On a recent Sunday afternoon, I was waiting for my turn at the gas pump on Little Creek, a naval base close to my home. Over by the air pump, a man was checking the tires on his truck from which he was towing one of those black inflatable boats that Navy SEALS use a lot. A woman was nearby, watching him, leaning against a pretty beat-up compact car. He finished his task, and walked over to this woman, who then simply fell into his arms and buried her head in his shoulder. Then I realized what was going on. He was a SEAL, and he was going away. From the length of the embrace, he was going for a long, long time. As he drove away, she stood there, biting her knuckles. Finally, she got into her car, only to rest her head on the driving wheel while she cried some more.
We often see pictures of such heartbreaking farewells on the piers. But farewells don’t always happen there. Military families say good-bye not only on piers, but also in hangars, and at military as well as civilian airports. They always make me cry. My kids know this, and if they are with me, they try to move me along. My oldest son was sitting shotgun as I witnessed the scene at the gas station, and he tried to assure me that she would be OK. “Just don’t watch, Mom.” But I can’t stop my eyes from looking at her nor tearing for her.
I am not alone in my voyeurism. Several years ago my two children and I were at the airport in Palma, Spain doing one of those farewells after a ten day visit over Christmas. It would be another three months before he finally came home to us. We had had a wonderful time, and the reality of the good-bye hit us all pretty hard when they called our flight at the gate to our aircraft. All four of us broke down and took turns holding each other. We were the only Americans on that flight that morning while all the other passengers were Spanish families returning to Madrid after spending their Christmas holidays on the island of Palma de Majorca. They did not need subtitles to figure out what was going on. When I finally looked up from my husband’s shoulder, I realized every man, woman, and child at the gate was watching this scene, shaking their heads as if to say this shouldn’t be, and crying along with us.
The only consolation is that on the other side of good-bye is hello. I once met a woman who told me that throughout each deployment she would go down to the piers and watch every ship that came in while her husband was gone. She needed to witness that joy regularly to make it through her six months. I am always renewed when I see a couple in the exchange that has recently been reunited. They firmly hold hands while openly flirting with each other and then, as she shops, he rests his hand on her shoulder and gently massages her skin with his thumb. These couples are in their late thirties or forties, they’ve been married forever, and they often have a houseful of kids at home. Whenever I see them, I stop in my tracks and gape with my mouth wide-open in wonder. If my kids are with me, they plead with me to stop staring and physically drag me away.
These days, I find my thoughts returning again and again to that woman at the gas station, biting her knuckles. She is just beginning what I am about to end. Her calendar shows an endless stretch of Friday nights with Picket Fences reruns and lonely Sunday afternoons. My calendar has each Sunday since last September neatly crossed out. There is an airport where it is all going to end for me on Friday night. After I get a kiss or two, I will stand back and watch him hold his sons. Then I will see her : A military wife, who just happens to be there, who will witness our joy. Our eyes need only meet once. No words need to be spoken between us. Good-byes and hellos such as these are a never-ending cycle for military families and, somehow, in the silent watch we keep on each other, we carry each other along.