The last family picture for a whole year.
Thursday was a sad and very difficult day for the Parker Pack. Saying goodbye to a loved one for a year is an exhausting thing.
We woke up Thursday morning and dropped Aiden at school as usual, Brad getting up with him and taking him. We decided long ago to try to keep Aiden busy and keep things fairly normal for him on the day Brad left--the last thing we wanted was Aiden to sit at home, bored, surrounded by worry and doubts and fear and sadness. Then Brad came home and cuddled on the couch with Aubrey and I--it was quite a sight, all three of us squashed together on our couch. We spent the morning snuggling and letting Aubrey watch cartoons, then we made breakfast and got dressed for the day. Brad headed back up to Aiden's school around 11 to pick him up and we all went to lunch as a family at a local Mexican food restaurant--Brad needed his enchilada fix before heading off the the land of crappy Army food! At lunch, we joked and laughed and had a great time, Aiden glued to his daddy's side in the booth, and Aubrey entertaining us with her antics.
After lunch, we headed back to the house, where Aiden helped Brad finish up a few last-minute packing details. Aiden even tried on his daddy's enormous rucksack--and promptly fell on his butt under all the weight. We went inside to wait for a few of Brad's fellow soldiers to drop by and pick-up Brad's bags--they had kindly offered to drop them for Brad so he could spend more time with the kiddos at home. Everyone was getting a bit mopey and quiet, so I rounded them all up and herded them over to our neighbor's driveway basketball hoop for a quick game. Aiden and Daddy teamed up against me (and Aubrey practiced shooting hoops on the toddler-sized goal we had for her). It was a great time, the boys elbowing me and fouling me all over the court and stealing the ball from me. Trash-talking and joking abounded, and we had a blast.
Once we were exhausted and hot, we went indoors, where Brad threw on his uniform and got ready to leave. We spent a while saying our goodbyes at home, cuddling and hugging, and crying together, trying to find the right words to comfort Aiden and help Aubrey understand what was about to happen. Then we loaded up in the van and headed toward the company headquarters.
We had debated for weeks exactly how to handle this day. Many soldiers bring their kids along for the several-hour-affair of preparing to leave: the kids and moms wait in a gym or parking lot while soldiers go back and forth, dropping bags, drawing weapons from the arms room, checking in for the flight manifest, etc. Brad and I knew we did NOT want to drag our kids through the long, boring afternoon of sitting and waiting for Daddy to leave, the endless coming and going and wondering "Is THIS when Daddy leaves for real?" We had initially planned to say all of our goodbyes at home, but part of me wondered if Aiden needed to see a glimpse of what was going on: all the soldiers and other families going through the exact same process. So, several days ago, we asked Aiden what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to drop daddy off. I explained that we would say most of our goodbyes at home, that we wouldn't even unbuckle our seatbelts (we feared we'd have to pry him off of Brad or he'd flat refuse to get back into the car)--Daddy would just come around to him for kisses and hugs--and he agreed.
Well, when we arrived at the HQ, I parked and Brad walked around to give kisses to the kids. Aubrey, who hadn't gotten a nap that day, was so exhausted, she had fallen asleep on the ride over, so Brad merely gave her a few sweet kisses on her cheeks. (He had already gotten plenty of squeezes and kisses from her at home). He then walked around to Aiden's side of the van, and at first, Aiden wouldn't really look at or hug Brad. This is actually a pretty common reaction from military kids, there is a lot of anger and resentment about the whole process--so I gently told Aiden, "This is your chance, buddy. Daddy walks away for a year after this--you don't want to have any regrets or wish later you'd given him a hug." So he turned and gave him a half-hearted hug. "Hey, Aiden," I laughingly told him, "you better squeeze Daddy as hard as you can--if his head pops off, he can't go to Afghanistan!" at which point Aiden really grabbed Brad and hugged him as fiercely as he could. But then, Aiden began sobbing and suddenly found himself unable to let go of his daddy's neck. After a moment, I looked at him with tears in my eyes, "Buddy, I need you to be brave. I know it's hard, but you have to let him go." He released his daddy's neck, and then grabbed his Daddy doll and held on tight.
I was next, and although I am a grown woman, I found myself struggling almost as much as Aiden to let go of Brad after our embrace. How on earth do you let go, knowing that your best friend and the man you love more than any other is about to walk away and go to war? I gave him a final kiss, then hopped back into the car and watched my husband walk away.
We drove off and headed toward Sonic for a cold drink and a treat. I had asked Aiden earlier in the day what he wanted to do after we dropped Brad off, and he had requested we go bowling. Since Aubrey was asleep, I bought us a little time to cheer up, let go of our sadness, and let Aubrey rest a bit longer with the Sonic trip. While we drove over, Aiden sobbed, saying over and over, "I wish Daddy didn't have to go!" "I want my daddy!" and "I can't take this, Mommy, it's too much!" I was trying very hard not to absolutely bawl, doing plenty of crying myself, and telling him, "I miss him, too, buddy, I miss him, too." After about 10 minutes of the saddest, most heartbreaking crying, Aiden got quiet, and a few minutes later told me, "Mama, I'm tired of crying, I don't have any cries left. But I'm still crying on the inside." "That's OK, buddy. But just remember, Mommy can't see how you feel on the inside, so just tell me when you are crying inside, OK?"
We pulled into Sonic a minute later, and soon Aiden was distracted by thoughts of tater tots and slushies. A bit later, he was standing behind my seat, staring into my rearview mirror with his mouth wide open, making all kinds of noises and laughing, saying "Mommy, what's that thingy in the back of my throat? Look, I can make it dance!" and giggling hysterically. At that point, I knew he'd be fine.
We went bowling shortly after at the alley on post and we had the entire place to ourselves. We had a blast, laughing, cheering each other on, and feeling a bit indignant when Aubrey (who bowls with bumpers and a ramp) beat both of us! After we played some arcade games, then headed home.
We're all coping OK. Aiden has taken to falling asleep in my bed at night, laying on his daddy's pillow and wearing one of Brad's t-shirts. I move him to his bed when I go to bed, except I agreed he could sleep in my bed one night each weekend, if he wanted. He's still sad, but finds comfort in wearing a set of Brad's dog tags and snuggling with the Hug-a-Hero "Daddy doll" we bought him. The sound box inside, with a recording of Brad telling Aiden how much he loves him, is getting a great workout--I just hope the batteries will last! I know this will be a tough year, with plenty of ups and downs, but we'll make it through.
Aiden helping his daddy pack up.
Whoa, this is heavy!
"High fibe!" as Aubrey says (and Borat, come to think of it).
Shooting some hoops to say busy.
Aiden was getting pretty worn out.
Aiden showing off his dog tags.
Man, that is one CHEESY smile. No, literally, that's queso all over her face.
Aiden and his hero.
Aubrey, wearing her yellow-and-black 1st Cavalry Division colors.
Plenty of kisses for Daddy while we help him get ready.