We knew the deployment was coming. We hauled our boat, USS Deployment, from the back of the garage where it had rested for a few years. Day after day we prepared, traded and packaged our responsibilities so we could be properly organized for the hour of departure.
“Do you remember how to row?” my husband asked, lowering the skiff into the ocean. “I know it’s been a while.”
“Of course!” I replied. “I’ve done this six times already; I know the route. Besides, the kids are more self-sufficient than last time so I expect the ride to be much easier.”
One by one, my husband transferred his responsibilities to me, all neatly labeled in boxes- CO- PARENTING, HOUSE MAINTENANCE, DOG TRAINING, FINANCES, LEADERSHIP. Panic rose within me as I watched the boat sink lower with the weight, my mind frantically confronting the reality of this situation. No good worrying now, I thought. Reality is here and there’s no turning back!
After an endless array of last-minute business transfers and a series of emotional farewells, I finally loaded the kids into the boat, positioned the oars and pushed off from the shoreline. Aiming the bow towards the direction of the finish line, my mind snapped to attention- I think I can, I think I can, I am woman hear me roar!! With a confident air, I glided through the water with my kids, each pull of the oars taking us further away from the beach. We cried a little, laughed a little, and felt hopeful that time would pass quickly. This will be a great experience for us, I thought. No problemo.
But sooner than I expected, my arms began to ache, my body felt stiff and the plain truth revealed itself: I had clearly lost some muscle strength in the years since our last deployment. Having relied on my husband to do half the rowing since then, I found that suddenly pulling the full load was more difficult than I expected. About one thousand pounds more difficult than I expected. The kids were older and no longer trying to drown themselves every minute, but they were bigger and heavier than last time. Their backpacks were filled with different activities and stresses- sports, screens, drivers ed, geometry. I felt their added weight as I continued to flex my weak muscles.
As more time passed, I started losing speed and felt frustrated by my inability to man the rowboat efficiently. While I had distanced myself from the shore, our final destination didn’t seem any closer. How on Earth am I going to do this? Why is this so much harder than I thought? I recalled all the bumper stickers and Facebook memes with “Deployment Strong” in bold letters, all the times I told spouses “Refuse to Sink”, and yet here I was, feeling weak and undeniably sinkable. What was I doing wrong??
Glancing towards the sky in frustration, I noticed a little bird flying closer and closer, eventually landing on my shoulder. “You know,” it said, “your neighbor cooked a leg of lamb with mint sauce last week while you couldn’t muster enough energy for spaghetti.” Scowling at the bird, I yelled “GO AWAY!” but the squawking continued. “And your other neighbor is somehow managing to row her boat, work forty-hours per week and oversee the construction of a new orphanage in Uganda. So why are YOU so exhausted?” My shoulders visually slumped as my emotions got the best of me. Clearly, I was failing at this task. (Or was I? Why was I comparing myself to other people? And why did I feel so much pressure to effortlessly glide through this deployment without feeling any of the waves? Was that a realistic goal?)
At that point I noticed our boat sinking so low in the ocean that water was pooling in the bottom. Emotions aside, I knew that if we didn’t start unloading some of the weight, we would all go under. “Jesus take the oars” I whispered and decidedly muted the negative bird and made some solid, practical decisions. The key to our survival (and success) was throwing extraneous boxes overboard in order to stabilize our life. Goodbye PERFECT HOUSEKEEPING, goodbye HOUR-LONG HOME-COOKED MEALS (or leg of lamb), goodbye VOLUNTEER OF THE YEAR, WORKING OVERTIME and NEW KID ACTIVITIES WHICH REQUIRE MORE DRIVING. Farewell DOG TRAINING and can we please throw the canine overboard altogether?? (There was mutiny after that suggestion.) With or without the dog, drastic times called for drastic measures and I felt the difference almost immediately.
With expectations lower and our boat steadying over the waves, we finally sailed into our daily routines. Some weeks, the sun shone brightly, we put our best feet forward, stopped in new harbors and made new memories together, despite Dad’s absence. Other weeks, storm clouds came about, emotions ran high, we ate unreasonable amounts of frozen meatballs and spent too much time on screens. Yet, we survived. Despite the weather, my muscles grew accustomed to the pull and the boat glided forward. So many lessons learned in those first few months…
The kids continually grew in height and in spirit and learned that they were capable of doing difficult things. Emotions could be strong and missing Dad could be overwhelming, but life required them to take a deep breath, get out of bed every day and conquer their responsibilities. (And in a world of over-coddled children, this wasn’t a bad challenge.) They shifted many of their boxes onto their own laps and maturely flexed their own rowing muscles when needed.
My lessons came in droves. My well of perseverance was far deeper than I realized; every time I thought my arms couldn’t row another stroke, I did. When I sailed into an emotional whirlpool and couldn’t get out, I admitted my struggle to friends and then sought a professional counselor to help me stop spinning. Most importantly, I learned that sometimes my expectations are unrealistic and the goals I set for myself must be altered. That is not a failure on my part, but a simple change in navigation.
So with this insight, in sun and in shadow, our weeks and months passed. We took care of each day as it came, forgetting the calendar and wrapping ourselves in the busy-ness of life. Then one morning we groggily scanned the horizon and noticed a blurred shape forming in the distant mist. Wait, is that the shoreline?? Could this be possible?? Then, around us we noticed other skiffs gliding in the same direction- a regatta of families and friends heading towards the same finish line. I heard the sound of newborn babies, waiting to meet their deployed fathers. I saw professional men and women, anticipating their spouses’ return, glowing with confidence from all they had accomplished at work and at home. Parents stood in the bows of their boats, enormous pride on their faces as they awaited the return of their sons and daughters. A new energy crackled through the air as we made eye contact because WE ALL KNEW.
Heads looked up in unison as the sky exploded into a million sounds and aircraft shot towards the heavens, free from the bounds of the carrier and off to the airfields to find solid ground and loving families. Rays of sunlight reflected off the majestic ship lurking in the distance, small white figures lining the deck of the vessel.
My kids looked over at me with joyful tears in their eyes and adrenaline shot through my muscles as I accelerated my speed. Over and over and over I pulled on those oars, inching closer and closer to the sand. Every hard day, every exhausted night, every decision, every virus, every lonely moment in the middle of the ocean propelled us forward towards that final destination that lingered within reach. WE COULD SEE THE END.
My kids jumped up, waving their arms yelling “Daddyyyyyyyyyy!!!!” and my tears came swiftly. My sweet, brave kids had done it. They had battled stress and anxiety and uncertainty to make it here. And so had I. God helped us, WE DID IT.
Our USS Deployment hit the sand, lurching us momentarily forward. We scrambled out, dumped the oars on the shoreline and shaded our eyes from the blaring sun. And then we saw him, back on land and walking towards us, the walk that we would have recognized anywhere. No one had to tell us what to do next——– > WE RAN. ❤️
Our boat rests for now, hidden in the back of our garage, out of sight but not out of mind, for another deployment looms ahead, a milestone waiting in life’s queue. Whatever comes our way, we know there will be ups and downs and rights and lefts. Some gains and some losses. We know for certain that our next journey will not be perfect… but does it need to be? Nope. LESSON LEARNED.
To my fellow milspouses: do not be afraid to ask for help. Call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 or visit them online at www.militaryonesource.mil. And no matter what…just keep rowing, one stroke at a time.
Original photo by Daniel Ian, Unsplash