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.
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?”
“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.