by Brenda Gayle
Mike Carter is the love of my life. We fell in love our final year of high school. I wish I could tell you that he was the captain of the football team and I was head cheerleader—that would have made a much better love story—but in reality he was left guard for our perpetually last placed basketball team and I was the caption writer for our school yearbook.
I had known Mike pretty much all my life, of course. We’d attended the same schools since kindergarten, yet he was different that fall. He wasn’t the finger-poking, pencil-stealing, gangly, greasy-haired show-off he had been. He had filled out over the summer—sure, most seventeen year olds do. He was no longer too tall for his weight and his clumsiness had disappeared along with his high-pitched voice. But it wasn’t the physical changes that struck me. He now exuded an air of quiet confidence, as if he had all the answers and could do anything in the world. I used to love to watch him race up the basketball court, faking-out the opposition, and then confidently leap into the air, spinning at the last second to sink the basket. He should have been captain.
A gentle roar in the distance grows louder. I look up, one hand shielding my eyes from the brightness of the sun. There’s a mammoth gray airship descending towards us. My heartbeat quickens and my mouth is dry.
It’s hot. As my gaze follows the plane down, the waves of heat rising from the tarmac warp my vision of the crowd that has assembled. We are all here: the wives and girlfriends, the husbands and children. Even the Chief of the Defence Staff and several other dignitaries have come.
A great cheer is raised as the airplane hits the runway. We’re all here, anxious to welcome home our heroes.
It has been four hundred and thirty-seven days.
I wasn’t surprised when Mike announced his plan to join the army right out of high school. He’d become a cadet the previous summer and it had had a profound effect on him. I went away to college with aspirations of a career in journalism. In the end, though, being separated from Mike was too difficult. I left college without graduating. We married and settled into a tiny three-room bungalow on the base where he was stationed.
The military suited us. There is a camaraderie that exists between the men as they work and train together. The same is true for the wives and girlfriends. I know that there are women soldiers with husbands and boyfriends, too, but they seem to form their own groups.
Bonds are forged between people undergoing similar circumstances. Our bonds were formed by the celebrations of marriages, births, birthdays, graduations, and, of course, promotions and awards—all of those life-affirming activities that need to be acknowledged. Life needs to be celebrated, and we did it with great enthusiasm.
I look up as the door of the airplane is pushed open and the commander of the unit steps forward. He is very tall and has to duck to avoid hitting his head. He pauses at the top of the stairs and surveys all of us. Then he executes a smart salute, which is acknowledged by the Chief, turns and steps back so his troops may pass. He salutes the soldiers as they exit the aircraft, always making some sort of comment or joke just before they descend down the metal staircase to the ground.
The men look tired even as they smile and embrace their loved ones. They are dressed in camo-fatigues and carry only a single bag. All their possessions, everything they’ve needed for the past year, are in that one bag.
The thing about the military is that it requires great sacrifice. You know it on one level, but until you’re actually forced to make it, you just shove it to the back of your mind and ignore it as you go on with your life.
I was distraught when Mike told me he was being deployed to Afghanistan. First, he was gone for months of special training and then, after a too-quick visit, he was sent overseas.
Four hundred and thirty-seven days. And now he’s coming home.
I am wearing a bright yellow dress. I bought it especially for today. For Mike. He always loved me in yellow. He said the color brings a glow to my skin and shows off my long dark hair.
My fingers comb self-consciously through my hair. It’s short, now, shorter than it’s ever been. I’m afraid of what Mike would think. I don’t know why I did it, why I cut it. It was a mistake.
Four hundred and thirty-seven days. Long, lonely, desperate days.
After a few months, my sadness over Mike’s deployment turned to fear. I was annoyed with the attitude of jovial ignorance that the other wives had adopted. Didn’t they understand what was at stake? Didn’t they know that their husbands’ lives were in mortal danger every day? And yet the celebrations continued. Janice was throwing a first birthday party for her daughter—a daughter who had never seen her father. Karen was hosting a dinner party to demonstrate what she’d learned in culinary school—classes she’d taken to fill in the empty hours while her boyfriend was fighting the Taliban in a mountain range on the other side of the world. On and on it went, the parties, the revelling, all as if nothing had changed—except we were just women now. The men weren’t there.
My fear turned to anger—selfish, self-serving anger. I couldn’t relate to my friends any longer and my husband, my soul mate, wasn’t around to share my daily triumphs and tragedies. Email and the occasional telephone call just couldn’t make up for the real thing.
Four hundred and thirty-seven nights. Long, lonely, desperate nights.
I didn’t like being alone. And then I wasn’t.
I recognize many of the men—and women—climbing down to the shimmering tarmac. I surreptitiously scan their faces, anxious, hopeful. Waiting for Mike. Some of them try to catch my eye. I turn away, afraid they’ll see my shame.
It was a brief affair and I don’t know how to tell Mike that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I lost faith in us. I’m sorry that I lost faith in all we believed in, in what he was fighting for. But mostly, it devastates me that I lost faith in him. How can he forgive me for that?
I stand apart from the other wives. I don’t belong anymore. I am the one who lost faith.
The crowd stills. It is so quiet I think I can hear the rustling of leaves in a non-existent breeze. Maybe it’s just the breathing of the Chief beside me. A single bird calls to its mate, a long lonely note that pierces my heart.
I can’t breathe. I feel closed in. Claustrophobic. I hope I don’t turn into a blubbering fool when I see him.
There is a commotion under the plane and then the bottom seems to open and drop down. Eight soldiers climb up into the gaping hole that leads into the belly of the fuselage.
Finally they reappear; two neat rows of four marching slowly and in perfect step. The flag of my country is draped over the large rectangular box that they’ve hoisted onto their shoulders.
Welcome home, Mike.