It’s a cold December morning when he leaves. It’s still dark this time of year, and there are puffs of frost curling from your lips when you say goodbye. Nothing maudlin and sentimental. No tears, no romantic clinches. Not that he’s not capable of it. He gets positively poetic on your anniversary. But not when it is time for goodbye. That’s not his way.
So, you’re left blinking numbly on the doorstep, the baby on your hip, as he pulls out of the drive. The older kids are rubbing their eyes sleepily when you go back inside from the cold, unaware that Daddy has left them with a quick kiss on their untroubled little foreheads.
You stumble through the day trying to be cheery. You turn on Christmas carols and decide to bake cookies, thinking it will lift your mood. Then the cookies burn, and you snap a little too hastily when your 4-year-old spills her chocolate milk. Later in the day, she sobs uncontrollably when her brother steals her doll and your son sobs uncontrollably when he can’t find his Nintendo DS. Of course, that’s not what they are really sobbing uncontrollably about.
It something most of us are unable to avoid at some point during a military career. Deployment is always hard, but being separated at the holidays is especially difficult. It seems particularly unnatural. Holidays are a time for families to be together. Instead, you’re thousands of miles apart, and there’s an empty seat next to you at the kids’ church Nativity play.
I’ve braced myself every year wondering if my husband would be able to spend the holidays with us. We’ve been lucky; he was home every Christmas for the first eight years of marriage. Then, just as his military career was winding down, he got deployment orders three years in a row. He would be home in December just long enough to drag the tree up from the basement and then head off for parts unknown.
I’ve tried to look on the bright side. He couldn’t be with us, but we could try and bridge the distance a bit. I email pictures of the cub scout holiday parade and post wobbly, out-of-focus footage of the church pageant on Facebook so that he could feel included in our holiday plans, but somehow, the story of the Hilarious Thing that happened at the school party gets lost in translation over Skype.
And although we would spend months apart, there was an end date somewhere in the distance. He was going to stay safe. Everything was going to be OK. He would be back
Sometimes, that isn’t a whole lot of consolation. Particularly to a child.
And so, as with any deployment, we’ve found ways to cope during these December deployments.
We’ve always tried to stay busy to help the time go by. With the whirlwind of school, church, and extracurricular holiday activities, it isn’t hard. I find it’s often the post-January 1st letdown that is more difficult than being apart at the holidays.
While I can’t quite keep up with the “Elf on the Shelf” moms who can bake five dozen snickerdoodles for a class party, brew a pot of mulled wine, and plan a holiday meal for 20 without breaking a sweat, I’ve tried to make the season special for the kids. My sweet, compassionate daughter likes to get involved with Operation Christmas Child or Toys for Tots. I allow my son questionable viewing choices in the name of long-distance bonding with Dad. Last year, they got a lot of mileage from the “Saturday Night Live Best of Christmas Sketches” special. They found the sketch with Will Ferrell getting violently ill while singing, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” hilarious in the way that only a ten-year-old and a pilot can find something hilarious.
My husband will be away this Christmas, but we have a lot to be thankful for. We both grew up in the Philadelphia area, and after a decade away from home, I feel particularly lucky to be back on the East Coast near family. Even if Dad isn’t around, the kids can bake sand tarts from an old family recipe with Nana and open presents on Christmas morning at Gan and Papa’s house.
We’ll create our own traditions, too. We’ll count down to December 25th with our Lego Star Wars Advent calendar. We three will snuggle under the blankets watching “The Polar Express” and, probably, some inappropriate Saturday Night Live Christmas sketches. All of it, of course, recounted to dad via email and iChat.
Holidays apart are never perfect, but I am grateful for the time we do have together. And as difficult as Christmases apart are for the families, I know that it is never easy for the one who is deployed, either.
So, many military families will find ways to make the holidays special this year, even if someone is far away. The at-home parent will reassure little ones that Santa will still visit and then load a nightly batch of pictures onto an email. There will be tears and worry and sleepless nights.
And then in January, they’ll put away Advent calendars and bring out the countdown calendars, marking off the days until homecoming and keeping fingers crossed that this time next year, they’ll all be together again.