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He grew a mustache.*

Andrew and I skyped last night, for about the fourth or fifth time since he left. Most times, Skype hates us and we get 30 seconds or so before it drops the call. Last night was a good night; we got about 15 minutes at a time and it only dropped twice. I got to talk to him for almost an hour. It was probably my favorite conversation since he left.

We talked about his family and mine (I had seen both the previous weekend). We talked about his future nephew (and mine too… whoah.), due to be born in May. We talked about (*gasp*) potential kids of our own (someday not soon). He got to see Boots (the cat) and Indy (the dog). I folded laundry and played ball with Indy and we just talked about nothing and everything. We laughed and laughed and it was like he was right next to me. There were many moments where we just sat, looking at each other, grinning like idiots because he’s a world away and I’m a world away but he’s right here and I’m right here. Then I blushed and murmured something about how cute he is (mustache and all) and he said something about me and I turned an even deeper shade of burgundy… It felt like being 15 and having a crush on a boy in school and finding out he likes me too. Except that boy is a man and he’s the one I’m going to marry.

It’s bittersweet. The bitter is stronger than I’ve experienced before and the sweet is more fleeting than I could imagine. But it’s worth it. It’s so worth it. I don’t like that he is gone; I want him here more than I can describe; but oh that feeling. To be half a world away from someone and yet hear their heartbeat in your ears, and know it’s beating for you… it’s something I hope you never have to experience. BUT, if you do, know that there are few who are strong enough for it, few who are dedicated enough to see the beauty in it. You can take him and put him in a foreign land, but you can’t shake the steel of our hearts.

*he shaved it already.

“Life is like a wave: you can’t change the way it breaks, just the way you ride it.”

We’re about a third through the deployment today, give or take. Time goes slowly, time goes quickly. They switched Andrew’s shift now, so now I never know when I will talk to him. We had a routine, and that is gone… we’ll find a new one. It’ll just take time.

(Plus, I’m HORRIBLE at telling regular time in my own time zone, let alone military time in a different time zone. I never should have been able to graduate from high school with my complete inability to easily tell time. Some days I wake up and look at my (digital) clock and think: “Is it 4:30 am? Or pm? Have I slept an entire day?” And don’t get me started on my inability to ever know what day it is. The only reason I ever know it’s Monday is that my friends on Facebook are noticeably angrier.)

I got rid of my cable at the beginning of the deployment (because OHMYGODWEDDINGSARERIDICULOUSLYEXPENSIVE), and I just got Hulu Plus. Holy crap there’s a lot of TV I never watched! I like it even better than my DVR. With Hulu, I can start at the beginning of a season! So, yes, this is what has been filling my time during the past week: TV. Oh, and the original Star Trek movies, which Andrew bought me on blu-ray for Valentine’s Day. <3

In positive movement, I’ve actually been working out again, and have tried to cut back on my “eating everything I feel like at every moment of every day” diet plan. I’ve only been walking, and doing some minor strength training, but that’s okay. I feel like I’ve turned a corner. The first tri-mester (hah.) of deployment was spent eating a lot, being emotional and upset, and not wanting to have any human contact at all. I’m feeling hopeful about the next one… one step at a time is still progress.

Not A Sad Post.

Note: I just wanted to write that so you’d actually read it and not be like, “Oh here Kate goes again with her boo-hoo’ing.”

Note 2: But it really is NOT a sad post.

When I was very young, I desperately wanted to be a marine biologist. I also wanted to be a veterinarian. In fact, I really wanted to be both; my plan was that I’d spend my summers doing whatever it is a marine biologist does, then I’d treat dogs and cats and hamsters during the winter months. Sort of like how birds fly south for winter, except I’d stay in Philly, because I love the snow. (Birds don’t know what they’re missing. Snowmen, snow angels, hot chocolate that stings your thawing hands… and instead they head on tired wings to warmer skies.)

My family would go to aquariums, and I’d want books about all different types of fish. I wanted to save whales and train dolphins. I had this one book that had a paper wheel on the cover. You could spin various layers of the wheel that had fish characteristics, and then an opening on the bottom would tell you what sea creature had all of those characteristics. I loved that book.

At this point in my life, my brother and I spent a lot of time at my grandparents house. They lived nearby, and had a pool, and my grandmother made the best freaking french toast you’ve ever had in your life. (Except, if you’re reading this, you most like never had it, and that makes me sad for you.) My grandfather is a very imposing fellow; he’s like 9’2,” skinny as a rail, and has this deep baritone voice that would scare Mikey out of liking Life cereal. (Ok, no, he isn’t really 9’2″ but it seems like he is.) He also loves movies… any type of movies really. He would tape movies off the TV, put them in plain black VHS cases with labels on both the front and side to tell you what’s on them, and then he would catalogue them into these little black books he kept. He has hundreds and hundreds of movies. His favorites are action and horror movies though. The best part is that he normally had no qualms about watching these movies in front of children.

When I was about 7 years old, I was at my grandparents’ house, and my grandfather was watching a documentary on sharks. It was fascinating, and the budding marine biologist in me was riveted. It was about this beach town called Amity, New Jersey (not too far from Philly!!!) and this very kind-looking sheriff and his family, and OHMYGOD THERE’S A SHARK EATING CHILDREN WHAT KIND OF DOCUMENTARY IS THIS? It turns out it wasn’t a documentary after all, it was a horror movie. (Jaws.)

For about the next decade, I had a hard time going into their (8 foot deep, chlorinated) swimming pool because of sharks. That’s completely true. If I tried to jump off the diving board, I would see Jaws jumping out of the water and swallowing me whole. I sometimes had nightmares getting into a bathtub, that a miniature shark would swim up the drain. And the ocean?? Not a chance. I was deathly afraid of both sharks and drowning (mostly sharks dragging me down to the ocean floor and drowning me).

This fear never abated. Even today, I am just as afraid of sharks as I was the day that I saw Jaws for the first time. I’ve seen all the Jaws movies now, multiple times, but I consider that research just in case I ever come face-to-face with a vengeful, gigantic, woman-eating great white.

When I started dating Andrew, he told me he was scuba certified, which to me is like THE BRAVEST THING IN THE WORLD. (Him going to Iraq for 18 months? Second bravest. I’m kidding, I’m kidding.) But then I got nervous… at some point he’s going to want to scuba. So I decide I’m going to gently explain my deathly fear of sharks with all the ins and outs. It went sort of like,

Andrew: I’m scuba certified.
Kate: I’m kind of afraid of sharks. So how about those Phillies huh?

I really don’t think that struck home exactly how numbingly afraid I am.

Andrew has this fascination with zoos and aquariums. He LOVES them, and will find any excuse to go to them. One time, VERY early into us dating, he mentioned that Atlanta (Georgia) supposedly has the biggest sharks on the planet at their aquarium. Somehow, we decided that we wanted to go to Atlanta to see them.

While planning the trip, I found out that you can actually SCUBA with these gigantic devils. I thought to myself, “This is a perfect gift for Andrew, to celebrate his birthday and his deployment.” However, in fishing for (discreet) information, I found out that he didn’t know where his certification paperwork is.

BUT! The Atlanta Aquarium ALSO allows snorkeling with the sharks, which of course doesn’t require certification. Perfect! Except then I thought… would he really want to snorkel by himself? That seems sort of stupid.

So… I don’t know what happened, but I decided, “Oh screw it” and decided I would swim with them too. Because I lost my mind.

I told Andrew about our snorkeling adventure the day before, while we were in the hotel room planning the aquarium visit. He was excited; I was petrified and wished I was on the plane back to Philly.

We spent almost the entire next day at the aquarium. It’s an amazing place, so if you’re ever in Atlanta, I highly recommend a visit. Our appointment was right at closing time. (Being in an aquarium is CREEPY when there are no schools of children around the schools of fish.) They gave us a tour and showed us a video and went over safety instructions. Then they marched us to locker rooms where we donned our wetsuits. They fitted us with flippers, gloves, and masks. Then they asked if I wanted to try to “snorkel” with the scuba equipment, rather than a snorkel. I shyly said okay, and while standing safely on land I breathed into the regulator and everything seemed grand.

Then we got into the water. The equipment buoyed us up so we weren’t physically able to scuba, and I put in the regulator and mask and put my head under the water… and panicked. I was unable to breathe out of my mouth; my lungs burning, I tried breathing out of my nose (which had a mask of course). I flailed and jerked my head out of the water, ripped off the mask, and said to the people on the dock, “I CAN’T DO THIS.” I knew I was going to die. If the (non-man-eating) sharks in the tank didn’t eat me, then the non-functioning (it really WAS functioning) regulator would. I looked over at Andrew, who still had his head blissfully under the water. I was shaking so badly. I was going to either (1) die at the hands of shark or scuba gear or (2) disappoint Andrew, which I didn’t want to do. I tried again. Same result. I wanted to cry. I WANTED to do this for Andrew, but I was petrified. At this point, he was lazily bobbing in the water, waiting for me to… I don’t know what… He didn’t say anything. He didn’t say “there there, it’s ok” and he also didn’t say “you’re an asshole, suck it up.”

You may think this is an uncaring thing for him to do, but I look at it differently. He was treating me as an adult. It was my decision, and I don’t think he would have been disappointed either way. He knew I could figure it out, and he let me try.

The divemaster finally gave me a snorkel and asked me to try that (I’ve never snorkeled before either, for obvious reasons), but I was shaking and dejected and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. And I looked over at Andrew before I said no, and suddenly decided I just wanted to try. I wanted to do it for him. Just try one more time.

So I did. And it worked!!! We spent the next 30 minutes or so swimming along the top of the gigantic tank in an empty aquarium. These (completely gentle) sharks are absolutely the biggest things I could have ever imagined. One ran into Andrew and knocked him a bit, which was possibly my favorite part.

I’m still afraid of sharks. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to scuba. I think I will ALWAYS think twice before jumping into any body of water. But I did it.

So Happy Valentine’s Day to Andrew, the only person on the planet I would have tried one more time for.

TagBack in early December, I was honored to volunteer with Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery. Wreaths Across America is an organization that places Christmas wreaths on the graves of American soldiers across the country.

WAA truck

Andrew has a friend, Lt. Mark Dooley, buried in Arlington. Lt. Dooley was killed during Andrew’s first deployment, in Iraq, and is buried in section 60. I promised Andrew that, while I was there, I would make sure Lt. Dooley had a wreath.

I went to Arlington with my friends Christy and Jess. When we drove toward the cemetery, traffic was backed up quite a bit; there were so many cars and buses full of people that I can’t begin to describe it. The scene at the cemetery was similar: thousands and thousands of people all walking toward the amphitheater for the opening ceremony. The amphitheater itself was packed; every seat was filled and it was standing room only around the perimeter. We learned later that there were still thousands standing around outside the amphitheater just waiting to lay wreaths.

Every military branch was represented. I don’t know ranks but there were kids–no really, they had to be barely 19–who were discussing where they were going to be stationed, all the way up to the very decorated veterans. There were also so many people who you could tell by the way they walked and carried themselves that they had once been in the military. There were families, single people, groups, even elderly. opening ceremony

The opening ceremony was beautiful. There were two highlights for me. One was that Wreaths Across America placed their millionth wreath today in Arlington. They gave the honor to Mary Beyer, who lost her son in Iraq and is part of the Gold Star mothers.

The second highlight was the couple who owns the farm in Maine that donates all of the wreaths (this year: 90,000). I honestly don’t think they truly understand what a gift they provide. The husband was very humble and said very little. The wife talked about how grateful they are to all of those in uniform. She reminded us that what we can take from those who have been lost is their character. She told stories about people she had met during the drive from Maine to Arlington that they take every year. In one instance, a man in New York pressed a picture of his son, whom he lost in the current conflicts, into her hand and asked her to bring him to Arlington. She told another story of Mary Beyer’s son, who was mortally wounded and told his troops to keep going forward, which may have saved many of their lives. I can’t really describe to you what the feeling was in the amphitheater. There was a profound sense of sadness mixed with gratitude.

Kate with wreathWe started laying wreaths at one of the closer sections — I think section 6. I placed two wreaths in this section. Both of them (Col. Bundy and 1st Lt. Ford) happened to be in the Army, but I didn’t plan it that way. There were so many people, and so many wreaths; it was a bit overwhelming to think that we are only able to honor a mere fraction of those buried there.
After section 6, we headed to section 60. Wreaths were becoming scarce at this point, so I held onto mine so that I could make sure Lt. Dooley had one. He lays with many who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the feeling there was different than elsewhere in the cemetery. There were many, many families surrounding graves, leaving presents and wreaths and rocks. One family of a marine had left a miniature Christmas tree with little empty bottles of liquor hanging like ornaments. Every single tree in this section had Christmas ornaments and gold stars with the names of those lost. Christmas tree in section 60
Lt. Dooley had a wreath already when I got there, so I just stood with him for awhile to keep him company. I wish I had brought a rock to place on top of his gravestone, but he had already had a number of visitors:
rocks on lt. dooley's grave

It Goes Like This

It goes like this.

I wake up, at sometime between 3 and 4:30am, depending on how long our dog lets me sleep. I walk the dog, then I fight to catch a few more minutes of sleep. Despite having a queen-sized bed, the dog and the cat insist on sleeping on me.

I finally wake up, officially, begrudgingly, between 4:30 and 5. I get ready. Make coffee, breakfast, lunch. Make sure I have a book with me. Walk the dog again.

I catch the train at 6.

I’m at my destination train station by around 6:30, and walk to the office, where I arrive by 6:45.

I make coffee and eat breakfast while my computer boots up. I check e-mail and start to work.

Most days, I get to talk to him at some point in the morning. Sometimes it’s periodically over an hour, sometimes it’s for 5 minutes, and sometimes it’s sporadic over the course of the morning. Regardless, this is the longest I get to talk to him all day. My workday begins as his comes to a close. If there is something important to say, now is the time to say it. In a quirky way, this arrangement works… I’m a morning person and he is a night owl. Our incongruities line up while he is across the world. He wishes me a good day while I tell him sweet dreams.

Some days I hear from him at night also, after he’s woken up, but that has become less frequent and for shorter periods of time. A few stolen moments, a quick “I love you” and he’s off to guard duty while I prepare for bed. I have a hard time falling asleep. Sometimes I curse the clock at 2am.

I know to the people in my life, my real life, I must make this look easy. (I do wonder whether I’m fooling anyone but myself though.) I keep things light. I try, every single day, to make sure he knows that I am okay, that I am smiling. I do everything in my power to make him laugh, to let him know I’m thinking of him always. I tell him stories of our cat and our dog. I write him letters.

He does not have the privilege of time nor leisure. He doesn’t write me back… he’s too exhausted. I get frustrated. I breathe. Keep calm and carry on. People have it much worse. Hearing from him everyday is a blessing many would do anything for.

It goes like this… one month down.

I had been doing surprisingly well with Andrew being on deployment. Two weeks came and went. It was difficult but I was feeling optimistic.

Then last night happened.

I was trying to pick up the apartment a bit. I had been putting it off pretty much ever since he left. In all honesty, I’ve been putting off a lot of things ever since he left. Last night I started putting his clothes away. I had washed most of them, folded them, and put them in these little makeshift drawers I bought once he moved in.

Then I went to put his duffel bag in the closet, and I saw a hint of green peeking through the opening at the top. I reached my hand in and pulled out a green t-shirt.

You should know that Andrew has something like 6 t-shirts. That’s it. He has his favorites that he wears, and he wears them until they’re nothing more than thread and memory. This green one might be the favorite of his favorites. It’s a Flogging Molly t-shirt; I think 3 of his 6 t-shirts are. This one is all green with white lettering. Green is my favorite color, and he’s Irish so he looks really good in green. I might be biased, but it still stands.

I was about to throw it in the wash pile when I wondered whether it was already clean. It looked unworn, so I smelled it. And suddenly, Andrew was there in the room. No, not really, this wasn’t some portkey that pulled him from Kuwait back into the United States. But it smelled like him, a mixture of Acqua Di Gio cologne and Head and Shoulders shampoo.

That was all it took. I wish I could say that I took one breath, smiled, and tossed it into the wash pile to go about my business. That’s not what happened.

Instead, I crumpled on the floor. That’s the only word for it: crumpled. I grasped the t-shirt in both hands, wringing it in distress, feeling it against my cheek when the tears came. I’ve been sad since he left, and I’ve had bad moments, but they were fleeting and shallow, puddles of unhappiness that you can jump over and keep moving. This was different. It was short, but it was deep, and I felt the weight of 9 months apart pressing on me.

Our cat, Boots, came over to me and rubbed against my leg, purring, and I was back again, out of the ocean and safely on the shore. My next thought was about all those men and women who would never see their loved ones again, and how lucky… how incredibly lucky… I am. And also how melodramatic the entire incident must seem from the outside.

Then I folded up the t-shirt and placed it in a drawer for another day.

Two weeks ago was the best day of my life so far.

He came home.

I picked him up from the airport, and we went home. What a word, home. If you’re missing part of it–a roof, a door, even if you just have a large crack in a window–it no longer feels like home. The rain gets in, the wind batters the inhabitants, the chill permeates every corner. And then when that part is made whole again, it’s bliss. He came home, and it was whole.

And then he did the unthinkable, something so unexpected and out-of-character that I’m still not sure it’s real. He asked me to marry him.

I spent that next week, with him, on a white fluffy cloud of joy, like I had woken up in Care-A-Lot with a fuzzy face and the ability to Care Bear Stare. I woke up each morning looking at my finger in disbelief of my good luck. I don’t deserve to feel so happy and so optimistic about my future.

A week ago, he was back on a plane heading to Mississippi. That was hard.

Then on Sunday he was on a plane en route to a foreign country. That was harder.

I heard from him very briefly on Tuesday. Somehow… and you may not believe this… that was even harder.

And THEN this morning he sent a longer e-mail about how things were, and that was the worst.

Suddenly it’s all real and it’s all here and it’s all at once and I’m all alone and I’ve got to figure it all out. Suddenly the week we had together was a minute and the nine months ahead is 100 years. It feels bizarre to me that a little over a year ago, I was all alone and it didn’t bother me. And now… now I’m alone. Alone on a dark gray thundercloud, Care Bear Stare long forgotten.

The funny thing about life is that it goes on, whether you want it to or not, and if I don’t get on the train I could be stuck at the pity party station forever. So I’ve gotta put on my big girl pants, “line my skies with all the silver I can use,” and get going. I’ve gotta. I don’t really remember how to do that, but I think if I just put one foot in front of the other, I’ll be getting somewhere.