My sweet girlfriend's husband has been deployed for the past year.
Ashley is 23. She's only been married for a few years and her man has been gone for a big percentage of it. They moved here to Germany last winter and he was deployed almost immediately; we've never actually met him.
For the past year, Ashley has been waiting, and doing things, and trying to keep his side of the bed warm all by her little old self.
By far the most painful part of his absence has been not knowing his return date. The troops have been coming home in droves -- bus after bus of fathers and husbands and boys back from really long deployments.
She's known for weeks now that he was coming "soon." I've decided that "soon" is a new four letter word; the waiting has been miserable.
Recently, she finally got "The Call."
His is the very last unit coming in from this deployment.
Waiting for the orange doors to open and send her life back to her was beyond intense. All I could think about was Peggy Lee singing, "Waiting for the train to come in ... waiting for my man to come home ..."
She sings that song way too calmly.
"Wow," Ashley said, "I don't even think I'm going to cry. I feel so numb."
Um, yeah, that's what happens when your entire nervous system finally shuts down because it can't handle all the adrenaline.
I sat on the bleachers with my family and watched all the wives and mothers waiting for their husbands. It was beautiful. Every girl there had taken great pains to look however it was their man wanted them to look, and no two outfits were even remotely the same. Every head had been hit hard with the straightener, curling iron, and aerosol, and the shoes were fabulous across the board.
The moment the orange doors opened and the microphone went hot it was like being at an eighth-grade dance and knowing Justin Beiber was about to make an entrance. Talk about heart-pounding.
And then the soldiers flooded through -- nearly 324 of them -- and Ashley was so scared and excited and nervous and terrified that not only did she lose complete use of her hands (we had to hold her "We Love Lt. Wall" sign for her), but she couldn't find him. Anywhere. I personally haven't met him, plus watching all the children pointing out their "daddy" was kind of making me bawl my head off, so I was mostly worthless.
The anthems played, the prayer was given and with less than 10 words the men were dismissed.
And she still couldn't find him.
After all these months and last few weeks of waiting and worrying and anxiously wondering if it was ever going to happen, those moments were eternal and excruciating for all of us. She stood there frantic, tears pouring down her cheeks.
"I don't see him, I can't find him. Is he here? Why didn't I wear my glasses?"
And then as the soldiers started to move, the sea of tan parted and there he was.
I don't think her feet even touched the bleachers, she flew down those steps so fast, high heels and all. Into his arms. Faces buried together, they stood on the gym floor and I'm pretty sure the world went invisible for a moment.
We stood back and let them meld. Because that's what it's like when you've been apart for any serious space in time. You have to regain a sense of independence and self-reliance. You start to wonder, can we be a couple again? Will we work the same? What if we've both changed?
And if you're lucky, the answer is yes you can, yes you will, and yes you have. Absence doesn't always break you, it can make you stronger where you need it.
Ashley grew in leaps and bounds this year and I'm sure her man did as well. And seeing them tonight, I have no doubt that their growth, in the long run, is going to make their little family unit stronger and brighter and better.
Annie Valentine is a wife, mother and columnist. Readers can contact her at email@example.com or visit her blog at regardingannie.wordpress.com.