Surrounded by children’s winter clothing, I sifted through the opened suitcase with my friend, an Air Force spouse, seated at my side.
“I thought you might need some of these since you were dropped here in the middle of winter!” She laughed lightly, folding a tiny green sweater.
Dropped here we were, from the beginnings of a Buenos Aires summer smack dab into the drab D.C. winter. My husband’s sudden cancer diagnosis brought a halt to life as we knew it, removing us from our dream assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Argentina, and throwing us off course as my husband moved from a fast-track career path to patient status all in the matter of days.
“Thank you,” I whispered, tears in my eyes, as my friend gazed at our boys playing together. My husband’s surgery was only two days away, and my friend’s thoughtfulness was too much to bear.
We lived with my in-laws just outside of D.C. while my husband underwent a lymphadenectomy to remove the tumors in his groin. He returned to the hospital just days before Christmas with a nasty infection, what would be the first of many, and I realized then just how difficult—how messy—our new life was going to be. My hopes of starting new holiday traditions with my boys were replaced with hopes that my husband’s body would allow a full recovery and that the tumors wouldn’t return.
Christmas morning proved to be a convergence of holiday traditions: My mother, visiting from Texas, my husband’s family, and our own all together at my in-laws’. Our two small boys tore open shiny paper to find train sets, puzzles, books, and cars. After their presents had been opened and they busied themselves with their new treasures, I handed my husband his gift.
Holding the rectangular package on his lap, he contemplated its contents for a moment. Then, with one swift motion, he tore open the gift, unveiling a framed print of stones with the words:
Troubles they may come and go
but good times they’re the gold,
and if the road gets rocky,
just steady as we go
—Lyrics from our wedding song. I had it made just for him, just for this. A reminder of our vows, through the good and the bad, sickness and health. He hung his head and, after weeks without emotion, he wept. The disappointment, the fear, the frustration for the things he was powerless to control, finally revealed for a brief moment. We sat together on the couch in his parents’ home and, while our family left the room one by one, felt the enormous pain of the hand we’d been dealt—together.
I look back on last year’s Christmas and wonder how we managed. I remember the unspoken agreement between my husband and me to try and provide a “normal” Christmas for our boys. We drove around at night looking at Christmas lights and singing Christmas carols, we waited in line at the post office to mail packages, we planned dinners and breakfasts in festive themes. We visited friends, we laughed a lot, and sometimes we cried. We lived our life in spite of our circumstance. But when I look back on last Christmas, I realize we were not the only ones in pain. My friend, spending her second Christmas as a widow, was dealing with her own pain. My in-laws, watching their son endure surgery and a touch-and-go recovery, were in pain. My mother, watching her daughter in anguish, was in pain.
But love prevailed. The love we have for each other, the human connection, was what got us through. And, the reality is we are all dealing with something, be it an illness, grieving the loss of someone or something gone too soon, an unforeseen medical issue, or financial hardship. But military families know how to prevail, we know how to dig deep when the chips are down and pick each other up. We drive to our friend’s home on a dark December night with a suitcase full of winter clothes, we fly thousands of miles to sit next to the person we love, we loan our homes, our cars, our spirits, whatever it takes, to lighten the load.
And that’s the beauty of this military life. No matter what, we are never alone.