Saturday, September 15, 2012

The 100-Day Mark

I desperately want to open this blog post by saying, "Oh my gosh! Just 100 days? That's crazy! It seems like yesterday that I said goodbye to John!" But saying that would be entirely false and a disservice to the energy it's taken to chop a swath from John's departure to today. It feels like eons since I've held John's hand and decades since I said goodbye to John at the MAC terminal in Norfolk. So, I'm going to light my imaginary pipe and stroke my imaginary beard and be reflective and long-winded.

I'm writing this post with a healthy dose of shame and regret. Before I dated John, I gave little thought to the military. I was (and continue to be) anti-war and pro-people (including those in the military). I was super anti-war in high school, but college came, and I got tired of the shout-down, louder-makes-righter style of debate that seemed to be cultivated from the 24-hour news cycle. And then I got wrapped up in school, clubs, papers, and eventually finding a job, navigating a move, becoming a full-fledged adult, and surviving teaching in the inner city. I feel guilty now, that I wasn't more empathetic or active... or something. I don't know what that something would have been, but I wish I would have been or done it.

I say this because we are so used to living with perpetual war, that we forget real, live people are living and dying in Afghanistan. The frequently used catch-all, "troops," conjures up a faceless, nameless group of people with no back stories, no loved ones, and only one mission-- to serve until we decide to bring them home again. We forget that there are around 80,000 Americans still in Afghanistan, still risking their lives for a war that many of us barely remember on a daily basis. That means that there are 80,000 families, too, waiting every day to hear from their soldier or Marine, sailor or airman. That's a lot of little kids missing out on time with Mom or Dad. That's a lot of time that families can't get back. That's a lot of people, and while our society does a great job (I'm truly not being sarcastic here) at appreciation and gestures towards the military and military families, I don't think there's really a deep understanding of what it truly means to have someone you love serving a deployment in a warzone. After all, if the majority of Americans really understood it, really knew what it's like to say goodbye to someone in the middle of the night and not know how to gather the strength to walk away from them, really knew what it's like to blow kisses at a computer screen, or imagine about a zillion times a day what the homecoming is going to be like, would we so willingly and quickly have started two wars? Would we still be in Afghanistan?

Before John left, I had friends and acquaintances who had served in Afghanistan or Iraq, but honestly, I was very removed, as most Americans are. I feel guilty for not being better at reaching out to my friends who were serving or waiting. Maybe, though, deployment is one of those things in life that one only truly understand and empathize with after experiencing. Even so, I wish someone could have taken me aside (or maybe, more accurately, I wish I would have cornered my friends who have survived deployment) and told me exactly what the first months would be like instead of most of what I found on the internet (there really is some good stuff out there, too), which was 1) whining and complaining about everything (Even with deployment, not everything is awful all the time.), 2) patriotic and romantic platitudes ("You can do this." "He'll be home soon." "Don't lose hope." "If you don't stand behind the troops, feel free to stand in front of them." Yeah, because these are helpful when you want to crawl under your bed, cry yourself to sleep, and hibernate for the next 12-13 months.), or 3) a cleaned up, sanitized Superwoman-esque portrait of the writer (I get it. You're awesome. Good for you. I just want to know how to get from one day to the next without growing an ulcer the size of a watermelon in my stomach, thank you very much.).

I'm only speaking for myself and not for anyone else or any other circumstances than my own. I will gladly concede that my life is not as difficult as it could be (I cannot imagine doing this with children or other family responsibilities). I'm not trying to cast myself in any particular light-- positive or negative. I'm not looking for praise or pity. I'm just being truthful and reflecting on the past three months. With that said, this is what it's like to wait for someone who has shipped off to war.

Every single day of the past 100 has been tough in it's own way. And, I know they have been a thousand times harder for John than they have been for me.  But, good news for both of us: we have an amazing (although truly, "amazing" falls far short to accurately describe them) support system. Our friends and family have been loving, understanding, and caring in ways that have humbled and challenged me to be a better, kinder person. John's situation is relatively good and could be far worse. In the grand scheme of things, we have much to be grateful for. After all, as more than one person has reminded me (either gently or otherwise), dealing with deployment is what I "signed up" for when I fell in love with John.

While not a very helpful sentiment, it is true. John and I renewed our friendship through letters while he was at boot camp, which turned into long, long phone calls while he was in A and C school. I began dating him when he had 5-ish more years to serve, I said "yes" to him when he had 4-ish more years to go, and we'll start our lives together when he has 3-ish more years on his contract. It was part of the deal. We had heard rumors for a long time that he was going to deploy at some point to Afghanistan. That, too, was part of the deal. I knew everything up front. And, for both of us, "making it through" the deployment was never an option. We're a done deal and we have been since we started dating; 7,000 miles doesn't change that. Nothing ever will.

I think, though, that no matter the preparation or awareness of the situation, deployment feels insurmountable and monumental. Before John left-- and we're talking months before-- I cried more than I care to admit. There was a day I couldn't stop crying. I went through the stages of grief, which surprised me. I fixated on how little I could control and how life was spinning out of control. Even though I normally sleep like a rock, I had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. I'd wake up in cold sweats or feeling nauseous. It was tough to ignore the impending deployment, even through some of the most exciting moments of my life-- getting engaged, telling our friends and family, getting engagement photos taken-- were taking place.

The day of John's deployment was the most difficult day of my adult life.  I'm sure at some point I'll write about it, but I'm still not ready. I haven't let myself think about it in any detail or depth since my drive back from Norfolk on the night John flew out. And for now, I'll leave it at that.

After saying goodbye to John, the second hardest thing was to think about the future in a normal, constructive way. About 10 hours after saying goodbye to John, driving up back to Baltimore, and grabbing a few hours of sleep, I was at school, administering final exams to students. Then I had to grade them. Then I had to pack up the room. The next day, my youngest sister came to Baltimore to visit my middle sister and me. There wasn't time to think about what had happened, other than to try to ignore the gigantic, empty, gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach.

For the first two weeks, I was a manic mess.  I slept as little as possible, did as much as I could so I didn't have to think, and was glued to the internet (confession: I still am). I waffled between barely being able to think about and get the energy to do laundry to getting erratically excited for John's fifteen days of leave (which, at that point, were 7 months away) or his possible return date (which was more than a year away).  I missed meeting up with good friends who came into town because I passed out on the couch and slept for the next 12 hours. After about two weeks of being frenzied, I crashed hard. I went from being awake all the time, to trying to sleep 2-4 hours in the middle of the day to create the illusion that time was passing faster.

I'd like to believe that I kept it on lock down in front of people for when I was at my craziest (which isn't saying that much since crazy is my normal). I didn't cry in front of my students, ever, and with the exception of missing some school and telling them what was going on, I think I kept it level for them.

But, as they always do, situations improve with time. I still worry all the time-- which I can't imagine will change until he's home for good-- about everything, no matter how much I pray or talk to other people. But that worry is dulled (on most days) by communication. We write letters and emails and try to chat or Skype as often as we can. Of course, that doesn't change that he's in a war zone or that news headlines that include "troops," "killed," and "Afghanistan" always seem to pop up right when I haven't heard from him in a bit. It doesn't change that his base takes fire on a pretty regular basis. It doesn't change the fact that on his base, three people died  from mortar fire this week or that I woke up to that headline on CNN on the morning of September 11, a day I was already feeling jumpy about. 

But communication does make it easier and I'm thankful for that. It is a blessing to get to laugh with John, hear his voice, and see his face, even through the filter of a choppy internet connection. There is nothing like the thrill of finding a letter sandwiched between magazines and bills in the mailbox at the end of a tiring work day.

While I wish more than anything that John wasn't there,  it is not all terrible; there are many things to be thankful for. My life is full of wonderful people-- from college friends who I can always count on no matter how long it's been since we've seen each other, to coworkers who always, always have my back, to my home church family who has been so welcoming to John and supportive of both of us, to our fantastic families who sustain us, to everyone who has politely put up with my spew of random stories about John. I am so thankful for my apartment's postwoman. I am thankful for my former students who didn't trash my room while I was seeing John off and for this year's students who ask me about my husband, even though I correct them with "fiance" every time. I am thankful for everyone who has sent John care packages, emails, letters, cards, and Facebook posts and who continue to ask about him, even when they know I'm going to talk for longer than they anticipated with an answer longer than they wanted.

I am so glad today means 100 days are over and that they're never coming back. They're gone. And the beauty of reaching this mark? We're now 100 days closer to so many things-- John's leave, his homecoming, the end of school, our wedding, and the beginning of our life together. I'd do these 100 days all over again and as many times as I'd have to if it meant that I get to spend the rest of my life with him. And since I will get to marry him in just 301 (not that I'm counting), bring on the next 100!  It's time to get this over with so John and I can move on to better, more exciting things. I'm ready. Let's go.

-Jo