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Ups and Downs at the Airport

A few weeks ago marked four years since we picked up our Navy son from the airport for the last time.  He was honorably discharged from the Navy and was coming home for good.  Our family had caravanned to the airport three other times before to pick him up, each time filled with joyful anticipation, excitement and relief; he was home safe and sound, and we were all together again.

The first time he came home was after boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, and “A” school in Pensacola, Florida.  He loved his time in Florida.  He called me once from the shipyard, and I could hear the waves crashing against the concrete wall he was sitting on, and the sea gulls screeching above him.  He always hated being cold, so the Florida weather suited him.  He found that he loved learning and was quite good at it while he was in “A” school.  He especially loved learning about gears and hydraulics and other mechanic-type stuff that he needed to know before he went to Japan to launch airplanes off the flight deck of the USS George Washington.

It was late November the first time we all went to the airport to pick him up.  We hadn’t seen him since he left home with his recruiter the previous July.  I will never forget, that day he left for boot camp, his recruiter saying, “Come on, Tom Cruise” as they stepped down the stairs of the front porch and walked toward his car.  Four months later, when we all caravanned (I think we took at least 3 cars) to the airport to pick him up, it was like a moving party; we were all so excited to see him.  We were nervous, as well, since we picked him up that first time after boot camp and “A” school, the night before our oldest daughter’s rehearsal dinner for her upcoming wedding.  There was much to do to be ready for the next day, but the excitement of having us all together again dictated a trip to the airport.  He was in his dress blues when he came out of the tunnel and into the waiting area, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more handsome sight.  After we all hugged and kissed and giggled with delight over seeing him after so many months, he went to the luggage caravel to retrieve his duffle bag and other luggage.  There were a couple of other men waiting for their luggage when our son stepped up to the caravel, both older and in business attire.  One glanced our son’s way and when he saw him in his uniform, stepped back and motioned our son to get in front of him.  As our son passed him, the man thanked him for his service.  I cannot put into words what this mama felt like watching an older businessman acknowledge my “little boy” and defer to him in a public place like that.  “Proud” doesn’t quite cover it.

After three weeks of playing, eating and every other family thing we could think of to do, our next trip to the airport wasn’t as joyful.  We took him to the airport to fly off to Japan for the first time, where he would be stationed for the next three years.  He was so nervous, and it was hard not to be afraid for him.  But, he assured me he would be fine, and that the Navy had every step of the journey plotted for him; he just had to be sure not to miss the train to the base.  Oh, my!  Certainly nothing to be afraid of!

It was 15 long months before we saw him again, but unlike when he was in boot camp, he had a cell phone and some time off, so he could call home and visit with us on occasion.  He also decided to get a laptop and Skype so we could see each other when we talked, which turned out to be an unwise thing, at least when it came to talking with me, his mother.  The first, and only time he called me using Skype, he was in his room, sitting on his bunk, with three or four other young sailors in the room also.  There was a cacophony of young male voices talking and cursing in the background, and I could tell my young sailor son was a bit embarrassed to have his mom hearing it.  He kept leaning closer and closer to the screen, trying to block out the noise.  He abruptly ended the conversation when one of the other sailors started yelling at me for telling him to watch his language. Sailors!  We never Skyped again.

We did not caravan to the airport the next time he came home 15 months after he left for Japan.  I was, in fact, completely unaware that he would be coming home at all.  He had successfully convinced me (which is not difficult to do) that he could not get any time off and would not be coming home again for another 12 months, which would make it almost two and half years total without us seeing him.  I was very disappointed, to say the least.  Heartbroken, actually.  But, I knew that was military life.  Except that is not what happened.

For several weeks before he came home that time, my ornery sailor son told me, every time we talked, that he didn’t think he would be able to get leave that year.  About a week or so before he came home he told me he was sure he wasn’t going to be able to come home.  Unbeknownst to me, he had already purchased his airline ticket and had worked out plans with his two older siblings to not only come home, but to surprise his dad and I with a very special and needed visit.  It had been 15 long months since we had seen him and we all missed him terribly.

A few days before Izzy’s surprise arrival, my two oldest kids told me that they were coming out the evening they had secretly planned to bring him home, and they had something for me.  I had no idea what it could be and I was a little nervous about it as it seemed like an unusual thing for them to say.  I cleaned house the entire day that day, sans makeup and “done” hair.  I was dressed in my grungiest jeans and a sloppy t-shirt, and was finishing up cleaning when the kids arrived.  I heard them come in the basement door, as usual, then it was quiet.  After a minute or two, I heard them coming up the stairs, so I headed into the living room to greet them.  I remember them telling me to turn around because they had a surprise for me.  I didn’t think I’d ever seen them this silly and excited about giving me something, so I was incredibly leery!  I gave them a few seconds of a hard time, threatening them with ridiculous stuff if they caused me bodily harm, but I complied and turned my back to them.  There was a brief second of silence before they told me to turn back around………..and there he was, saying “hi, mom” in that sweet voice I miss so much, with his arms stretched out to embrace me.  I have the most unflattering picture my oldest daughter took of me with my mouth wide open and my hands on my cheeks from the shock of that moment that I will never forget.  It brings a tear to my eye even now.  Especially now.  It was the very best, most amazing, exciting, scary, heart-stopping surprise of my life.  I screamed in shock, cried, then hugged him, then had a moment of terror that something was wrong with him since he was home when he said he couldn’t be.  After he assured me he was alright and was home on leave, I wanted to punch him in the arm for scaring me like that, but I couldn’t do anything but cry, laugh and hug him.  He was grinning from ear to ear, utterly pleased with himself for pulling off such a surprise.  I later learned from Dan that he had been in his office in the basement when the kids came in.  He continued what he was doing, thinking he would join us upstairs when he finished, when his door cracked open and he turned around to see who it was.  It was Izzy, and he greeted his dad just like he greeted me when he got upstairs, with “hi, dad”.  Dan said he had this moment of feeling like he was in a time warp; he knew Izzy wasn’t supposed to be there, but it was so natural to have him peek into his office and say “hi” that he wasn’t sure what was going on.  What a night that was.  We were all so excited to be together again; I think it was 2 or 3 in the morning before we went to bed.  We stood around in the kitchen and talked and laughed and reminisced and heard Navy stories from Izzy and laughed some more until our faces hurt.  It was an unforgettable night; a night I will cherish forever.

Before each visit home, which always had to be in March so he could celebrate his birthday with us, he and I spent at least one phone conversation discussing what foods he missed and would like me to make him when he got home.  I never figured out if the food on the base was so horrible he was starving, or if he was homesick for some of mom’s homemade meals.  It was probably a little of both.  His list always included lasagna, chicken flautas, enchiladas, homemade pizza, his “special chocolate cake”, red velvet cake, homemade ice cream, and an assortment of cookies, molasses cookies being his favorite.  The second leave he took from Japan to come home we had a holiday dinner even though it was the end of March, complete with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and all the traditional pies for dessert.  I even set the table with the Thanksgiving table cloth.  We had double windows in our dining room at the time and you can see green grass and budding trees out the window in the pictures I took of that meal together.  It didn’t feel like Thanksgiving or Christmas, but we all enjoyed it thoroughly.

The next trip to the airport was uneventful and typically sad, as we took him to the airport to fly off to Japan again.  This time it would be a year before we would see him again.  The good-byes were usually a little tearful on my part, but this time he seemed so happy and ready to resume his Navy career, that it was easier to let him go.  I was a little nervous for him and cried a few tears, but for the most part it seemed like the right thing to do, to let go and send him off to resume his adult life.  Even though we all caravanned to the airport to pick him up when he came home on leave, it was usually only Dan and I taking him back to the airport to go back to Japan, making it seem more solemn and weighty, like we were turning our little boy over to adulthood in that very minute, each time we dropped him off at the airport.

The only thing I remember about the next time we picked him up is that we all went, all nine of us – mom, dad, kids and grandkids – even though he came in around midnight.  The grandkids were only 1 and 4, but we were all so excited that it kept them awake and excited, too.  We had another delightful three weeks of playing and eating and playing some more this visit, but this time we didn’t take him back to the airport as scheduled at the end of the three weeks.  This visit was in March of 2011, the year the tsunami hit Japan.  I selfishly felt like it was the provision of God that my son was home on leave when that hit. And, instead of the Navy calling him back to help, they told him to stay put where he was until further notice, which I think was about three days later.  So not only did I not have to worry about my son being exposed to radiation from the nuclear reactor that was damaged in that tsunami, we all got to visit with him a few more days than expected.

When he got his orders to fly back to Japan, his flight was scheduled to leave around six in the morning, and being an hour and a half from the airport, we had to leave around 3:30am.  He was so not wanting to go back that he stayed up until about 1am talking with his siblings.  This was the most heartbreaking trip to the airport we made.  We were not quite out of our driveway when I heard him sniffling in the back seat.  I patted him on his knee and let him be, thinking he would be ok in a few minutes.  He wasn’t.  He cried the entire way to the airport, with an occasional moment of composure.  I was concerned, to say the least.  It was heartbreaking.  And, being the “fixer” that I am, I felt helpless knowing I couldn’t really say or do anything to help.  When you sign a contract with any military branch, you belong to them.  No matter what.  It gets my mommy-ire up just remembering that.  We got into the airport and got him checked in, then sat in the waiting area with him, and he resumed crying quietly.  He excused himself two or three times to go to the restroom and try to get it together, but when he got back to us the tears started again.  Finally he told us he wasn’t going to be able to get his emotions under control unless we left.  Oh, my gosh.  But, I knew he knew what he needed, so we walked him to his gate, by this time with all of us crying, hugged and kissed him, and then watched him walk into the passenger area.  We watched him for a few more minutes, hoping to see he had been able to compose himself, but it didn’t look like he could.  I walked through the airport with tears streaming down my face, my hubby patting me on the back, and telling me he would be ok.

A few days after he was back in Japan he called me and shared with me about a couple who had been in the passenger area with him that sad, sad day we left him at the airport.  This couple had noticed his KU Jawhawk t-shirt and used that as a springboard to start a conversation with him.  The man in the couple had been in the military and had had times just like Izzy was having – gut-wrenchingly hard and sad times returning to his post and leaving home and family behind.  He encouraged Izzy that he would be ok, and shared with him ways that he would grow from this experience.  When Izzy shared this experience with me he all but said he thought that couple was sent there by God to help him.  What relief it brought me to be reminded that God was watching out for my young son.

The next time we picked him up from the airport was the last time we picked him up; he was home for good.  I hadn’t seen him that happy in a very long time.  But, of course I didn’t see him but once a year during those years.  He was very happy to be out of the Navy and away from that particular post, a post we later learned had the lowest morale of any post in the Navy.   We have several pictures of that wonderful moment of picking him up, knowing he was out of the Navy and home to stay.  Well, really, home until he decided on what adventure he would set his sights on next.  He talked about going into the Army, because he wanted to go to Iraq to fight in the war on terrorism, which made this mom’s heart skip a beat.  It was during one of these conversations with him that he told me, when I reminded him of the higher likelihood of dying when you are “boots on the ground”, that he couldn’t think of a more noble way to die.  It reminded me of the time, when we were homeschooling him, that he was so deeply touched by Nathan Hale’s famous quote, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”  This was my Navy son’s heart – to serve, and possibly die for, his country.   What a young man he was.

As we near the two-year anniversary of his death, I seem to be having harder and harder days.  The reality of this loss sets in more each day.  But as I reflect and remember the joyous days our family has been blessed with, I am hopeful.  I believe I will have a reunion with my son who was taken from this earth, from our family, from my husband and I, much, much sooner than we were ready for, that will make the reunion he surprised us with the first time he came home from Japan seem like a ho-hum day.  I eagerly look forward to that glorious day.

“Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.  We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.  According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  Therefore encourage each other with these words.”                         1 Thessalonians 4:13-18








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