The end is nigh.
Today – yes, Friday the 13th – marks the day my husband has officially been deployed for over seven months. Seven months is a long time. You could start and finish a college course, sail halfway around the world, or learn a new language. You could almost have a baby in that time.
This is not our first deployment – it’s our third, including our Afghanistan tour where we met at Camp Leatherneck – but it is our first as a family of three. It’s also our first as a married couple and my first as sole caretaker of another human. I’ve been on both ends of a deployment – the one deployed and also the one left at home – and it is hands down harder to be the one left behind. When you are deployed, your life becomes simpler. Yes, perhaps more stressful with longer hours and more immediate life threats, but focused in a way it wasn’t before. Work, eat, sleep, repeat. Back home, life becomes infinitely more chaotic. Your routine becomes disrupted when half your support system rips the fabric of your life apart. There is no more mother and father. There is no more division of labor. There is no more taking turns, collaborating, or sharing. It is all you all the time, fulfilling the roles of nanny, butler, chef, taxi driver, nurse, cleaner, dog-walker, gofer, accountant, entertainer, you get it. There is no off switch.
I knew this going in. I vowed I would never date a military man when I was on Active Duty (despite trying that anyway), because I didn’t want to be dragged from duty station to duty station. I had an insider’s perspective on military life and I knew it was hard on spouses. I had witnessed that loneliness firsthand. But love forces compromise. This deployment was scheduled long ago and we planned our lives around it. We told each other it was a necessary evil, that once it was done we wouldn’t have to go through this again for years. I hope that stays true. I hope we get time for us as a family now. I hope we develop a steady routine, one with both mother and father contributing, and I hope we look back at this time and laugh off the stress. But it has been harder than I reckoned.
I try not to be too proud. I try to recognize when I need help, and ask for it. I try to incorporate good advice into my life. But I thought I could do it all myself. I thought if I put Beaner on a steady nursery schedule, if I mapped out my own work schedule for six months, if I visited friends and family at strategic intervals, I’d make it. Playing single parent was only temporary. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s only time. But life doesn’t care about your plans. I learned I was pregnant. Then I learned I had miscarried. I suffered on my own – how could I not? My husband came home to grieve, but we were still in shock. I flew out to meet him for the “halfway” point in his deployment seventy days into a tour that would extend to over 210. My body was still recovering.
I haven’t seen him in 137 days, but who’s counting? I drove up to see family over Christmas and got sick. I flew to Copenhagen to see my sisters and felt tapped out after five days. I drilled in Germany for two weeks and spent the first half recovering from a cold. Last week, I caught a nasty flu bug – let’s not call it coronavirus just yet – that laid me on my ass for forty-eight hours. I’m not sure which was worse, the body aches where even my hair follicles hurt, or my rapid heart beat that stayed above 100 bpm for 72 hours. I was minutes away from calling on family, friends, and neighbors to take my child and look after my pets because I couldn’t muster the energy to walk the ten steps to the toilet. (And I have had my flu shot every year since 2002.) When my fever broke on Saturday, my daughter picked up where I left off and became worryingly sick herself, running a fever up to 40.1 C (104.2 F). She stopped eating solids and I had to force liquids into her with a syringe. She slept on me for nearly three days straight. When I brought her in to our local surgery, she was given antibiotics for a concurrent chest infection. Her emerging premolar teething only added to her discomfort. My priorities shifted to basic survival mode; dishes piled up, laundry stank in hampers, the dog went unwalked. I’m still waiting to have a full night’s unbroken sleep. I’m a high-functioning zombie.
Maybe my body knows better than me. Maybe it was trying to tell me to slow down, seek help, stop trying to do it all. Maybe my immune system was a better barometer of how I was handling this deployment than either my head or my heart. When I was well and my routine was working and my daughter was steadily attending nursery 30 hours a week, it was manageable. I made headway in the gym, with my manuscript, with friends and family. I felt on top of it. Isn’t that how it goes when things are going your way? This deployment thing sucks, but it’s okay. Keep your head down, keep moving. Being incapacitatingly ill made me realize how tenuous my control on life is. I can’t choose when I get sick, or when my daughter does, or how long it will take to recover. I can only take it one day at a time. And if I can’t do that, one hour or one minute at a time. Like the world’s shittiest marathon, just keep taking one more painful step.
My daughter returned to nursery yesterday. I spent most of the day cleaning the house in a vain attempt to kill the flu germs that are inevitably lingering, waiting for my husband’s arrival. I stretched, hopelessly trying to relieve the ache in my back from five days’ worth of carrying a sick toddler while still recovering myself. And I caught up on most of the ankle-biter tasks on my to-do list that I had wanted to complete the week before. I know I’m not completely in control again, but I’m no longer at the end of a rogue line snapping in the wind. And soon, very soon, our family will be whole again.
I guess I did it.