Over the past two weeks I have been extremely humbled by the willingness of people to give to our soldiers. These men and women are about to enter what is quite possibly the most difficult period of separation. While we decorate our trees, bake cookies, sing songs, attend parties, hug the ones we love, they do not. While we either enjoy the snow or complain about the lack of coolness (for those of us in South Louisiana), they put on layer after layer after layer to head out into the harsh winter Afghanistan holds or maybe just to sleep if they are not fortunate enough to have good heat.
"You can go ahead," I smiled and gestured to the lady behind me. "I am going to take a while." I nodded to the double stack of boxes waiting by the counter. She was the fifth or sixth person I had said this to. But I felt awful - only one person was working the counter and I knew I would take up so much time.
"You need to stop doing that," Michelle said after I had let the cute, older lady who "just needed a pack of stamps" go ahead of me in line. "It isn't going to stop. You'll be here till lunch!" She had come to know me well. Her and one other postal worker always helped me. I knew she was right. I told her this one lady was the last one. I promised.
I stacked all fifteen boxes onto the counter a few at a time. She barely checked the forms - we'd been through this so many times before. Luckily, I hadn't forgotten to sign anything or check "gift" or put an amount.
"What are all those boxes for?" the second woman behind me asked.
"For soldiers - we stuffed Christmas Stockings for them." She smiled. She was the mother of a soldier. Needless to say, we spoke nearly the entire time the packages were being processed. Michelle chimed in from time to time. I became far more aware of the line increasing. Where had all these people come from?
And then I started hearing it. She wanted me to hear it. A boot tapping, heavy breathing. I looked - her arms were across her chest, she was staring hard at me. "Oh God," she repeated over and over again as she shifted her weight from hip to hip. She did not appreciate the wait.
The contrast was incredible. Two women standing directly beside each other with two totally different attitudes. One growing more and more frustrated - even with knowing the purpose. The other asking for an email address so that she could be involved with the next drive. It is amazing how some things work.
"Don't worry about her," Michelle kept saying. "Don't apologize. Don't worry about it." She could tell that I felt horrible every time I looked back at the growing line. We talked about what was in the packages - not in the listing customs kind-of-way, but in the true interest, keep my mind off the line kind-of-way.
When I was putting the customs labels together and closing my wallet she looked me straight in the eye and said, "You're doing a good job." It caught me off guard and it took me a second to smile. When I did, it was sincere.
"Thanks, Michelle. I'll see you next time." I exchanged a few more words with the Army Mom and headed home.
I had not done a good job. So many people around me had done a great job. And because of how rarely it usually happens, every supportive action is just a bit overwhelming. When I put out there that we would be collecting items to stuff stockings for C and his soldiers I did not expect the response we received. It was incredible. People that I had not talked to in many years sent me messages wanting to help, mothers of old classmates, church members, friends of friends. Something incredible was happening and our soldiers would greatly benefit. We stuffed (to the max) 24 hand-sewned, donated stockings and sent several boxes of items that would not fit in each. A business donated and shipped a tree and lights for each soldier. People donated money to cover shipping. One small company donated chocolate-dipped and drizzled pretzels for each soldier. Hand-warmers, home-made cookies, candy, toiletries, hand-written cards - it was incredible. An old classmate, who is now a teacher, took the time to really speak to her students about the importance of Veterans' day and our soldiers and what they stand for. They were so excited and involved that they asked to make something and they did. They made the cutest paper eagles for each of our guys. Another old friend who I had lost touch with wrote a note to each one of C's guys to be placed in each stocking. I was amazed by her firm and unwavering support of those who serve this nation and her ability and desire to express it. I know her letter to each man will bring a piece of home, a touch, while they are away.
There is something that happens when someone shows such strong support for our soldiers. When a stranger offers to buy a soldier a coffee, when an old friend offers to help like no time has passed in between, when a mother wants to help anyone who takes the same oath as her son, something happens inside of us. We feel a little stronger, we feel a little more understood, we feel just a little more whole. Because that pride we have - while it does not go away - needs to be rebooted. That love that we have for this nation and the men and women who save it can make us feel alone. The hope we have for our tomorrows can sometimes seem to be in vain. But when someone gives us that look - that look that says, "Thank You" - with the deepest emotion, that same tear-provoking pride we know - gratitude floods our bodies. Complete understanding and absolute gratefulness reads through our eyes.
It is so easy to feel forgotten. It is so easy to feel alone. When we have one of these moments - when we see and know that people will do anything to support them - they support us. They carry us for just a moment. Lighten the load. Strengthen the heart.
Our soldiers will not have turkey today - they may not have a hot meal. They will not listen as their friends and family gather to Give Thanks. They will not hold the hands of their loved ones or give hugs or enjoy baby kisses. They will give thanks for their families as they continue their mission.
No matter their exact purpose, no matter the exact order, their overall mission remains simple. To allow us to continue to Give Thanks. To allow us to continue to live in these comforts. We continue to receive, daily, the graces that were afforded to us many lifetimes ago. They continue to Give, daily, their time, their sacrifice, their lives so that we may always receive.
Give Thanks for the soldiers who will not have this day in the way that we do. Give Thanks for the fathers and mothers who will not hold their children today so that you can hold yours. Give Thanks for the sons and daughters who will not enjoy their mother's best dishes so that you can continue to share those recipes throughout the generations. Give Thanks for the spouses who will not hold their husbands' and wives' hands as they bow their heads so that you will never lose the right to bow yours in prayer. Give Thanks for these men and women who have given up this time to preserve yours.
"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.