Deployed Before Christmas
The New York Times / December 24, 2013
As my husband and I have prepared for Christmas this year — picking up last-minute gifts, trying our hand at eggnog recipes, sharing wine late into the night — memories of last year’s season have been returning to me, clear and stark.
The day my husband left for Afghanistan last December, we celebrated Christmas, though the holiday was weeks away. The tree we bought at a Walmart parking lot gave our living room a bit of warmth, the cheap ornaments glittering among the lights. Around us, stacks of unpacked boxes bordered the room. Columbus, Ga., was our first permanent duty station, and we had just arrived here together three weeks before.
This was Andrew’s first deployment, but it wasn’t our first goodbye. The previous winter, he had left for nearly a year of training just 10 days after our courthouse wedding in New York City, where I had stayed and continued to work as an editor. Before finally reuniting in Columbus, we had had only a few merciful breaks from the silence: I had flown down to his graduations, spending weekends holed up in hotel rooms in nowhere towns like Lawton, Okla., before flying back to my life in New York where time moved at a blinding speed.
The world of the South felt foreign and strange to me: the vacant shop fronts, the stains of chewed tobacco on the sidewalk, the church marquees with missing letters — SIN ERS ARE WELCOME. The silence of the streets, empty of pedestrians, unnerved me. Time wasn’t going to speed by in this place.
I sat on our loveseat with a package in my lap, twirling its red ribbon around my finger. Next to me, Andrew, his calves tan and taut from hours of training in the Georgia sun, rested his feet on a chest he had inherited from his father.
“This goodbye feels harder than the others,” he said, staring out the window at the dead remains of summer ivy snarled around our fence. Until this moment, he had been excited, but his face looked stricken, as though he had only just realized where he was going, and that I wouldn’t be there.
Years before, when Andrew first mentioned his desire to enlist, I told him I would leave him if he did. But once it became clear that his interest was real, I pressed past the fear and said yes to a life I couldn’t begin to imagine because it was still less impossible to conceive than a life without him.
And now he was leaving me, for a place some people come back from on crutches or in caskets. It was a reality I thought I had prepared for, but I tried now to peer into the near future of that night and all the nights to come, and I couldn’t see how I would get through them. I couldn’t see anything at all.
Desperate for a distraction, I picked up his packing list that was sitting on the chest. There was still so much to get done. The list might as well have been written in another language, and the gear that lay strewn across the floor looked as if it had been shipped in from another planet. Neither of us dared to glance at the documents piled on the dining table: the power of attorney, the living will, the “Pink Book” requesting information I didn’t want to give — emergency contacts, if I am notified that my husband has been injured or killed.
We practically had to clock in farewell sex just 30 minutes before we left, stumbling down the hall into our barren bedroom. I had forgotten the clean sheets languishing in the dryer, and the naked mattress was hot and scratchy beneath us.
After we finished and he pulled away, I felt a wetness on my chest, tears I’m pretty sure he thinks I missed, because there was no evidence of them on his face. We lay next to each other, everything we weren’t saying throbbing between us, until he finally broke the silence.
“We still need to talk,” he said.
I had been pushing it off all week, the dreaded Before I Leave for Deployment Talk. He’d filled out the paperwork — What music do you want played at your funeral procession? Whom do you wish to deliver the eulogy? — but there were things he hadn’t written down.
“This is just another thing to check off the list,” he said.
And so, just minutes before leaving, he began to tell me the things he wanted, if anything were to happen to him: his best friend to officiate at the funeral, a burial, no talk of God or the military.
“But it is important to me that you and my mom receive a flag,” he said.
I felt my chest tightening. I had seen those flags, folded meticulously, placed in the hands of trembling wives. Andrew paused then for so long I thought he was finished speaking.
“And I want you to live a full life, to remarry, be happy,” he said finally.
Andrew had learned to talk casually about life insurance and death gratuities, but this felt different, like something he had always meant to tell me. He reached out to touch my face, but I turned away, queasy and uncomfortable in my skin.
When Andrew first joined the 75th Ranger Regiment, I had imagined a cinematic farewell at an airfield, a crowd of well-dressed women holding in their tears, bravely waiting to fall apart until the plane took off.
But most of the battalion was already in Afghanistan, and when we arrived at battalion headquarters to drop off Andrew, there were just a few women in the parking lot, all of them a mess — red noses, smudged eyeliner, sweatpants and unwashed hair. They didn’t look brave or scared; they looked tired and resigned as they gave their husbands a hug and a kiss goodbye before retreating to the safety of their cars.
Rangers say it’s a different war these days, but for the wives, not much has changed. The worrying, they tell me, feels the same. Their hearts still jump at a knock on the door; they still try to memorize their husbands’ faces. I buried my face in Andrew’s chest, wanting to capture his scent, to stow it away. He smelled like the Army, like sweat and unwashed men, a scent that had become a comfort to me, the one he came home with at the end of each day.
“Simone,” he said, nudging me to look at him. It was a request he had had to make before, the first time I said I loved him on the platform of an Amtrak station in Baltimore, and after our first kiss on a windy San Francisco Street at midnight, our audience a homeless man drinking out of a paper bag. Now that’s love, he had said.
I didn’t want Andrew to see me cry, but as I lifted my head to meet his gaze, the tears began to well up, and I resisted the urge, finally, to look away – from him, from the uncertainties of our future. We stood like that, his face becoming a blur through my tears, until someone called his name. He gave me a quick kiss before hitching up his pack, then jogged into headquarters, gone from sight.
There was no preparing for this, I realized, and there never would be. I had to trust not in Andrew or the war or my own ability to survive but in the simple facts of living. I could still stand, walk over to my car, and drive home. So I did.
When I got back to our brick house, the place was quiet and cold. It felt so far from New York City, and I did, too — a world away from its crowded streets, from the person I had been just weeks ago. I plugged in the Christmas tree lights to ward off the approaching darkness, and sat on the floor in the glow. Then, as night fell around me, I opened the boxes in the living room and began to unpack our life without him.