I count the blinks on the fire alarm positioned above the bedroom door. My eyes have adjusted so well to the darkness that I can see the popcorn effect on the ceiling of this older apartment. I hear Eli beginning to squirm followed by his low cry. It is the fourth time he has gotten up tonight. But it doesn't matter; I haven't slept anyway. I check my phone - three-thirty. I might as well get started. I get Eli back to sleep and get ready for the day, knowing C will be up in a half hour or so.
Through the bathroom door, I hear the familiar alarm on his phone - a sound I will not hear for 12 months - waking him. I finish my hair and makeup listening for his movement. Hearing nothing, I open the bathroom door quietly and see that he has moved down to the air mattress beside our bed to hold our sleeping, two-year-old son. Our son who will be three when he returns.
The first tears of the day sit in my eyes, resting on the edge of the lids. "Breathe," I tell myself, "Just Breathe." The dampness sinks back into its origin, allowing my newly made-up face to stay fresh ... for now.
For the family of a soldier, there are two days that seem to present the strongest and most overwhelming emotions. The day we hug goodbye and the day we welcome home. Two very different days. Two very different states of mind. Two very different pictures of complete, raw emotion.
Today we would say goodbye.
The amount and power of conflicting emotions on this day is indescribable. There is a deep desire to scream, to hold onto your soldier and beg them to find a way to stay. To look into the eyes of anyone who matters and say, "Not MY husband."
There is anticipation, often tinged with annoyance for anyone who understands the phrase "hurry up and wait." There is a voice inside of us saying, "Let's get it started. Get 'em on the plane." We want to start counting - counting down until the day they return. When we can feel one emotion ... absolute joy. When we can feel no other insanity racking our brains and hearts but complete bliss when we see OUR soldier coming down the steps of that plane. We hold onto the image of that moment to get through this one.
There is a feeling we repeatedly force to the back of our mind. That we tell ourselves will not enter our thoughts again. But somehow, more often than it should, it creeps back.
There is fear. Deep, nauseating fear that this will be the last time we see them. The last time we will hold them. The last time our children will kiss their daddy.
I close my eyes, trying with everything in me to erase the feeling. To remove it from my mind as I have done so many times before. I instinctively squeeze his arm. The side of his mouth for the quickest moment flinches. He doesn't look at me. I know the same fear just entered his mind. He can read my thoughts, my actions so well. The nauseated feeling nearly becomes overwhelming.
The fear is natural. It is inescapable. I acknowledge it for that moment and move on.
For me, there is one more feeling that overcomes me and this feeling trumps my fear. It is unwavering, tear-provoking, absolute patriotic pride. It is this that will allow me to let him go. To see the crowd of families surrounding us, juggling the same emotions, knowing that these people encompass what these soldiers are fighting for brings me great comfort. To know these soldiers are supported, by so many people who love them, who are proud to know them, to call them husband, wife, son, daughter, father, mother. Who know that no matter what they are to them, for me my husband, for my sons their daddy, they are a soldier for the people. One of the few who have sacrificed this time to ensure that those they love, and that even those they don't, have the rights and privileges passed down from the blood of those who fought before them. What more can there be but gratitude and pride.
It is this pride, accompanied by a fierce faith that God will strengthen their bodies and hearts, that will allow me to let go of his hand and take the hand of my two-year-old, and walk away. It is with this awefilling respect that I wipe the single tear about to fall from the inside corner of his right eye. It is this faith that gives me the strength to smile when he says, "I'm coming home to you."
I brush my hands over the patches on his uniform one last time. I move the hand that holds the sign of my commitment over the embroidery marking the name we both share. I pat down the screaming eagle that he wore when I welcomed him home the last time. Moving my fingertips up to the material that is different. It is not fabric as the others. No thread makes its pattern. It is slick, cool plastic. The "backwards" flag as I once referred to it.
"It isn't backwards," he had told me as I studied the flag on his uniform for the first time. It is the image one sees when charging into battle he explained to me. "If it were 'right'," he said to me, "We would be retreating."
I understood. That made sense. What he said next, touched me in a different way than it is meant.
"The stars are always closest to the heart," he said in a simple, matter-of-fact way. I nodded.
And I know there was nothing implied by that, it was simply a fact but so appropriate. It is the people of these states, these stars, that they carry with them as they enter into battle. They carry all of the men and women of this nation that believe in what our fathers believed in closest to their very core as they face anyone and anything that stands to destroy it. As they leave us, as they themselves are torn by the deep desire to stay and the importance of their going, they carry us where we should be. Closest to the heart.
I stop at the doorway to the farewell center and look back. From across the room he just barely nods his head and I slightly nod mine. I squeeze Logan's hand and hold Eli tight against me. "Breathe," I tell myself, "Just Breathe." I take a deep breath, look out into the sparkling sunlight, and take the first step, knowing that everyday, I am closest to his heart.
"A soldier doesn't fight because he hates what is in front of him. A soldier fights because he loves what he left behind." - unknown
"God is our refuge and strength. He will protect us and make us strong" (ps 46:1). For those who will fly today, for those who are there now, and for those who will soon join the fight, Lord, shield them from all evil, strengthen their hearts, and bring them home safely.