By Jenny Fiore
The night before my husband deployed to Kuwait, I stood in our living room–vast, unpainted, still not feeling like home–and kept an ear open to our baby monitor. Our daughter, Elizabeth, then nineteen months old, was just starting to put together small sentences. I couldn’t make them out over the scratch of the white-noise machine in her room. Something about owl babies?
For many days, we’d been preparing her for this moment, for the fifteen months that lay ahead. “Daddy loves you,” I heard my husband say. “I have to go bye-bye for a long time.” There was no reply, only the rocking chair’s creaking rhythm, going so much faster than usual.
My husband, Brian, doesn’t cry. He is a Green Beret. But he likes to garden. He likes to cook. He drinks with his bent pinky raised, delicate and effeminate–a medical condition called clindactyly. He became a Green Beret not in spite of his personality but because of it. He doesn’t care what people do in their bedrooms, in their politics, in their religion. I have never heard him raise his voice. He is kind and musical and brilliant and has as much fun hanging out at my lesbian sister’s gatherings as he does with his salt-of-the-earth friends from the row houses of his Baltimore childhood. He really gets old people, especially his ninety-three-year-old grandmother, who doesn’t know he’s going. She’ll think he’s still doing skin biopsies and mole removals in the dermatology practice where he works. ” Nan gets confused,” my husband’s mother insisted when we told her about the military orders. “She’ll worry herself sick if she knows.”
When he comes to the bottom of the stairs, Brian’s skin looks fit for embalming. “That was some sad shit,” he exhales. His mouth is a squiggle. The lines around his eyes are curved a new way, like parentheses. I realize several months later, when watching the Peanuts Christmas special, that it’s Charlie Brown’s worried expression he has. I don’t know what to do. We’re such jokesters, my husband and I, the sort who’d make the other laugh in the face of chemotherapy, bankruptcy, anal fissures, an earthquake. Or so I’d imagined. Now we fall into each other’s arms in a weird place in the hallway, not quite the hallway, not quite a room, and we sob and we hug and we can’t believe this is happening to us.
Two months later, we repeat this excruciating exercise. Brian makes a five-day visit home between his Guard unit’s mobilization in Mississippi–where he’d been hit by the twirling hem of Hurricane Katrina–and his actual deployment to Kuwait. The trial separation has hardened us the two of us a bit. Adrift in the air of our home, which I’d been painting room by room to surprise him when he returned, there is the heavy, unspoken understanding that we’re not going to blubber this time. Instead we take Elizabeth to the zoo and for ice cream and French fries and to a petting farm and a Jewish deli equipped with a garish carousel that makes her scream in delight at every revolution. We have sex during her naptime and after her bedtime and, once, in the middle of the night like college kids. We make big breakfasts with too much butter and big dinners with too much wine. I save my tears for the last moment, when we’re driving into the airport parking garage. Brian holds my hand and, knowing there’s nothing to say, says nothing.
On the way home, I realize it’s gotten cold out. It’s dawn, and the streets are gray and empty. A Wisconsin winter is coming, and I feel small. Oscar Mayer’s drab, prison-like packing plant towers over me at an intersection, and as I wait for the light to turn green, I think of what Brian’s quarters will be like in Kuwait. Like a jail cell. It is for him that my heart is breaking. The year ahead stretches out before me like one of the Great Lakes. I know the other side is that-a-way, right over the horizon. I just can’t see it. Pulling into my driveway, I have already laid down a half-dozen mental stepping-stones: Thanksgiving, Elizabeth’s second birthday, Christmas, a trip to Maryland, a trip to Arizona. Each month, I’ll have something to keep me going. My parents will take Elizabeth one day each week. Our new home is just two blocks from my sister. We’re going to be okay.
Okay is a relative term. Within days, I begin to realize it doesn’t apply to us. At night, after Elizabeth has gone to sleep, I look back at the life Brian and I once had–when I was a working editor, and he was getting his medical training, and we moved around the country as best friends and lovers and hadn’t yet arrived to godforsaken Wisconsin to have a baby with colic who barely slept for a year, creating a rift in our marriage that we’d only recently begun to mend–and I have to admit that things aren’t going well at all. We are in trouble.
It’s not like we never talk. Brian calls every three or four days. But there’s always the transatlantic delay between our sentences, or the transatlantic echo, or both. Elizabeth gradually learns to do more than nod at the phone, but the delays and the echoes confuse her. Sometimes she hands the phone back to me just as Brian’s answering her, or worse, saying, “I miss you.” The words fall out of the phone and into the air, sounding so small.
We have email and video recorders, too. Brian makes her a virtual TV show from his quarters. His room does look like a prison cell. Behind him is a gray locker and a porcelain basin surrounded by taped-up finger-paint pictures and snapshots of Elizabeth and me. How does he know how to talk to her? I think. How to make her laugh? He’s amazingly like Mr. Rogers, but with an electric guitar. Watching him croon the alphabet song, I feel more love for him than I have ever felt–more than on our wedding day, more than when Elizabeth was born.
“How about we sing some songs?” he says, as he tunes the guitar. “What song do you want to hear?” He waits, and she answers. “Twinkle, Twinkle? I like that song, too!” I have fed him data. I have told him the books and songs and characters she loves. It’s almost like they’re really talking to each other. “How about we do some dancing?” he says. “YES!” Elizabeth screams. Brian pretends to shuffle through CDs at his feet. “What song do you want?” he asks. “We Got the Beat!” Elizabeth screams. “We Got the Beat?” he says. “I like that song, too.” He leans in to a boom box by the sink and pushes a button. Then he goes ape-shit dancing to the Go-Go’s. I imagine the soldiers in the rooms around him wondering what all the banging is. He hops and twirls. He leaps from one side of the screen to the other. He does the monkey, and some weird gyrating move no child should ever see her dad doing, but it doesn’t matter. It’s so perfect. I’m so grateful for it, and yet mad that it’s all we can do.
While Brian is gone, the following things happen: Elizabeth learns to speak in full sentences. She invents an imaginary rhino named Gertrude. She learns to ride a tricycle. She learns to ride a bike with training wheels. Our friend is killed in Iraq while intercepting a suicide bomber. His wife attempts to kill herself. Brian’s grandmother begins to get dementia. Elizabeth goes through several shoe sizes. She grows six inches. She moves to a big-girl bed. She moves to a twin bed. She potty trains herself. She regresses. She pees in the floor vents and draws on the walls. She learns the alphabet and how to count to twenty. An old friend is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. We have a blizzard, two of them. I learn that, even when spent, if I’m angry, I can hurl a whole snowblower several feet. And then coldly stare down my neighbor who has sat by watching me struggle with the thing for twenty minutes. I cut my hair short, like a boy. We plant gladiolas and dahlias. They bloom and die. I get a crush on the construction worker across the street. I drink too much when Elizabeth goes to her grandparents’ house. I don’t even think about masturbating, not once. I keep having to regroup, to remember where it was this family was going just a year ago when I wasn’t a single mom. Treading water is hard. Sometimes you just want to stop.
At every turn, I feel the absence of my husband. There is a photograph of me in a party hat at Elizabeth’s second birthday, singing with her on my lap as she prepares to blow out the candles on the elaborate cake I’ve made. In it, I’m wondering where my video camera is, wondering if anyone’s getting this for Brian. My sweater is a bright happy green like the color of a sports drink, making me look that much more weathered. Which I am. It’s been four months, and already I’m run-down by having to memorialize it all for my husband. By having to do it all for our daughter. By not being able to sit back and enjoy. By that cold fucking lake that goes on forever in front of me. Every time the camera clicks, or the camcorder beeps, I know we’re not really living our life.
More than halfway into the deployment, Elizabeth and I are at a local gym for toddler playtime, complete with foam pits and trampolines and five-foot play forms in the shapes of O’s. Elizabeth hates leaving, and I know it will end in a theatrical mess, but I go anyway. I go because I need it. More than she does, I need the gym. I need the zoo. I need the petting farm. I need the pet store and the playgrounds and the children’s museum and the wading pool and the toy store. I need Culver’s Frozen Custard and the garish carousel at Ella’s Deli so badly it hurts. I need the flowers to bloom and bugs to haunt our house. I need these in order to keep my child happy enough, occupied enough to not become the straw that breaks this camel’s back.
But when open gym ends, Elizabeth becomes that straw. Screaming and kicking in my arms, she clamps onto a fistful of my hair, even the tender ones along the hairline, and my stress and anger boil over into a wrath so fierce that it scares me. I am harsh with her in front of strangers. I get in her face and shake my finger so close to the tip of her nose that I can feel her breathing. I growl that she will never come back to this gym again. NEVER. During the drive home, I scream terrible things. She laughs. She sings. I feel like a freight train barreling forward, out of control. I have no brakes. I tell her to shut up. I fantasize about slapping her. I think I want to make her cry, to show me that she gets it, or maybe to make me stop what I’m doing.
At home, I send her to the bottom of the stairs, to the “naughty step,” and I go into the bathroom and splash water on my face. I look old. I don’t think I’ve brushed my teeth for days. I scrunch up my face to see how I look when I’m furious, to see what Elizabeth just saw. Such a feeling of self loathing comes over me that I want to punch the mirror. I think of my daughter’s small body in my arms six weeks before Brian deployed, of the way I cried when I nursed her that last time, not wanting her to go through weaning while her daddy was gone, not thinking she could take so much loss at once. I knew then that I would always have to love her in a context beyond my control, in an imperfect world that deals us difficult choices that sometimes feel not like choices at all. But I had no idea it would be like this.
When I go to her, I know she’s been crying. She is red-faced and snot-nosed and so much smaller than she’d seemed just an hour before. I sit on the naughty step with her, where I belong, and tell her I’m sorry. I try to explain, even though there’s no way to explain. She is only two and a half. She needs to throw tantrums. It’s her right to laugh when mom gets mad. She’s supposed to draw on the walls and forget how to use the potty. “I always love you,” I tell her. “Even when you’re naughty. Even when I’m naughty. I always, always love you.”
We sit for a while holding hands and look out at that cold lake ahead of us, me knowing we are running out of stepping-stones and her, somehow still trusting when I say that the other side is out there. And that we’re really almost to it.
Jenny Fiore lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, two children, five hens, and a tomcat. She is the author of After Birth: Unconventional Writings from the Mommylands (Possibilities Publishing, March 2013) and currently blogs at www.themomplex.net. “A Year at the Lake” garnered her a Pushcart Prize Special Mention for creative nonfiction.
Brain, Child (Winter 2007)