The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(5)

Written By: Rachel Starnes


My sharpest memory is a repeating one, an event that happened so many times and in so many contexts over the years that it has almost lost its meaning from wear. It looks like this: a girl, anywhere from three to seventeen years old, standing at a barrier—sometimes a rope, sometimes a gate, sometimes a giant smooth plate of glass, and sometimes nothing, just an understanding that here you can’t go any farther—and watching a man, her father, most often wearing a gray windbreaker, blend into a crowd of travelers. Realist Dad becomes Pointillist Dad, and finally Impressionist Dad. Is he really: that guy in line, able to see me, waving back? He’s definitely: leaving again, indistinct, already gone.

My dad’s work schedule has been predictably unpredictable since before I can remember. Our kitchen calendars tracked his movements in long color-coded lines labeled with my mother’s loopy, half-capitalized handwriting: “RoycE HOME!” “RoycE GonE.” Shift work usually meant even measures of time on and time off—two weeks on, two weeks off, or a month on, a month off—but often there were training schools tacked on, or extended absences for towing the rig somewhere for repairs, which could mean up to three months away. Even then, weather could delay the helicopters that ferried men to and from the rig for shift change, further cheating the days home. Planning anything required a consultation with the calendar, and if the event—my piano recital, the school play, our birthdays—was too far ahead of his known schedule, the answer to questions of guest lists or permission forms was, “Just put Mom and then save a space just in case.” In response to a work calendar that had no flexibility, we became fantastically rubbery in our accounting for holidays—Thanksgiving and Christmas were the only big ones we really celebrated and they slid to the left or right as needed.

I grew up as an airport regular, but one whose familiarity extended only to the gates and baggage carousels. Dropping off and picking up, two distinct routines, each with a wildly different emotional climate, took place sometimes several times a month depending on the dictates of the calendar. If his flight left early on a weekday, Doug and I would sometimes get to skip the first few hours of school. No Pledge of Allegiance, no language arts. Instead, a stick of Big Red gum shared from the pack Dad bought at the airport gift shop, its flavor pricking my tongue just like tears pricked the inside of my nose as I slouched in the backseat of the Chevrolet on the drive away from the airport. I hid the gum under my tongue when I went back to school until it was a hard, flavorless lump and then swallowed it. I didn’t care if it stayed there for seven years.

It sounds horrible, but one of the things I’m grateful for about 9/11 is that people who aren’t passengers can’t get to the gates anymore. The gate is the worst place for saying good-bye because the difference between “here with me” and “gone somewhere else without me” is made clear and immediate. Here at the gate is the shore, but then ten feet away is the mouth of that horrible chute, that accordion-ended walkway that feeds into the plane and then hangs there open and gaping when the plane starts to taxi, looking for all the world like an amputated limb, a snipped umbilical cord, a useless and lost connection that was flimsy in the first place.

Even worse are the windows, which are so generous about giving you a full view of the plane leaving—there goes all the motion and momentum, leaving. Here you are, stuck, waiting. You are what’s left behind. It’s much better to part ways in a busy terminal, and I’m reminded of this small grace every time I do it. I’m just going to walk off this way and you take your bags and go that way. It feels more fair, if that’s possible, less of a dramatic scene.

Mom and Doug and I used to stand together at the plate-glass window by the gate while Dad got on the plane, and Doug and I would press our foreheads against the cool glass and argue about which of the shoulders in the plane’s tiny passenger windows belonged to Dad. I always said I could see him and that he was waving, but that was mostly to upset Doug. “You missed it! He’s right there!” If I could get Doug to cry, I wouldn’t have to. Then on the long walk out of the terminal, I could concentrate on stepping only in the dead center of the octagonal patterns on the airport carpet.

The “RoycE HOME” days on our kitchen calendar were underscored with a long, neat line of green highlighter and the “RoycE GonE” ones sometimes got a yellow line and sometimes just a long arrow drawn in ballpoint pen. The line system was a deceptively simple way of charting what was in fact a complicated and dramatic symphony of reactions as my dad orbited in and out of our lives, and it divided us into two very different families.

In the green line period, when we were at “RoycE HOME,” an initial recovery period would give way to days that felt even and good. Green line periods started with picking Dad up at the airport, where he would hug us so hard our backs would pop. Doug and I would chase his bags around the luggage carousel and argue over who got to wrestle them out into the parking lot, our faces pressed into the green canvas, which still smelled of fuel and smoke, with our last name written in Sharpie ink in big, block letters. Then we’d get back to the house and he’d collapse facedown on the bed for an indeterminate amount of time, during which the only important thing was to BE QUIET. When he was home and fully recovered, Dad gave “bed throws,” hurling us bodily again and again into the mattress of his and Mom’s king-sized bed, letting us shriek with laughter as we barely missed the blades of the ceiling fan. He would play catch with us in the front yard and teach us how to field grounders, and we would pitch him tennis balls just to see him smash them with our tiny aluminum bat, the ball flying far over our house and into the next block. When he was home, Dad would go on long runs in the morning and come back just when we were getting up to eat breakfast; covered in sweat and radiating energy, he’d teasingly menace us with a big, wet hug.

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