Dear Oldest Friend,
It’s been a few months since your husband left again for Afghanistan.
The last time he was gone, something bad happened, but it was the kind of bad that could have been worse. He was lucky to have escaped with minor injuries, and you were fortunate to not receive that visit.
In the few months since he’s been gone this time around, I’ve written you two emails.
Maybe it’s because I see your posts on Facebook, now and then, and you seem fine enough. A reply here, a brief post there, your words and pictures appearing with the same sporadic rhythm as they did before he left. “She’s doing great!” I hear myself assuming, and then I move on to something else.
When you share a picture of your children, I think about how cute they are, how powerfully their personalities come through in a still moment captured with your camera, how fast they’re growing, how happy they look.
It doesn’t occur to me that they miss their dad in a way I’ll never know, because I never had a parent go to war. A soul mate, yes. A parent, no. It doesn’t occur to me to wonder what it’s like for you to see their more profound moments of missing in the times they aren’t distracted by the things that distract kids, when they have time and space to think about him, or when they see his picture on the refrigerator or the wall.
It doesn’t occur to me to remember that seeming “fine” on Facebook (or in emails, or in silence) is often a facade. That waiting feeling isn’t something that can be seen. It’s not like crying, it’s not like frustration with the cost of a movie ticket that makes you say, “Seriously!?” to the innocent ticket taker. That waiting feeling is in the veins and the skin, and it doesn’t attach itself well to words.
You’d think I would be better at being a friend to you through this, having gone through a deployment myself. You’d think I would live on Skype, just waiting to catch you so I could keep you company or distract you for a few minutes, have a glass of wine with you even though having a glass of wine with you would mean one of us would be drinking it very early in the morning.
(Whatever. Hoda and Kathy Lee do it, and we, at least, could blame the time difference.)
In Pretty Much True, the character you inspired (but only the best parts of her) says this:
We live in our small American neighborhood in our small American town. All we worry about is ourselves and how this war will affect us and the people we love. When Jake is home, you’ll see. You’ll care less about the war. It’s callous, but it’s true. You’ll care less because the soldier blown up by an IED won’t represent Jake, and the woman crying on TV won’t represent you.
When I wrote that, the people I had in mind were those “other” people I remembered from when Ian was deployed, the people whose loves had already come home. They’d left one reality for another, better reality, one of sound sleep and days not stained with anxiety and longing and no choice but to wait and see.
At the time, I hated those people, and I envied them, and I was irrationally happy for them. (It was very confusing, as you no doubt know.)
I never believed I would become one of them. Never thought I would fall into the 99% – the original 99%: “Americans not in the military and watching war news from a blissful distance.” I never would have believed I could continue to be married to someone in the military and, at the same time, be so separate from the deployment experience I can still so vividly remember simply because he’s still here, that my heart-hurt for the families waiting at home would all too frequently last not much longer than one of the increasingly rare news stories covering the military in Afghanistan, or about the length of a YouTube video of a happy child, wife, or dog welcoming home a service member.
I thought of you this morning when a beer glass crossed my feed (it was a glass bought for a soldier who would never again be able to drink it), and I remembered your husband was deployed. Which meant I’d actually forgotten. I sent you an email asking only, “How are you doing?”
After hitting “send,” I wanted to take it back. I don’t know what I would have replaced it with, but certainly something…more. Something that lets you know I’m sorry for forgetting, sorry for forgetting you.
Sorry for becoming one of them.
The letter above became the foreword for my novel Pretty Much True, which was inspired by my husband’s Iraq deployment.