A little over three weeks ago, our family celebrated a sweet reunion here in Tokyo. After six months away, Wil returned home from a deployment.
Military life comes with all sorts of challenges but, in my book, deployments are the toughest. We muddled through, with emails and weekly phone calls, but there’s no joy in a long separation.
This was Wil’s second deployment. His first happened when we were stationed in Ohio, my home state. When Wil left, Liam was a 10-month-old baby with a gummy smile and a fluffy blond mohawk. When he returned, that baby had morphed into a chubby 18-month-old toddler who had sprouted teeth, learned to walk, and could babble a few words. (If I remember correctly, uttering “Uh oh!” was one of his favorites at that age.) In some ways, we were lucky the deployment happened when it did, when Liam was too little to grasp his father was gone. It was unlucky timing for Wil, though, who missed out on that wondrous stage in Liam’s life when he was changing practically by the minute.
This time around, Liam knew his father was gone. (Funny how small details like that don’t get past 5-year-old boys.) Our little guy turned six, graduated from his international kindergarten and grew an inch or two while our big guy was away. Liam is naturally an exuberant kid and he handled his father’s absence with cheerful aplomb. He says a heck of a lot more than “Uh oh!” these days – it’s generally tough to get my chatterbox to be silent for more than a minute – but in quieter moments, he’d admit to missing his Daddy. I give good cuddles but I’m not nearly as good at tossing him in the air or wrestling him to the ground.
I missed Wil keenly while he was gone. I longed to split a bottle of wine over a meal he’d prepared while we parsed out the details of the latest presidential primary results. (Seriously, America. Trump???) I’m a good wife and didn’t watch ‘our’ shows while he was away but, man, was I itching to queue up the new season of Orange is the New Black and spend a few evenings binge watching with him. I stuffed a big pillow under the blankets on his side of the bed but, surprise, surprise, it lacked his warmth. I watched the clock, counting the hours between us, knowing when his day started while mine was well on its way. Each Sunday, I’d arrange our afternoons around when he’d call or Skype, knowing that no words would bridge the distance completely but that hearing his voice would at least bring him a hair closer.
In Ohio, I had family within a few hours and a tight circle of ‘mom’ friends to help me through the long months of my husband’s absence. In Japan, other than the two weeks when my father from Ohio visited, I relied on my military community. There’s great comfort in being surrounded by a few thousand people who know exactly what you’re going through because they’ve been through it themselves. My friends offered food, companionship, outings and babysitting services. They also didn’t let me wallow. In the civilian world, six month absences from spouses aren’t the norm, but for military spouses, it’s part of our job description. My friends looked out for me but they didn’t offer pity or excess concern. Life carries on.
I also had Japan. Exploring without Wil wasn’t ideal but I had no intention of wasting the time he was away. Liam and I spent many Saturdays in Tokyo, visiting parks, temples and shopping districts. We travelled together to Naeba for three nights to play in the snow and to Kamakura for a night to play on the beach. My son made me proud. He’d eagerly shoulder his little backpack, take my hand and walk with me the 15 minutes to the train station outside the base gate, willing to head wherever I’d planned for the day. As he said to me one night at bedtime: “You see a train, you want to get on it.” We may have been lonely, but living in one of the world’s most fascinating cities with a few million neighbors made boredom impossible.
Since Wil returned on a rainy Thursday evening, we’ve had three weeks to spend together. It’s been good. He’s the same, as expected. He’s different, as expected. He unpacked. He puttered. He prioritized. What he chose to prioritize sometimes made me chuckle: Within 24 hours of walking in the door, I caught him in the kitchen, carefully tidying and reordering the spice shelf I had jumbled while he was away. After working seven days a week for months, he’s relished the chance to get to wear regular clothes again, pulling out and donning his goofy socks, the ones with hula girls or tacos or the phrase “#socks” printed on them. He had an official two-week respite from work, including a week Liam fortuitously had off school due to Japanese holidays. He took an additional week of vacation time so we could travel by bullet train to Nara, Hiroshima and Osaka. Last week, as we rolled into unfamiliar landscapes, I was glad to have his familiar presence at my side once again. We’ve reconnected. Nine days in hotel rooms with your six-year-old will certainly make your family feel close again. (Maybe even a little too close….) Now he’s back in his office, Liam’s back at school, and I’m here at my keyboard. All is right in the world.
I’m proud of Wil and his willingness to serve his country. Before I married him, at the age of 30, I had lived a comfortable civilian life in Columbus, Ohio. I didn’t really know anyone in the military and had never set foot on a military base. That changed rapidly. Three months after our wedding, Wil left for his training in Alabama and I’ve been a military spouse ever since. A decade later, I’m still somewhat surprised by the direction my life has taken. I’m even more surprised by how fiercely I’ve come to embrace my role as a military spouse. It’s hard, wickedly hard at times, especially during deployment times, but I know that our family is a part of a much greater community. I’ve grown to have enormous respect for that community, for the men and women in uniform and for the spouses and children who support them in their service. My own airman in his daily camouflage uniform of BDUs is a world away from the cocky law student who wore hoodies and ball caps to class each day, but my love for him has only grown. He is home, for now. Safe, close, present. Welcome back, my love.
Beautifully written. Military spouse life is definitely a challenge sometimes but the rewards are enormous. I have it a lot easier because we don’t have small children. Having a baby or child would make things so much more difficult. My challenge is more about having a difficult time relating to most of the spouses because I don’t have children and most of them/you do. I don’t go to play groups or school functions so my interaction with other spouses tends to be a bit limited. Going out with other spouses almost always ends up with discussions about the kids, I have nothing to offer in that conversation. It can be a bit isolating, specially in a new place and I don’t have a ready-made awesome little travel companion.
I completely agree. Kids make the constant moving a challenge and I’m not necessarily looking forward to the idea of moving Liam frequently throughout his childhood. But yes, having him has eased my ability to make friends. And having my little guy does help me get out the door to explore. When we were a childless couple, Wil and I often joked about how the military must issue children since almost everyone around us had them. I’ve had other friends, like you, struggle with fitting in when they don’t have kids in tow. I think, because it’s hard to maintain a career with this lifestyle, many spouses end up identifying strongly with their roles as mothers. It would be hard to relate if you’re not one. I hope you are able to find your new tribe soon, whether they’re mothers or not, and enjoy the benefits of friendships overseas.
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