The Perils of Living Off-Base
I've slogged my way to the halfway point.
Most military spouses experience the mid-deployment blues, and as I near the halfway point of my husband's 14-month absence, I recognize the signs; in my case, though, the mid-deployment black-and-blues have rendered me useless. Last fall, I fractured my foot and wore a cast for six weeks; just as that was healing, I slipped on a patch of black ice and hit my head. One concussion and 15 stitches later, I emerged bloody, bandaged, and as bruised as a Civil War casualty. I looked terrible, but there was something deeply satisfying about it. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, my broken outside finally matched my (heartbroken) inside. That mid-deployment feeling of floating in time indefinitely—the separation has lasted eons, but homecoming is still many moons away—leaves some spouses angry, some depressed, and some simply exhausted. I fight hopelessness.
For me, long separations don't get any easier with time. I don't get used to it, but I do go numb. After my mid-deployment accidents, when people approached me with sympathy for my physical distress, the spiritual numbness that enveloped me began to wear away. I tricked myself into believing that their tenderness toward my wounds was actually directed at my desolation and that those buried feelings suddenly had a sympathetic audience.
It was liberating. Since my outer appearance matched my inner attitude, there was no longer a need to pretend that our family situation was acceptable. I wasn't required to play the stoic military spouse. The answer to the well-meaning, "How are you doing?" was written in stitches across my swollen face.
But feeling right, or even self-righteous, doesn't help anyone feel better. And in my solo effort to stave off halfway-point hopelessness, I found myself longing for the institutions of military spousehood. (Because of the nature of this deployment, my husband and I decided that the children and I would move away from our military community to be near family. It was the right choice for us, and we don't regret it.)
Military spouse clubs regularly transform lemons into lemon meringue pie, and the groupthink goes something like this: Halfway is nearly there. Halfway is when you start trying on outfits for homecoming. Halfway is when you landscape the yard. Halfway is when you struggle to shed that last five pounds. It's the only deployment-related milestone of any consequence, and like a warm spring emerging from a cold, dark winter, it is fragrant with optimism, bursting with hope.
So I picked up the phone recently and called an old friend, a fellow military spouse who has seen it all. When she asked, "How are you doing?" and heard my hesitation, she translated it with the expertise of a native speaker. "Just muddling through, huh?" she said. There was deep understanding in her light touch. I remembered Emily Dickinson's famous line, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
And suddenly I was hopeful, because muddling through implies forward motion. I might reach the shores of homecoming dirty and disheveled, if not outright bruised and battered, but I'll get there. It's only seven months away.
Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin 2009), which will be released in paperback this spring with a new afterword and reader's guide.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel.