The Return From Iraq: When Coming Home Is Not Homecoming
“There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.”
– The Wizard, Schmendrick, from The Last Unicorn
Intact. We use it when “things” are “not broken,” when they are still “working.” And we use it sometimes to gloss over the hidden fissures…the cracks that deepen under stress and strain.
My husband returned from Iraq on October 31, 2006 -- four and a half years ago. His story is his own and not mine to share. But the story of Odysseus’s return is as much Penelope’s as it is his.
My husband, for whom I had waited so many months, came home but he never had a homecoming. He returned intact but with a crucial piece missing -- his men.
During his deployment, my husband successfully led his men through almost daily missions out into the most dangerous areas in and around Baghdad, often coming under enemy fire. And every time, he brought each and every soldier back with him.
Then, just weeks before he was due to return to the states, another type of duty called from the homefront. Our infant daughter, whom he had met once on leave, would need open heart surgery -- sooner rather than later.
He had missed the entire pregnancy -- having left two days before the blue line showed up on the stick and arriving home on leave 48 hours after her birth. But for her open heart surgery, I needed him there.
And what does a man of honor do when duty calls simultaneously in two places, thousands of miles apart?
Reluctantly, my husband left Baghdad.
On his return, there were no cheering crowds waiting to greet him, no music, no parades, no comrades in arms.
Just a curb-side pick-up by me and his daughter, who was dressed in the artillery-red outfit I had selected months earlier for the big homecoming celebration that would never happen.
A few days later, we spent his 30th birthday driving to the hospital where a surgeon would cut open our infant daughter’s chest and give us the gift of hope.
We had every blessing in our prayers.
A few weeks later my husband went to the homecoming that should have been his and welcomed each of his men home.
My husband is everything I ever could have dreamed of in a partner. He is a loving and involved father. Our daughter’s heart was repaired successfully.
And this is the part where we pick-up right where we left off and ride happily off into the sunset. Except life never is that way, exactly, is it?
The storybooks don’t tell you what happens after the happy couple reunites.
We’re supposed to be so very happy just to be alive. And of course we are. And of course we never forget those who have no reunion. And that just adds to the guilt when what you feel is happy, yes, but also…complicated.
We had been through everything together, except… Except, when I couldn’t sleep or clean or eat because I was afraid my daughter’s colic would stop her heart, I was alone. Except, when he was maneuvering his convoy around IEDs and facing death every day, it was his men who were there for him, not his wife. When I was learning to be a parent, when he was becoming a leader in the truest sense, we were thousands of miles apart.
Gradually, we worked together to build our new life together and learn about each other again -- as people, as parents, as partners. We had misunderstandings and miscommunications. We had celebrations. We had crises. We had victories.
He left active duty to return to his legal career and joined the National Guard. We moved back to New York. We had another child. And now, soon, a third.
Our hero was home, and in one piece. Our daughter’s body healed, functioning but without a pulmonary valve. Our family remains together. We are intact.
We are surviving, even thriving, but there is no happily ever after to the tale. There’s just life, lived one day at a time…sometimes with sorrow but mostly with joy.