You can’t remember what you say to each other, if anything, as you drive the 25 miles from your home to the Naval Air Station that January morning. The car passes quickly—too quickly—past nut orchards, their branches still bare, and fields of wheat. At the security checkpoint, the guard glances at the sticker on your windshield, salutes your husband and waves you on through. You drive the last mile in silence, his hand heavy on your thigh, your fingers tracing his veins, your palms absorbing every bit of their warmth. He pulls into the parking lot, past men and a few women in uniform gathering in front of the terminal in increasing numbers. Large duffel bags are piling up. Towards the periphery, families are quietly saying goodbye, without fanfare—that is for later.
You don’t look closely at those men, women and children; it’s almost your turn. Separation may be typical in the military, but it is always significant to a family. And you are now a family of three.
He pulls into a parking spot, shuts off the car and turns towards you. You meet his blue-grey gaze and that is the hardest thing yet today. You want to be brave right now, but those eyes know you too well. If there are words, you can’t remember them. Just the knowledge that these are the last moments before deployment, the last moments for at least eight months.
Words are so insufficient when you’re a first-time mom, five months into the gig, and your partner, your best friend is leaving to fly jets on and off an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. When there is a whisper inside you—God, please let him come back—but you can only feel it because it wouldn’t help anything to think it, let alone say it aloud.
He is handsome in his flight suit, and it’s true the uniform still has an effect on you. But on this day, you don’t give a shit about that. You prefer, instead, the clothes only you know. The eight year old leather sandals you roll your eyes at and his threadbare college t-shirts. The frayed shorts of choice for mowing the yard of the home he bought just before you married, the yard you landscaped together that first year.
He opens the back passenger door and pulls your five-month-old baby girl from her cow-print car seat, drawing her tenderly to his chest, the way he’s done repeatedly these past few months, and you remember the morning of her birth. Eighteen hours of labor, and he was with you through it all. That wild ride. When the nurses laid her on your chest, you searched for his face and you finally understood what tears spilling down a person’s cheeks meant. His spilled from blue-grey eyes and you’d never seen his face look like that before. Our girl, safe, with us at last.
You watch him kiss her cheek, her soft shape slumped against him, and you ache. When he returns she will already be a year old but you can’t know what that means because this is the first baby you’ve really been around and certainly the first that is your own. Besides you, he is the one who loves her the most in this world and he is leaving today. Everything is a question mark but there is love here now, and it is sacred.
At some point you join this embrace. You can’t remember what is said. You remember the ache of not wanting this puzzle to break apart. You can’t recall the separation. You do remember him walking away, pausing, turning back to watch you drive past. His heart is heavy. You think of his heart more than your own, which to be honest, is not entirely like you.
You retrace the route back to your quiet home, alone with your thoughts except for your baby who is sleeping, mercifully, in the backseat. Everything that was becoming familiar has a different feel to it now: lifting your infant from the backseat of the car, for starters. Will doing all of these things on your own eventually feel normal?
You know you must be gentle with yourself today. You sit in a chair by the window, trying to capture the weak winter sunlight and overlook the backyard. You hold your baby close, and allow yourself to wonder, for a moment, what you will do from here.