Just a few days ago, I bundled up to walk the pup and seemed to step off the porch into 2013. It was the stillness that struck me so similar I think. That and the frosty landscape, not often seen looking like it did that day. Hoarfrost, they call it, and the first time I remember seeing it is a day forever etched in my heart.
It was December 25, 2013. Our first Christmas together as husband and wife, married just 4 months and still side-stepping our way into it as you do, and it was a first in other regards too: settling into a new home, praying a first-born son through a first overseas deployment, and welcoming the youngest son ‘home’ for the holidays from a post high-school AmeriCorps service year.
We left this youngest son sleeping that morning, and went out for an early morning walk, marveling at the artistry of the hoarfrost as we made our way along freshly fallen snow. It was so magical! Cold, for sure, but hand in hand in the stillness, with wonderment at the frost and hope-filled promise of the day, the chill hardly seeped in and our hearts were full.
Jake’s dog Bo was with us that morning too, and the only sound breaking the stillness were the sleigh bells affixed to his collar, bringing more than a few wide-eyed kids to their doors, looking for Santa and his sleigh no doubt!
As we made our way back into the house that morning, stopping to take off boots and gloves, admiring the tree we had placed in the living room, I’m sure I smiled more than a little sadly at my stand-in Jake that year, his ‘Flat Daddy’ at the base of the tree. I was so thankful he’d be coming home soon, but so sad to have Christmas pass without him there.
Sadder still when I got to my phone though! Whether inadvertent or deliberate I can’t recall, but the phone that had been tethered to me throughout his past seven months in Afghanistan had been left to miss a call, on Christmas no less! I sank down next to his pup, so sad and scolding myself for leaving it behind, devastated to have missed him…and missing him so much.
But sometimes the HighLows come in quick succession, thank goodness! And it wasn’t but a few minutes later the phone rang, and my heart skipped a beat to see the same patterned 8855858 numbers, the sequence of numbers that said it was Jake! A world away, but Jake! And I quickly answered to my son’s voice at the other end of the line.
And oh I will never forget how he sounded that morning! So rested and well, as he hadn’t in months. He was young and strong, for sure, but the exhaustion had been so pervasive as the deployment progressed. I guess that’s what happens when you work 12-hour night shifts six days a week, and then squeeze eating, sleeping, spending time with your wife, decompressing and exercising in the remaining 12 hours, and do it all within a war zone with a 24/7 operational tempo…
...It gives me pause, and I pray for them always…
Please don’t get me wrong though. Jake would be rolling his eyes at me right now, because he loved what he was doing. His first month in Afghanistan, much to my chagrin, he said he’d willingly volunteer for back to back deployments if they’d let him. He felt like he was finally actually getting to do the job he was trained to do, and do so in an environment where doing it right was the only option. Jake’s disciplined mind and body both craved and excelled at that.
But adrenaline aside, as a mom I could hear the toll 7 months of working at that tempo and in that environment had taken, so how my heart sang to hear him that morning! Not just because he had called back, but because he sounded so good. Rested. And well.
They had been given a 2-hour ‘late start’, he said. The entire base down to minimal operations as a Christmas Day bonus of sorts. To me, two hours doesn’t sound like much, but the effect it had on him was tremendous. His voice was strong and clear as I hadn’t heard it in months, and with his homecoming close, I could tangibly feel my heart lighten just a little with the load it had been carrying through his time in Afghanistan.
It was such a great call! I told him how Maya, the anti-everyone-but-Jake cat had pretty much burrowed down next to his ‘Flat Daddy’ by the tree, and how Cameron was home for a couple of weeks from his gap-year with AmeriCorps and doing so well, how the hoarfrost had been so unique and beautiful that morning, and yes, how his dog Bo had worn sleigh bells on our walk, but I had drawn the line at the antlers.
On his end, they had watched a Christmas movie in the common area, operations were winding down, he was looking forward to coming home soon, and don’t tell his brother, but they were planning a trip to visit us in the spring and would surprise Cameron on the way with a stop in Denver, his AmeriCorps hub, and take him to a Colorado Avalanche game! Never mind the Avalanche were Jake’s favorite NHL team and there had forever been a long-standing though good-natured rivalry between them, Cameron would be so excited over both the surprise visit and the opportunity to see a game together.
My mom’s heart swelled once again, witnessing the first glimpse of my boys – the ones who had bickered and played together, told on and covered for – grown up into men.
Brothers becoming friends.
I got to wake that younger brother and hand him the phone that morning. A first Christmas morning surprise, better than anything we could have wrapped up under a tree. I left them alone to chat for a few minutes, bursting with the fun surprise Cameron would have in a couple of months, as well as my own joy at having Jake visit soon, and be back on American soil sooner…
I walked back down to their “Merry Christmas,” I love you,” and “See you soon bro,” and then got to say a last goodbye and Merry Christmas myself, followed by
“I love you Jake.” I’ll see you soon.
Tomorrow we mark five years that he’s been gone. Five years. It feels like yesterday, and it feels as if a lifetime has passed.
If you’d have asked me then, I’d never have believed I could be here, now, still breathing. And yet here I am. Here we are. And isn’t there a survival and strength within that? Isn’t that also what we mark on these milestone days?
We’re surviving this…
Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll watch the eagles soar. We’ll laugh and we’ll cry, we’ll remember, and we’ll be in awe at another marvelous wonder of God’s creation.
And we will make it through.
Because as the stillness reminded me, as the hoarfrost took me back to that Christmas day five years ago, and even as the icicles I saw then are the shards of my heart I see now, it strikes me that both are true. My heart, so filled to overflowing in love and promise that day, still holds it, and somehow beats in rhythm with the grief it also holds.
I can’t repeat that Christmas day, hard as I try, but it also can’t be taken away. And if the memory of that joy is what I have, it’s what I’ll hold onto. Because even in the aftermath of this ‘after,’ what an amazing gift to my heart that “I love you” were my son’s last words to me, and mine to him.
It’s the gift in the midst of the grief, and one I pray the shards of my heart will serve to bring more sharply into focus these coming days. One I hope will always remind me to give energy to the remembering and not to the lamenting. Because the memories only go when we let them, and though I ache that what there is is what there will ever be, I will not lose what I have for grief over what I won’t.
I love you Jake.
Forever and always,