He had been gone for eight months. At home, life hovered somewhere between controlled chaos and relative insanity. But the kids and I were fine. We would make it to February, when Francis would return from his yearlong deployment to Djibouti, East Africa.
It was December 2007, and we didn’t use social media yet. Skype was a thing, but this relatively new technology required us to suffer through delayed audio and frozen video. The calls were brief and came once every few weeks, but we emailed short, sweet messages daily.
With three active school-age kids, a full house, a sloppy 110-pound dog, my mother coming for Christmas, and a trip planned to my in-laws for New Years, the last thing I needed was another thing on my to-do list. But Francis deserved a holiday care package.
Christmas in Djibouti, the hottest place on earth inhabited by humans year-round, was surely no picnic. In the early days of Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa, the base was a dusty hellhole, surrounded by scorched earth and extreme poverty. Those assigned to Camp Lemonier spent their days working from sunup to to sundown, because there was so much work to do. Also because it was too hot to do anything else.
After spending his first two months in tented barracks where red dust permeated everything and sweat began to bead upon stepping out of the showers, Francis was assigned a cargo-box room, which were stacked two levels high. Each box was outfitted with a door, a head, and most-importantly, an air conditioner — the lap of luxury for Camp Lemonier.
Francis being Francis (an otherwise regular guy who enjoys fruity cocktails, candles and frilly things), I had sent matching “Merlot” items to decorate his cargo box when he moved in — bedding, drapes, shower curtain, rug, bathmat, toothbrush holder, soap dish and throw pillow.
I’m pretty sure Francis was the only guy on base with a bedskirt.
Between swimming lessons, Scout meetings and school pickups, I created Francis’ care package. I imagined his reaction to the things I’d carefully picked and wrapped. A Hickory Farms meat and cheese set. Homemade cookies. Books. Magazines. Movie DVDs. Pajama pants. Slippers. A candle. A tabletop Christmas tree. Tiny frame ornaments, containing photos of me and the kids.
I only wished I could climb into that box myself.
On Christmas Eve morning, I awoke with a jolt. So much still to do. Fold the laundry, defrost the roast, walk the dog, bake cookies, hit Target for last-minute gifts, wrestle the girls into their dresses, go to 5 p.m. mass, fill the stockings, wrap the presents … Somewhere between Anna knocking over the Christmas tree and the cranberry pinwheels burning, our computer emitted that familiar “bleep-bloop” ring.
Frantic shouts. Panicked scrambling. Breathless excitement.
“Hello?!” I blurted into our Dell desktop, the kids and my mom gathered around me.
“Honey!” we heard Francis’ voice, and others too. “I’m here in my room with a couple of my buddies having a little party.” Grainy, pixellated images flashed on the screen.
In folding soccer chairs, Francis and two other men sat in olive drab T-shirts, sipping contraband beverages. A cardboard box topped with a spare Merlot pillow case served as their table, upon which lay the Hickory Farms package, the cookies and the Christmas tree, lighted and adorned with the photo frames I’d sent.
Through the sounds of his rattling air conditioner, Francis described decorating his box for the party and how much he liked all the gifts I’d sent. “Later, we’re gonna watch ‘Die Hard’ on my laptop.”
“We all miss you, and …,” I was able to say, signaling the kids to wave to Daddy, before the screen froze permanently, “… love you.”
The scenes of my husband, halfway around the world, so grateful for a few simple comforts from home, offered perspective. As I turned away from our computer and resumed the many tasks and events of the holiday, I pondered, “Perhaps, if we had to fit Christmas in a box every year, we would never take it for granted.”