In the best of times, which would be a time without war, being a military spouse is a challenge. You move a lot and you spend more time than you could possibly have imagined being a single parent. It is not a calling for the faint of heart.
I just spent a few days with a military wife whose husband is on his third deployment in as many years. She is raising two small boys by herself for the next few months. But thanks to the advances of modern technology, her husband gets to be an active father in his sons’ lives from halfway around the world.
Every morning my godchild Emily dials up some mysterious number called Skype on her computer and suddenly there is her husband Greg. She places him on the counter in front of her two sons who are having their cereal. Dad finds out about their day and talks about their plans. Sometimes he plays his guitar and sings to them. If the boys get rambunctious, dad issues words of caution about their behavior.
For these boys, one of who will tell you without hesitation that his dad is a superhero, this is a normal part of family life.
When breakfast is over, mom picks up the computer and carries it to wherever she and the boys are going so that dad can continue to participate in their morning routine. When the boys lose interest in dad because they’re in the playroom, mom retreats to a private place and has the kind of conversation husbands and wives are having all over the world over their morning coffee.
As I watched this daily routine, I wondered how my parents would have felt if this technology had been available during World War II. Or how my contemporaries would have felt if they had it during the Vietnam War. I wondered how much it would have enriched their lives and relationships to be able to maintain this level of communication. And I wondered how much poorer our literary and musical arts would have been without the great love letters born of the separations of war.
That’s when Emily told me that despite the daily “face to face” contact she and Greg maintained, they still wrote to each other. She said sometimes they wrote their own love letters and sometimes they sent passages and poems of love written by others in a different time and place that expressed something apparently ageless and universal.
The art of letter writing may be on life support, but there are some places where it is still very much alive and thriving.
I must say I was very impressed with my godchild and how she handled the separation from her husband, the challenges of single parenting, the loneliness that comes at night when you want to turn to your partner and smile that you made it through another day without the children winning.
Thanks to old men in Washington who send young men to wars with what sometimes seems like little reason, Emily is not alone in being a single parent. She is surrounded by a cadre of military spouses who understand what life is like when your partner is thousands of miles away. They share comfort with each other and make each other strong. And sometimes they just get a babysitter and share a drink away from diapers, bottles and drool.
Emily is lucky enough to be stationed near her childhood home so she has the added support of old friends, sisters, uncles and grandparents who provide help and respite with a smile. But in the end, when night falls and the kids are asleep and the single military parent lies in bed gathering strength to do it all over again the next day, that parent is alone. And I have to wonder why no one has proposed a day of celebration and parades for all these parents who keep the home fires burning.
English poet John Milton said, “They also serve who only sit and wait.” Well, these parents may not get to do much sitting, but they do get to do a lot of waiting. I never realized just how hard their sacrifice was. My hat is off to all of them.