I can. I get it.
“This is why. I know this is the hardest part of what you do. You are told you have to go and then you leave. While we’re left behind wanting for you to come back.”
There she said it, I put her through hell.
“Every deployment you are torn apart between the job and us.” I am speechless. “I see it on your face every time, no more than right now.” How does she do that? I swear this woman can read my mind. She knows me to my soul.
“So this time you are not leaving me and the boys. We are letting you go.”
“We are leaving you this time so you may go with a lighter heart. Let me shoulder the burden of your departure.” I can see in her eyes she wants this so badly. Yet I don’t totally understand what she means. Why is she leaving me?
She continues. “Let me be the one to walk away. I don’t want you to pause at that door turn around and have to take a last look at us and be the one to make the decision that that moment, that vision is the last.”
That’s the worst part of this whole thing. Turning my back on my family, always being the one to leave. I don’t want to leave. I can feel tears slamming against my eyes and threatening to fall.
She’s saying I don’t have to leave them. I don’t have to turn my back on the family I love more than life itself. I can be released from the burden of being torn.
With conviction she says, “we will not watch you walk away, and you will not watch us walk away.”
My God she’s beautiful. I see her strength and smile at her. She’s amazing. I really should stop being so surprised that she knows me this well. But then again, being surprised by Ashlee can be a lot of fun too.
“Okay?” she asks hopefully.
I exhale the weight and agree with a nod. “Okay.”
She pulls my face to hers and kisses me long and hard. It’s over too soon and she asks with her eyes if I’m ready.
I’m not ready to leave, I never will be. I am, however, ready for her to let me go so I can do what I have to do. I am ready to release all the guilt and all the choices, to her.
I take a few breaths to grasp what little air is left in the world and nod.
She slides her hand over my eyes while whispering in my left ear “close your eyes.”
I do, allowing a rebel tear to fall. I don’t know how she does this without crying. She’s so strong. I can fall apart in her arms, be vulnerable to her and I know she will not hold it against me or call me weak. She always says we should embrace our emotions. It’s the truest form of ourselves. I believe her. She wipes my tear from my cheek and whispers in a voice that makes my lip tremble.
“Think of breakfast and riding bikes this morning,” she reminds me. “The look on Chase’s face when he made it to the stairs without putting a foot down and Dylan when he took the trash out all by himself.”
I can’t not smile at her words. Never have I been more grateful that they have Ashlee for a mother. They are in good hands. I don’t have to worry.
She places her forehead on mind. “I love you.” She says.
Such insufficient words. “I love you, too.” I reply.
It takes every ounce of strength she has given me to keep my eyes shut. I think of her eyes; hazel, brown, gold, green, changing like the moon yet always warm. The feel of her breathe on my neck from the words she said. I hear the laughter from this morning and the words we exchanged seconds ago.
I feel her slide her hand across my chest and feel her pause at my shoulder. She squeezes. I nod so she knows I know she’s leaving and that I understand. I feel a light pressure on my shoulder and then she’s gone.
I can’t feel the heat from her body, but I can hear her words in my head. With that I lift my head open my eyes and walk towards the door. I don’t look back. I don’t want to. I can see them whenever I want when I close my eyes. I will not watch them walk away.
I get to my seat and open my wallet to place my ticket stub inside. I save all the stubs in a shoebox in the back of the closet. It reminds of where I’ve been. Maybe someday it will tell me where I’m going.
I see a light green piece of paper I know I didn’t put in there. A note. She comes up with new places every time. I sit down and read it.
It says, ‘Let my burden be your burden, and yours be mine.’
She did it again.