There’s No Place Like Home

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John’s homecoming story is long, which is one of the reasons I’ve been having such a hard time putting it into words. It began on Friday, May 30, when I drove to John’s hometown for his side of the family’s bridal shower.

Originally, the shower had been planned for Saturday, June 1 but of course, the Navy found the one day in a radius of three weeks that wasn’t wide open on my schedule and plunked John’s homecoming in the middle of it. John’s sisters and mom had been able to quickly rearrange the party for the day before,  in the evening. So many people graciously changed their schedule and travel plans to make sure that I’d be able to drive the seven hours to greet John at the airport on Saturday afternoon.

During the bridal shower, I received a text from one of John’s coworkers’ wives, Ashley, who I’ve become good friends with over the past two years. She kept me in the loop throughout the deployment since I wasn’t part of the FRG (Family Readiness Group). The plane had been delayed for five hours, so instead of an afternoon homecoming, it would be in the evening.

After a year, a few hours more probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it took the wind out of my sails a little.  Even so, it was a blessing– instead of waking up at 5 AM, I’d be able to sleep in and leave a bit later in the morning.

On Saturday morning, I drove from John’s hometown to where he’s stationed. After one stop for gas and McDonald’s, sitting in traffic at least half a dozen times for half a dozen reasons, and about 9 hours of nerves and excitement while driving, I made it to Ashley’s apartment, picked her up, and drove to the bed and breakfast to check in. While I got ready, Ashley checked her phone for updates from the FRG leader. Our boys weren’t supposed to be in until 9:30 PM. It was 5– we were good.

We decided to go to dinner to kill time– after all, until we got off the base, we figured it would be at least 10 PM, if not later. During dinner, Ashley checked her phone repeatedly. When she ran to the restroom, she handed it to me instructing me to pick up any number that rang. Nothing.

After dinner, we decided to head back to Ashley’s apartment to dump my car and drive onto the base with her stickers, when we received a phone call from the FRG leader.

“Where are you? They’re here!” I could hear the woman on the other end of the phone.

Ashley grabbed my arm as I was driving, and stammered back, “They’re coming in at 9:30!”

When Ashley got off the phone, she explained that the FRG leader had sent her an email that she hadn’t gotten. As she said that, her phone dinged and– of course– the email downloaded.  Everyone else in the FRG had been waiting at the airport for three hours because they had received phone calls.

It felt like someone had stolen something from me. As I zig-zagged between cars and tried to decipher the muddled directions we had received, I could feel myself panicking, growing more furious by the minute, and tearing up. After 360 days of deployment, if John was standing in the parking lot of the terminal like a kid who missed the school bus… I didn’t know what I would do with myself.

With a second phone call a few minutes later, we found out that the unit was still in customs– we had about thirty minutes, and we could make it to the terminal before if we pushed it. And a chief would meet us at one of the gates to escort my car– which has no credentials– on base.

We missed the unmarked gate to the base and ended up at one of the main ones. When we pulled up to the window, the MP looked at our IDs and–miraculously– let us onto base with directions for how to get to the terminal.

Of course, the road to the terminal was long, windy, and seemed at places, to be leading us in the wrong direction. Once we got to the parking lot, we ditched the car in the first open spot we found and sprinted into the airport.

The airport was very small, so security was right inside the door, as were all of the families waiting– perhaps 50-60 people. We threw our shoes and bags into the X-ray machine and walked through the metal detector. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone. I just wanted to get John and leave. I was insanely angry.

Is there anything more frustrating than waiting on the other side of opaque, frosted windows? I couldn’t stop shaking– partly from Ashley’s and my near-miss, partly from excitement, partly from nerves, and partly from our break-neck drive to the base. I fiddled with my phone while we waited, texting family and friends as best as I could with hands that didn’t want to do things in an orderly fashion.

A few times, the automatic doors that led to customs opened, and the collective breathing of 50 people caught on a corner of hope. And then, the disappointment of nothing behind those doors filtered through the crowd and people began their small talk again.

And then, suddenly, there he was. It sounds so cliche and smarmy, but I will never forget those first moments. Everything else afterwards is a little fuzzy– it seems like it all happened at once. But that moment, John suddenly appearing from behind another sailor and turning the corner into the lobby of the airport, is the clearest.

I weaved around a few people and, clutching my homecoming poster, I ended up in front of John. I said something inane like, “Did you read the sign?”

“It’s upside down, but I think I’ve got the general idea,” he said, smiling as widely as he possibly could.

“Sorry,” I said and didn’t even bother to flip it around. And then we were hugging and kissing, (I’ll admit, I was shaking and doing this weird cry-laughing that must have seemed creepy) and– again, at the risk of sounding cliche and smarmy– no one else and nothing else mattered.

After a hugging like we’d never get to hug each other again, we picked our way through other happy couples and families, found John’s bags, and headed outside to wait for Ashley and her husband..

This is what the end of deployment  feels like: It feels like an immeasurable weight has evaporated and suddenly you’re light and can move again. It makes you want to skip. And jump. And smile as far as your mouth will let you. It feels like freedom.

7 Responses

  1. We were only married 9 months and he deployed to Afghanistan. He has been gone now 10 months. His Homecoming will be soon and I’ve ordered banners, and am on a diet that gives me the worse gas EVER… but the stress eating pounds of fat are coming off. And here I am… anxious and nervous.

    When he came home from R&R I had these expectations that we would be all lovey and kissie. Instead he was tired, had forgotten what it was like to sleep in a big bed and every time I moved it woke him up. He had a lot of adjusting from his 16 hour work days to having time to relax, and he struggled with just sitting still with me.

    So, I’m nervous… how many days/ weeks will it take for him to settle in. When will we “pick up where we left off”? I’ve missed him so much… and now find myself feeling like an insecure school girl wondering if the big Quarterback will notice her.

    It’s silly, I know. These are the thoughts, feelings that go into my first deployment and homecoming experience.

    What do I know FOR SURE? It’s all worth it! I push the scared thoughts out of my mind, and just look forward to those big arms wrapped around me and the way he kisses my forehead because I’m busy bawling in his chest. Because that is how he held me the months before he left, when he was home on R&R, and how he has said he can’t wait to hold me when he gets back.

    I need to go make a care package! I’m glad I found this blog!

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Christine! John and I had a sort of similar experience for R&R– although it was probably much easier than yours, since we hadn’t been married yet and had never lived together. We also spent almost all of our time either with his parents or mine or friends– we tried to smash as much as we could into 15 days.

      Everyone’s experience is different because everyone’s deployment is different. I don’t know how long it will take for your husband to settle in to his regular schedule and for you to feel like you’re right back together. Weirdly enough, it took me longer to adjust than it did for John. I was so used to manning everything, that when he came home and we got married, I felt a little out of sorts. No matter what, as long as you know it’s worth it, that’s all that matters. :-)

      I’m looking forward to hearing your homecoming story! :-)

  2. I’m a few weeks away from my first homecoming with my husband, and we’re in a unique situation. He is ARNG and thus he’s flying to ME, because I’m with my mom out of state. We get to reunite, and then drive across the country together back to our home. I’m so anxious. It doesn’t feel real.

    I do have a photographer friend that plans to come. I’m not going to bother with a sign because it’s just him, not his unit or anything. Thank you for sharing, and for the tips from other spouses. I’m just planning to show up and cry. LOL.

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