My sister visits every summer. But this summer was different.
She needed a distraction.
Over the years, the number of kids she brought with her has dwindled. First, it was all three. Her two oldest hover in age on either side of my oldest daughter. Her youngest, 4 years younger, was left out of the fun much of the time. But she didn’t mind. It meant that she got to play a “grown up” with my two younger sons who hung the sun and moon on her.
This summer, however, was my sister’s first solo trip. Her oldest, is a working girl now, having finished art school and struggling with her career – in a good way. Her son is in his last year at university. And her youngest, her baby, is in basic training.
My niece didn’t need to join the Army. I mean, not the way many think. She’s an excellent student. She’s highly self motivated and disciplined. Just the kind of person the Army wants. No, Dear Niece, wants to be just like her father. She’ll go to her father’s Alma Mater, a Big Ten University. But her father was also in the Army. And now he’s in Federal Law Enforcement – which is what she wants, too. So, she’s following his path. Step by step.
My sister knew this summer would be hard so she wanted to make it special.
“Let’s take the boys to Disney!” she said. No twisting my arm. I’ll take any excuse to go to my most magical place.
So we did. And we had a blast. But she wasn’t fully present.
“What if she calls when we’re on a ride?”and “Here, I just need to check my messages again.” and “What’s the area code for Missouri? What if I don’t recognize the number?” and “What if she wants to leave and I can’t get to her?” and much more seriously….”What if she gets deployed somewhere awful?”
My sister is well aware of how awful this can be for the family left behind. Her husband volunteered to go to Iraq. They fought. She felt the kids were too young for him to leave. He felt the need to honor his duty to his county. She lost. He won.
I sympathized this summer with my sister. I tried to feel her pain. And I told her I got it. And I thought I did.
As soon as we received a mailing address we all started mailing letters. My sister warned me that they keep them so busy during the day, they’re exhausted at night. She may not be able to write back very often. No worries, I told her. We understand.
We received our first letter from my niece a few days ago. Or should I say, my sons received a letter. Addressed to the both of them. It was a busy day and and we were rushing to get ready for Boy Scouts.
“Read it to us at dinner, ” they said. “It’ll save time and then we won’t fight over who gets to read it first!” (My oldest son. Always thinking!)
“Thank you both for writing me! Getting letters is the best part of my day! I hope you don’t mind that I am writing this to both of you but I don’t have a whole lot of free time…”
My sister was right.
“I am having a great time! Every day I accomplish new, cool tasks. For example, so far I have done land navigation courses, repelled off a 40 foot tower, team building obstacle courses, gone into a gas chamber, learned all about the M4 rifle, (which I’m shooting for the first time tomorrow!) learned combat first aid and a bunch of other stuff that I can’t remember right now.”
What? My eyes scan back to gas chamber and shooting rifles and combat first aid. Yes, I know what being in the military entails. But this is my baby niece we’re talking about.
“My favorite part has been the navigation courses and repelling off the tower. The gas chamber? Not so much.”
And then it really hits me about the commitment she is making to our country. And the weight my sister has been feeling all summer. And my eyes well up with tears.
This shouldn’t be new to me. My grandfathers, uncles and cousins have all served. My brother-in-law was in the middle east just yesterday, it seems. I know what it’s like to miss someone, worry about someone, and care for someone when they come home wounded.
But my niece feels like my baby, too. And I’m getting a tiny taste, a tiny glimpse into what my sister, her mother, is struggling with every single day until she comes home.
To all of you mothers out there, mothers with sons and daughters in the military:
Thank you for YOUR sacrifice. And please thank your children for me for their sacrifice. They are awesome. You are awesome. And my heart aches and swells with pride, all at the same time, for all of you.