As I was getting dressed to go pick up Keith, I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror. I looked remarkably pale. As a matter of fact, I was having trouble breathing. Leaning both hands on the sink, I looked myself sternly in the eye.
"No passing out, Jenny!" I said, and then bent to the task of getting on my high heeled, white sandals.
Before I left, I shut all the windows and turned on the AC. I looked around at the deeply quiet, glowing house. Every surface was clean and clutter free. I could hear the sound of the clock ticking above the mantel. It was completely unbelievable to me that when I returned, I would be bringing Keith back with me.
Driving was an ordeal. I just focused on the road and remembered to breathe. That worked out OK. I knew where I was going; the weekend before I'd stopped to locate the Special Events Center on my way to get the necessary groceries.
"Dear God," I kept praying, "please just make sure I can find a parking spot and then some place to sit down. I can't stand. That's all I ask. Just a parking space and somewhere to sit." I do find the strangest things to focus on when anxious.
I found a parking spot quite easily and stayed a minute in the car to collect myself. I had to remember distinctly to put the car in park before turning it off, made sure I had my cell phone and took off my sun glasses so I could see better; I was terribly afraid of tripping and falling on my face, as my legs were a little unsteady and the high heels weren't helping.
The Special Events Center was massive, with high ceilings and overflowing with waves of high energy. I stood inside and got my bearings, overwhelmed at first by the crowd, the banners hung every where, the blaring music.
There was a large bouncy castle for the kids and next to it, the bleachers were mostly empty. I went up three rows and sat down on the end. I had thought I would be early, but it appears others had been there for at least an hour and the place was packed. They were showing video of the men getting off the planes that were somewhere outside and with each scene there was a loud shout of appreciation from the crowd watching.
It was a while before the men appeared and every time a stray curl of smoke escaped the double doors, the crowd went wild. It seemed surreal to me that within moments, I would see Keith. I sat very quietly; I found it impossible to make any sound. I sat with my purse on the floor, my hands demurely in my lap. All I had to do was wait a few moments and he would come in those doors; the phrase "to possess your soul in patience" occurred to me more than once during that time.
Finally, they played "American Soldier" and everyone surged to their feet, banners waving. But no troops. Each time the chorus of the song came around, the crowd shouted out, but the doors didn't open. The song ended and the moderator told us all to sit down again. We were a confused, but a very amicable group of people; we all sat back down again.
Then another song began, the doors opened and every one let out a great shout. Except me, I watched mute, electrified, as lines of soldiers marched solidly into the empty space and then turned crisply to face the front bleachers. My eyes flew from face to face but I couldn't see Keith at first.
Then, as they were talking, suddenly I saw him. He was fourth from the end, in the front row. He couldn't see me; they can't turn their heads at all when in formation and I was to the side of him. In the first moment I saw his face, I knew him. He stood out, one of the taller soldiers and his face was very composed.
It was a mercifully brief ceremony; the troops were thanked, the families were thanked, a prayer was said and then we were all released. There was a general surge forward. Keith and I had planned for me to stay on the bleachers; I had sent him a text before the troops entered, letting him know in what general direction I was in.
But when he started forward, I forgot all about the plan. I ditched my purse, I literally vaulted down from the side of the bleachers (I have been doing all that working out!), made my way over the deflated bouncy castle and then looked up and saw him just a yard away from me, looking shy and delighted. I ran the rest of the way.
He felt exactly right, every inch of his six feet two were well known to me, I curled my arms tight around his neck and just breathed in the scent of him. There is a hollow in his shoulder that fits my face perfectly, I nestled in there. He smelled good to me, which is saying something, considering he hadn't had a shower in over three days.
"You little kitten," he said tenderly, amazed. When I finally lifted my face to look at him, I immediately had to kiss him and even with my heels, I had to stand on my tip toes to reach him, my hair was loose down my back; it bothers me that way, but he likes it so I'd left it like that.
The kiss quickly became so passionate and deeply personal that eventually I remembered we were in the middle of a huge crowd and drew a little away, shy for the first time. But every time I looked at him, his face delighted me and then I had to kiss him again.
"Let's get out of here," my husband said, gripping my hand tightly. And then I remembered my purse.
When I went back for it, to my horror I discovered it gone. What were the odds, I wondered? What sad, sad person would steal a purse at such an event? And then I saw the kindly, mustachioed face of an elderly man who, with his wife, had been sitting next to me. He had my purse safely in both his hands and extended it to me, his face aglow.
"Thank you!" I cried, receiving it. I thought the world a marvelously beautiful place in that moment. If a rainbow had appeared over the high ceiling and the voice of Louis Armstrong began singing "What a Wonderful World" from above, I would have taken it as a natural extension of the general environment.
We made our way through the crowd somewhat erratically, as I had to reach up to kiss him frequently; some of the way he simply put his arm around my waist, lifted me off the ground and carried me.
Outside there were tents with their bags stacked in piles and there was a great deal of confusion over where each person's bag was. They had three huge packs to carry; I ended up carrying one of them as we made our way through the parking lot.
Someone looked at me funny, I suppose it did look a little odd. I was wearing a white dress with a full, pleated skirt and heels, with a huge, camo patterned bag over my shoulder. It didn't feel odd to me though; as any Army wife knows, we are always carrying a burdens for our husbands; usually they are invisible. To be literally carrying something was almost a relief.
I was horrified to learn that I would have to drive, as no soldier is allowed until they've been home twenty four hours. I took a deep breath and negotiated the parking lot. It didn't help my concentration any to have Keith beside me, making me laugh and otherwise distracting me.
It's a miracle that coming or going nothing adverse happened.
It's still a source of wonder to me to know that at night, he'll be beside me in bed. This despite the fact that because of it, I cannot sleep. Last night, I got up in desperation and put cotton balls in my ears to block the snores. Each evening he assures me with adorable gravity that he will not snore that night. It's very cute and completely useless.
He wakes at five and he never stops going during the day. On the first afternoon back, he mowed the back yard and got the HD up and running. We sat in it late that night, listening to the radio and talking.
I still haven't gotten used to the fact that I can touch him. He is touchable, he takes up space, he fills clothing that have hung limp from their hangers for the past nine months. The first time I saw him in jeans, boots and his pale blue shirt, the sleeves rolled up, I got a little dizzy.
He has the most deliciously long eye lashes, he gets splatters of oil on his face like freckles and his muscled forearms are covered with thick, copper hair. When we went ATV riding today, many times I buried my face in the back of his neck and felt how warm and solid his chest was under my arms; I thanked God over and over again, an almost wordless prayer that Keith had come back safe and sound.
Sound. That words means so much more to me now. He's himself, he's whole. And I get to keep him!! He's not going anywhere!
"What are you gunna do with me, woman?" he teases me often, with his little wicked grin.
"Well, they will put you back to work here in a couple days," I replied with a grin of my own.
"C'mere," he said to me, the first night he was back. "I have something for you."
He gave me a little red velvet bag that I didn't even recognize at first. I opened it and saw the little enameled pill box that I'd given him before he left. I looked up at him over my shoulder, he was standing behind me, watching me.
I opened the box, inside was a thin silver ring, a tiny crucifix, and a thin piece of rolled up paper on which I had written a Bible verse. The ring was the first piece of jewelry I had ever owned and something that I had always worn, every day for fifteen years until the day before he left for Iraq, when I had taken it off and put it in the box for him.
"I kept it with me every day, on every mission," he said quietly, bending his head to my ear.
I slipped the ring on my right hand and it was as though it had never been off.
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