Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Today I dropped off my three and a half year old twins, Max and Miriam at the Air Force base CDC (child development center).  Usually, Alex drops them off on his way to work down the street, but he has been out of town for a case.  Walking into the class room, there was a little boy standing sadly and quietly crying in the entry way.  I automatically thought that he was probably having some separation anxiety, as I have seen many times before with children this age.

During the few minutes that I was there, taking the twins' coats off, and snuggling and kissing them, I noticed that this little boy was being comforted by one of the teachers, but that he was still sad and crying.  It seemed different then when I typically see kids that cry out of separation anxiety.  They are usually more vocal about their parent leaving them at school, and more stressed about the situation.  I felt compelled to ask the teacher if separation anxiety was truly the cause of his demeanor.  The teacher told me that the boy's father had just returned from a deployment, and had literally dropped off his son just then.  It was the first time the boy had seen his dad in what must have been at least a several month separation.

The most valuable gift that you can give anyone is not a material possession, 
it is your time, because that time will not come around twice, 
and you can never get it back.

By the time his teacher finished her sentence, I felt my eyes tearing up, and my heart starting to ache.  I wanted to reach out and hold this sad little boy and comfort him.  Instead, I asked Miriam and Max to go up to him individually, and tell him "I love you - you are my friend - it's going to be okay."  They were so sweet.  Max even had a little pouty face and was very gentle when hugging his friend.  I told the twins "we have to be nice to our friends when they are sad."  It is important that children who have gone through a lengthy separation from a parent due to deployment, that other kids get involved in being supportive and understanding, and not just the teachers.  It is important, because many of these young kids will also experience this type of separation.  They will need the interaction and support of their school friends, to help fill that void and temporary loss.  This is where they spend most of their day, if they go to a military CDC.  Their friends will see them longer during their day then their parents will, aside from weekends and holidays.  Teaching children to be a good supportive friend can start from very early on.  This can be of great help to the child that misses his parent for months at a time.

Alex with Jake, and Max sneaking by - San Antonio, Texas 2011

I suppose that this hit a personal note for me, because our family had also endured a not-so-easy deployment.  Jake couldn't even tell me if he missed his daddy, because he was only two years old and living with autism (this was several months before we knew he was autistic).  Before Alex left for Iraq, I shot a little DVD of him reading all of Jake's favorite bed time stories in Jake's bedroom.  I would play that DVD for half a year for Jake, featuring a different story every night before going to sleep.  Alex also had several messages that I would play for Jake for times that Jake was sick, weekend morning greetings from Dad, good night messages, and a special message to be saved for Jake's birthday.  We also ordered a "Daddy Doll" for him.  This is a pillow doll with Alex's picture print on it, and Jake would sleep with it every night.  Dads could have these dolls made from their deployment locations, where they would have their photo taken and imprinted on the doll for their child/ren and send them back home as a gift.  These ideas were some of the ways we kept Alex's presence and spirit continuously with us.  We would also skype once or twice a week, but it was difficult to have Jake hang out by the computer for more than a couple of minutes.   In any case, we did what we could to have Alex still "be with us" at home.

The military lifestyle is not very easy for children in cases of work related travel and deployment.  As far as our twins go, we haven't even begun to feel the challenges of uprooting them from school for a PCS (permanent change of station - a military move to a new location) because they are still young. But with Jake, the last move took a few months of settling into the new school and therapy programs.  We felt a backslide in his developmental progress due to this major change.  We are enrolled in the EFMP (the Exceptional Family Member Program) which protects us from moving to a location that does not have adequate services for Jake's special needs.  We complete an exit interview prior to moving to a new location to make sure that all of the paperwork and services are in place.

In one of my previous posts, Pregoploymentcy  I discuss passive versus active support that I received during Alex's deployment, and how we need to collectively have more active type of support during deployments.  I was pregnant with our twins as well as learning of autism signs in Jake.  I was also teaching music at a local university during Alex's deployment in 2008 and coping with much of it on my own.  As I mentioned above, Jake couldn't tell me if he missed his dad.  I believe that we need to do what we can to actively support children as well, even though the one parent that's left behind at home does what he/she can to compensate for the other parent's absence.   We should not wait and hope that someone else will step up and do it instead of us, because we are busy with our own lives.  We have to take a personal approach to this and a personal responsibility, especially if we have already experienced the hardships of deployments ourselves.

When you come to know of a family that is enduring a deployment, 
think of that one little boy, for he will soon grow up.  Some day, he will possibly be 
some other little boy or girl's dad, 
watching out for families in our heartland, 
far away from home.

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  1. This is so familiar....Liam was also 2 when Dave was gone and was clueless about the whole thing....Ben was 6 months when he went to training, 7 months when he left, and 14 months when he came home. It wasn't until Ben was 3 that he would allow Dave to hold him.....he treated him like a stranger or non-family member for nearly 2 years after Dave got home.

  2. Thanks for sharing that Michelle - yes, deployments are tough on our little ones, not to mention on us as well ;) we all need to be supported during these times. Lily