Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Running From Christmas

Sunset on Acorn Drive
Nick deployed just a few months after we married. Plenty of older Air Force wives gave me "advice" about THE FIRST DEPLOYMENT, most of it terrifying. Like, "Every deployment gets a little easier." (Big fat lie, in case you were interested). And "You get used to them, and then you start to look forward to them. It's like the break from each other that all civilian husbands and wives secretly want!" Um, no thanks, I actually like my husband.

For our first holiday season away from our family, the theme of "every one gets a little easier" has been repeated. And more of this: You're a military wife, so get over it. Look at how much you have; you shouldn't complain about missing your mom. Think of all the people who just lost someone to cancer, or who had a traumatic childhood. Be grateful that you were married for NINE YEARS before missing a Thanksgiving or Christmas Day with your parents, siblings, and in-laws. At least your husband isn't fighting in the Middle East; he's here with you and your beautiful, healthy children.

And that was just what I said to myself.

Making the crust for Nick's birthday pumpkin pie
The month of December, normally jam-packed with parties, concerts, caroling sessions, shopping, etc. was completely empty. Well, unless you count unpacking as a holiday activity. Every morning, my Facebook feed delivered shot after shot of ugly Christmas sweaters, sparkling cocktails, cherubic wise men and plenty of family portraits. They weren't all perfect -- the sheep ran amok, mascara was smudged, babies got colds and parties were missed -- but they were filled to the brim with togetherness and traditions.Two things I was sorely missing all 31 days of a very lonely December.

I knew in my gut that I was and am incredibly, ridiculously blessed, even though I'm thousands and thousands of miles away from nearly everything and everyone I hold dear. When the feelings of insane jealousy and intense longing threatened to overtake me, I counted my blessings per Bing's advice. As I wrote about the orphan crisis, I reminded myself that it could be so much worse.

And yet I still just hurt.

Nick writing Christmas cards to the neighbors
I devoured every Christmas card that came our way -- the gorgeous family photos, the familiar handwriting, the newsy annual Christmas letters -- and tried to take my friend Jennifer's words to heart.

"May your first Christmas in your new home be another great first in your 'England Season,'" she wrote. "Don't forget you are in good company -- Mary & Joseph were away from home the first Christmas."

The thought she put into her words touched me. And yet the emptiness in my chest lingered.

Nick made sure "AMERICAN GREETINGS" were the first words our British neighbors saw upon opening their cards.
Though my cousin Tannith and her husband Jon graciously invited us over for Christmas dinner, they live almost four hours away, and Nick's work schedule just wouldn't allow for that much driving in one day. So I desperately hoped and prayed for a local to take pity on us.

No such luck.

So we had a quiet (take that word with a hefty grain of salt) Christmas day totally to ourselves. I wrapped everything, cooked and baked everything, planned everything and tried to hold it all together for my kids' sake. I think I failed when I simultaneously wanted to Skype with my family and hide in my closet. Oh wait, I don't have one.

My awesome husband let me go on a morning run in between present-opening and dinner. I plodded along, trying to lose myself in thought. As I passed a woman out on a walk, she looked at me in total disbelief. "What are you doing?" she yelled at me. "It's CHRISTMAS!" Translation: no sane person runs on Christmas, weird foreigner.
I wanted to yell back, "I can't help it; Nike and I were born in the same town!" But I just smiled and kept running. While thinking, "If these people don't get that running is a treat and not a chore, we're never going to understand each other."

Making toffee crisps with Chef Jude
I was just beginning to feel in control of my emotions again (thank you, God-given endorphins) when I passed by a house with a car full of arriving passengers, arms laden with presents. A grandma flung open a window, shouting, "Happy Christmas! Look at you! How you've grown!" while the grandpa ran out the front door, grabbing every grandchild in sight and covering them in kisses.

I kept running.

I came to another house -- same scene. Families arriving for Christmas dinner, happy screams, small children running around, a blazing Christmas tree in the front window.

I kept running. And ran by yet another family reunion in another yard!

My throat closed up, I could barely breathe, and I suddenly I felt exactly like Kevin in Home Alone when he sadly looks at a perfect family Christmas from the street, totally and completely alone.

Birthday kisses for Daddy! Don't mind the pants gap.
Nick's birthday was more of the same. He worked, I baked him a pie, we sang and ate and opened presents alone.

I vented to one of my best friends over Skype. "Just think of all the wonderful places you'll go!" I said in a sing-song voice. "Just think of all the wonderful people you'll meet! They think our life in the military is like a government-funded Dr. Seuss book!" Kori laughed as I dumped all my feelings in a pile at her virtual feet.

The great thing about feelings, however, is that they never last. Even as I cried out in prayer for a normal, happy holiday, I knew in my heart that I wouldn't always feel so depressed.

Fast forward to New Year's Eve, for which, of course, we still had no plans as of lunchtime. Thankfully, a local pastor and his wife invited us over for an international bonanza. The kids in tow, we joined a group of diverse people from England, Ireland, Canada, Cameroon, Nigeria, Romania, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Brazil. We were the only Americans.

And a grand time was had by all. I met a Canadian who won me over with a casual compliment to my Ducks shirt. "Man, Mariota sure has had a tough November, eh?" My head snapped back with the mention of my football team's quarterback from half a world away. Oh, how I liked this stranger already.

His fellow Canucks dove into my peanut butter chocolate cookie bars, not knowing who had brought them. "Um," one said, "Dude, this tastes like home." Another chimed in, "I was just going to say that!" And my heart smiled.

We popped open "Awkward Family Photos," one of my and Nick's favorite board games. Old scoring sheets fell out, and my breath caught for just a moment. Scribbles from our friends in Salem filled the pages, and the DVD player in my head instantly flashed through Sunriver nights so full of laughter that we fell off our chairs.

I took a deep breath, filed away -- not erased -- the Salem echo and mentally pressed "record."

It's time for some new feelings, some new experiences and some new memories.