One year ago today Lauren, Nicholas and I packed into my little Ford Focus and headed south on Highway 16, following Tiffany, Mom A, Hailey, Chloe and Tayla in their SUV. I had not seen the kids in two months, and Lauren and I chit-chatted somewhat awkwardly as I drove. Nicholas passed out almost immediately in his car seat.
"So...what are we doing?" Lauren finally asked me.
I glanced at her sideways and allowed a little grin. "Birthday girls aren't allowed to ask questions, Miss." To her credit, she dropped the subject.
After 45 minutes of driving I followed Tiffany down the off ramp to Fort Lewis. Lauren looked at me with a million questions splayed across her face. "What are we doing here?"
"Aunt Tiff has something to take care of I guess..."
I parked the car, told Lauren to stay with Nicholas, and followed Tiff to get my parking pass. When it was finally my turn at the twin tables set up outside Pass and ID, I was nearly bursting with pride and excitement. "Abundis," I announced as I handed the MP my license and registration.
Lauren stared at me intently as I started the car again. Her whole body shook, her brown eyes glittered and the questions that once blanketed her face had turned to surprise and a dawn of understanding. "I think I know why we're here," she offered tentatively.
"Really. You think so?" I'd been waiting for this moment for the entire car ride, and I was a tiny bit surprised it had taken so long to come.
"I think my dad is coming home today. I think my dad is coming home early!"
We spent the longest two hours of our life packed into a hot gym with hundreds of other families, lending our attention to a tall screen that displayed a video image of the runway that would reach up to embrace the plane that held our loved ones. The plane finally touched down amidst a riot of cheers, and the soldiers walked past the camera in single file, waving and hamming for their families. My eyes were glued to the screen as soldier after soldier filed by.
Paul, in his typical Paul way, completely ignored the camera when he finally walked past, but I knew it was him by the shape of his body and the way he hiked his pack higher on his shoulder. I felt desperate to see his face and I was furious that he kept it turned away, that stubborn man.
And we waited again. This time for the arrival of the bus that toted our men and women from McChord to Fort Lewis.
At last, at long, long last the moment came. The band struck up and two doors at the far side of the gym burst open to spill a stream of bright light onto the matted floor. They filed in, lining up in formation, a sea of ACU. Through my tears I searched each form that walked through the door. I couldn't see faces at this distance, but I was confidant I would know him by his walk, by the way he held himself. And I did.
I held him in my gaze as he took his place in formation. I loved him with my eyes as speeches were made and music was played. I drank in the shaved texture of the back of his head and the thin curve of his neck; the arch of his back, the way he held his feet at ease. I relearned the shapes of his hands as he rested them behind his back and the width of his shoulders, held straight and high. I locked him in my sight, afraid that he would leave again if I dared to look away.
Finally, they were released, and we poured down the bleachers in clamber of arms, legs, balloons, posters and bouquets. I set Nicholas on the floor and he finally caught sight of his daddy. He finally understood why we were here. And I began the longest wait of my life.
I was still new, and I remembered my place as I hung back to watch Paul hug his kids, his mom, his dad, his sister in law. My arms ached and my feet would not hold still as I waited and watched and tried to beat away the tears that still hadn't ceased falling.
Finally it was my turn. I wrapped my arms around his neck; I held his lovely face in my hands, and I kissed him and kissed him, and hugged him again. I was afraid to let him go. I found myself touching his sleeve, his elbow, his shoulder, making sure he was really there. Making sure he wasn't leaving again.
The surreal moment soon gave way to a cacophony of chattering families, kids vying for the attention of their parents, and parents relaxing in the relief of having their sons and daughters home at last. I stepped back and watched as Chloe told Paul about her broken arm and Nicholas asked a thousand questions about guns and tanks and trucks.
As I watched, Lauren separated herself from her dad and siblings and walked towards me. Three days shy of becoming a teenager, she folded herself into my side, tucked her head under my arm, buried her face in her hands, and cried.