Melinda grew up in Oregon where her family has lived for 100 years. Always the one to “do something different,” she married a sailor and has been moving ever since. Self-proclaimed professional mover and chauffeur of her two kids, Melinda writes wherever, whenever she can (often times while sitting in the car). As a freelance writer she’s had articles published online and published a short story, “My Dad’s Delivery” in They Lied! True Tales of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Breastfeeding!
by Melinda Jones
I have been married to the Navy for 15 years. In that time, my husband has been on numerous deployments ranging from a couple of weeks to 7 months. When he proposed, he warned me that it would be hard. He pointed out how I would be left to raise the kids for months on end, living in places I had no desire to live in, thousands of miles from my family while he’d be out doing what he loved. He was up front and honest but, I was young and naïve and said yes. At 22, I honestly believed that it would be easier to say goodbye every few months than it would be to sever the ties completely and just walk away. Little did I know that I would become so blasé to saying goodbye over and over that eventually his leaving would be just another date on the calendar. How could I go from not being able to imagine living my life without this man to basically doing just that? I had learned to adjust.
A military family constantly adjusts: we adjust to new places, new friends, we adjust after our sailor leaves when the bed feels too big, the house too empty, when someone has to give something up because mom can’t be in two places at once. I adjust when a quiet loneliness settles around me like a favorite soft blanket on a cold, wet day. The kids and I adapt to his absences, sliding into our “Dad’s on deployment” mode where I become full time disciplinarian, cook, counselor, chauffeur, cheerleader, task master, house keeper-upper. I missed him when he was gone, but then he would return and we would adjust yet again. The kids have to get used to having another adult in the house. I would have to get used to running things by him; it’s like going back to a partnership after months of dictatorship. We’d argue over the kids’ schedules, which home improvement project is more pressing, the changes I made when he was gone, the things I didn’t consult with him on; the things I’ve been allowing the kids to do when he isn’t home. It’s tiring. It’s hard to take his opinion into consideration after going so long without it, and it’s hard for him to accept what I’ve done when he was gone and to assimilate back into the role of dad and husband as opposed to that of an officer where, onboard the ship, his word is final. I’ll admit it; I like things done my way. I have probably lost my ability to compromise.
When we moved to Washington State, we bought our first house. My husband was coming to the end of his naval career and we knew that we wanted to retire in the Pacific Northwest. Our daughter was starting middle school. We were gambling on the slim possibility that my husband would be able to get a follow on shore duty at the same base—he’d finish out his career and we wouldn’t have to move anymore. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. We watched the jobs that were opening up, holding our breath. When it came time for him to get placed, there was nothing for him anywhere near us.
I thought we’d been through it all. I thought we’d survived it all. I was wrong.
“You got orders for where?” I asked, turning from the kitchen sink, suds dripping from my hands, splatting on the floor.
My husband was sitting at the table, pulling his boots off. “Nebraska. Strategic Command.” He didn’t even look up; he knew I’d be pissed.
“But… they knew you wanted to stay here right? I mean you explained that we just bought a house? That our daughter flat out refuses to move?”
“Honey,” he said sternly. “Of course I did, but it all comes down to—”
“The needs of the Navy.” If I had a dime for every time I was fed that line of bullshit, we wouldn’t have to wait two more years for Lee to retire; we could do it now. “Screw the Navy.” I threw a spoon down in the sink only to get splashed with dishwater. “Damn it.”
Lee came over, handed me a dish towel and turned me around by my waist so that I was facing him. “Nebraska isn’t bad. I’ve talked to a lot of guys that’ve been there. It has good schools for the kids… the College World Series is there.” He smiled, trying to get me to do the same. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t let him off that easily.
“So, that’s it? You have actual, written orders?”
“They’re writing them up now.”
“So there’s still a small chance we could stay here?”
“Until the official orders come in yes, there’s a chance. But, it’s not going to happen, Babe. Not in this case.”
“Omaha?” I asked flatly.
“Yep. StratCom… Omaha has the College World Series…”
“You already said that.” I sat down at the table. “What the hell are we going to do? We can’t sell the house, we just friggin’ bought it.”
“We could rent it out. Find a property manager to take care of things.”
“We just put in new carpets! You know that’s not what I meant. What about the kids? Christine has moved seven times already. She’s been in school in four different states. Good Lord! Do you not remember what we went through with her when we moved here?” I shuddered at the memory of our daughter, who was 11 at the time of our last move. I had never seen a child so utterly unhappy; her grades had plummeted, she sulked for months. It had taken almost a full year before she came around again. “She’s getting ready for high school. If we move to Nebraska now, she’s going to be moving again at the beginning of her junior year. Do you know how much that would suck for her? Nine moves in 16 years? Moving in the middle of high school? It’s a bit much isn’t it?”
“Yes, I know,” he said.
I wasn’t about to let up. “And Joe has his little group of friends down the road. If we move and then come back in two years, it’ll be totally different for him. Their friends aren’t going to wait for them. It’s different now, for both of them, they’re both older and…”
Lee held up his hand. “Honey, I know. Trust me. I don’t want to move the kids again either, but what’s the alternative? There just aren’t any openings for me here.”
I saw a spot of dried spaghetti sauce on a placemat and started picking at it. When it wouldn’t come off, I got up, picked the placemat up and threw it in the laundry room. I headed back to the sink of dirty dishes. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my husband shake his head, lean down to pick up his boots and head upstairs. I turned the water on and waited for it to get hot. Looking out the window I noticed the garden, that I had planted that spring, needed to be weeded. The bird feeder needed to be filled. The shrubs that I had moved away from the dog’s yard in an attempt to keep him from peeing on them were slowly dying. I need to replace those, I thought absently. Steam wafted up from the sink and I turned the water off, the faux lemon scent of the dish soap tickling my nose.
We didn’t talk about the orders for the rest of the day. The kids came home from school and Joe threw his backpack inside, yelled “hello” and disappeared down the street to play with his friends. I took Christine to swim practice. It was business as usual. Several days passed before we spoke of Omaha again. I had looked on the internet half-heartedly at Omaha and was unimpressed. I was used to seeing snow-capped mountains and tall cedar trees. Omaha looked empty. Like a drawing that someone got bored of before they finished. I decided I don’t like uninterrupted horizons.
On Friday, Lee came home from work while I was cooking dinner. He sat down at the table to take his boots off and then poured me a glass of wine. Taking me by the hand, he led me to the table and set my overflowing merlot down in front of me.
“I have to take Christine to practice,” I said pushing the glass away a few inches.
“I’ll take her.” He didn’t say anything else.
“What Lee?” I asked, exasperated. “Don’t do this.” I gestured to the tableau in front of me: the wine, the two of us sitting at the table, him offering to do the car pool, as if we didn’t have a large elephant in the room. “Just tell me.”
“I got the official orders today.”
“For…?” Despite knowing better, I clung stubbornly to my thin thread of hope.
“Well, it’s not like we weren’t expecting to get screwed by the Navy. Again.”
“Honey. Nothing’s a guarantee, we knew that.” Lee gives me room to complain, but having been in the Navy since he was 18, he would only take so much of my Navy bashing. My Good Navy Wife persona was cracking. I tried to appear stoic, but the tears sliding down my face gave me away. I didn’t bother with a napkin, just wiped them away with the collar of my shirt and took a deep breath.
“So, what are we going to do?” I asked sincerely.
“Well, I guess we have some decisions to make. Do we want to move, as a family? Do we sell the house? Rent it out? Do I move and you all stay here?”
I tapped my fingers on the stem of the wine glass, watched the red ripples. “You know, I realized that by marrying a sailor, you would be going out to sea. Obviously I knew there would be times when we would be separated. But, I always assumed it would be because of a deployment. I never imagined us choosing to live in two separate states.” Lee moved to give me a hug, but I kept him at arm’s length and shook my head knowing that I’d lose it if I let my guard down. “When are you supposed to report?”
“I would have to leave after the first of the year.”
“So, one month. We’d have to move in one month.”
“I could move and you and the kids could come out in June, after school’s out.”
“Lee, I just can’t imagine moving Christine again… and then moving her in two years in the middle of high school? I just think it would… I don’t know, I just think it would be too much for her. She’s done.”
“What about you?”
While Omaha didn’t instill any excitement in me, it’s funny how quickly I had become used to moving every couple of years, to the point where if we were in one place for too long, I got a bit antsy. But that was me. “You know, at this point it’s not about what I want, or what you want. We have to do what’s best for the kids.”
Lee leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms against his chest. “And possibly living without their dad is the best thing for them?”
I realized that what I was going to say could be misconstrued. I didn’t want to come out and say that the kids would be fine without him home, even though I knew that would be true. I didn’t want him to think that just because we could function without him, we wanted to. “Honey, you being gone is not something new to them. You’ve been in and out for their entire lives. If we decide to stay here, as long as they get to see you every few months, I think they’d be okay with it.” Lee wordlessly reached for my wine glass and took a long sip. “I’m sorry,” I said, putting my hand on his knee. “I’m not saying this to hurt you, I’m just being honest.”
“I know.” He swirled the wine around the glass. “Doesn’t make it any easier to hear.” The kitchen clocked ticked away, seemingly growing louder in the silence between us. “So, what you’re saying is that you would rather stay here with the kids.”
I swallowed my frustration and my first impulse, which was to become sarcastic and sadistic at his inability to see that I was not the one who put our family in this position to begin with, that I was just trying to make the best of a shitty situation. “No, I’m not saying ‘I would rather.’ I’m saying that I think it’s what’s best for the kids.”
“God, I know Anne. I’m sorry, this sucks. I’m done. I’m done with the Navy. I’m done moving. I’m done missing out on my kids growing up.” His voice shook. He looked to me as if he expected me to say something to make it all go away, to come up with the ideal resolution. I knew there wasn’t one. There was nothing I could do or say to make this better, or to make it go away; there was no silver lining. I got up and started drying the dishes.
“Well, there’s two years left on your contract, so we just have to suck it up and get through this.”
Lee pulled himself together. “So, that’s it then? I move to Nebraska and you all stay here?”
“I think it’s best.”
“When do you want to tell the kids?”
I put the glass bowl in the cupboard, hung the towel over my shoulder and leaned against the cabinets. “I need a couple of days to process this. Can we tell them on Friday when they get home from school? That gives them the weekend to deal with it.”
“Ok.” Lee came over and held me in his arms. I put my head on his chest. Through his stiff uniform, I could hear his heart beating. As much as I wanted to deny it, as much as I wanted to believe I didn’t feel it, as much as I wanted to fight it, to rally against it, as much as I wanted to prove to myself that I didn’t need him, I couldn’t. I found the rhythmic beating undeniably soothing and I gave in to it, closing my eyes, inhaling him, clinging to him. Would I be able to live without this for two years? His absence would be worse than it is when he’s deployed because at least then we have a few months of him being home in between. If we do this, we’ll see each other for a few weeks here and there; he’ll be a visitor in his own home…
The kids had known that the possibility of yet another move was looming. They knew the “new job, new duty station” drill by now. When they came home on Friday, Lee and I sat them down.
“All right, you guys know that daddy’s job on the boat is done right?” The kids nodded waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. “Well, he got orders for Strategic Command in Nebraska—”
Christine stood up, indignant. “I am NOT moving to Nebraska!” Her body fixed in a flight or fight stance, fists clenched at her sides, her shoulders rising and falling with her quick, short breaths. Joe sat in his gaming chair, tears welling up in his brown eyes.
“I don’t want to move either,” Joe said to no one in particular
“Christine, sit down,” Lee said calmly. “We’re not done.”
She didn’t move. She just watched her father through narrowed eyes. I saw her chin rise ever so slightly. I knew Lee well enough to know he was analyzing the situation, trying to decide which reaction would be the best. For the moment however, they were locked in a Battle of the Wills. Christine crossed her arms, her fingers digging into her biceps, dimpling the skin, her knuckles turning white. Christine’s inability to understand all of the intricacies that went into this decision was… just so frustrating. She stood her ground and I felt my patience evaporating.
“Here’s the deal,” I said, figuring it was best to just rip this Band-Aid off in one good yank. “Daddy’s going to move. We’re going to stay here. That way you don’t have to change schools, you don’t have to leave your friends and you don’t have to leave your teams.”
I watched the kids process the information. They would not make good poker players; Joe looked momentarily pleased, Christine looked smug. With an ever so slight upturn of her mouth, her shoulders visibly relaxed as she wiped the tears from her face. Taking a hair tie off of her wrist, she put her hair back with quick, practiced movements. I could see angry red streaks on her arms punctuated by four little crescent shapes. She sat down and leaned back in the chair. Stretching her legs out, she crossed her arms loosely against her chest. For her, obviously, the discussion was over.
“Christine!” I said sharply.
“What?” she asked with teenage attitude. I gestured to her father, not taking my eyes off of her, silently willing her to realize the full weight of her words and actions. After what seemed like an eternity, she looked at her dad. He was watching her, his lips pinched so tightly together his chin was furrowed. Lee nodded slowly.
Christine, finally, had the good grace to drop her gaze. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I just don’t want to move again.”
“Yeah, I picked up on that,” Lee said flatly. Dear God, these two. I shook my head and was trying to think of something to say to smooth things over when Joe piped up.
“I don’t want Daddy to move,” Joe said, his voice cracking.
“Do you want to move to Nebraska?” I asked pointedly.
“Well then, this is the best we can come up with.”
Christine said, “Well, it sucks.”
“Thank you, Christine, that’s very helpful,” I snapped. “Okay look, things didn’t work out the way we hoped. You guys don’t want to move, your father and I don’t want to move you. None of us want Dad to move but unfortunately, that’s the way it has to be. He’ll be able to fly home every few months. It’ll be like when he’s on deployment only we get to Skype and talk to him every day… okay?”
Joe walked over to Lee, squeezed onto his lap, and leaned into him.
“When do you have to leave?” Christine asked.
One month later, we packed him up and said our goodbyes. He reminded the kids he’d see them in two and a half months. The kids cried, hugging their father like they have so many times before. When they came home from school, Joe went down the street to play with his friends and Christine went to swim practice. It was routine, it was their norm.
I wish I could say the same for Lee. His timing always seemed to be off when he called us; we were always running out the door to one or another practice when my phone rang. I bristled when he’d grill me on things that I needed to do around the house, or should do, or didn’t do. He was trying so hard to be a part of our daily lives. Unfortunately, he wasn’t playing by the rules. Normally when he’d leave for deployment, and virtually all communication was succinctly cut off, I’d email him every couple of days to let him know what was going on. Now he was calling two to three times a day and I was finding it difficult to find things to talk about. I was so used to not worrying him about every failed test, about every bad day that, out of habit, I found myself continuing to withhold information. I didn’t want him to worry so I didn’t tell him how I cried myself to sleep, how I stared out the window for hours. How I didn’t shower… yet again.
This is not what I pictured a marriage to be like. This is not how I pictured even a military marriage to be like.
Let’s face it, this was no marriage. Some couples complain about having become roommates. We weren’t even roommates anymore. I remember talking to one of Lee’s friends who had grown up as a Navy Brat, his dad having been a career Navy man. This friend of ours was telling me about a trip to Ireland his mom was taking and how she was so excited about it. I asked if his dad was looking forward to it. My friend said “oh, he’s not going.” He said it so matter-of factly, so nonchalantly, as if there was nothing odd about a wife taking a huge trip and her husband choosing not going with her. Why wouldn’t they want to go together? Why would she want to experience something like that without her husband? Like I said, once upon a time, I was a young, naïve Navy wife. It’s not that we don’t want our husbands around, we just get too used to them not being there. We adjust.
When my husband called me one night, I could hear his voice shaking with effort; he sounded strained, muffled.
“Lee? Lee, are you crying?” I heard wet sniffling over the phone. “Honey,” I said softly. “I hate to say this, but you can’t do that. I can’t have you crying on the phone to me.” My God, I’m a cold hearted monster. “I can’t…” With my free hand I pinched the bridge of my nose. I squeezed my eyes shut. “I’m doing my damndest to hold it together here.” I took a deep breath. “I need you to be strong for me. If you lose it, I’m going to lose it. We have to suck it up and get through this. What’s done is done, and now we have to live with it. I love you… I love you, but please, don’t do this…”
I heard him take a deep breath and blow it out hard. “I’m good. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…”
I rubbed my face and brushed my bangs out of my eyes. “I don’t know what you thought when you left. Did you think that our lives would just go on without you here? Did you not think I would miss you too?”
“I just assumed you and the kids… I just figured it all went on, like usual.”
“It does go on. It has to go on. But, there’s no ‘usual’ about it.” There was so much I wanted to—needed to say, but I couldn’t bring myself to give a voice to my devil’s advocate. We’ve been through separations before; we’ve been through more than our share. We’ve adapted, adjusted and overcome. But this?
This was different, and weighs on me. How do you stay close to someone, how do you sustain a marriage, when you’re 1,000 miles apart? Seeing each other for one maybe two weeks every three months? Did we make the right decision?
For the kids? Yes. For us? For our marriage? I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Copyright 2014 by Melinda Jones