Part One: The First Goodbye | The Grace Between

Part One: The First Goodbye

*In case I haven’t made it clear, this is primarily a recounting of events that took place in 2005-2006. This is not happening right now.*

We have a death to-do list. I mean, who doesn’t, right? Husband’s initial interment request was that I fly his ashes in a Blackhawk over the Dallas Cowboys stadium and scatter them at halftime during the annual Cowboys-Redskins grudge match football game. No. Not going to happen. Gross on so many levels. In addition, illegal? I asked if dropping them in a trough-like urinal after I smuggled them into the game would do, but he said no. Such a stickler.

I will have Cross Canadian Ragweed and Robert Earl Keen playing at his wake? Goodbye party? Whatever you would call it if you aren’t Irish. He also requested that I prop him up in the corner a la Weekend At Bernie’s with a cold brew in his hand. Again, gross. No. Also, illegal?

We have to talk about it a lot. Humor seems to be the most efficient and survivable way to do so. In fact, the other morning, I was thinking I should write his next wife a letter detailing all his weird pet peeves, just to get her ahead of the power curve. (Editor’s note …. He likes his scrambled eggs in large chunks, not chopped up in tiny pieces. It matters.)

Right, the burial. Arlington? Texas? Georgia? Near his family, near mine? Which pastor? At this point, a mere seven years in, we’ve had four that know and love us well. Five if you count Chuck the Duck, who knows our J Girl better than he knows us. Have we written goodbye letters? Where do I go when the Army offers us our final pack up and get out? What if we both die? Who gets all the money? Who gets all the kids?

When we first started these conversations, we laughed a lot. We made family members uncomfortable. We made hard decisions, but the reality of that happening was so unfathomable … it became a joke, a glossy shell of laughs for shock value that disguised and protected what was coiling beneath it.

Fear. 

Sanity stealing, breath-choking, sleep-depriving, air-thinning, time warping, creeping, roaring, whispering fear.

There was no way I could have articulated it.

I should have. In the weave of my life, it is a sinister thread, always unrealized. Nothing really bad ever happened to me or my close ones, but I had a consistent, present fear of death. First my mother’s (still alive), then my own (also, still alive). I can’t lie … there are times I teared up imagining my last words. It began to hibernate towards the end of college and I moved into adulthood with a hearty round of self congratulations for conquering that particular demon and nary a backwards glance.

When we said our first goodbyes as a married couple, when we faced the first deployment, when I drove away that first night in October of 2005, down pitch black winding roads in the wee hours of morning, when I dried my tears and pretended like it wasn’t happening, I told myself, and the Lord, that Husband was His. That if God wanted to take him, if he died in Iraq, it would be horrible and terrible and all the adjectives you use when you objectively know something is bad but have absolutely no idea what it really feels like. I was so smug in my knowledge that I was being oh-so-selfless and sacrificial.

I learned quickly that I didn’t mean it in the least. That I had made an idol of our security, of his safety, of my pretty little packaged life where I got the glory for the sacrifice and patriotism without ever slogging through the valley. Without the searing pain of loss, without weathering the storm of fear and anger and rebellion that comes before the grace, the joy, the calm.

It was coiling, waiting, for a crack, a fissure in the unreality I was creating, the cocoon I constructed on my own strength, lacking any knowledge of true brokenness.

The atmosphere in the hangar was electric, crackling with a ghoulish excitement. There is something to be said for the pageantry that causes me to participate in the excitement, to value the purpose. To force brittle laughter, to make awful jokes because the alternative is so much worse. This may come as a surprise – it’s easier to be brave. If I ever stop being brave, the cobwebby threads of sanity holding me together will wisp away completely as I stare down the what-could-be. On that night we sort of milled around in groups, circling our loved ones like sad little constellations, bereft that our center of gravity was being suddenly and surgically removed, but desperately trying not to show it.

And now I have a confession to make. I didn’t stay for the bus loading. It was midnight and I was jumping in my car to drive to Knoxville for a week of drill. They drew it out: the process, the goodbyes, the preparations, hour by interminable hour. Six, in fact. Weapons, and formations, and counting and loading and finding things on lists. I waited as long as I could before reluctantly heading to the parking lot. It was dark under the stars. Even the hangar lights faded out when I put my arms around him. It was the first time I cried all day. Fat, wet tears leaking out, no hysterics for me, thank you very much. He hugged me tight, my head fitting just right under his chin – my safe space where nothing bad can happen and reality is kept at bay for long, quiet seconds.

And that was it. I wiped the tears, watched him walk inside, and totally shut down. I climbed into my car, comforted by the familiar feel and smell. This was real. My nondescript CRV, littered with the detritus of my daily life, was dependable, present. I was in immediate denial. I was pregnant, we were happy, and yes, he was going off to war, but nothing bad could happen, because, well, it just couldn’t. Yes, I was mouthing the right words, I was loud and self-righteous, even, about my willingness to let him go, but my heart had an ironclad grip on my idols, on my absolute faith in our physical safety, the health of our wee one, the gauzy little bubble that real life and real, sacrificial surrender had yet to penetrate . . .

~M.

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