Our family was no different from any other family in America. Hard work, success, loss here, a failure there. Bills, vacations, cars, vans and trucks. Houses, garages, back yards with neighbors, the beach, Halloween, Christmas, Grand parents and cousins. A sporting event here. concert there. 9/11 and war. Report cards, bonuses, overtime and loss of work. High school graduation and college bills. Worse, death in a family and divorce, the failure of the family. Life moves on. Not so easy.
Adults can manage what life throws at us and will. Children new to the experiences of extreme losses, deal real-time. Few things if any overwhelm parents more than the children. One repeated lesson I’ve learned is how our children are resilient. What was daunting as a child is forgotten as a teenager, yet it never fails to stay seared deep in the minds of the parents.
My son, waited for me to leave the military and return home. He was seven years old the day I arrived. He jumped in my arms shrieking with joy and shared all the plans he had for us. Our family was small with Little Man being our only child. An only child meant he had everything in life a kid could want. Being the only grand child made this even worse. Literally, everything, he wanted; Little Man got. At seven years old, he knew no different, yet, I will tell you. Surprisingly, material things never changed him. Meaning he’s so far maintained his child-like innocence. I’m serious. It’s as if we’ve been blessed not only for his health, but his character. He knows today how what he has shouldn’t be taken for granted. He knew it back then. Part of this comes from all the long periods of times he lived without his Mom and Dad at home at the same time. Rarely did he have both his parents. Meaning he longed for us yet remained strong enjoying the moments we did have together.
What Little Man didn’t know, the two most important people in his life, his heroes, were experiencing their relationship fall apart. That December 2003 day I finally arrived home. Just when Little Man watched me leave the military, he believed he would have his Dad home for good, no more war or being away from home.
What I won’t forget about that time was the anxiety and stress. The feelings were piercing and overwhelming distracting his mother and I. This came just after I left Florida and Jojo behind. Selfishly, I arrived home with hopes and intentions; I would find Jojo again. At that time, it all made sense to me, and I had a plan to get both Little Man and Jojo back to start a new life. Reality is how the loss of my career, the very purpose in life I had wanted since Little Man’s age was now gone combined with thoughts and memories of Jojo, created a powerful sense of grieving I could barely contain. With loss of the warrior life and comrades left behind had me arriving at Little Man’s new home stoned out of my mind on Dextromethrophane. With the drug deep in my system I made life unmanageable.
Miraculously, I arrived safe and alive. However, barely able to hang on to emotions mixed with grieving, resentment towards his mother and pure stupidity, I dug as far deep within to find ways to look at Little Man in the eyes and smile. Doing everything to share in his joy, it showed in my facial expressions; m eyes told the truth. Plus, every other inch of my body and mind simply wasn’t there anymore. When his mother walked up to me, no longer was there anything there. In the background Little Man jumped all over the apartment showing off his toys begging to play GI Joes. Despite the condition, I was in and the reality, his mom and I, simply hearing the sounds of Little Man made life…just good.
It happened several days later. Until the day I pass, I will never forget. It was around dinner time. On that December evening in 2003, even though it was only six at night, the sun had set hours before making everything dark. With his beaming smile and endless energy, Little Man ran into his room yelling out instructions about what we would do next and grabbed his Detroit Lions helmet for a game of football with his Dad. At that very moment, in the background, with Little Man’s voice yelling at me on the other side of the apartment, became the official breaking point between his Mom and Dad.
It was something said, not certain who said it first, but when the word’s divorce left our lips mixed with the yelling, was the moment Little Man returned down the hallway. It wasn’t that he dropped the helmet that caught my attention. It was both watching and listening to a seven-year-old boy with blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes of innocence drop to his knees letting out the highest pitch scream I had ever heard in my life. Like daggers to the throat, his cries for help ripped at my brain tearing apart everything I had built in this family. On his knees, his head dropped with his tiny hands wrapped around his eyes, I never witnessed so much moisture and tears pouring through his fingers. The entire time he yelled “NNnooooooo!” Right in front of his eyes he watched his family, and heroes expire in a flash. I imagine all of his fantastic memories of what life was like as a family together in Florida evaporated to find him alone in a dark hallway. Somewhere in West Virginia realizing life as he knew had changed taking him into new territory he felt on his own and threatened. Reality would show itself to Little Man where he would discover with pain how his family had crumbled until it reached the breaking point, collapsing all around him.
Led by his responses, his mom and I continued to hold Little Man until we reached levels of progress. Guided by his comments and questions, we finally broke through when he realized this wasn’t as bad as it first appeared. “Do you mean I will have two bedrooms?” Yes. Yes Little Man, you will have two rooms and two houses. You can build your rooms any way you want. You will even find more friends. With comments and responses like that, he fell asleep peacefully between our knees. Taking him to bed and laying with him, until we both fell asleep, that night would be the last night, we all shared a home together. This was and still are facts and reality of everyday life for warrior families in America.