Four and a half months after his sudden deployment, Jeff was sent home. The girls and I made T-shirts with catchy slogans: Welcome Home Baghdaddy; Glad You're Back from Iraq. We used window markers to decorate every square inch of exposed glass in our house.
We tied balloons and strung banners. We dusted and vacuumed and swept and mopped. I woke up on that final morning and literally pinched myself, just to be sure.
Indeed he came home, bearing only a select few scars from his time away, none of them external. I remember walking alongside him in the parking lot of the mall. A nearby car backfired, sending Jeff instantly to the ground. I laughed at him, protected by the ignorance
of safe borders -- the bliss of a life uninterrupted by the sights and sounds and smells of war.
During his time away, I had dreamed of us. All five of us. I dreamed of picnics and road trips and backyard barbecues. I dreamed of chatter-filled dinners and evening walks around the neighborhood. I dreamed -- I knew -- that if only he were home with us, we'd settle into the rhythmic hum of a family as true as there'd ever been. It took me a while to admit, even to myself, that my "if-onlys" were as flawed as a fairy tale. What I'd forgotten to account for was that life with three young daughters -- one of whom has Down syndrome -- isn't always overflowing with the stuff dreams are made of.
It's not that my girls were a surprise to him. Far from it. He'd known about them from the very start and had, in fact, come prepared to dive headfirst into the treacherous ocean of fatherhood. The only problem being that my girls already had a father. It would take them some time to accept another.
I remember long months of refereeing. Each time Jeff would ask one of them to pick up this or put away that, they'd look to me instead. I could read the questions in their eyes without their saying a word: Do I really have to do what he says? He held strong, enforcing rules that I established -- rules that had been in place for years and years -- yet still the girls would come running to me, hedging that I'd nullify anything he might have said. I never did, even though I sometimes wanted to. I felt torn, as though by siding with him I was betraying their tenuous sense of security in a family they already questioned. I became skilled in the art of trapeze, walking so fine a line all while trying to balance our fledgling little family.
The full version of this essay was originally published in "Wedding Cake for Breakfast: Essays on the Unforgettable First Year of Marriage."