The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(6)

Written By: Rachel Starnes

He was a giant to me, with thick shoulders and a broad back so hard that when I hung on to his shoulders at the local swimming pool, it seemed like some force of nature was parting the waters with a speed that was almost scary, like I wasn’t sure I could hang on. I had the perfect vantage point from which to rub sunscreen on his bald spot, round and centered like Friar Tuck’s, and being allowed this intimacy—Dad wasn’t a fan of the bald spot, or the necessity of protecting it—always thrilled me, like I finally had a way of caring for him. He had little freckles there, just like the ones on my face.

When he was home, Dad rarely talked about work. I knew the names of the various jobs he’d occupied—roustabout, roughneck, assistant driller, driller, tool pusher, foreman—and that the flights we saw him board took him to a port city where he then caught a helicopter out to wherever the rig was, but my imagination stopped there. Thus it was always a complete mystery and a huge disappointment when it turned out every time that he was actually going back again. I remember clearly when Doug and I finally lit upon the solution of hiding Dad in the closet when it was time for him to go back. “We won’t tell anyone,” we promised, “and if they come to the door we’ll say you’re not here.” Dad laughed, and we got indignant, reassuring him that of course we’d bring him food and let him out only when it was safe, but when it became clear that he wasn’t even seriously considering the option, we both got even more confused. Didn’t he want to stay?

The days leading up to his departure were a weird sine wave of affection on my parents’ part that peaked early and then took a dive toward aggression as they prepared themselves for separation by picking an old scab of a fight. It was usually some variation on the theme of “What do you care how [xyz] works out? You’ll be gone,” and “How the hell do you think this family got a roof over its head?” that made for a full day of yelling, complete with the requisite hurled dish on Mom’s part and squealing tires on Dad’s. At times like this they were strangers to us, huge and loud, distorted, two forces bent on collision.

Somehow they’d make up behind their closed bedroom door the night before he left, or if that hadn’t worked, some uneasy pause in the battle would prevail on the way to the airport. But always, by the time we got to the gate, the good-byes were long and passionate, full of embraces where they said quiet, muffled things into each other’s necks.

When we were younger, Doug and I would cry and try to squirm our way into this last hug, but as I got older I began to realize that the other passengers and the airline attendants were watching us. This might be a false memory, but I recall a stewardess leaning down and saying something syrupy to me like, “Aw, you’re gonna miss your dad, aren’t you?” prompting the sudden realization that we were doing this publicly, that my family was this big oozing ball of emotion in the middle of a busy airport. Nobody else ever seemed to have a problem getting on a plane, and I never remember seeing anyone else crying.

As a kid, I think this sudden recognition of exposure offended me because my dad’s leaving was a wound every time he did it, and I felt that there was a real chance that if he finally saw how much it hurt us he would find a way to stop doing it. So much seemed to hang in the balance, so why did strangers have to look at me while I was hurting like this? Now I look back at this sobbing family at the American Airlines gate and think, We did this all the time. My God, it’s even likely the same stewardesses saw us every time, maybe even watched me grow up over the years. I wonder what it looked like, the process by which I got quieter and angrier as the years passed in the hallways of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport.

Once he was gone it was like the three of us let go of a collectively held breath. We could now begin the switch over to “RoycE GonE,” the three-pronged family unit that operated under completely different rules. McDonald’s was a given for the first meal, and all that heat and salt and sugar sat in my stomach like a benediction made even better by the fact that we could eat in the car, or at a park—anywhere so that we didn’t have to arrange ourselves around an empty seat at the kitchen table. The first few Dad-less days were like a long slumber party with Mom, and I bathed in the floodlight of her attention and took advantage of the relaxed rules of the parent/kid hierarchy. I campaigned to stay up late and watch Dallas or Moonlighting with her, to take tiny sips of her beer, and to lean my shower-wet head back against her knees after she combed the tangles out. I told myself I was more like a companion now, a good friend she could rely upon to help out around the house and to keep Doug, though only a year younger than me, in check, since he was still a kid and couldn’t be expected to be reasonable or mature.

Mom pep-talked us through errands and chores and minor emergencies in this first stage with assurances that “this will be an adventure we can tell Dad about.” A phone call from him when he was gone was rare and a big deal, and since phone time was limited, the pressure to come up with a pithy and compact report on my days since we’d last spoken was a challenge to which I responded by living each moment with an eye toward editing and retelling the experience to my dad, deciding whether whole days made the cut or not. On longer hauls, I remember sending him elaborate drawings and a long, rather forced poem about my doomed attempt at pitching on my softball team.

Early into one of Dad’s absences, our collective mood was cheerful, a can-do attitude in the face of an expected hardship that would just require a little ingenuity and creativity. Cautiously optimistic, I kept up my own interior monologue during this period, telling myself, “With a little planning, this can be way better than last time,” and “Just pay attention and don’t screw up.” What’s remarkable about being a kid is that, through force of will, your faith in illusions can last far longer than it should. I told myself these things every time, and every time I believed them as we moved right into the next inevitable stage of “RoycE GonE,” the Total Meltdown.

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