Every night at bedtime, it’s the same routine. Put on pajamas. Brush teeth. Climb into bed.
“Can I have water?”
Yes, of course.
“Is there school tomorrow?”
Yes, there is.
I remind my boys of all the things to look forward to the next day. A dress down day or an early release. Maybe a play date.
Then, “Who wants to take a link off the paper chain tonight?”
“Me!” they chant in unison.
We take turns. We cheer, clap, and yell, “We did it!” It’s a little celebration we look forward to each night.
I count the links that are left, because it’s too many to remember.
Then it’s, “Good night, my Loves. Nineteen sleeps until Daddy comes home.”
My husband travels for work a lot. It’s not usually for so long, although there was one time when two weeks turned into three. Another time he was gone for 12 nights. Once it was nine. There have been a bunch of sevens and threes. This time it’s 26.
I try to keep it in perspective. He's far away, but he’s not on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. I’m no longer changing diapers or doing night feedings. The kids go to school during the day and sleep through the night. They wipe their own butts and tie their own shoes (most of the time).
Still, solo parenting, temporary single parenting, or whatever you want to call it isn’t easy. Daddy’s an ocean away and several hours ahead, and I’m the only adult in the room when there’s a conflict at school, someone gets a foot stuck in a cinder block, or the dog drags a dead rat into the house. (These things do happen.)
It’s precisely because my boys aren’t babies anymore that 26 nights present such a challenge. Out of sight out of mind doesn’t work now the way it once did. On the contrary, their father’s absence is profound. Whereas these trips used to have an intense physical toll on me, now they have a powerful emotional toll on all of us.
I'm the primary caretaker in our household, which means day-to-day operations run smoothly (give or take a dead rat) even when my husband is away. It’s at the end of each night, though, when the chaos of the day winds down, the house grows quiet, and we prepare our tired bodies for bed, that we miss him and long for his presence the most. It’s when I ask, “Who wants to take a link off the paper chain tonight?” that I know we’re not bound by the continent on which we sleep, but rather by the force that connects us as a family. The 26 links on our chain symbolize that bond as much as they measure his absence or return. Even so, every strip of paper we rip off brings us another day closer to being together again, and that’s a pretty good excuse for 26 little celebrations.