As I wrote in August in my post “Flown“, my stepson has entered the military, and in doing so, has also inducted his family into a new and different world. He made it through basic training with flying colors, as we all expected, and we attended his graduation last week.
Shortly before we visited him for the family weekend in November, it was announced that he would be stationed in Hawaii after basic. We were all pleased with this, as you can imagine. Hawaii is not a terrible place to have to visit one of your children. When he graduated last week, we were assured by the men with colorful and shiny things on their uniforms that the new soldiers would most likely have leave after reaching their first duty stations, and would probably be home by Christmas. We happily hugged goodbye that afternoon at the airport, confident that we would be back together in ten days or so. But in the way these things go, we got a text last night just before switching off the light for bed. Leave denied. See you in March. Maybe.
My husband and I immediately diverged into our respective coping habits: he slipped out of bed and went downstairs for a glass of wine. I flipped off the light and vaulted myself into the numbness of sleep.
So my stepkid does not get Christmas leave after all, and he is stuck in Hawaii. But this is the army. We have always known the army’s mission comes first, and that life for an extended military family is often ambiguous and arbitrary. Still, empty nest syndrome is not for sissies, especially when your fledgling is a soldier.
But if you think about it, “stuck in Hawaii” is not a phrase that trips off the tongue without at least some difficulty – at least, not if you have the barest degree of maturity. Realizing that was my first step in gaining some perspective here. Mele Kalikimaka is not exactly a sentence to the gulag.
Still, I had my moment of feeling sorry for myself and my family, mostly while listening to “I’ll be Home for Christmas” this morning and having it hit me in a way it hasn’t before. I’ll count myself lucky that I burned through so many years before that happened. Besides, reaching for perspective about this shouldn’t be too hard, because as difficult as this year has been for me and my husband personally, we are surrounded by people for whom it’s been orders of magnitude worse. Deaths and disease have hit my circle hard this year.
One of the hardest things to do in life is get the balance right between allowing ourselves to have our feelings of sadness or despair, while refusing to entertain the notion that life is somehow uniquely difficult for us. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. There is always someone worse off than we are, but that fact doesn’t invalidate our own feelings of sadness or pain. Veering too much into either extreme invites either denial or self-involved wallowing. We either get blinded to our own humanity, or blinded to the humanity of others. We have to hold it all.
I’ve heard that a photographer friend of mine, Jeff Anderson, tells his students to “move their feet” when composing an image; the idea, of course, is that things will look very different from just a few feet, or even a few inches, away. Don’t accept your first perspective. Consider and integrate others. I know how to do this in photography; I need to remember it in the further reaches of life.
I hurt, but others hurt too, and many others hurt more. I will no doubt shed more tears this season, both for myself and for others. But I’ll also be looking for the meaning, and the lessons, and hoping that new things will bring new joys and new strengths: patience; empathy; understanding.
But I’ll still need someone to remind me of all this the next time “I’ll be Home for Christmas” comes on the radio. Thanks.