Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Homecoming is...Complicated.

It's been two months to the day since Jake came home from Afghanistan, and I think I'm finally ready to write about our homecoming. Sound odd? Let me explain what I mean by that.

Ever watch those homecoming videos people post? Sometimes the news picks them up, sometimes they're just floating around out in the YouTubesphere. They're always beautiful, tearful, and joyous. I'm pretty sure I've never made it through one dry-eyed. For a split second, anyone watching those videos can catch a glimpse of what it's like to be a military family, welcoming home their loved one, safe and sound. It's really beautiful, and for a nation generally removed from military life, it's also really important.

Here's the problem with those videos, though. Watching them is like getting the Disney princess movie version of military life--a little adversity, a race to the "happily ever after," followed by "The End." But every adult watching the movie knows "The End" is not really where the story stops, and "happily ever after" is not quite what it looks like in the movies. So it goes with reintegration after deployment.

You all read about Howie and my harrowing journey to welcome Jake home. And any of you connected with me on Facebook saw the album of our homecoming, filled with beautiful pictures by fellow military spouse Rachel Spinuzzi. It was amazing, really. And there was laughter and tears of joy, lots of hugs, and all of the things you would expect from the reunion of a family long-separated. And in case you missed it, I included it here:

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Our homecoming happened around midnight on a Wednesday, so in addition to the joy there was also exhaustion, loading and unloading bags and bags of gear in the dark, and a little person so far beyond his bedtime he was going to go nuclear any minute. Still we were so thrilled to see each other we took it in stride.

Jake didn't have a place at Ft. Riley yet, so he came home to a hotel; the room was nice, and the hotel had a pool, so that was okay. It just meant that later Jake would have to find a place to truly unpack and settle. Still thrilled to be together--home is where the heart is.

Then one of my partners started calling and emailing incessantly with work that could easily have waited until I got home, but that she insisted had to be done immediately, wherever I was. Of the two days we spent in Manhattan, I spent over half of it working. But Jake hadn't seen Howie in ten months, and, again, there was a pool. So father-son time would be on the menu and that's still okay. We're still thrilled. Even if we're a little annoyed that work is taking mom away again.

On Friday, we drove to Kansas City to spend a fun weekend. It's actually a really great city for families, and we always have a good time. We took Howie to T-Rex Cafe for a late birthday celebration.

Howie was in the worst mood, though, and behaved horribly while we were there. And that's when we started to see the shine fade off of the "just thrilled to be together." Jake hadn’t dealt with a child's willfulness in ten months, and had very little patience for it. 

Lunch set the tone for the rest of the day--as often happens with a cranky little person--and by the time we were headed to dinner at Fritz's Railroad, we've all just about had it.

I mean, we're at a restaurant where you dial your food up on a vintage telephone, and it's delivered via miniature locomotive, and still it's a struggle to have fun. Fortunately, as dinner went on things relaxed. We got ice cream afterward and by that point all was right again. 

Saturday was a new day, and an exciting one for Howie. Kansas City, for him, means one thing—Legoland.  We got there early to participate in Legoland’s Easter egg hunt, and Howie was thrilled.  But it took him about five minutes to completely forget about the egg hunt—too much Lego fun to be had.  He road rides, built race cars, and even bogarted a guy’s attempts to build a Lego Eiffel Tower.  And Daddy let Howie pick out a Lego airplane from the store for his birthday.  

Howie had so much fun that he didn’t want to leave.  Which resulted in more fits and the stress that goes with it. Fortunately, by the time we got to the Crayola CafĂ© for lunch he’d calmed down.  He met the Easter Bunny and got some chocolate, then suddenly all was right with the world.  Because chocolate.

After nap time, we went to Kansas City’s Grand Central Station—a truly beautiful building—to check out the museums it houses.  We visited their miniature train exhibit (FREE to the public), and Howie loved it.  When it closed, we took the bridge over the train depot and found a great German Biergarten where we had a lovely dinner.  Howie and Jake capped the day off by building the Lego airplane.

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Sunday morning, we went back to Grand Central Station to have brunch at a great old restaurant for Easter.  And because we were there, of course we hit the miniature train exhibit again.  I have a feeling that it will be another required stop on Kansas City trips from now on.

Howie took a quick nap, then we went to see Disney’s Bears Movie, which we all really liked. The theater we found was amazing, and every seat was a recliner.  An adjustable recliner.  Which Howie played with throughout the movie.  It drove Jake nuts, and probably would have really annoyed other people too, but fortunately there was no one else in our row.  After the movie we stumbled upon another (FREE) miniature train exhibit, which we checked out before Jake took us to the airport.

So if you’re counting, that means we were together for five days.  After ten months apart.  Yeah.

Parting ways at the airport was downright excruciating.  Howie was sad; I was heartbroken. It was not enough.  Not enough to make up for lost time.  Not enough time to process.  Not enough time to (try and) ease back into a routine, or get used to each other again.  Heck, to get to know each other again. No matter how you slice it, not nearly enough.

Homecoming isn’t “happily ever after.”  I think for most military families, homecoming is catharsis.  It’s finally being able to lay down the burden of constant fear for our soldiers, our families, our households, and our sanity.  It’s like exhaling after holding your breath for a long time. It’s ‘I’m no longer solely responsible for whether my family is okay or not.

But homecoming is catharsis only for a moment, and then it’s the beginning of a long process. “Reintegration” is what we call it. Really it’s rebuilding families, marriages, relationships between parents and children. It’s undoing the months of independence necessary to weather deployment, to put a family unit back together.

For remote families like mine, it’s reintegration-interrupted. It’s months of critical family-building work crammed into the days we can snatch here and there to be together, basically starting over again every time we reunite. It's frustrating, sometimes disheartening, and sometimes a little scary. 

And for us, it's a work in progress. Probably, that's why it took so long for me to write about it--we're all still processing. But certainly, that's why any of you who have asked about homecoming, and how thrilled we are to finally be back together, have gotten a mixed reaction from me.

Don't let that stop you from asking. Questions like that may be hard to answer because, well, it's complicated. But it shows you care, and military families really appreciate knowing that people see them, and care, and are thinking about them, and rejoice with them. Honestly, having so many of you rejoicing for us gives us room to sort out the rest.

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