A military wife deals with life while her husband is deployed.
| I wake up. Not the lazy, roll-over kind of awake, but the full-fledged, sit-up-in-bed awake. I listen for a sound I hope to never hear. No sounds comes from outside. No car driving up. No footsteps approaching. No knock from a man in his Air Force dress blues.
The clock says it’s 5 a.m., or oh-500 hours in my husband’s world. Rumor has it they come in the wee hours before dawn to deliver the bad news. A gentle snore garners my attention. I look to my right. The figure isn’t who I wish it was, even though he’s as close to a clone as you can come. He has his father’s baby blues, his smile, attitude, and even sense of humor, toned down for an eight year old. Of course, where there’s one, the other is close behind. If the Eldest is his father’s miniature, the three year old is his brother’s diminutive doppelganger. A mini Mini-Me as it were. I ruffle the Eldest’s hair, cut like his Dad’s (naturally) and touch the Youngest’s soft cheek, hoping Eric will feel it wherever he is in Iraq.
I leave the warmth of the bed and the two boys in it. Experience has taught me that it is pointless to attempt to go back to sleep. All I do is lie awake. Waiting. Waiting for a knock I hope never comes.
I make my way past the disaster area formerly known as my hallway. Huge chunks of ceiling are missing, as well as part of one wall. Normally, I look upon the mess and sigh with exasperation. Stupid. Who the hell puts a swamp cooler on the roof and runs a water line from the water heater in the basement through the walls, ceiling, and roof.
But it’s 5 a.m. and the only thought I have is to get the Bean of Life percolating in the pot. My dependence on coffee has grown since Eric left. Half a pot used to do me for the day. Now it takes a pot and a half for me to muddle through.
I turn on the Java Juicer, previously set up the night before, and fire up the computer. Invariably, there’s an e-mail from Eric. It reads pretty much the same. Nothing to report. No action around the base. Took a convoy to Baghdad. An IED exploded, but nobody was hurt. Made it back without incident. Why don’t you write more?
The last comment irritates. “I don’t know,” I answer out loud. “I’m only dealing with my inability to go to school, two whiney boys who miss their Dad, and a swamp cooler that dumped about 2 billion gallons of water into our attic.”
The loud sarcasm sounds harsh, even in my half-awake state. It’s hard for me to be sympathetic to his situation when everyone wants something from me. And I mean EVERYONE. My boys, the insurance company, the adjuster, teachers, church, bill collectors, him…I can’t catch my breath sometimes.
It’s the Fourth of July. Eric has only been gone a month and I‘m not dealing very well. I’m at home, by myself, with the two Monsters. No parties. No celebrations. No fireworks. No friends. Just me. Brooding. The phone rings and I jump. I pick up, hoping not to hear what I think it might be. It’s not, but the news is just as shocking.
“Honey,” my father says without preamble. “I’m leaving your Mother.”
I’m stunned, waiting for the punch line to come. It doesn’t. “What?!?”
“Here’s your mother,” he says.
Without further ado, Mom is on the phone, crying, bitching, calling my Dad everything in the book but a white man. It’s 5 a.m. in the freakin’ morning. What the hell are they doing separating at 5 a.m. in the damn morning. I hear, but I don’t listen too well. My mouth goes dry because it’s been open for so long. The Rock of my childhood is gone. Dead to me. Later in Mom’s diatribe I find out it’s for another woman he was engaged to long before my mother. After 33 years of marriage he’s gone. I say a couple of things to Mom, then hang up on her in mid-bitch. A numbness overtakes my nerves. Who can I talk to? I’d call Eric, but he’s dealing with his own problems. The damn time difference screws me up. I call him anyhow and miraculously manage to speak to him. Both of us talk, but neither listens. I hang up still numb and unable to wrap my mind around it all.
The scent of the java tweaks my senses. I pour some in a cup. It’s blackness calls to me; mirrors my mood. The Monsters upstairs stir. Since their father left, they’ve been sleeping about as well as I.
The cup is in both hands, just under my nose. With eyes closed, I breathe in the wonderful, bitter, roasted scent. The gears in my head whir and rattle like some rusty machinery. The day’s to-do list clicks into place. I have to keep things normal if I am to survive. Breakfast. Laundry. Clean. Lunch. Call the subcontractor. Get my damn house fixed, painted, and carpeted. Sheetrock needs to be hung. Insulation blown into the attic.
The anxiety builds and I start to hyperventilate. I look frantically for my medication. Celexa is a wonderful anti-anxiety drug. The small pill goes down quickly with a slurp of coffee. Thoughts of the day and the previous conversation with my parents continue to bombard me. An extra 40 milligrams of sanity follow the first. It’s not an addiction if the Doc says it’s okay. Is it?
Two sets of footsteps bound down the stairs. The day rushes forward, dragging me along with it, kicking and screaming the entire way.
“So what you’re saying is that if Eric dies in Iraq, I would be better off than you, because your divorce is much more heart wrenching?” Incredulousness tinges the question that follows my mother’s obscene statement. It’s been three months since Eric left. My tweaked-out imagination runs wild. Her self-centered reply to my question is lost in the chaos my mind brings forth. A loud explosion, screaming, blood, bullets, and an early-morning knock on my door. Emotions piggyback the first thoughts. Crying, anger, hurt, loss, pain, depression.
It’s my anniversary and I’m at Disney World with my Mom. In a desire to have my Mom with me, and avoid the mess my house is still in, I agreed to a visit, with the insane hope of mutual support. A horrible mistake. If I hadn’t made a promise to the Eldest that we would see Mickey Mouse when we arrived, I’d have packed up the boys and left. My father left long before we arrived, so all my mother did was sit and stew in the time since that early-morning Fourth of July phone call until our arrival.
I hadn’t been on the ground for more than 15 minutes. Just enough time to make it to the baggage claim, when she unloaded on me. No preamble. No “Hi, how are you doing with Eric gone?” Just a constant haranguing about my father. Every waking minute of every day since then is spent reliving the past 33 years, especially the bad times. How she sacrificed everything for her family. How she didn‘t love my father, but stayed for me. I’ve heard everything so many times, I finish her sentences. It’s gotten to the point that I just let it bounce off my numb skin.
Until this final asinine assertion, that is. The death of my husband is nothing compared to her divorce. The urge to slap her is overwhelming, but it is replaced with something even more unforgivable.
Her diatribe stops. Flabbergasted, her mouth opens and closes like a fish trying to breathe. I turn, take a child in each hand, and stomp off. The boys are almost running to keep up. I weave through the crowd, feeling the lasers from my mother’s eyes splitting my skull.
The Clones and I stop at a bench outside the Magic Kingdom. As soon as my backside touches the seat, the tears start to flow. I sob, head in hands. A couple of minutes into this, two sets of hands reach around me and squeeze. Above the sobbing I hear two small voices. “I love you, Mommy.”
My view shifts. I see myself from 10 feet away, a sullen, sobbing wretch with two small figures trying to squeeze all the love in the world back into me. I look up into the blue sky. Clouds skitter past. I reach to touch them and start to float upwards. I smile. Peace beckons from above. I cast a last look at myself.
Two boys clinging desperately to their sobbing mother arrests my ascent. I have to stay. For them. For Eric. For myself. One last heaving sob and I’m back. I grab the two Clones and squeeze. “I love you both so much.”
The remaining time with my mother is mercifully short and quiet. It takes her three days to acknowledge my presence again, another 2 days to have something resembling a conversation. The tension in my body finally releases at 30,000 feet on the flight home.
Home again. I am finally working to fix the mess. I can only deal with one thing at a time. This time it’s carpeting. The choices seem endless. I’m looking, trying to find a good, quality product with the money allowed by the insurance company. Thing One and Thing Two are climbing over the mounds of carpet. Normally, I’d care, but the sales girl annoys me. Therefore, the Monkeys are off the leash.
It’s crap. All of it. Every single stinking yard. When I can see the backing between the strands, it’s all crap. Unfortunately, this is who the subcontractor has made a deal with. I should have figured it would be the lowest possible bidder. A deep breath escapes my pursed lips. I’m tired to the bone. My body signals the need for more caffeine. “I’ll call you later,” I say to the girl, dismissing her without a glance. The Youngest Ape swings by and I grab him in mid leap from the mountain of carpet.
The ride home hits a detour called Avoidance. I don’t want to go back to the house right now and sit in a construction zone. Our car cruises past the street that leads to home and heads for a park close by. The stop at the park doesn’t happen, however, before a visit to the local drive-thru coffee shop. At the park I in the sit with the afternoon sun at my back, a cup of Joe in my hands. The Monkeys work off their excess energy, ironically on the monkey bars. If I could siphon some vigor from them, I could make it through the day, instead of relying on liquid black gold.
I start to think, which leads to anxiety, which leads to hyperventilation. There isn’t enough air in the world right now. My head starts spinning. I lean over, placing my head between my legs. The coffee spills to the ground.
“Breath, dammit, breathe,” I mantra.
I need help. Now.
An idea hits me. I can breathe for the moment.
I herd the boys into the car, an exasperating process in, and of, itself. I yell. They cry. I’m near tears myself. The car burns rubber out of the parking lot. My destination is the Family Support Center on base. Eric said I can go there if I need help. And, Brother, do I need it right now.
I make it to the parking lot of the Center, mercifully without incident. The hyperventilation may have stopped, but the anxiety is still at max levels. The boys remain in the car while I head in. The reflection in the door to the building startles me. There is a woman, who resembles me, but it’s not me. Her hair is a mess. Her clothes are rumpled. The sandals on her feet don’t even match. And I’m not sure, but I don’t think she’s showered in a few days. I open the door for this crazy woman. She walks in without a thank you, the bitch.
“I need help,” I say to the girl at the desk. Introductions don’t matter right now. I’m on the verge of madness.
“Sure,” she says, smiling sympathetically. It pisses me off even more. She looks all of 18, if that. “How can I help you?”
I begin to speak, but it sounds a lot like gobbledygook, even to me. I can only make out a few things. “House mess. Iraq. Husband deployed. Boys. Need a break. Help?”
The teenaged temp blinks for a second. Still smiling, she pulls out a pen and some forms. Figures. The government is run by paperwork. “Fill these out and we’ll see if someone can accommodate you in the next week or two.”
I feel my cheeks flush. The external volume goes up. Coherent English replaces the babble as I lean over the desk. “One to two weeks?! Are you kidding?! I need help, NOW!!”
She pushes her chair away from the desk and out of my reach. The smile falters. “It takes that long to process the paperwork.”
I go nuclear.
“Paperwork! In one to two weeks I’ll be dead! Or my kids will! I’ll make Andrea Yates look like Mother-of-the-Year!”
The teen stands up, taking a step back. “Don’t you have any family or friends that can help you,” she asks softly.
No, tell me you didn’t just go there, my inner voice says. Please tell me you didn’t. Yes. Yes, she did.
Oh, boy. Hang on folks. Here we go.
I emphasize my Southern accent, an unfamiliar speech pattern in the Far West. “Does it really sound like I’m from around here?!!” I’m bellowing now, full rage venting from all pores. “I have more time on this stupid base than my husband does. He was here for two months, then they deployed him. I have two children and not a lot of time to research the bonds of sisterhood!” Anxiety is in full swing, my chest heaves with the effort.
Then, the tears start. Hers, not mine. Great job bully, my inner voice says, you made a teenager cry. Do you feel better about yourself?
A small part of me wants to apologize. But the glowering madwoman feels nothing but satisfaction. I turn and walk away. The reflection of the Psycho Beast meets me at the door again. I slam my hand in her face as I walk out. The ride home is mercifully silent, even from the back seat. The boys recognize when Mom is on edge. Now is one of those times.
When we enter the house, I turn on the television, AKA The Babysitter. “Sit here, watch TV, and don’t mess with anything,” I order the Eldest. “You can have ‘A,’ as in ONE, snack. I’m going to the kitchen, then to my room for a bit. Don’t tear the house down around us. Please.”
Ever the dutiful soldiers, the two answer, “Yes, Ma’am,“ then sit down to watch Sponge Bob Squarepants. Dutiful until my door shuts, that is.
I head for the kitchen, looking for my happy pills. The anti-anxiety meds go down fairly smooth with a glass of Pinot. Libation finished, I walk into the living room for hugs and kisses before heading upstairs.
The routine that follows the shutting of the bedroom door has become entirely too familiar as of late. A blanket gets wrapped around the shoulders of the patient (me), who sits, places pillow on lap, face in pillow, and screams hysterically, followed by uncontrollable sobbing. The meds usually kick in about 30 minutes later.
Breakdown complete, I splash water on my face at the bathroom sink (I won’t even look at the raving lunatic in the mirror) and head downstairs. As expected, the room is torn asunder. Cushions off the couch, PB&J crackers are crushed into the carpet, and Cartoon Network is blasting from the TV. The boys are in the kitchen, where another disaster awaits. Ketchup, mustard, hot dogs, and buns are strewn about. The Eldest holds up a plate with a dog and a bun on it. He’s smiling proudly.
“I made you dinner, Mom.”
I smile and thank him. Monster No. 2 brings forth “MusNkechp, Mom.” I kneel down to take the condiments from him. Both boys get hugs and kisses. I hold on to them tightly. Like I’m holding on to my sanity.
At 5 a.m. next morning it begins again. I crawl out of bed, unamazed that it is infested the two large Bed Bugs. Downstairs, the coffee pot automatically turns on. The computer fires up quickly after spending the night in sleep mode. The radio substitutes for the adult contact I crave. National Public Radio is the only show worth listening to early in the day. The top stories set the tone.
“A roadside bomb has killed four more soldiers outside Baghdad,” intones the announcer in his deep voice. “Also, a suicide bomber unleashed on a market, killing 14 outside the Green Zone in Baghdad.”
Damn the waste. The absolute waste of it all. It’s too early to be angry, but I am. What is the point of killing your own people? Anarchy and chaos provide nothing to the situation. That, on top of the fact that our troops are fighting and dying in a civil war. And nobody wants to do anything to stop the slaughter. Not the Iraqi Parliament. They’re too involved in stupid sectarian politics. Not the President. He’s too hell-bent on sending more troops into the meat grinder. Not Congress, they can’t agree on a damn thing.
Four more American families will be missing a son, a daughter, a father, or a mother come the holidays. Just like every one of the unfortunate families thus far. Why? For what? The President says he will stay the course. What happens when the course leads us onto a coral reef, where the world can watch us wreck ourselves? If the Iraqis don’t even care enough to stop slaughtering each other, why should we? Why should we continue to send our military members in harm’s way?
Tears, big and unrestrained, begin to flow. Three pills find their way into my system. The day blurs by.
A new day begins at 5 a.m. Just like the past few months. Just like the weeks ahead. But something is out of place. A car is running. Probably just passing by, says my inner voice. The problem is, the sound isn’t decreasing with distance. It’s running outside my house. Then it stops. So does my heart. A door slams. It’s right outside. I can’t breathe. The knock brings me tearing downstairs. I stop short of the front door, afraid to open it.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh Jesus, please let me be dreaming.”
My eyes close, hoping I’m losing my mind.
Knock, knock, knock, knock. I’m not losing my mind, but I will. Time, something we have tons of, and yet, not enough, creeps. My hand starts to shake as I reach for the knob. The door swings and I step back to take in the vision before me. A man in blue, more horrible than anything ever envisioned by Stephen King stands there. Words, vile and terrible, pass from his lips. I fall back to the bottom step. My hands cover my ears, but you can’t unhear something.
I begin my mantra, “Breathe, dammit, breathe.” I have to be strong. Strong for Ryan our Eldest, who suddenly finds himself the man of the house. Strong for Hamilton the Younger, who looks up to his brother. Strong for me, so I can keep us together.
I look at the clock on the wall. It’s 5 a.m.