I can’t quite figure out why, since crying makes me embarrassed even when I am alone, but I love watching those compilation videos of soldiers coming home to surprise their families. I literally bawl, with tears dripping down off my chin and my nose runny and my face scrunched up so that I’m more grimacing than smiling. They are heartwarming, yes, and I’m always happy to see people reunited, but I can’t help but wonder how many people watching the video really understand what it’s like.
I was eight-going-on-nine years old when my father was deployed to Afghanistan for a year. I was used to having him around almost all the time, which is what basically everyone says, but I didn’t expect his absence to hit me so hard. When the other kids in school even mentioned their parents, it took a lot of courage for me to hold back my tears. I remember walking to recess one day and a girl in my class asked why my dad was never home. I couldn’t even explain. I just started crying.
In sixth grade, I wrote a poem about those long months without him, which won a regional poetry competition. It didn’t feel right, though. I just knew those judges reading my poem couldn’t possibly know what it was like. I get that same feeling watching these videos. How many people know what it’s like to stand still in shock, scared to believe the person who’d left is really there? It only takes a millisecond for recognition to happen, but allowing yourself to believe he is really truly there takes much longer. Even when you run up to the person – full speed until the very last second when you try to slow down but can’t even stop yourself because of the excitement and happiness – you don’t fully believe he is there. How many people know how scratchy that army uniform usually is? It’s coarse and rough and it smells like far-away places, but it’s the one way you can tell the person isn’t just in your imagination. After a couple seconds, you don’t even notice the scratchiness anymore. It’s kind of soft, actually, but it’s still useless when it comes to soaking up all your tears. For me, the crying and smiling happens almost simultaneously; the crying comes first, though. Before I believe he’s really there, I can feel my muscles distorting my face while I’m thinking, this is a really cruel trick to play on myself. The corners of my mouth, which had turned down from the painful thought, involuntarily extend outwards and slightly up, so I end up with a smile that looks forced. Then the tears come, for two different reasons at once: I’m still sad that he was gone for so long, but I’m so glad that he’s home now. I look at his face for any differences, and there are some, but I don’t think I am capable of noticing. My brain is readjusting its memory to make the moment seem valid; even if he’d left with a full-on beard and come back cleanly shaven, I wouldn’t notice for those first few moments. He is exactly how he left me and exactly how I remember him, but somehow more beautiful. There is a tiredness in his eyes from being somewhere I hope to never have to go, and a sadness in his mouth, but all around him is a glow. (I remember being terrified at first, upon seeing my dad after a year away, because he looked so much like an angel that I thought he’d died and was just visiting.) His voice is heavy, but he sounds perfect. I don’t remember what my dad said – just that his voice was exactly how I remembered it, too. We’d gotten to talk to him on the phone at least once a month, but that was always an awkward thing. No matter what we talked about, I wondered if he felt calling home was just an obligation. Crying was not acceptable on the phone, so I would wait until I’d given the phone back to mom to break down. We only had a few minutes to share among my mother, my sister, and me; some nights, dad would have to call later than usual and my sister and I would already be in bed. There are still times when we mention things from that year that I guess we never got to talk to him about. It’s a whole year of my life with my dad mysteriously cut out, and it seemed like the longest year of my life.
What those videos can never show to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, though, is the weight that is lifted off family members’ shoulders when their loved ones come home. I can see it – I watch for it, actually – in the way even littlest kids stand up straighter. I wonder how many people watch those videos and feel what I felt when my dad came home: I was finally done missing him. I could finally talk about him again, and call him my father and feel like that mattered.