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Passing the Time

Text by: Jennifer Hunsaker

I could give you a boring explanation of the release of chemicals that causes you to "feel like you're moving in slow motion" when you experience something particularly traumatic, but I'll spare you the time and just say many of us have probably experienced this phenomenon. We may not remember what we had for lunch yesterday, but we can all remember where we were when the Twin Towers in New York City went down. I can also still remember the footage of the car disappearing on the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. Regardless of what the traumatic or important event is, time seems to stop, and the world moves in slow motion. We can remember where we were, what we were doing, who we were with — countless, minute details we normally don't notice.

For me, one of those times was when my husband and I were sitting in our tiny apartment without any furniture. The phone rang, and from the other end of the line we heard the immortal words, "Enjoy your weekend, because you are leaving Monday for deployment to Iraq." I was seven months pregnant with our oldest son, we had just moved from California, we were trying to buy a house, and it seemed like my entire world was falling apart. The next year was a blur of sleep deprivation, diaper changes, and the adjustment a woman goes through in her first year as a parent. I felt, in a way, I had wasted a golden opportunity to make the most of a finite time. I could have taken up knitting or softball. I could have started exercising or taken a pottery class. Instead I wished for time to hurry up, so we could all be a family again.

Fast-forward five and a half years: our youngest son was two months old when my husband walked in the house with "that look". I looked up at him and said, "You're going back to Iraq aren't you…"

I remember he kind of cocked his head to the side and looked surprised that he didn't have to break the news. In that moment, I had a choice — cry or laugh. Holding our infant son, I chose to laugh.

Eight months later, I was driving away from the local air reserve base after saying our goodbyes and I finally felt, for the first time in nearly a year, I could take a deep breath. I knew I had a year ahead of me of being both mom and dad to three young boys. I knew there would be days we didn't get out of our pajamas, because I just couldn't handle the thought of getting dressed. But time had finally started again, and I got to stop dreading his departure and start looking forward to his return.

I have a two-week rule for separations. It seems like the first two weeks are the hardest to deal with. You are developing a new routine, you have to get used to having one less person at dinner, one less person in the car, one less person helping with decision-making. But after two weeks, you have done everything alone at least twice. You have had two weekends to figure out what to do without your best friend. You have washed all of that person's dirty clothes and had a chance to put them all away. But once those two weeks are over, it's time to start thinking more about how to make the most of the time you have and less about what you are missing.

Two days after my husband left, my four-year-old asked when he was coming home. I decided to make something abstract like time a little more concrete for him. I invested $25 in Hershey kisses and counted one out for each of my boys for every day my husband would be gone, plus a few just in case he was gone longer. Every night before bed my boys would get a "kiss from dad" with the promise that when he got home he would give them a real kiss.

I formed a playgroup with other moms in the neighborhood. I was the only one with a deployed husband, but one of the women who would come was a grandmother taking care of her grandson while her daughter-in-law was deployed. The kids would play, and we would all sit under the shade of the trees talking about things moms talk about. It was kind of like group therapy without having to bill your insurance company.

After the first two weeks, I realized how important it was for me to start taking on some of the roles my husband previously filled. You see, I'm "serious parent" and he's "fun parent". I'm the one worrying they aren't getting enough vegetables while he's dishing up ice cream after dinner. He will have a water fight with them, and I will wash their clothes afterward. We are each other's perfect balance when it comes to parenting our kids. But after a while, I started to realize my kids got "serious parent" without any "fun parent" to balance her out.

We started having "adventures" four or five times a week. These were little day trips to new parks, the children's museum, or the pool. We would ride the commuter train downtown to go to the Discovery Center or meet military friends at the aquarium or a local restaurant to eat and play. We all looked forward to these activities like they were the lifelines of our week — a way to connect to each other and create new memories. Once school started, these adventures became even more important, because they gave us a chance to touch base after a week of homework and deadlines.

That's not to say that all of my time was spent focused on my kids. I realized the first time my sweetie was deployed that a year goes by in a flash, and if you're not careful, you'll look back and think, "What did I do with my time?"

I started working out religiously, running at least three miles four times a week. For 30-45 minutes on those days, I could put in my noise cancelling ear buds and not be anything but a runner. It was addictive and extremely therapeutic. I even recruited some other military wives, and we ran a half marathon together in costume. My body became strong and lean, and all the exercise filled me so full of endorphins I probably would have been charged with doping if I were a professional athlete.

I was asked to head our church's young women's organization, and my neighbors rallied around me, offering to watch my children for me on a weekly basis so I could attend meetings or activities. Whenever I was sad or tired, those teenagers would be there to make me laugh and remind me not to take myself too seriously.

One night, about six months into a twelve-month deployment, after watching Miss America, I remembered I had always wanted to be Miss America but never had the guts. So that night I found the "Mrs. Utah Pageant" and entered. Two months later, my very shocked and very proud husband was home on leave for the actual pageant and got to see me strut my stuff in a bathing suit on stage. I came away with "Most Beautiful Smile", "Third Runner Up," and the satisfaction of having crossed another item off of my bucket list with a deployed husband.

I even joined a women's recreational soccer league. This is especially odd considering I didn't understand anything about soccer before we started, and hadn't kicked a ball since the fateful kick ball incident of 1989. (Don't ask — it involved a rotten avocado, a bruised tailbone, and a fractured ego.) Yet I found myself on a field with ten other women - some of whom I knew, most of whom I didn't — playing a sport I found out I really enjoyed.

This isn't to say I didn't have bad days. There were a few days here and there when my patience was thinner than a fine French crepe. I would put the boys to bed and cry, because I felt I hadn't been a good mother or I wasn't being supportive enough for my husband 8,000 miles away. Sometimes I would cry out of frustration feeling I hadn't been able to keep up with the demands being placed on me or over a stupid commercial showing a soldier coming home. This would usually lead to me consuming some form of chocolate, going to bed, and waking up ready to tackle a new day.

Just before our husbands came home, a friend of mine told me she would be glad when this long, horrible year was over. I had a different experience. For me, there had been more times when the world stood still out of joy than out of pain. My relationships with my children, my husband, my parents, and my friends were stronger than ever. I felt powerful physically, emotionally, and mentally. I was ready to begin the next phase of my life with my husband, but I had no regrets over how I had spent the time he was away. I wonder if, after some time and distance from the experience, she will be able to say the same.

On June 15, 2011, after 710 Hershey kisses, 51 paper chains and 355 days apart, my family was finally together again. Years from now, I expect to be able to recall how he looked as he sauntered off the plane, what I was wearing, and the fact that he picked up all three of our children at once. But most of all, I will be able to look back fondly on the time he was gone. And perhaps, in the meantime, I will live as though time is my most precious commodity.