My Own Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Drill Weekend started when my boss forgot to call me with a last-minute change in location, and I showed up in the wrong place and the wrong time for the Big Meeting. Let the record show, however, that Sherpa was in good company: The unit's lawyer hadn't gotten the good word, either. Neither had the chaplain. I felt like the cartoon guy with a devil and an angel, one on each shoulder ...
By the time I reached the correct objective, the new training scheme had been briefed, and it was mostly all over but the meowing. It then fell to Sherpa and his buddies to try to make sense of it all, put it all down on paper, and regurgitate it out to the people who need to know.
I had planned to bunk out at the armory Saturday night, to grab a cot and sleep in somebody's office or classroom or locker room. Household-6 called me on the cellphone at some point during the day, with my 5-year-old daughter Lena sobbing in the background.
"Daddy, I really miss you," she says.
It tore. Me. Up.
Household-6 and I had been married for a few years, but we were still trying to figure out whether we had what it took to be parents when I deployed the first time. We thought I might be deploying to Iraq, and we were a little freaked out about Gulf War Syndrome. We even discussed whether we should Hurry Up and Procreate, or whether I should, uh ... "invest" ... in one of those ding-dang fertility banks.
We did neither. Instead, we waited until I got home after a short deployment to a region best described as "none of the above," at compared to the usual deployment options at the time.
Lena was born an appropriate number of months after my return. She was a sweet baby, and slept through the night at the age of 2 weeks. A few years later, she was followed by her brother, Rain. Rain is also a bubbly kid, but he was a little fussier than Lena had been as an infant.
In the first two years of our Rain, Household-6 and I began to suffer the sleep deprivation and depression we'd only heard horror stories about. I began to understand how, when I was back in Army radio school, an Alabama National Guard buddy went from happy-go-lucky to nothing-and-flat when his wife had their first kid. He kept begging to escape the classroom, to ruck up and go out into the field.
"Chandler, you don't get it," we told him. "Here, we get coffee and air-conditioning. We go out for a field exercise, and it's bugs and wet and 24-hour operations."
"No, you don't understand," Chandler said, staring the thousand-meter-stare of a new father, "out there, in the boonie, I'd get more sleep out there than I'm getting at home right now."
Household-6 and I finally started getting the hang of it around Rain's second birthday. We got back to our old selves, and began again to relate to each other as partners as well as parents. We still talk of having two kids as being the hardest thing we've ever done, and then we remember that some of our friends have more than two, and we simply cannot comprehend how they do it.
Similarly, while deployed, I remember appreciating the sacrifices made daily by each of my buddies who had kids--the family events, the growing-up milestones, the thousand parental decisions made in their absences--but not fully understanding the awesome significance of these losses.
Now, however, my kid picks up on some pre-deployment vibe, or maybe just randomly misses her Dad, and I get a cellphone call. I mentally start flash-forwarding to every tear-filled send-off ceremony and staticky phone call that's yet to come. I start imagining every grumpy parent-child showdown I won't directly be a part of. I start realizing that, if having two kids was the hardest thing that Household-6 and I ever did, at least we had the advantage of doing it together. Now, with my pending deployment, she's staring down the barrel of doing it all solo.
Household-6 plays disciplinarian well enough to get by. Given Sherpa's big and booming baritone, however, he's more likely to play the heavy, the big meanie, the "bad cop." Sherpa's patented "Voice of God," he flatters himself, is still sufficient to cause a kid to freeze in her or his little tracks, to keep the kid from making an unsafe mistake. I am that I am, Shepa says, and I am loud. And it is good.
I remember that Old Testament story, in which Elijah sits in a cave on Mount Sinai, waiting for God to pass. He hears the winds, but the Lord is not in the wind. After the wind, there is an earthquake, but the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, there is fire. But the Lord is not in the fire. And after the fire, there is a still, small voice.
(I just looked it up, by the way: It's 1 Kings 19: 11-12 in the King James Version of the Bible--which, my chaplain buddies assure me, is the best version for "Voice of God" verbal fireworks.)
After each of my kids was born, I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night, obsessing about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). There's no history of it in my family, but this turned out to be my own, personal obsessive-compulsive boogey-man. After I allowed SIDS thought to creep into my head, the only way to get back to sleep was for me to pad as silently as I could to the door of their rooms, and to listen, carefully and patiently, for the sounds of their breathing.
"I feel like the worst mother in the world during your drill weekends," says Household-6. I think about leaving her and the kids for more than a year, and it tears me up. Even for it's for all the right reasons. Even if it's for God, country, and guy in the figurative foxhole next to me. I already feel like the worst father in the world.
If I leave them now, I will miss the first day of kindergarten. I will miss the first loose tooth. I will miss the first bicycle ride.
How will they hear and heed my warnings?
How will I, in the darkness, hear the sounds of their breathing?