The Good Summer

My son enjoying a quick climb on the Badlands this summer.

My son enjoying a quick climb on the Badlands this summer.

I almost titled this ‘The Good Enough Summer’, but changed my mind before typing one word.  When you hear good enough, regardless of the context, doesn’t your mind bend slightly to thoughts of something mediocre, like whatever turned out to be ‘good enough’ was still not quite satisfactory, and the party reaching said state did so under protest?  When my husband and I were discussing this year’s summer plans, our conversation ended with the blanket statement: “Well, it’s just going to have to be good enough.”  Everything was going to have to be good enough, each family member would have to pull their weight, and expectations would be lowered to get through the summer.   I didn’t know if it would work, but I wanted to be optimistic.

I wanted summer to be good because we were under stress.  We sold our house in Kansas and bought another home in Missouri.  The mortgage application process became a prolonged nightmare, but in the beginning we were oblivious to what lay ahead.  Our focus was on the six weeks of summer during which we would technically be homeless.  Although this was not a problem since we had family and friends to visit during our vacation time — very convenient for gypsies who like to travel — no amount of obsessive planning can totally prepare a person for the creeping feeling of general terror when facing the truth of simply being unable to go HOME.

We had to be ultra conservative to get through summer without going into debt.  I counted my daughters’ shoes and made a pile of nearly two dozen pairs between them.  After playing in mud puddles, running up and down dirt roads, cruising zoos and water parks, the pile would diminish to one or two usable pairs by the end of summer.  I expected most of their clothing to become outgrown or worn out, too.  My plan was that the kids would wear things out as we traveled so I could squirrel money away for back to school shopping in August.  I wanted them to learn that consumerism is not a hobby, that money does not appear on a whim, that we should use what we own, like old tennis shoes, reuse what we can, like ripped blue jeans, and replace things when the time comes.  This summer would be a perfect time for such lessons.

Our new puppy Teddy enjoying the beach on Lake Kampeska this summer.

Our new puppy Teddy enjoying the beach on Lake Kampeska this summer.

I have to constantly keep my children sane, happy, fed, entertained, and alive!  Are my treasured art investments actually in storage or on the Black Market? Did I remember to pack my jewelry?  There are 500 pairs of shoes in this car and it smells like there are 500 pairs of shoes in this car.  I have to schlep 1,200 pounds of the Most. Important. Things. Everyone. Owns. around for the next month. WHY do my kinds think they each need five stuffed animals, 18 books they won’t read, and 600 loose Crayons, which are presently melting all over my car?  These thoughts filled my head as we hit the road.  Two adults, three children, and one yellow Labrador puppy growing at a rate of 2.5 pounds per week crammed into my SUV to drive thousands of miles and live like nomads for the next several weeks.

My daughters looking at the geese at a botanical garden in Missouri.

My daughters looking at the geese at a botanical garden in Missouri.

Packing light was a goal, not necessarily a realistic concept.   Anticipating our temporary homelessness and wanting to be practical, two week’s worth of clothing for each person, all the shampoo that we currently owned, and a couple bars of soap. By the time we reached South Dakota, we had to ship an enormous foot locker and a large cardboard U-Haul box back to Missouri.  We were already overloaded before our trip had officially begun!  We had decided to travel in one car, which began having ‘technical difficulties’ in New Mexico.  So much for the money for my back to school shopping spree.  I kept telling my husband that we could get rid of an extra set of bedding we used at the Carlsbad KOA cabin, but ever the Boy Scout, he wanted to hold onto it in case we needed it later on.  That turned out to be a fantastic idea, since several strange things happened requiring ingenuity as well as sheets, blankets, and so many garbage bags.

Regardless of our agreement that this summer would have to be good enough (in other words, we would all have to tough it out), I spent much of the time worrying. I missed my friends and had no outlet to work through my emotions about being uprooted.  Everything that could go wrong seemed to.  The underwriters harassed us nonstop for proof to further prove our proof of various documentation (and I know how ridiculous that sounds, but it is exactly what they requested).  My car was in the shop during our entire visit to Texas, and it started to malfunction from new problems during our trip from Texas back to Missouri. Our dog almost drowned, our oldest child turned into a moody teenager, and we were always at the mercy of the family members who took us in.  Every day was a new mini drama.

A quiet moment of reflection at the Oklahoma City Bombing Museum.

A quiet moment of reflection at the Oklahoma City Bombing Museum.

All I wanted was something better for my family, because we deserved a really great summer.  Hell, I deserved a really great summer!  My husband and I argued a lot and fought a little.  There were days when I wanted to run away from my family and establish a life as a fabulous hermit/diva somewhere in Europe.  I stress ate, when I actually remembered to eat.  When we limped the broken SUV into our new town in Missouri, we were met with empty promises from the bank, so we ended up in a horrid little motel. Our room had a mysterious, overpowering odor later identified as the mold and mildew that spawns after extensive water damage.

We arrived at our house for the walk-through feeling dirty and dejected, smelling of mildew, sleep deprived and slightly malnourished (having eaten nothing but ham on white bread for what seemed like years).  The seller, who happened to be a realtor with nothing to lose, took pity on us because we had essentially become the delightfully comical Griswold family from the National Lampoons Vacation movies, and she agreed to a temporary rental until the underwriters were finally satisfied with their scrutiny of just about every aspect of our lives.

Food for thought at my favorite sculpture park in South Dakota.

Food for thought at my favorite sculpture park in South Dakota.

Everything worked out in the end, but more work and a lot of introspection was required to get to this point.  ISummer is winding down, and as I go through photos of the family, I realize that maybe we actually did have a good summer.  Maybe our expectations were exceeded, and we didn’t have a merely mediocre time.  Sure, on some days there was crying, swearing, and fighting, and sometimes we were quite miserable, even pathetically so.  Looking back, at more happy memories than sad, I have realized that I am an ignorant woman. It took me the entire summer to figure out that when it comes to family relationships, there is no such thing as ‘good enough’.  There is just love, and try, and care, and time.

~G

Lasts and Firsts

During our last trip to the park this week.

Ross during our last trip to the park.

It has been two weeks since our family lost Ross The Dog to kidney failure.  We were a bit naive to how painful the grieving process would actually be when the time came to say goodbye, and many of the realizations took us by surprise.  After spending seven good years with Ross, it wasn’t just the last moments that broke our hearts, it was all the firsts.

The first time I had to come home to an empty house, I stood in the garage, terrified to open the door leading inside.  I knew who wouldn’t be on the other side, and so I stood for nearly ten minutes, sobbing and willing myself to have the courage to open the door.  When I did, it felt as though a knife had been expertly and cruelly pushed directly into my heart.  This was the first of many firsts without Ross.  The next day, my husband would encounter this same heartbreak, equally painful, as he realized Ross would never again be there at the door to greet him when he came home from work.

On our first  morning without a thumping tail and slobbery kisses to emphasize the alarm, no walk to the back door for a morning constitutional, no dog food and water bowl routine, we didn’t want to even get out of bed.  Without a dog to summon the morning, what was the point?  I found the house much too lonely after Van went to work and the girls went to school, and would wait to hear the tinkling of Ross’s dog tag on the tile floor.  I caught myself looking for him, thinking that a pair of blue jeans thrown on the floor was him just lying down for a nap, then crying when I realized that my brain was playing mean tricks on me.  I kept walking to the back door, opening it, and standing there stupidly, waiting for a dog who would never come in or go out.

Ross as a puppy.

Ross as a puppy.

My husband calls Ross his conscience, says that he must have been mine too; a creature who reflected back to us our very thoughts, hopes, potential, goodness, and joy in simple pleasures.  He could just look at us and communicate exactly what we needed to be told in the moment.  We didn’t realize how much of a routine we had developed around Ross; he may have trained us better than we trained him!  Van’s first time mowing the yard after Ross passed was very emotional for Van because Ross loved to roll in the fresh mowed grass.  We had to constantly remind each other that the firsts would be the hardest to overcome, and we leaned on one another more than usual.  About two days after Ross died, I felt a presence in our bedroom after we had laid down for the night.  The room was dark and quiet, and there was a heaviness near the foot of the bed.  It seemed to lean against my legs and warm me with a sensation of peace.  I had never given any thought to the idea of a loved one’s energy dispersing from a place after death, but for the first time since Ross passed, I experienced his energy around me, and it was a great comfort.

Teddy, being adorable during a nap.

Teddy, being adorable during a nap.

Van couldn’t wait long before we got a new puppy.  I wasn’t sure that it was wise to just get another dog immediately after Ross, but Van made a wonderful choice in Teddy.  Theodore Baker, named after Theodore Roosevelt and a bottle of Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, came to us from South Dakota, and stole our hearts.  The first time I saw him peering through our front window quizzically, asking to be let into his new home, I knew he was the right dog for us, and it wasn’t too early.  He isn’t intended to replace Ross, but to bring joy to our lives and be the new companion that we need.  As Van said about Ross, “He was the right dog that we needed at the time, and he did more for us than we can ever repay.”  Teddy is the right dog to start a new chapter in our life as a family, and he is in just the right place to continue the legacy begun by Ross the Dog.  We are looking forward to all the firsts with Teddy.

~G

The Final Days of Ross The Dog

Ross having a good day and preparing for his final hunt.

Ross having a good day and preparing for his final hunt.

Today I woke up to the sound of a gentle rain,  and it reminded me of the lyrics to that old song, If Ever I Would Leave You.  I went out to the back deck, with “If ever I would leave you, how could it be in springtime?” running absently through my head. The pristine morning with softly falling rain and cheerful birdsong completed a long, sad week of saying goodbye to our beloved, fun loving spirit known as Ross The Dog.  Ross was special in many ways, but perhaps what differentiated him from other dogs is that when people got to know Ross, they would say, “I want a dog like that.  I want a Ross.”  On Thursday, while Ross was out hunting for one last pheasant, I bought a bottle of whiskey aged seven years, same as Ross, so that my husband and I could make a toast to our first family dog.  After Van returned with the pheasants and told the story of Ross’s glorious final hunt, we clinked glasses and choked back tears.  “To the best pet.”  I said.  “A good dog.”  Van added.  It wasn’t necessary to say anything more.  Ross was a dog that broke the mold on canine companions, a dog that set impossible pet standards.

Ross taking a nap with his person, Alexis, this spring.

Ross taking a nap with his person, Alexis, this spring.

I wasn’t on board when it came to getting a dog.  Basically Van wanted a puppy but I didn’t think it was a good idea at that time, so he picked out Ross, without my permission, and I had to hold the enemy in my lap during a very long drive home.  Ross peed all over me.  I was quite angry.  I never admitted this to anyone in seven years, but even as angry as I was about Van buying a dog — without my permission — that then peed on me –my heart totally melted while I held him during that long ride home.  Ross learned that Van was the Master, and I was Mommy.  Sometimes this caused problems when Mommy didn’t want Ross doing something, but the Master overruled.  Ross always knew that Mommy somehow trumped the Master (wink).  But possibly the greatest compliment Van has ever given me in reference to my dedication to Ross, was when he said recently, “If there is such thing as reincarnation, I would like to come back as one of Georgeann’s dogs.  It doesn’t matter which, because I know that if I am her dog, I will be cared for better than any other dog.”

Ross learned that there were little companions to play with and protect.  Our children became his new friends, and our youngest became his Person, his life long soul mate.  Alexis would sneak food to Ross during dinner, stick her fingers up his nose and in his mouth during inspections, and use him as a pillow or footstool.  He was very patient and gentle with her and her siblings.  Alexis was the only one who Ross listened to all the time.  Listening to me was optional, and he listened to Van most of the time, but he always listened to Alexis.  And she could get him to do anything.  I didn’t like to take Ross on walks because he pulled on the leash and acted belligerent.  With Alexis, he heeled perfectly and stayed on pace with her, and she never had to say a word.

Alexis proudly showing off her picture of Ross.

Alexis proudly showing off her picture of Ross.

During our last trip to the park this week.

During our last trip to the park this week.

We always knew our time with Ross would be limited.  I still vividly remember how sick he became one day many years ago.  We had only recently moved to South Dakota, Ross was just a few months old, but growing fast, and we had become very attached to him.  We rushed him to the veterinary clinic down the road from our house.  The news was depressing.  Ross was in kidney failure and the doctor didn’t believe that he would live to be one year old.  One kidney was tiny and deformed, and the other wasn’t detectable on an x-ray.  We decided that the best way to care for Ross was to treat him with as much love as we could, for however long he had left.  We started him on a special diet and gave him extra TLC every day.  And we never, ever took him for granted.  He celebrated his seventh birthday this January, a pretty long and successful life for a dog not meant to live more than twelve months!

Resting on the deck after returning from his visit to K State earlier this week.

Resting on the deck after returning from his visit to K State earlier this week.

Last week he became sick again, and I saw the same signs as the first time.  Van took him to the K State animal hospital in the Veterinary Sciences Department.  He was kept there for three days under the incredible care of the students and staff, but the prognosis was not optimistic.  His renal levels were fourteen times what should have killed a dog his size, the veterinarian was mystified, and the one explanation that Van and I could give for Ross living so long was that he was the dog that was meant to be with us at this point in our lives.  The student on his case told me that Ross was responding to the medications, and that he wanted to come home, but there was no guarantee how much longer he might live. “We may have only bought you two days, maybe two weeks, optimistically a few months, but it’s just difficult to know.” she said.  I felt in my heart the answer.

Ross playing in the snow, South Dakota.

Ross playing in the snow, South Dakota.

The night that we got Ross back from K State, I had a dream about him.  He was loping to me, all tail wags and happy panting.  He was wet and shiny like a bright penny under water.  He was young, maybe only three years old, with the best muscle tone I’d ever seen, and his eyes were clear with intent.  I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me.  The next two nights, I was up with him.  He was very restless and had to be let out often.  He was vomiting and couldn’t control his bowels, wouldn’t eat or even drink water.  It was gut wrenching to see him like this, but I was his Mommy, and I was there to clean him up and take care of him.  He seemed to be fighting sleep, as though he suspected that sleep might try to sneak in a more final condition without his approval.  Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, I looked up dream interpretations about wet dogs.  Nothing.  Then I came across a Web sight for Native American dreams and visions.  My bright, shiny, wet dog, according to this site, was a reflection of my own personality and my response with the world around me.  It would be a few days before I understood the significance of the dream.

Ross getting brushed out by his favorite girls.

Ross getting brushed out by his favorite girls.

I think that I had started to notice small changes in Ross over the past year.  He began to slow down, take longer naps, and refuse his food more often.  As time went on, there were more days when he seemed to feel ill, and his hair began to turn white around the muzzle.  He still looked amazingly healthy for a dog with non-functioning kidneys, and to look at him you wouldn’t know that he really wasn’t a dog in his prime.  In just a few short weeks, I began to notice that instead of greeting me at the door with an energetic bark and wagging tail, he first stopped barking and just stood at the door, tail wagging gleefully, then he laid at the top of the stairs, no bark, but with tail thumping.  After a while, he was too tired to even wag his tail, but he would lie at the top of the stairs and turn over for me to scratch his belly.  Days near the end, I had to go find him.  This was very difficult, because I knew it was his way of telling me that he was too tired and weak to keep a routine.  He could tell me that he didn’t feel well, but he saved all his energy for Van and the girls, springing to greet them at the door like a fresh puppy, and he spent up the last of it playing with them.   He let me lay down next to him on the carpet in the bedroom when he was exhausted.  There had been many days when he patiently let me bury my head in his soft fur and have a good cry.  Now it was his turn to push his head against me for some hugs and comforting.  He needed someone to be there and tell him that it was okay, and so even though it terrified me, I put my face next to his, rubbed his shoulders, and said, “It’s okay, Buddy.  I know, it will be time soon.  You’re a good boy.  You can go when you’re ready.”

Watching and waiting.

Watching and waiting.

For me, the Mommy of the family, well, I like to think that he did something special, not that I could ever repay the favor.  Ross and I didn’t have that Master/Loyal Companion bond since he was officially Van’s dog.  But Ross knew his job was to protect the family and be a friend.  He spent more time with me than anyone else.  When Van was deployed or on a training mission, Ross never shirked his duties as the guardian of the home.  And when everyone left the house for work and school, Ross followed me around, got in my way, stole my place on the couch, took naps with me, rode with me in the car, played with me in the yard.  Most importantly, he listened to every word I said.  I told him all my problems, all my dreams, all my secrets.  He probably knew me better than any person! I could look at him and get an idea of what he might be thinking, and when the time came, I knew that Ross needed me to have strength that he no longer possessed, to encourage the family to let go.  He might have gone on living for another week or longer out of sheer willpower, but what kind of a life would it have been?   I told my husband that Ross seemed happy but that he also seemed to be waiting for permission to depart.  Van just needed a little time to prepare a final pheasant hunt.  I found Ross sitting in the bedroom and hugged him.  “Just hang in there for a couple more days, okay?”.  He seemed to give a nod of agreement.

Our family taking Ross for his last walk around the neighborhood.

Our family taking Ross for his last walk around the neighborhood.

There was no way to really repay Ross for a lifetime of loyalty and friendship but I decided to give him the best last day possible.  The things that a dog likes are so simple in nature that they should be a lesson to us all: a ride in a car on a sunny day, rolling in the grass, a nap on an old bed, a crust of good bread, and being with our favorite people.  What better way to pass a last day?  He was too weak to jump easily into my car  so I had to boost him in, but he got to ride shotgun once more time as I made my way to a park near Milford Lake.  It was a chilly, windy morning, and the park was completely empty, so Ross had the place to himself.  I let him run as long as he wanted.  The view was quite pretty, although not as beautiful as South Dakota, where we had hoped that he could spend his final day.  I wondered if God granted dogs the ability to see in color in their final hours, and I hoped that Ross could see everything for how truly beautiful if was on that morning.  Tears started to stream down my face, but great sheets of wind quickly blew them away.  Ross paused from sniffing the grass to look at me quizzically, so I wiped my face and we walked through the park together, hot on the trail of a rabbit that was long gone.

Road DogHe tired quickly, so I helped him back into the car.  At home Ross seemed content just laying in the backyard.  I had been saving half a bundle of sage for a special occasion, so I lit it and let it smolder slowly, ceremonial incense from me to Ross.  I laid down on the grass beside him and smelled the sage and looked at the sky.  It was a gorgeous day.  I opened up the guest room and helped Ross onto the bed, his favorite place to nap, and he sprawled out in the afternoon sun.  I peeked in on him and chuckled to see how content he was dozing on his back with his legs flayed and sagging balls flopping out in the afternoon sun — just the way he liked to nap.  I’d bought frozen pizzas for supper because the one treat Ross was allowed on his special diet was pizza crust.  Van called to tell me that he had found a place for Ross to go on his last pheasant hunt, then he would take him back to K State.  He would go to sleep next to Van, with a freshly killed trophy pheasant to dream about as he began to doze.

Ross and his favorite toy, a stuffed sheep named Moss.

Ross and his favorite toy, a stuffed sheep named Moss.

After school we had to break the news to the girls.  I don’t want to ever have to go through that again, but after the initial shock, the girls agreed to take Ross for a walk around the block, brush him out, play with him in the yard, and feed him pizza crust.  He refused the pizza crusts, but did everything else, and more.  He even posed for some very touching pictures.  We explained to the girls that now was the time for them to tell him what they felt in their hearts and give him all their love so he would be ready for his journey.  As much as it hurt to say goodbye, our good memories of Ross are a reminder of the incredible relationship that we, as a family, had with him. When I think about Ross and the impact he had on our family and friends, I have to wonder if it’s possible for angels to appear in animal form.

A bonfire tribute for Ross.

A bonfire tribute for Ross.

Ross always hated it when Van built bonfires, probably because of his propensity to go overboard and inevitably blow up something.  Ross had a way of giving Van a disapproving look whenever Van was doing something stupid.  On Thursday afternoon, after showing me Ross’s beautiful pheasants, Van told me that on the drive back from the hunt, he was able to do one last stupid thing, just for Ross, and Ross gave him one last disapproving look, as if to say “I get it, dumbass!”  Last night, Van built a fire in my old chimenea that was meant to put all other bonfires to shame — and it did.  He blew up spray paint cans in it three times, which is how many times it took to completely destroy the chimenea.  The third explosion was so glorious that the blast scrambled the video I was taking on my phone (much to my dismay), scattered shards of pottery and burned out paint cans as far as twelve feet from the blast zone, and splattered yellow paint on the deck chairs.  Yellow paint for a yellow dog — very appropriate!

Fire and rain are re-energizing, recharging forces of nature necessary for healing and renewal.  This morning, waking to the sound of rain, my wet dog dream finally made sense.  Ross was not wet from a smelly pond or from bathwater, but from fresh pure rain, he smelled of sweetgrass, looked beautiful, and shone like new a penny.  He was healthy, happy, and strong.  Call me a batty sentimentalist, but I choose to believe in things that make me feel good.  Van’s bonfire was one last tribute to Ross from a bunch of silly, awkward, lost humans, and my dream was a message from Ross to wait for rain.  Then  tonight around dinner time, the sky opened up with the most beautiful and gentle rainstorm we had ever seen in Kansas, sending cool blankets of the rain billowing down to drench us.  We watched the girls play in it for hours, laughing and talking about Ross’s brilliant gift to us for taking care of him.  It was just his way of telling us that he saw it, and that he loves us even though we are all dumbasses.

~G

DSCN2495

The Art of Conversation

Mouth

The dynamics of talking (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier this year my husband had surgery to correct quite possibly the worst documented sleep apnea in history.  He snored so loud I am certain that our closest neighbors also went without sleep. The Army gave him two weeks of convalescent, and by Day Eight of Recovery, I wanted to check myself into the psychiatric ward of the hospital.

Van’s surgery turned out to be prolonged torment; afterward we both agreed that if we had done any serious research, we wouldn’t have committed to such a sadistic idea. It was actually five procedures in one.  A uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (go ahead, sound it out), or U-triple P in medical jargon, is a procedure that trims away all or part of the uvula, some of the soft palate, and part of the back of the throat.  Since my husband still had his tonsils and adenoids, they were removed, so he also underwent a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy.  The doctor expanded his sinuses using tiny balloons and fixed his deviated septum, adding sinoplasty and septoplasty.  All five procedures took less than two hours to complete, and in that time I was able to leave the hospital for an unhurried if not totally relaxed sit-down lunch, but I sped back to the hospital to be present when Van was wheeled out of recovery.

The waiting room was mostly empty and very quiet.  A middle aged black man kept looking between his cell phone and the television blaring in the corner, a firestorm erupting over the events in Ferguson, Missouri.   After a while, the man and I tried to ignore the repetitive tickers flashing across the screen.  I took ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ from the loan shelf and skimmed enough to figure out that Dorian met a gruesome demise.  A neat old lady walked in carrying a Hy Vee bag, sat down across from me and popped the tab from a soda.  She smiled at me and asked if I knew how to turn off Airplane Mode on a Trac Phone.  I scooted next to her and proved to be useless, but then a conversation began.  She was a whip smart Marine’s wife.  Her husband had been in Vietnam; when he came back his miserable job was to knock on the doors of the wives whose Marines had been KIA.

“Then one day two of our friends came home in body bags at the same time, and he had to go knock on the doors of their wives.  These were people we knew quite well.  After that he didn’t see any point to any of it anymore, so he got out as soon as he could.”  She smiled and met my eyes steadily and we exchanged a knowing look.  We understand so much more than we ought to.

A nurse peered into the waiting room, and I recognized my husband on the gurney in the hallway.  Van looked fragile and frantic, but I smiled brightly into his face, and he clutched my hand tight.  The nurse said, “He won’t be able to talk for quite a while.”

“Then he can listen to me,” I winked and smiled back down into his face again and he squeezed my hand harder.  Before the procedure Van told me that there was no sense in my sticking around, I should go have lunch and get some air.  I had joked “Well that’s not very clingy of you!”  He responded “Oh, that will come after the surgery.”  I could see how much he needed me now.

It’s amazing what we take for granted.  We had recently decided to work on our communication skills and be better mates to each other; now suddenly communication had become quite nearly impossible!   Van had to learn to communicate without speaking; I had to learn how to really listen and interpret his nods, gestures, frowns, and sometimes angry emphatic flailing, and then try to give him whatever would make him more comfortable  — or in his case, less miserable.  Everything slowed down to a crawl, and every minute for us was filled with trying to communicate better.

I had to remind myself to speak much less.  As much as I wanted to talk, as lonely as I felt without banter from my favorite conversationalist, I knew Van was exhausted and didn’t have the capacity for long talks.  I kept a lot to myself, and it wasn’t easy.  For example, the college student daughter of the middle aged black man in the waiting room…was so upset because her mother was also at the hospital undergoing surgery that she hit his truck in the hospital parking lot while we were waiting to be discharged.  Yeah, I kept that to myself for a couple of days until Van was lucid enough to process the information.  Instead of making sentences longer and full of detail — one of my habits — I tried to keep things short and to to the point so that he could get the important information and make a decision quickly or tell me what he needed without having to exert too much energy.  I’m telling you, it was exhausting, and it didn’t always work.  Sometimes I wasn’t intuitive.  Sometimes Van wasn’t patient.  And there were evil forces at work.

We had to live on New Baby new schedule.  Van required round the clock pain medications, so neither of us was getting eight full hours of sleep.  I was lucky if I got three hours of sleep at one stretch, and Van claimed he never slept for more than 30 minutes, but he was really whacked out on the pain medication.  Around Day 3 of Recovery, I woke up to a bloodcurdling scream around midnight.  I figured my daughter was having a nightmare, but I was shockingly incorrect.  She had covered her entire bed in vomit.  Being already somewhat sleep deprived, I could hardly process this new horror, and I had a hell of a time cleaning it up.  The mystery virus swept through the household, causing stomachaches, fevers, and headaches, but no one else vomited.  I was terrified that Van would catch it, but luckily he was the only one who didn’t.

I had to drive across town to pick up Pedialyte and crackers at Wal-Mart, but I didn’t have the energy to change out of my pajamas.  I “dressed” them up with a pair of jaunty red moccasins and an over-sized vintage bleached Levi’s anorak.  My youngest daughter was appalled to see me leave the house in pajamas because my primary rule of fashion is to NEVER, EVER, under ANY circumstances, leave the house in pajamas!  I couldn’t give a shit.  When I looked in the restroom mirror at Wal-Mart, I nearly jumped back at the reflection, much like Dorian Gray must have when he began to see his transformation.  Oh no, could it be?  Was it me staring back?   My eyes were glassy and red, and when I had applied my lipstick, I had put it around my lips, not on them!

On Day 5 of Recovery my husband became a food critic.  The mashed potatoes were too salty, the Jell-O too acidic, the Cream of Wheat too sandy, the soup too hot, the water too cold, the ice too hard.  I started to lose my shit in the kitchen.  I knew it was just because his throat was very sensitive, but when someone tells you that they cannot handle water, that water possesses qualities making it too harsh for consumption, it becomes hard not to just give up.  I smiled at my husband, said “Okay, I will try to find something that works for you,” and went into the kitchen to weep silently while Van watched old Chris Farley movies on television.

On Day 7 I took Van to the hospital for his follow-up appointment.  I was soooo over the hospital.  I’d already been there twice to refill Van’s pain medicine, each visit making me more resentful of free medical care.  I had tolerated the overly complicated customer service ticket kiosk, suspicious pharmacy techs interrogating my intents with the pain meds, and a protracted fire alarm malfunction.  The last thing I wanted was to visit the hospital again, but here we were.  Van leaned on me slightly as we walked into the hospital, and I got a premonition of what old age might be like for us.  The doctor said Van should start do feel much better after getting the stints out, and then I made the mistake of watching the stints being removed.  It was like an alien extraction scene in a sci-fi movie!

Van had taken a turn for the worse the night before, so the doctor sent us to the ER for an IV.  This would add another 2-3 hours to our visit, but it would make a world of difference in his recovery.  There was a young soldier in the waiting room with a huge bloody gash across his forehead.  He had wrecked his truck his wife left him in the same week, but this was still the best day he’d had in a while, so he said.

We sat in a large room for a long time after triage, Van getting an IV and sleeping.  I was so tired that I wanted to cry, but I just sat against the wall and closed my eyes.  Van still couldn’t talk, but I sensed when he needed me.  I opened my eyes, and he motioned for me to come near so he could whisper into my ear.  “I’m ready to get outta here.”  I was ready too.  But it would not happen before we overheard the ER doctor give an overly detailed description to the patient  on the other side of the privacy curtain of all the things that could go wrong during his spinal tap.  I now knew too much.

Day 8 I left the house in my pajamas again, but this time it was much worse.  I didn’t even bother to put on a bra or shoes.  Fortunately, I was just driving a few blocks to pick up my youngest daughter from a sleepover.  I think I cried during the drive.  My friend took one look at me and said “Whoa, you want some coffee?”  I really wanted to stay home and sleep but I had to get out and pick up meds again, so after my daughter and I cleaned up our act, we headed out.  I was hoping to just pick up everything at the Post Exchange, or PX, common on Army bases.  Unfortunately, one of the prescriptions — in fact, the most important one that Van absolutely needed — could only be filled at the hospital, so we would have to go there too.

While we were at the PX waiting for our ticket to be called for the other medications, someone puked all over the floor, creating a veritable minefield of vomit.  I couldn’t believe it. I had dealt with more bizarre things in the days since Van’s surgery — rude Kansas drivers, suspicious pharmacists, sleep deprivation, crazy ER doctors, and so much vomit — and all I wanted was to be able to have a real conversation with my husband, then sleep for an entire week.  Maybe in reverse order.  But those things seemed so far out of reach.

It was a long time before we started communicating again.  Once Van began to talk, he also began to formulate plans.  There were things that he really wanted to accomplish, and I just wanted to catch up — on conversation and sleep! I began to feel a bit resentful.  Was I nothing more than a supplement, a convenient presence during Van’s recovery?  After all, I had been there, serving his every need, never giving myself the luxury of wasted time or leisure. I literally burned myself out just trying to keep him alive and well, and all I really craved was a simple conversation with him, to know that at the very heart of the nightmare that we were going through, we still had our humanity.

Looking back on the whole affair one evening several weeks post-op, Van told me something that made me realize that despite his impatience and anger over being exhausted, uncomfortable, and in constant pain, he saw me as the only source of hope and contentment in his situation.  He told me that when he came out of surgery he kept asking for me.  The nurse wouldn’t let me come into the first phase of recovery, but Van continued to demand that she bring me back.

“I never stopped talking about you; I kept asking for you.”  he said.  “I kept telling that nurse, “bring my wife here.  She can feed me ice chips.”  I don’t know why the nurse didn’t just let you come back there and take care of me.”  What he said made me think of the moment we arrived home from the hospital.  I had to somehow get him up the stairs and onto the couch.  He is taller and bigger than me, but I somehow managed to help him walk slowly, with him leaning heavily on me for support, up the driveway, up the front porch stairs, and up the entry stairs into the living room, where he could rest on the couch.  He leaned so completely on me.

Since the surgery, we have been communicating better, occasionally worse, but we are talking more than ever.  We’ve had a few arguments, a fight or two, and we have opened up and started communicate in ways that we have neglected for years.  Having the form of conversation to which we were accustomed taken away suddenly showed us what we had been taking for granted and pointed out what we needed to repair in our relationship.   We both started leaning on each other more, and now I feel more valued and appreciated by my husband since this incident, and I have stopped taking for granted the simple act of having a conversation with him.  For the first time in weeks, we sat down this morning to have a cup of coffee, argue about the leadership attributes of the ridiculous number of Presidential candidates, discuss lawn care techniques, and exchange banter about the fun that we could encounter throughout the day.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.

~G

It’s a New Year. Time to Get My House in Order.

2014-12-24 18.12.51I sort of mean this literally, and if you could see my house right now you’d think: yes! Please get your living conditions under control, woman! But I mostly mean it figuratively. For me, getting my house in order this year means getting a handle on some things that I struggled with in 2014.  Many of my friends have posted inspiring resolutions on their Facebook pages about how 2015 is going to be their year.  This is the year to travel the world, start that dream business, get back into phenomenal shape, rebuild important relationships, get the most out of life!

Unlike my publicly ambitious friends, I didn’t post anything definitive about my goals, but that’s because I’m kind of superstitious.  It seems like as soon as I put my plans on paper or make a verbal admission of intent, something goes terribly wrong.  It’s better if I let the wind carry me along and present spontaneous opportunities.  It probably makes me seem a little shifty and unreliable, but it’s a system that works for me.  So this year, I decided to be stealthy in my resolutions, take the time to reflect carefully on exactly what I want to improve before going crazy with promises of self refinement.  But here’s the thing — whether or not we like to admit it, whether we like to make resolutions or keep things loose, we all start a new year with expectations of what the future holds and what we might be capable of with our many talents and shortcomings.

"Let's spend Christmas and New Year's thi...

A Navy quarantine poster from World War II  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being a partial Type A person, I of course had expectations for Christmas and New Year’s, and as usual, my expectations failed miserably in the face of what I felt was God’s rather morbid sense of humor. The plan was that after Christmas we would pack the car and drive out to Kansas City to stay with my sister and brother-in-law for a few days.  The guys would spend some time hunting in South Dakota and be back for the New Year’s Eve party that my sister was preparing.  We would also squeeze in a belated birthday party for my husband, complete with homemade cake and splendid gifts.

I imagined days filled with craft projects, refreshing walks in the country, shopping trips in the Kansas City suburbs, and cooking adventures with my daughters and sister while the menfolk were away.  We would stay up late watching movies, cuddling on the over-sized couches in our cozy pajamas, eating big bowls of popcorn.   It would be so wonderful, and such a special way for our whole family to recharge before diving back into the chaotic routine that would come with a new year!  Best of all, my husband would  search through the house for me at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve to give me a romantic kiss and set the tone for our new year together!  Well, nothing happened as planned.  My husband and I did manage a New Year’s kiss, but how romantic can a kiss be when you are planting a smacker on your husband while holding an ice cream bucket for a puking child who has caught the stomach flu just in time for the disco ball drop?

We spent a hellish week between Christmas and New Year’s fighting off a horrible intestine churning virus.  It was like a horror movie; every night at bedtime we huddled under the covers wondering who would be next.  When we heard footsteps rushing down the hall and the bathroom door slamming shut in the middle of the night, we knew.  We knew.  The virus picked us off one by one — first my brother-in-law, then my husband, then me, and finally my daughters on New Year’s Eve.  My husband and I, still recovering from the virus ourselves, were up all night, each nursing a very sick, miserable child.  So instead of imbibing on delicious food and drink and squeezing in last minute celebrations with loved ones, I spent my final week of 2014 obsessively swabbing down the communal bathroom with Clorox wipes, running to the grocery store for Saltines and Pedialyte, sanitizing record breaking amounts of barfy laundry, and keeping a careful tally of the dwindling toilet paper supply.  By New Year’s Day, I was a sobbing mess.  Thus my plans for a glittering entrance into 2015 were ruined.  I didn’t triumphantly stride so much as limp pathetically into the new year — battered and exhausted.

My wiped out family needed a vacation from our Christmas Vacation after what we had been through!  The whole experience left me muttering to myself, “Man, I just can’t catch a break!”  But, after putting my hurt feelings aside for the moment, I managed to focus on the real issue.  My house has been out of order for some time, and I want to straighten it out.  I’d like to improve certain aspects of my life in the coming year.  And now, with nothing but my priorities laid out in front of me, I have a simple question to ask: what do I really want to accomplish?  Getting my house in order involves more than just having every thing organized neat and tidy, put away where it belongs.  It means changing my attitude, gaining a more positive outlook, building relationships, and developing better habits that will ultimately lead to the goals I want to achieve.  Sure, things like mini-epidemic viruses will change my short-term plans and temporarily slow me down, but if I allow such obstacles to prevent me from living a happy life, then there is no one to blame but myself.

So, I have now made my relatively simple, but very important resolutions for 2015 and kept them close to my heart.  It could take longer than expected to get my house in order, but I will follow the wind and learn as I go.

Happy New Year!

~G

What I’ve Learned After Ten Years of Marriage…

…Or my tips for success.

Aren't we adorable?

Aren’t we adorable?

This week Van and I celebrated ten years of marriage, the accomplishment being even more sweet because the week was an absolutely insane carnival of mishaps, chaos, and confusion, and the fact that we both survived was an unprecedented miracle. We’ve all had weeks like this: a kind of demented Butterfly Effect where one fucked up event creates opportunity for another, until you find yourself hitting new lows.  “Inconspicuously” changing your clothes in your car because you no longer have time to practice appropriate hygiene in between all the obligations you’ve signed on for.  Being mean to the children of people who you barely know (in my defense, the little bastard was trying to take my last potato chip).  Questioning the inner workings of the universe while cleaning elephantine piles of dog shit off the living room carpet.  This was my week.

On Monday evening after a lovely turkey dinner, Van had some kind of mysterious reaction to something.  I suspected the eggnog immediately because eggnog is a disgusting mixture of two things that I cannot digest properly: milk and raw eggs.  Even though he was clearly having a reaction to something, he continued to drink the eggnog until the rash that started on his face had spread to his chest, arms, and back.  At that point he wanted to go to the hospital.  My next door neighbor, an absolute angel, told me to leave the kids with her overnight.  We laughed a little on the drive to the Emergency Room “Ha ha!  What a funny way to spend our tenth anniversary!”  We weren’t terribly concerned about the reaction, and our anniversary wasn’t actually until the Tuesday, so there would be plenty of time to get the rash cleared up and be on our way for some merrymaking.

Once he got checked into the ER, the full effects of Van’s decision to seek medical attention set in.  He started complaining that he didn’t want to be there because it might take several hours.   “Well what did you expect?”  I asked.  “If it’s an allergic reaction, we need to get it treated.”  When the triage nurse saw us, Van went all out, claiming that I had sexually assaulted him on multiple occasions, and when he was asked about mental problems he stated, “You should probably ask my wife; she will give you a better answer.”  She looked at me with something like sympathy and I said “Just check the mental problems box, but NOT the sexual assault box.”  I kind of wanted to slap him but reminded myself why we were there.  We were ushered back to the waiting room, where one T.V. was blaring Fox News and the other was blaring Disney Junior.  Oh good, the inner circle of hell.  Luckily,  I had brought along my copy of Les Miserables so at least I had something to do.  Van had nothing to keep himself occupied, so he wandered around talking to the young mothers with tiny babies.  I’m sure the last thing they wanted was a bright red lobster man looming over their babies, asking questions about eating habits.

Before long, we were taken to an exam room.  I wondered if it had something to do with my husband complaining a swelling feeling his throat, but I didn’t know if he was just saying that to get through the exam and treatment process faster, or if he really was having trouble breathing.  Either way, we were in and there was no backing out. The room was small, and I had nowhere to sit except for an uncomfortable molded plastic chair shoved up against a scary garbage can used by everyone who came into the room.  The entire process took around five hours, with various medical staff coming in to perform diagnostics. Van remained in character, harassing everyone within ten feet of his bed.  He wasn’t going down without a fight, anyhow.  The doctor determined that he absolutely needed an Epi Pen injection with a steroid chaser, and some monitoring afterward.  I was tempted to ask if I could do the honors and re-enact the Pulp Fiction scene where Uma gets the adrenaline shot in the heart, but held my tongue because Van was being obnoxious enough for the two of us and I didn’t need to start doing or saying anything to keep us there longer.

The shot went, disappointingly, into his arm, and within a few minutes, his face looked clearer and he was actually dozing off.  Go figure!  While I sat in the uncomfortable chair, my legs and ass going numb, Van snored very loudly for about two hours.  Towards the end I passed out across the garbage can (gross) which is probably why I am sick with a mystery virus now.  When the doctor came back to check his vitals, Van said that he could breathe much better, which convinced us both that coming to the ER was the right decision.  We were told to never second guess an allergic reaction, since it’s difficult to know if and when it could cause the throat or tongue to swell.

So you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with marriage, right?  Van and I both woke up right after midnight on Tuesday.  I smiled at him across the room and said “Hey, it’s our anniversary!  We made it!”  Van smiled and asked, “Do you want your present?”  I looked at him, a bit bewildered, and said, “Well I kind of feel like I deserve one after what you just put me through.”  Van said, I’ve got your present right here; do you want it or not?”  So I said okay, yeah, I wanted it.  And do you know what he did?  He stuck his tongue out at me!  So I flipped him off.  But then he pulled a little ring box out of his pocket, and popped it open to reveal a gorgeous Black Hills Gold ring.  I was more than just a little surprised.  Van had that ring in his pocket, and at some point during the jackassery he thought to himself “Hey, I can give Georgeann a ring right here in the Emergency Room!”

This summer at Porter Sculpture Park in Montrose, South Dakota.

This summer at Porter Sculpture Park in Montrose, South Dakota.

So, this event set the stage for one of the weirdest weeks I can remember.  Van is okay.  We never found out what he is actually allergic to (which makes life even more mysterious and exciting).  Despite the strange week and all the challenges, we have been very close as a couple, which has led me to want to share my advice to couples who don’t yet know what ten years of marriage looks like, as well as to those lucky ones who do.

1.  First of all, it takes work.  Van and I didn’t get to this point without romantically pursuing each other constantly, appreciating each other’s qualities, and maintaining a special friendship.  Anyone who says marriage is easy is full of shit.

2.  Next, be patient with your partner.  So many times at the ER, I had to draw on my reserves of patience, and I am glad I did (I got a ring out of it!).  I didn’t feel great that night, and had been looking forward to a bubble bath and an early bed time.  No such luck, but that is part of a relationship.  We often have to put our needs on hold and be patient because our partner might need our understanding, and that becomes the priority at the moment.  It all evens out, so don’t keep score.

3. Don’t be afraid to have fun.  Van and I had to take a hard look at our resources, goals, and limitations this week, and reframe the definition of “fun” because it turns out that the fancy anniversary dinner we had planned for this weekend isn’t quite so practical for us right now.  We are still exhausted from Monday’s trip to the ER.  And cleaning up dog poop off the carpet on Tuesday.  And decorating for an office Christmas party on Wednesday.  And attending said Christmas party on Thursday…and, well, you get the picture.  What is more practical and within our capabilities right now is a pizza and movie night at the house. One of the best gifts I could give my husband this year was this statement: “I don’t need to have fancy steak dinners or big gifts as proof that we love each other.  I just want more time with you, and I will never outgrow that selfish desire.”  This was actually before he gave me the ring, so try not to find hypocrisy in this.  A solid relationship requires an investment of time, not money, and fun doesn’t have to be expensive!

4.  Say please, thank you, and I love you.  A lot!  Couples forget to say these phrases.  I feel spoiled because I have a husband who says these things many times a day, and on top of this, he does little helpful things for me, which makes me even more eager to reciprocate.  Let me tell you, nothing made me feel better than waking up this morning to a clean kitchen with loaded dishwasher full of clean and dry dishes, and neatly lined up CLEAN pots and pans, ready for cooking!  It allowed me to sit and write this post.  So when he wakes up, I will be in such a good mood and feel like helping him with a project.  Provided the dog doesn’t poop on the floor or the kids don’t flood the downstairs bathroom…

5.  Learn how to communicate.  This really ties into to my first piece of advice.  Van and I went through a long spell where we really weren’t communicating but we didn’t realize it.   I tend to use a passive aggressive tone, and he got to the point where it was just easier to tune me out.  So it took a lot of courage for us both to decide to develop better communication skills.  It has worked wonders for our relationship in just a few months.

6. Spend time together, but be individuals.  Van and I like to do things together.  We hunt, work in our garden together and sometimes we cook together.  We also have individual hobbies that allow us to have circles of friends who offer us support and advice to bring back to the relationship.

7. Last, because I like the number 7, but also because this is a very important tip, take care of yourself.  If you don’t practice good self maintenance, how are you going to take care of your partner and family?  This includes being your own best friend, caring for your needs and learning how to make yourself a consistent priority so that you feel taken care of.  Even if it means locking yourself in your bathroom so you can take a bubble bath without being interrupted by the entire neighborhood (which is my problem when I want to use the bathroom), it’s worth the effort to find time for yourself each day.  Doing so will create more energy for you to be open and loving toward your partner.

The Red Hammer sign next to a sculpture at Porter Sculpture Park reminds me of our marriage.

The Red Hammer sign next to a sculpture at Porter Sculpture Park reminds me of our marriage.

Last night we had a little dinner and some friends came over.  We cracked open a bottle of wine that was part of a case given to us ten years ago when we got married.  The first bottles were consumed years ago, with the last one drunk at our five year anniversary — and it was still good then.  We were not sure how the wine would taste last night, and when we took a sip we discovered that another five years of Army moves, bad storage choices, and general abuse had turned it into weird funky grape juice.  We laughed about it.  After our guests left Van hugged me and said “We outlasted the wine!  Should we keep the bottle as a souvenir?”  I said “Yes, let’s.”  Van gave me a kiss and said “You know, we still have one bottle of that stuff left.  We need to keep it and open it in ten more years.”  I giggled “It’s a date!”

~ G

Ten Years a Veteran

Last week was special for my husband and for me.  To us, Veteran’s Day is as festive as Christmas, Easter, our wedding anniversary, and various family members’ birthdays.  I have now been a veteran for ten years, a little longer than I’ve been married, making this a milestone year in many ways.  I’ve always been reluctant to bask in the adoration of well wishers on Veteran’s Day, but my husband loves free lunches, so he was impatient to get me out of the house.

“Are you ready to go?”  he shouted into the bathroom while I was still shampooing my hair in the shower.

“Absolutely.” I yelled back.   “I think I’ll just go like this.  Naked and sopping wet.”

“Okay, I’m in the truck then.”

We were going to hike in a beautiful state park, eat a picnic lunch, and talk about sentimental things (my idea), but the weather intervened.  The temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and a hike no longer sounded remotely fun.  Van suggested we get as many freebies as possible and take advantage of the Veteran’s Day sales with some early Christmas shopping.  It turned out to be a fantastic day, and tagging along with him, doing everything that made him happy, made me happy.

Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project.  I retain no rights.

Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project, 2014. I retain no rights.

I haven’t always been able to relate to my veteran status.    When I returned from deployment in 2004, I just wanted to scrub everything about the Army off of me and be a civilian again.  I bought girly clothes, high heels, and lots of new makeup.  I dated a couple guys, one who was also a veteran and actually remembered seeing me working in the chow hall at my camp in Baghdad!  I got a job as a receptionist and shopped at Wal-Mart in the middle of the night when I was really bored.  I didn’t spend much time thinking or talking about my deployment experience.

Five years later, it was time to celebrate five years of marriage to a soldier, and the Army life had become a steady reality.  I’d traded in camouflage and combat boots for formal ball gowns and impossibly tiny handbags that nothing fits inside.  Now here I am again, another five years later.  I wear fewer dresses and more denim.  People tend identify me as an Army spouse rather than a veteran, and that is okay because that is my more active role.  The old guys at the VFW will need a bit more time to process that I earned my veteran status before my husband did, but eventually they will catch on.  I do talk about my service more, but it still isn’t a comfortable topic.  It’s taken time, but I can accept praise, even though, as my sister claims, I am still terribly humble.

My son, the original reason why I went to Iraq: a better future for him.

My son, the original reason why I went to Iraq: a better future for him.

I’ve also become accustomed to the reality that not everyone loves a veteran.  This Veteran’s Day, a man gained national attention after posting a harsh anti veteran statement on his Facebook page.  The rant went viral and incited angry responses, phone calls, and even death threats. It was sad to see, on a day when we veterans should be celebrating our roll as protectors and peacekeepers, so many were caught up in one person’s ignorant outburst.  It’s no fun to read something nasty pointed in one’s general direction, but receiving insults simply for ‘being something’ should never deter us from continuing to be good people, and veterans are the best.   I hope that this man, and others who deeply dislike veterans, could see through our eyes for one day, and look at the world from a warrior’s perspective.

Sharing MREs with a breathtaking view  in one of Saddam's palaces.

Sharing MREs above a breathtaking view in one of Saddam’s palaces.

Although it has been difficult to feel as though I deserve the title ‘veteran’, after ten years I am now proud and grateful to count myself among the courageous and loyal.   If I hadn’t joined the National Guard and deployed to a combat zone, I might not have learned the most important lessons for life. First of all, people in a war zone take care of others before taking care of themselves.  I don’t see that happen very often in the civilian world, but I see it all the time among veterans and military families.  It’s called Selfless Service, and it is one of the Army Values.  While deployed, I also witnessed many acts of kindness and courage that resulted in lives being saved.  Some of these incidents involved soldiers saving the lives of Iraqis, with no forethought to their own personal safety or profit.

In the combat zone, generosity was another lesson learned.  Every day I witnessed soldiers showing generosity to each other and to Iraqi children, often giving away their only blanket or last ration of food or water without complaint.  No questions were asked, but if a need was identified, it was filled immediately.  Soldiers also cultivated deeply loyal friendships with each other, and would do anything to support and uplift their friends.  Ask any veteran if he or she has a lifelong friend from war time, and odds are that veteran will have a very interesting story to tell.  Personal sacrifices every day become commonplace habits for soldiers who work closely together, and selfishness fails to exist.  But perhaps those who go to war are the only people who really understand this system of camaraderie.

A little girl who tugged at my heartstrings, and continues to do so.

A little girl who tugged at my heartstrings, and continues to do so.

Connections also form between soldiers and civilians in occupied regions, even if this is not popularized or publicized.   I was told a story by a weary young soldier who tried everything to save an Iraqi girl suffocating from an asthma attack.  Seeing that he was a medic, the girl’s father thrust her into the soldier’s arms and begged for help.   Unfortunately, the unit had no medicine for asthma, and the girl perished as the soldier held her.  Another young soldier single handedly arranged a massive humanitarian mission to donate school supplies to refurbished Iraqi primary schools in the Baghdad area.  Her mission was so successful it enabled Iraqi children to return to school with the kinds of supplies American children take for granted.  Another soldier tried to adopt an Iraqi toddler when her parents insisted she take the girl so that at least one of their children would “have a rich and safe life in America.”  The soldier pursued adoption through Army legal channels, but was informed that it would be impossible.  She was too young, too poor, unmarried, and Iraq had no political infrastructure for her to make a legal adoption.  To this day she remains brokenhearted over what she views as her failure.

When I deployed ten years ago, I didn’t realize that people who despise veterans actually exist, or that I would be accused of being some type of soulless, mindless government robot trained to create carnage and desolation.  I want to encourage other veterans to remember this: Your service is not defined by what someone thinks of you, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.   I didn’t serve in the capacity or manner that anyone else can imagine, and  my character isn’t defined by my service or by a stranger’s opinion of me.  I endeavored to serve mostly as a humanitarian, holding my hand out to the downtrodden.  And I continue to do so.  That is the role that I believe every veteran is responsible to uphold throughout life.

The last time I kind of looked bad ass.

The last time I kind of looked bad ass.

One last story, told to me recently by my husband.  This is the kind of behavior demonstrated all the time by soldiers and veterans in my life (and after being around such positive energy, why take any haters seriously?).  A soldier new to my husband’s unit was in a minor auto accident and needed medical attention.  Another soldier saw the accident and could have just driven away in the dark; instead she reported the accident and insisted on driving the injured soldier to the hospital.  She then sat with the soldier until my husband arrived.  She had no obligation to do so, but she put the needs of a fallen teammate first, sacrificed her time and requirements, and acted in the truest form of kindness by saying “Put some of that burden on me”.

Ten years from now I hope that she looks back at her time in service and feels good, the way I feel good, about being a veteran.

~G