This Christmas, while my military husband is safe at home, I remember the Christmases he was not and the spouses and families who are celebrating their way through challenging holidays. The ghosts of my Christmas deployments past remind me of the military families separated from someone they love this season.
Late at night, someone is up longer than he planned to be. He might be assembling a toy that didn't look nearly so complicated in the box, or hoping he has enough wrapping paper for the last few presents. He's singe-handedly manning his branch of Santa's workshop while his wife is deployed, and he's not forgotten.
Somewhere there's a young mom whose little one wakes during the night on Christmas Eve with an ear infection. As Christmas Day dawns, she might be waiting at the emergency room, with one sick child and two more sleepyheads in tow. She has plenty of friends, but which one could she ask to babysit in the wee hours of Christmas morning? And how does Santa come while she's at the ER? I remember her.
And there's a parent who has to fly solo when a sweet innocent voice asks this question: "If Santa Claus brings all the presents, why are all those toys in the back of your closet?" I remember you too. While you're facing a large absence and the small questions alone, you are not forgotten.
Perhaps there's a family, one person shy of being whole, invited to have Christmas dinner with friends. Surely their generous hosts will understand if the children are a little too quiet, too cranky or not too appreciative of dinner and all the trimmings. No matter how kind the friends, how delicious the pie and how fun the games, the festivities don't feel quite right when someone is missing. Yes, I remember this family.
Somewhere a phone is ringing. "The Christmas package got here today," says the voice on the other end of the long-distance line, so clear it's hard to believe that thousands of miles stretch between.
"I love the card and the pictures. I hung up the decorations. I miss you. I love you." Sometimes a phone call or a package that arrives in the nick of time are all that keeps Christmas from being just another day on both sides of the world. Miracles still happen, and sweet memories are sometimes the dividends paid by hard times.
Perhaps there is a wife at home who is discouraged because those who should understand just don't. Sometimes even loved ones go about their Christmas plans without realizing the void she is trying to fill by herself. She looks like she's managing everything. Maybe she is, but late at night when she's tired and the house is too quiet, the loneliness is loud. I remember her today.
At a holiday dinner party there could be one lone person whose spouse is deployed. Casual conversations about upcoming assignments or deployment conditions sound different to the one who drives home alone on a cold night. Christmas carols on the radio can't fill the empty seat or drive away the worry.
No matter how many deployments come and go, the absence of the most important person in our lives leaves us vulnerable in ways hard to express. These ghosts of my Christmases past remind me. If your spouse is deployed this Christmas, I don't know what you face, but I remember you.
If your spouse is home this Christmas, be thankful and be mindful of those who are on their own, even if they seem to be doing just fine. Reach out. The simple stuff still matters: Shovel snow. Offer babysitting, a cup of coffee, or just a listening ear. Offer to move Christmas decorations out of the attic -- and back in again. Think before you speak. Listen more. Forget politics. Give support, not pity.
Most of all let them know that they and their sacrifices are not forgotten.