Christmas Eve. Fang and I are snug on my couch. Safe in America and only thirty minutes away from the homestead. Such a luxury, to be able to see all of my loved ones, in person, on Christmas tomorrow.
It hasn’t always been so for us, and I feel a little guilty in my contentedness thinking of my friends around the world who will not be with family this holiday. This life of service we’ve chosen truly requires sacrifice. And what other time than the holidays to most feel the sharp stab of longing for the comforts of home and loved ones? Life feels punctuated by all the moments you missed.
Looking back on all of the holidays and special events that were just slightly off –because of our family’s duty to Country–you know, they were some of the most memorable and special for it. Nothing will make you appreciate your family and home more than being away from it during a time entirely devoted to the importance of Family.
There was the Christmas in high school when Dad was gone for months, including Christmas, in order that my parents could afford to buy me my first car. A 1992 green Mercury Cougar. With a red bow on it fit for a Lexus. That thing was a tank and I loved it. But I have to admit, at the time in my teenage angst, I was a teeny bit resentful of his absence. Not until I was an adult, serving my own Christmas in a war zone at the age of 23, did I full comprehend what my parents gave up to provide the best life possible for their children.
At 23, the year I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, my Mom’s birthday, my brother’s graduation from college, and so many other moments. I wasn’t without love. The family we built out there on camaraderie and pure survival saw us through the holidays. My job was basically to serve as the mom for all of my coworkers. Duties included jerry-rigging decorations and nagging the guys to not forget to write to their moms/wives/girlfriends/children.
That year for Christmas, my parents sent me a camera so that I could document life. Knowing that I have loved taking photos since I was old enough to understand what a camera was and how to operate it, this was a fantastic gift. Or at least it would have been. Mom sent it through the mail system early and I put the wrapped present under a hand drawing of a tree in my hooch and dutifully waited until Christmas morning to open it. The box was empty! I laugh now, but then, I cried like a baby. Getting a gift from Mom and Dad was the closest thing to normal that I had, and it was off. Mom to the rescue; she went back to the store, probably Target, explained what happened, and I got the camera about a month later. I still have it, even if I’ve upgraded a few times since. That thing went through a lot to get to me.
A week later, tragedy struck. How do you celebrate the coming of a new year and a clean slate when you’ve just lost friends to senselessness? There are no words. Twenty four hours after, I was faced with a decision: go ahead with the New Years “party” I had put together in the MWR or cancel it. I went with something in the middle. God knows why, but I’d found a six inch mirror ball in a storage closet and rigged it on string to drop at midnight. I had our cooks make platters of “American” food and had hoarded enough Johnny Walker to toast with. We used the occasion to mourn and move on because there was no other choice. Life and the rest goes on and there is no stopping.
Fast forward to a year later. I decide to surprise my family for Christmas. I worked it out with a close friend of mine to pick up and drop me off in a giant gift bag that I could hide in and get left on the door stoop. Stupid, yes. Cute, absolutely. SURPRISE. My first flight is significantly delayed and I am told that I will likely miss my connecting flight in Paris. Because, Africa. My heart sank and I felt a desperate urge to Just. Get. Home. I ran through Charles de Gaulle and made my flight. My luggage, not so much. Despite the nighttime arrival, my friend was kind enough to drive me to Target to get a change of clothes and a tooth brush. The gifts I’d ferreted in my suitcase wouldn’t make it that year. But the look of utter disbelief on Mom’s face when she looked down the stairs and saw me-priceless. Air France managed to find and return my luggage back a couple months later.
At 25, I was nearly fired over a special event. My little brother was graduating boot camp in mid-January so we postponed Christmas so that we could all be there. I would fly home from North Africa and head down to see Larry at Paris Island before we all went home and celebrated. And then a month in advance, a project comes up that I cannot miss. No, what I was not going to miss, was another graduation of his. At the end of the day, what am I going to look back on and regret-missing being on hand to open doors for a Big Wig… or missing the moment of pride in seeing my little brother become a US Marine? Easy decision for me. Ultimately, I won that battle, which was made moot when said Big Wig cancelled said project at the last minute. We froze our assess off hoping to catch a glimpse of Larry running by in formation and then hugged his skeletal frame in an auditorium full of other families ecstatic to see their newly minted Marines.
So tonight, I am thinking of my dearest friends all over the world. Sacrificing and serving so that I can sit here with Fang on my cozy couch in America. We’re sending you all hugs and licks. I’m also thinking of my family. It still surprises me every time I realize I can just hop in the car and go see them. Especially during this season. The holidays are special and even if you can’t be with family, they are still out there, thinking of and loving you. Waiting until that next time they get to hold you hard enough to make up for being absent on that arbitrary date which the calendar tells us is special.
Happy Christmas and Merry New Year, everyone.