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After a whirlwind courtship and less than three weeks spent together, I married a Navy man eight short months after I met him. In twenty-three years, we have been apart for every major holiday at least once. We have missed so many wedding anniversaries that it was a novelty to spend our anniversary together. (In fact, our wedding had to be rescheduled three times to accommodate his ship’s schedule.) But we were lucky. For nineteen years, we only missed one Christmas—our second Christmas together, when he was deployed through mid-January. That year we celebrated Christmas on January 17 when he returned, because that’s what military families do—celebrate holidays when you can, as best you can.
For nineteen years, it was just the two of us. The oddball childless military couple, a team of two. I was alone for much of that time thanks to deployments and training and duty days. I’ve always been a loner, but it takes a strong personality to embrace it, year after year, in the unpredictable way of military life. The old saying that a ship’s schedule is written in liquid Jell-O is not far from the truth—I learned to use pencil in my date book. I learned to have a Plan B for anything I wanted to do. I learned that tickets bought six months in advance didn’t mean we would be going together if his schedule happened to change at the last minute.
For nineteen years, I got used to the unpredictable rhythm and flow of Navy life. I enjoyed short duty, I made the most of sea duty, I cobbled together a life of my own, friendships that sustained me, work that fulfilled me and nurtured a love for the man of my dreams across thousands of miles and through thousands of letters and emails and phone calls. And then … we had a baby. At the end of our second decade of marriage, we had our first son. Suddenly, holidays and special events took on new meaning, made all the more bittersweet when my husband was in the middle of an eight-month deployment when the baby was due. He came home, I ended up with a Cesarean section and, eighteen days later, I was alone again. Alone with a baby. And it was baby’s first Christmas.
That year, my first child’s first Christmas was celebrated on December 21, complete with a big meal for two and a sleepy baby cradled in my arms at the dinner table. The next day, my husband packed up the Christmas decorations to spare me all the extra work (I’d hauled the tree out of the attic myself, at nine months pregnant), and the day after that, he packed up his travel bag and caught a plane back to Dubai for another five months. The pictures of baby’s first Christmas reflect a not-quite-three-week old infant and two very tired parents. I suppose the day will come when I might actually forget my husband wasn’t there on the actual day, or that New Year’s. Or even my first Mother’s Day.
Missing holidays as a couple was sad for me when we first married, but the birth of children gave those special events a different kind of spin. There is only one first Christmas, one first Mother’s Day. After twenty-three years of marriage, we are forty-something year old parents of a two-year-old and a four-year-old, and suddenly I can’t bear the thought of him being gone for another holiday. It’s not that I’m less independent than I was before or that I place some greater significance on the holidays than I did before kids. But these early years of childhood are so fleeting, every endearing (or infuriating) moment seems to be a one-of-a-kind experience, and I loathe the idea of my husband missing a holiday or birthday or special event.
After two decades alone together, our family grew from two to four. The house is louder and more crowded; my time is no longer my own even when my husband is gone. And my husband, father of two sons who sings, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” as a bedtime song and likely has seawater in his veins, is now my partner in parenthood who I have to share more often than I would like, with both the Navy and our children. We are a military family, to be sure, but we are a very non-traditional military family, middle-aged parents and rambunctious little boys. My husband’s naval career will be wrapping up in the next couple of years and my hope is that we will be middle-aged stay at home parents together, with a nearly thirty year military pension and my writing income and income from whatever other part-time jobs we get to sustain us. I keep thinking what a unique and lucky experience that would be—how many couples get to stay home with their children full-time, never missing an experience or holiday or event?
The Navy has been good to us and our boys will grow up hearing about their father’s many sea adventures and the five months I took care of an infant by myself, despite never having changed a diaper, and still found time to write. But after the Navy … well, that will be a different kind of adventure all together.
Kristina Wright (kristinawright.com) is a full-time writer and editor, Navy spouse and mother to two young boys. She holds a graduate degree in humanities from Old Dominion University and is the author of Bedded Bliss: A Couple’s Guide to Lust Ever After, published by Cleis Press.