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As I write this, I am in the backseat of our minivan on the way home from our family’s 4th of July Summer vacation. For now, everyone is behaving. My heart is full, but I am unsure quite where to begin. Every patriotic holiday evokes emotion for us, but Independence Day is the happiest. It is the celebration of America, the country we love. For us, it’s also a celebration of family.
Patriotism for us comes easily in some ways. Hard in others. If we didn’t love America, my husband surely would not have given ten years of his life serving in the Armed Forces of the United States.
On Friday, I saw a man wearing a shirt that said, “If you love your freedom, thank a veteran.”
It sounds so trite. We all know it, yet unless you live it, you don’t really know.
Two days ago, my husband ran into a civilian DOD employee on the beach. The man was wearing a bright red Army MWR t-shirt; my husband, a white tshirt with the Wounded Warrior Project logo on the back. I overheard him say, “The last three years have almost been harder than the time I was in. I’ve had to learn what I can handle and what I can’t.”
It’s true. It’s not just the ten years given. It’s the three we have spent trying to regain what was lost and make sense of what is left. Mainly, this has manifested itself in mental health challenges for our entire family and tension in our relationships.
Last year, we also went to the beach for the 4th of July. You wouldn’t know it if you just looked at our photos, but it was quite a hellish week for all of us. Our special needs son had multiple meltdowns; Russ was angry, sunburnt, and lashed out at everyone; we all fought the entire week. I just wanted it to be over. It was one of the worst weeks of our lives.
On the way home from that trip, I made a note on my phone of all of the things we had done wrong, and all of the things that we could do for future beach trips to make them a success. That, really, is another post entirely which I am considering writing out.
This year’s vacation was the complete opposite. Ezra had no meltdowns. Russ didn’t get sunburnt, nor did he have angry outbursts. There was tension here and there, but all was recovered from quickly.
This was a vacation of hope and healing – where I could see, perhaps for the first time, that all of the hard work we have put into keeping our family afloat is finally paying off. All of the counseling and psychiatry appointments, all of the therapy visits, all of the hours spent on the phone scheduling appointments, all of the medication trials – it’s all making a difference.
When Russ left his baby boy behind for a year in Afghanistan, he had no idea how deeply it would affect their relationship. He had no idea the grief and disassociation it would cause him. He didn’t know that when he returned, he would spend three years trying, trying, and then trying even harder to reconnect with a child who has intense struggles of his own. All he knew is that he loved him.
Ezra, 2011 – photo credit Natalia Bishop, Chocolate Box Photography
He is an amazing father. What he lacks in “doing the right thing the right way” as a father he makes up for in intense affection for his son. Which, admittedly, is sometimes part of the problem. Sometimes all of that pain and disconnect comes out in him trying too hard to make things extra wonderful. Often, the expectation of what he wants the relationship to look like just adds pressure to an already volatile situation. He doesn’t know how to “just be” with Ezra. But the leaps and bounds he has made are astonishing.
Last year, Russ would scoop him up to take him out into the waves. He would protest and scream and wriggle. Russ would react in frustration. It would escalate until they could only give up and go their separate ways, both hurt and angry.
This year, Ezra was a little water baby who loved being in Daddy’s arms. They “woo-hooed” over the waves, dove under them, took water in the face, and got knocked around time after time. No protests, no screaming, no wriggling away, no frustration. All I could do is just watch in amazement.
Then there is Little Brother, whose affinity for Daddy is a healing balm in its own right. When Daddy walks by, he reaches out his tiny hands to grab onto him. When he’s being held by Daddy, he pushes everyone else’s hands away. Daddy is his favorite and Daddy must be the one to hold him.
This is what made our vacation so special: seeing my husband being such an amazing father to both of his boys, and having them both respond with joy and love back to him. We have worked so hard to get to this place.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from an FTD representative that said this:
The sacrifices made by those of the United States Armed Forces go far beyond the lines of combat; and whether you’re a service member yourself, or have a loved one that has served or is currently serving, you know this all too well.
I work with FTD, a proud partner of the USO. I’m reaching out today in advance of July 4th to say Thank You for all that you and your loved ones have sacrificed and endured. As a token of our appreciation we would like to send you a bouquet of your choice from our USO Collection…
While we’re not looking to sponsor any branded content, it is our hope that this bouquet will inspire you to share a heartfelt post on your blog for your readers about what America means to you.
I selected a box of chocolate covered strawberries from the FTD USO collection, as those are a favorite for both Russ and I. They were so courteous to work with and delivered the generous gift to where we were staying while on vacation.
I asked Russ while we were driving down, “What does America mean to you?”
He thought about it for a while, and then said this:
“It’s just this.”
He gestured to my hand that was nestled in his. “Just getting to be together as a family. We’ve missed so many holidays and so much time together. But now we don’t have to anymore. We can just be us.”
That’s it, really.
I so appreciated what FTD and the USO did for our family. One, because they did so desiring nothing in return. But more, because they remembered that we served.
The strawberries were delectable; but really, they were just a cherry (or em, strawberry) on top of what was a phenomenal week of both nothing special but everything amazing.
We swam. We splashed. We cuddled. We fed seagulls. We watched fireworks on the beach. We saw Finding Dory together.
We were family. We were in love. We were healing. We were happy.
We just were.
That’s why we love America.
Because, to us, America means family.