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Scene, Sunday, September 9, 2007

It’s September, and my husband is packing again. This month seems to coincide often with deployments. It’s almost part of the back-to-school ritual: Time to get crayons, composition books, and three new sets of desert camouflage.

For many reasons, our nation pauses for reflection when the 11th day of the ninth month approaches. I’ve been thinking about the strength of military families in uncertain times, and remembering other Septembers:

2001: Dark green mobility bags, zippered mouths gaping open, mar the order of our living room floor, and our lives. In more peaceful days the bags were forgotten, stacked on top of some boxes in our garage. Now they’re spread out on the living room floor, demanding our attention, like the news footage from New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

My husband empties the bags, scrutinizes their contents: T-shirts, camouflage gear, gas mask, first aid kit, and other necessities strewn on the carpet. One bag has a small American flag attached, at least barely. It clings by one corner, a reminder of another war, stapled to the canvas at the last minute. That was more than ten years ago. This time I’ll sew it on.

In the relative peace of those years, it was easy to forget what is again clear to us. Life is uncertain.

Our children troop downstairs for breakfast and stop short when they see the bags. “Where’s Daddy going?” they ask. Television scenes of fallen skyscrapers and airplanes were too distant to change their lives. The sight of Daddy’s bags brings events home. We can’t answer all their questions. We don’t know the “when” or the “where.” We can only tell them that life is uncertain, but God is not.

2005: Dark green mobility bags, zipped up and piled on the luggage cart, signal another September departure. The flag is still flying on one bag. I’m glad I sewed it on. This will be its fourth trip to another, less peaceful part of the world.

On the way to the airport, we take two of our children for their first day of school. Our 8-year-old stays with me. By the time all the good-byes are said, and we finally drive away from the terminal, I feel numb. In the back seat our youngest is quiet for a while, and then asks again what we’ve already answered: “How long will Dad be gone?”

He takes in my answer and pauses. “He’ll be gone for my birthday.”

“Yes, baby.”

In the rearview mirror I see he is holding back tears — four lanes of traffic and no place to pull over. Words are so useless. I want to hold him and cry with him. We’ve been through this before, but it doesn’t get easier. When finally I can stop the car and open his door, I tell the truth: “I need a hug.” He gives it gladly, and is already chatting about our plans for the day. I’ve learned that sorrow comes and goes. When it comes, cry about it, and when it goes, don’t call it back.

2007: A small flag still waves on one green bag as we prepare for another trip to the airport, another departure, more uncertainty. But really, the uncertainties of life are always there, relegated to the pile in the garage like the green bags used to be. Sometimes it’s good to bring them into the rooms where we live, examine the contents, pack them up and face the unknown.

Life is still uncertain, and still, God is not. I don’t know any more comforting words for Septembers like these.

Terri Barnes is a military spouse and mother of three. She lives and writes in Germany, where her husband is stationed at Ramstein AB. Send comments or questions to spousecalls@stripes.com and join the Spouse Calls blog at http://blogs.stripes.com/blogs/spousecalls.

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