The final moments were here. Months of busy preparations for my family had made ‘goodbye’ feel like a long-off journey, and somewhere in the exhausting rush I had neglected to strengthen myself for these last moments. But how does a mother brace herself for the last time she will kiss her children goodnight? The last time she can rock her baby to sleep, the last kiss from her husband, knowing that he would now have to fill her shoes? The ominous shadow of deployment that had been stalking the outskirts of our lives had finally arrived to cast its darkness on our doorstep. Nine months of motherhood about to be stolen from my fingertips, nine months of anxious prayers for my family to stay safe and my life to be the same upon my return.
The countdown in my mind had begun a week ago—6 days until I leave, 4 days until I leave, tomorrow is my last day at home. And finally the worst day had appeared—I have to say goodbye today. This was not my first deployment, but it was the first deployment since I’ve had children. With each passing hour I struggled to cherish every memory while the voice of my subconscious fear whispered, this will be the last time I… carry a baby on my hip… see her tiny feet in my hands… hear his sweet voice ask for some “milk-choch.” Silent rivulets of anguish adorned my face as I tried to hide them from my children. There was no reason to make this harder on them.
The hot summer day had long ago given into the thick humidity of a July evening, and I sat in the recliner covered in a blanket of heartbeats and cuddles as I watched one last movie with my babies. Awkwardly smashed between my hip and the left arm of the chair, Douglas threw one arm over my stomach and rested his head against my side. He usually seemed so old compared to his siblings, but in these last moments I realized that he was only four, still a baby in his own right. It was becoming harder to command the leak of tears as I listened to his even breathing. I turned my head towards him and laid my face against the top of his head.
As I kissed him, I breathed in his sweet fragrance and felt his hair, cut short, rough against my face. He smelled like baby wash, still damp from the last bath I would give him and his siblings together. My heart hammered in my throat as I struggled to remember everything about that moment. You have to remember his smell, his warmth, his size… you have to remember him fitting so snugly against you. He started to squirm, and I released my hug, turning my head to wipe the tears against my right shoulder.
I looked down and found Autumn, my sweet little girl, holding onto my right side like a koala cub. Her gaze was fixed on the cartoon with her head tilted just upward enough that I could see her beautiful face, her long eyelashes, and her button nose. They don’t understand that I will be gone tomorrow. What if they think I abandoned them? I ran my fingers through her soft hair. It had taken her entire two years of life to grow it long enough for a decent ponytail. Who would do her hair in the mornings? I need to make sure Daddy knows how to braid and pull it up into a ponytail before I leave… Only 15 more minutes until their bedtime, only 30 minutes until I would have to walk out the door to report to the ship.
They can stay up a little late… just this once right? But that would only delay the inevitable, only push the pain of goodbye a little farther. I felt a squirming between my knees. I looked down to find my youngest, Rhett, rubbing his eyes in an effort to stay awake. He rocked his head back and forth before resting his left cheek against my stomach. I remember being so worried about how I would fit them all in my lap when he was born, so worried that one of them would feel left out. Rhett had solved the puzzle on his own though and had snuggled up right between my legs with his head leaned back on my belly like it was his natural place in the world. We had just held his first birthday party last week. He is just a baby, the malicious whisper in my head grew more frenzied, he won’t even remember who I am when I come back!
I shook my head. I had to stop thinking like that. Daddy would make sure they talked about me every day. I had recorded myself reading a dozen books on DVD to help them remember the sound of my voice. Is that all he will remember of me? A vague connection between the woman reading on TV and “Mommy?” I’m going to miss an entire year of discovery and baby giggles. I looked around at all three of them, snuggled so soundly against me, content in the security of Mommy’s embrace. Will any of them remember me? Surely Douglas would know that I was gone and miss me, but that thought brought its own icy stabs to my heart. Missing me will only make it harder for him. Am I being selfish to hope that they might think of me every day?
Each tick of the clock rung in my ears like a church bell tolling the hour. I have to send them to bed. I have to get them into bed or I will never be able to leave. The reality of the moment began to sink in. How could I tuck them away so that I could leave and no longer see them? How can I leave them? What kind of a mother am I?!
“Ok guys, bedtime,” my voice cracked, “Give Daddy night-night kisses and let’s get in bed.” It sounded like a traitor’s voice to my heart. Douglas and Autumn groaned and rolled out of the chair, their little feet pitter-pattering on the floor as they ran to jump in their Daddy’s lap. Rhett had fallen asleep and I rolled him up into my arms, the last time I will carry him as a baby. I held him tighter, rubbing my lips in little kisses across his forehead and followed the toddlers up the stairs to their room. Douglas and Autumn climbed into bed and I rocked Rhett in my arms. I can’t put him down, my heart screamed, if I put him down I will never hold him like this again. I took a deep breath, I would kiss him goodnight last, I assured myself as I bent into the crib to lay him down softly. I turned to tuck Douglas into bed.
“Good night, Mommy” he said, squeezing me around the neck, “Are you going to the boat now?” It felt like knives in my heart.
“Yes, baby. Mommy will be gone for a long time but I will come back to you. I promise sweetheart.” I kissed him again on his forehead and rubbed his cheek with my thumb.
“But why do you have to go? I want you to stay here Mommy, I love you.”
How do I explain this to him? What possible justification can I offer a four-year-old about why his Mommy has to leave him?
“Mommy has to go on the ship to keep you safe baby. Mommy and her friends are going to go far away and make sure the bad guys don’t ever come here. I don’t want to leave sweetheart but I’ll be back soon,” I kissed his head, “Good night sweet boy.”
It took all of my might to pull my hand away from his face. Touch him again! That can’t be the last time you touch him! Kiss him! Pick him up! Hold him! I took another deep breath and forced myself to move onto Autumn. I sat down on her bed and bent over to give her one last hug.
“Good night sweet princess. Mommy loves you sooooo much!” I held her tightly, wishing I would never have to let go, and kissed her cheek.
“Mommy? Why are you crying?” Autumn asked in her baby voice, magnifying the moment.
“Mommy has to go to the boat, baby and I am going to miss you very, very much. But I love you and I will see you soon baby girl.” Autumn’s grip tightened.
“Good night Mommy.”
“Good night sweet princess.” I stood, thankful the room was dark. My heart was ready to explode. My little girl. She needs me! She needs her Mommy. I can’t leave her. I stepped over to the crib that Rhett slept in. I reached in and ran my fingers along his head. He slept peacefully without any idea of the drastic change tomorrow would bring. I fought myself to not pick him up. You have to hold him one more time! My heart thudded. He is your last baby! He won’t be a baby when you get back. Wake him up and hold him! I knew that wouldn’t make it any easier though, would not change the outcome of the next few minutes, days or months. I just want to give him one last kiss, one last kiss from Mommy. My mind raced through the repercussions of reaching in to wake him or succumbing to not kissing him one last time. I kissed my fingers and laid them on his sleeping brow.
“Goodbye Baby Rhett,” I whispered in hushed sobs, “I love you.” I straightened up and headed to the door, turning one last time in the frame.
“Goodnight Babies,” This is it… “Mommy loves you guys very much. More than you could ever know.”
I heard the last precious “Good night Mommy’s” and “I love yous” as I closed the door. My head throbbed as my heart attempted to leap from my chest and run back into the room. Am I strong enough to walk away from them tonight?
Then the moment was gone. It was painful, it would continue to be painful, but I would not leave them for nothing. I could feel resolve fill me. I will spend every second of every day for the next nine months doing everything in my power to keep them safe. I will not leave them in vain.
My heart had shattered into its last piece letting the hardened shell of duty take control. I lifted my sea bag onto my shoulders and stepped out the door to serve our country, to defend our freedom, and to keep our children safe.
Tina Callahan is a student at Ashford University getting her BA in English. She is the mother of three beautiful children and also an active duty Navy Sailor currently on deployment. This essay is written about the first deployment she made away from her children.