The alarm goes off way too early. We pummel the snooze button as long as possible. He holds me close and I breathe in his chest, trying to make this one of the eternal moments.
“It’s time,” he says.
For one second longer we embrace, clinging to each other in slight desperation.
Then without another word, we let go with a quick, tight lipped kiss. By the time we are standing, the protective barriers which will allow us to say goodbye are back in place. In a way, we’ve just said our goodbyes. Conversation turns to the impossible to-do list. He rebuffs my attempts to assist him in any way. I turn my attention to the kids. When he is out of the room, I slip little love notes in different parts of his gear. When he is in the room, I pretend to ignore him.
The last day goes as expected: Lots of shoving things into bags, cussing, running to the store, last-minute instructions. I already have the care package boxes, so he fills up two with the stuff that won’t fit in his bags. Our tempers are short and most of our interactions are bickering. I manage to convince myself that I’m looking forward to him leaving. Get him out of my hair. I can run the household however I want while he’s gone. It’s going to be nice.
We go to bed in the wee hours, but the barriers keep us from melting together again. We hold hands in a rather platonic way. When the alarm sounds on Departure Day, we don’t need the snooze button. We’ve been awake for a while anyway.
He is to report at the COF (company operations facility) around midday. He will be there for six hours or so before loading the buses. We are allowed to be with him. The little kids, ages 2 and 4, can’t manage that much time in the austere COF. It is a giant warehouse type building with concrete floors, tons of lockers, and some staircases of imminent doom. It will be cold and full of infantrymen. I arrange for them to go to a family child care run by my friend Alana at her home. I will pick them up when we have an hour or so left with Daddy.
We load the kids in the car and do our requisite last sweep of the house. I watch him walking through and hope that one day he will walk here again. He checks every room, pops open the freezer, slurps down a big spoon of ice cream with a manic smile, and heads to the door.
I hate what comes next. With a peck on the cheek, he hands me his house key. I act like it’s no big deal and turn my head so he can’t see the tears.
Alana hugs me tight when I drop off the littles. Her eyes are brimming. I have to break away before the flood starts. I have too much to do before I can let that mess go.
The COF is complete chaos. Soldiers drawing weapons, wives herding small children, parents of young men standing awkwardly along the edge of the room. Travis, the platoon leader who insisted that Ollie stay in his platoon, came up to me. “You know how much this school means to us,” I tell him again. “You know because you were enlisted and are now an officer. My family’s future depends on him coming back safely from this.” I want him to relent, to let Ollie out of the platoon, to keep him safe. Travis offered some words of assurance, but no one can predict what is going to happen. No one can promise me that he will come home.
Things calm down and the boys–the men I should say–are hungry. Their fresh faces are etched with fear, covered poorly with bravado. I offer to go to Subway. We still have several hours left and the soldiers aren’t allowed to leave. I write down their orders, collect some cash, and take our 9 year old with me to the Subway just down the street.
Eight transactions later, our arms laden with sandwiches and huge drinks, we head back to the car. I discover that I left my phone there and I missed a text from Ollie, as well as several phone calls. Someone probably wanted a sandwich and didn’t get their order to me in time.
“Come back. We are leaving now. You might not make it.” My heart bottoms out in my stomach.
I speed back to the COF where I find them standing outside. They are behind the barriers in formation next to the buses. My daughter and I sprint to them. He leaves the group to tell us that things changed and they will be boarding the buses immediately. I lose my shit. “You CAN’T go without saying goodbye to the littles! You CAN’T! I swear I will stand in front of the bus until they can get here!” I call Alana in near hysterics and ask her to bring the kids. My friend Ayse has already jumped into a car to go get them.
“We’re going to load any minute,” he said.
“You will NOT!” I half-scream. “They have taken too much already and they will NOT take your goodbye from the littles.” The sun is setting and it is cold. I give our daughter my coat.
I leave her with him and walk to the car. The boys are still hungry, they need their sandwiches. As I turn my back, the emotions spill over. Hot, angry tears accompanied by vicious words pour out of me. I am shivering. A tall man, a father, walks over and wraps his huge leather coat around me. It smells like cigarettes. He tries to comfort me as I spew all sorts of venom. He helps me deliver the food.
Miraculously, Alana arrives with my littles before the guys get on the bus. My friend goes with me to grab them from the van and we run back to the barriers. “It is time to say your goodbyes,” they said.
The kids slide under the rail and run to their Daddy. He embraces each one and whispers in their ears. He comes to me last and hands me his cell phone. I am no longer able to control myself. Typically I stonewall my emotions so he doesn’t have to deal with them. This time I sob on his shoulder. I know it is unfair but I can’t stop. “Please come home to me,” I beg. “Please come home.”
He kisses my forehead and says, “I promise… I will never die.” We giggle a little. I pull it together. We look into one another’s eyes for a moment, stand a little taller, and give a short nod. We release, give a final, “Bye Daddy!” and turn to walk away. It is cold. We don’t need to draw this out any further.
With my jaw set, I herd the kids back to the car.
“WAIT!” Ayse calls to us. “Wait! They were wrong! These aren’t the guys who are supposed to be loading up! They get to stay longer!”
I don’t want more time. Rip off the band-aid, get in the car, go home, eat chocolate, put the kids to bed.
The kids want more time.
We meet up with Ollie and trudge back to the COF.