The morning that Lane deployed to Iraq for nine months, I wake up to my alarm and immediately kick my foot over to his side of the bed- is he still here? Has it started yet? Is he still here, though?
He’s still there, but not for long and we drive him to the parking lot, early morning light. Units are gathering together and as we pull in we see a soldier that Lane doesn’t know standing next to his Jeep, hood popped. His pregnant wife is holding a toddler on her hip, he’s deep over the engine. “Lane,” I say, “Really?” because I already know what he’s going to do. He’s going to help the soldier because of course he is. Lane looks at me, gives me a shrug and a grin- when his world’s falling apart, he’s just trying to put something back together and so we spend our final minutes jumping another man’s car.
Our family of five huddles together. Lane kisses the three girls, then it’s my turn. No words. I can’t find any words. He can’t either, so he instead presses his lips onto mine, fiercely. “You come back home to me,” I say, “You get yourself back home to us.”
And we watch him walk away, our eyes on him until the very last second.
As I’m turning back toward our minivan, my eye catches the eye of the military wife whose car Lane helped fix.
We don’t say anything but we see each other, and I don’t just mean physically. My eyes well up, so do hers.
There’s the broken cars and the broken hearts sending soldiers off to do their part to heal a broken world.
We get in our cars, life marches on- are we the broken ones or are we the putting-back-together ones?
I’m talking on the phone with my sister a few days later, telling her about taking the girls to school right after saying bye to Lane- Was that the right decision? How do I ever know how to do this well?- and signing them in tardy just like it was a dentist appointment and then coming back home after and how I collapsed onto my bed, sobbing. I tell her how it was the animal noises kind of sobs- hiccuping, wailing, shaking. I tell her about the moment I did laundry again, reaching in deep to grab the clothes and instantly being hit with Lane’s smell, his clothes still in the basket from before he left, the scent of his deodorant and cologne still lingering. He was just here, I tell her, he just put these clothes in this basket.
“Sarah,” she says- my sister who has counseled military marriages and veterans and families in trauma, “You’re speaking the same kind of language that grieving widows use immediately following the death of their husband.” She begins to tell me about coping mechanisms and how it must feel as though I did lose him and this might be the only way my soul knows how to process this kind of loss.
Maybe there’s a sameness to grief, no matter how different it looks on the outside.
A different deployment, a different year, a same broken.
He needs to be dropped off this time right after lunch so we go out to eat one final time, bacon cheeseburger and fries on his bucket list.
The girls color, laugh wild and free at the animals all over the walls on the restaurant.
A couple to our right can’t take their eyes off of their new baby in the carseat on the bench next to them.
A group of friends watch the race on the tv.
Another group laughs out loud at a joke one of the guys tells.
Lane and I stare at each other. No words. I can’t find any words. He can’t either, so I just look at him, trying to memorize the way his fingers feel, the curl in his hair, what his laugh sounds like.
Memorize this. Memorize this.
Our waitress comes to the table, asks if we have any big plans for the day. Saying it out loud might be what actually breaks me, so we deflect the question and play it off with a joke.
I can’t help thinking that none of the people surrounding us have any clue, no clue at all, that our hearts are shattered. We’re ten feet away from each other and they don’t know that we might look whole, but we’re actually in ten thousand pieces.
I realize that I don’t know if that’s true about them, either.
We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.
Earlier that morning- the morning he was set to leave on yet another deployment-, I had woken up and again immediately kicked my foot over to his side of the bed- is he still here? Has it started yet? Is he still here, though?
Also this time though, there’s something new, something that feels like a center that will hold me together. It’s a prayer: Help me to feel this. Let me not be numb. I want to feel it all and see it all, I want to live it all.
With this deployment, there’s something in me that knows even if it means I feel the ache, it’s only because I get to love a man this much. There’s something in me that knows that feeling one allows me to more deeply experience the other.
This time around, I’m able to see brokenness as a gift and not a burden, and I think that changes everything.
The military life asks us to settle down, live, and make a home in those broken spaces really, and some days I handle it better than others. One thousand goodbyes, one thousand new friendships, one thousand sleepless nights, so much death.
This is not a space I would expect to see love.
So what we do?
Find the courage to love in the unexpected spaces.
We’re all living with an ache, I see it now, and I wonder if the ones who allow themselves to feel it all are also the ones able to live in a way to do something about it.
I think of Lane rolling up his sleeves and working on that guy’s engine when he was a little bit broken himself. I wonder if maybe it can show me how to live a little like that too; when my gut instinct is to protect, guard, take care of myself, what if I saw the ones around me- actually saw the ones around me- and what if I figured out one thing that needed putting back together and then did it?
I think of the neighbors who dropped food off on my doorstep.
I think of the friends who watched my kids.
I think of the girl I just met saying “Don’t worry. We’ve got you.”
I think of the friend who asked how I was really doing.
I think of the guy who mowed my yard.
I think of the cashier at the commissary who saw how frazzled I was, gave me compassion instead of a reprimand and came around to give me a hug, after which I burst into tears.
I think of my husband jumping someone’s car when I’d rather not.
Maybe putting things back together is a lot more simple than we’ve let it become and maybe, maybe this is how we ourselves get put back together, too.
Maybe all we need to do is find the courage to love in unexpected ways.
So despite our brokenness- or maybe because of it– may we be the ones to remember love, remember empathy, remember kindness. May we remember everyone is walking around a little broken, just like us. May we use that to compel us forward to do what we can to put something back together- be it a broken car or a broken heart, and may we remember that sometimes fixing one also fixes the other.
I definitely never thought the military life could teach me any of that.
And there it is again: Love in the most unexpected of spaces.
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