Thursday, April 24, 2014

My Little Trooper

When I look at this picture, my heart warms and breaks all at the same time. It was taken during my Army Spouse of the Year photo shoot several weeks ago. We had just come from a park, where Howie was super happy (see yesterday's photo), to the U.S. Army Reserve Airfield in Conroe, where he certainly was not. 

It really took me off guard. Howie loves helicopters, and always loves visiting Jake at work. I thought for sure that he would be happy to be at an airfield again for the first time in months. I was wrong. 

Airfields mean "Daddy," and Daddy wasn't there. I had prepared Howie for this fact, but when the truth truly set in, I could actually see the heartbreak wash across his face. He didn't want to be there without his Dad. He hugged his Daddy Doll tight, leaned into me, and let the tears roll. Such is the life of my Little Trooper. 

You heard from me yesterday about Howie's resilience (in spite of my own shortcomings). But since April is the Month of the Military Child, let me tell you just how strong this Little Trooper really is.

For all of his four years on this earth, Howie has been a geobach kid: Jake has always been stationed away from us. Howie has never known a time when he could consistently come home from school and find his Dad waiting there. Normal is not having Daddy there to help him get ready for school or church, or to tuck him in at the end of the day. Ordinary is Daddy not being able to make school functions, or take Howie to friends' birthday parties. Typical is telling Daddy after the fact when Howie gets to do something cool.

This year with a deployment has been especially hard. But long before Howie could tell you what "deployment" means--and boy can he! Just ask him!--he understood what sacrifice meant. It meant that Daddy was working to protect everybody, and that means having to be away from us. It meant we can be sad when we have to say good-bye, yet again, or upset about driving for hours just to be together, yet again, but that it would happen. Daddy loves us, but right now he doesn't belong to us. Howie has known this his entire life.

Until Howie was two, Jake was stationed at Ft. Polk in Louisiana. It's about three hours from Houston, and so every Friday we would make the drive there, or he would make the drive here, so that we could spend the weekend together. If you do the math, that means that in each of those two years Howie spent less than a third of his time--about 120 days--with his Dad. Howie hated Sunday good-byes, but honestly it shocked me just how young he was when he picked up on "Daddy Math"--he learned to count to five so that he could count down the "in between" days. 
"Only four days, Mommy!" 
"Only three days, Mommy!" 
I would smile and count with him, even as my heart ached at the percentage of time that was "only" in the way of being together. He was wishing away his littleness. So was I sometimes, and I hated it. I still hate it.

At the end of 2012, Jake was transferred to Ft. Riley, Kansas. Now, Daddy is a three hour flight, plus a two hour drive away. We changed from an every weekend family, to a twice-a-month family. About five days out of every thirty between Christmas of 2012 and July of 2013 belonged to us. Except in May, when pre-deployment training meant we didn't see each other at all. 

Howie can't count a month's worth of days, and had a very hard time at first. He was frustrated, and didn't understand why Daddy Math was failing him. Why "Friday" no longer meant our family would be together. Howie started asking me which were "Daddy Fridays" and which were "not Daddy Fridays." In a week with a "Daddy Friday," he would do Daddy Math. But he decided that he didn't like "not Daddy Fridays," so he started asking me about Mommy Dates instead. 
"Mommy, is it a Daddy Friday this week? Or a Mommy Date this week?"
A shift in thinking. I could not believe my little boy's wisdom, and willingness to take Monty Python's advice about the bright side. He could be sad Daddy wasn't there, but he'd rather be happy that Mommy is. I never thought I would learn so much about perspective from my little person.

In July 2013, Jake deployed to Afghanistan, and yet again Howie had to adapt. No Daddy Fridays--no Daddy at all. For 260 days, through Thanksgiving and Christmas, New Years, and birthdays, Daddy had to be "far away in Gas Can, helping people." And Daddy "can't come home until he finishes helping people."  So Howie would explain his life to people who asked.

There were times filled with lots of talking through questions, and lots of tearful hugs. It was hard to watch Howie miss his Dad so much, even as I too was missing him. But Howie amazed me again with his ability to adapt. "Daddy is a hero,"  he asserted, "and heroes have to go far away sometimes, even when they don't want to, because it's important to take care of people."  He loves Superheroes, and he decided that Afghanistan must be, like Superman's home planet or Green Lantern's planet, very far away. One time he told me:
"we're okay, Mommy, that's why Daddy can help other people. Because we're okay." 
Floored. Sometimes, the kid has ten times my emotional maturity. Or more likely, he has his Dad's servant heart and desire to help other people.

For months he relished the Skype dates and occasional cards from Jake, and loved making boxes to send Daddy; he would have conversations with his Dad on his play telephone, and occasionally I'd catch him kissing Jake's picture with a quiet "I miss you!"  He told me stories about what Daddy must be doing in 'Gas Can,' and made plans for what they would do together when Daddy came home.

What I never said, and what he never would have understood, is that homecomings, joyous as they are, are fleeting for a geobach family. It's days together after months apart, and then it's right back to being apart.

I haven't even tried explaining that to him. I don't want him thinking about the next good-bye, or the many that will follow after that.

I wish I could make it so that my sweet baby boy never had to say good-bye ever again. I wish I could make that huge empty space that so frequently finds its way into our family go away forever. But I can't. No military family can; "mission first" is the life we live. Military kids are resilient because they have to be; they have no choice.

What's incredible is just how resilient they are. Over 99.5% of American adults choose not to serve and make the sacrifices that these kids are called to make, that Howie makes. Yet they just do it, and often better than the adults do! Awe-inspiring is what that is.

By the time Howie turns five next year, our journey with the military will be over, and we will finally be together. No more Daddy Math, or Daddy Fridays; they'll be replaced with Daddy Everydays, and I can't wait! And Howie is so young that Daddy Everydays will quickly become his new normal--when he's older he may not even remember what it was like to always be apart; how much he had to give up; how often we had to say good-byes or how much his Daddy had to miss.

He'll never know just how tiny he was when he learned to be brave, and put this whole country's needs in front of his own.

But I will remember. My Little Trooper is one of the strongest people I know.

1 comment:

  1. Howie is such a brave child of our Men & Spouses in Uniforms...we salute to the Howie whose maturity is such an amazing gift & we thank the family of Men in Uniform for their sacrifices & compassion.

    Thelma Santos, New Jersey Past President of Marinduque Int'l.