Absence makes the dad grow fonder

My husband has a favorite photo of our children. All three of our kids are in our front yard on a sunny spring day in Georgia, where we lived at the time. Each sits on a skateboard holding a colorful sign. Each sign is has one word, and in sequence they say, “Happy – Father’s – Day.”

My husband says he likes the picture because it brings back good memories. But he wasn’t there when I took it. It’s a picture of what he missed in June of 2003. He was in Iraq, and the photo was our gift to him on a Fathers Day he could not share with us.

Like most military families, we have plenty of photos like that, but when my husband calls this one a good memory, I bristle a little.

“How can it be a good memory when you weren’t there?” I ask.

“If I had been there, it would have been just another nice day," he replies. "I might have taken it for granted.”

That’s one luxury a military dad doesn’t have – taking for granted any Father’s Day he spends with his children. The same goes for Christmas, Easter, birthdays, baseball games, recitals and other milestones of parenthood.

“Do you ever think about what you’ve missed over the years? What you’ve sacrificed during deployments?” I probe, interviewing him, though he doesn’t know it.

But he won’t be drawn into self-pity. He’s never been one for regrets, especially about what he accepts as the price of his life’s work, his calling.

“No,” he answers. “Everyone I serve with is in the same boat.” He accepts it as part of his mission: Sharing the sacrifices of those he serves alongside.

I know better than to take this as an indication that he is not devoted to me and to our children. I married a military man, and I learned his convictions a long time ago.

A few months after our wedding, an American military action overseas brought concerns about deeper involvement. The potential that my husband, then a reservist, might be called to active duty and sent into harm’s way, was naturally frightening to me.

“What if you get called up?” I remember asking him, as we turned out the lights and got into bed one night after watching the latest unsettling reports on the 10 o’clock news.

“Then I’ll have to go,” he said. He kissed me goodnight and was soon asleep. I stayed awake for a while, contemplating his acquiescence. I admired then – and now – his ability to weigh the cost of his commitment, accept it and not lose any sleep over it.

The first deployment, it turned out, came several years later. As we said goodbye, I held our infant son, swaddled in blankets against the January wind. I knew then that my husband’s service would exact a price from me too – and our children. I’ve found it comes with many rewards as well.

Recently I overheard a military spouse complaining about being the one to bear the weight of family life while her husband is away. It is hard, but bottom line, I know I’m the lucky one. When my husband is gone, I get to be there for the cross-country meets, choir concerts, even Fathers Day. Being there is my calling.

When he is deployed, I know my military husband is doing what he loves. I also know he is lonely for those he loves more, but he chooses, rather than brooding about the special days he’s missed, to fully enjoy the ones he spends at home.

It’s a quirk of military life that the family member who tethers us to the military is the one most likely to be absent. Whether he is near or far, his influence still shapes us. His commitment to service and love for us have guided and shaped the military life we are glad to live.

This Father’s Day, the guy who makes all that possible at our house spent the day at home – mostly relaxing in his favorite chair. He doesn’t take that for granted, and we shouldn’t either.

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