“Kick the leaves, kick the leaves, kick the leaves!” I sing in a made-up cadence as I hold my 1-year-old’s hand and watch his chubby feet scatter the discarded, crunchy foliage around us. After two back-to-back snowstorms completely shuttered our small North Carolina town, it feels like we’ve finally come up for air. His cheeks and nose are starting to redden from the January air, but he’s so happy, we’re so happy, and I don’t want this to end. It feels like our silliness and joy might be enough to create a warm, protective shield around us, so I pull our hats down a bit lower, and keep going.
Still, we eventually surrender to Mother Nature (and the clock), and soon he’s buckled into the car blowing raspberries at his reflection. My phone rings, sending a loud, familiar jingle through the speakers of my SUV. The raspberries stop:
I look at the screen to see my husband’s photo smiling back at me and simultaneously feel a thrill of excitement that I am about to hear his voice and a rush of dread knowing what will happen when we hang up.
Ten minutes later, I use my best singsong voice to tell the boy in the backseat, “Say bye-bye to Daddy! We’ll talk to Daddy later!” hoping that if I can make this sound like an easy thing, the tears will stay away.
But they don’t. We end the call, and a beat later, a faint whimper soon turns into a full-scale wail. Fat tears begin to roll and he pleads for Daddy’s voice to come back. Technology might make it easier to say hello during deployments, but the goodbyes are still just as hard.
I park at the preschool, and it’s time to go in for big brother, so I open the back door and start unbuckling the car seat. The face that was so happy a few minutes ago in the leaves is now streaked with tears and drool and snot. For an instant it feels like I’ve been kicked in the chest, and my mind is far away in a future that holds all my fears: What will it be like if this sweet boy and his brother have to grow up without a father? How will I raise them into good, strong men all by myself?
Will it crush them? Will it crush me?
I know from experience that my mind could linger here indefinitely, but thankfully I’m about to enter a school filled with harried moms collecting their hyped-up preschoolers and the busyness of it all, the mindless small talk, pulls me back. For now.
Later that night, I’m settled over the stove stirring a pot of pasta sauce, a glass of red wine in one hand. The boys are running around the house like maniacs, probably about to break something (or someone), but I keep hearing the best giggles, the TV is actually off, and I haven’t heard any fighting in a full ten minutes, so I let it go. Like the wine, this euphoric chaos fills me up and I know, without a doubt, that this is everything I always wanted. This, right now, is the best day of my life.
I say a quick prayer of thanksgiving not just for the boys and their giggles, but also for the rare ability to see the perfection of it all in real time, instead of in hindsight or in daydreams.
I let the sauce simmer, so the boys can play a few minutes longer, and I pick up my phone to look something up on Facebook. On my way to finding the information I need, my eyes graze across a post from a military wife friend: “Looking into private insurance…has anyone found a policy that doesn’t have a war clause?”
My stomach hallows out. The noise in the background shifts from endearing to overwhelming. War. Insurance. We’ve been meaning to look into that, too. Did we wait too long?
My resume, with its college degree but a work history that’s spotty after years of moving and almost as long staying home to raise children, flashes in my mind. I don’t even know what kind of work I would look for if I had to. Could I support two children on an entry-level salary? If I became a single mom, should I move the boys closer to family, or stay put for stability? I don’t think I could afford the rent here alone. Where would we live?
Once again, the pressing needs of right now pull me away from the nebulous darkness of ‘what if.’ I stop seeking answers to impossible questions, as if doing so might make us immune to the worst-case scenario. I step away from the stove and scoop up my tired 4-year-old, crying from a bumped shin. I make some silly jokes, wipe away tears, and shoo everyone into the kitchen for a warm meal, the darkness (almost) forgotten.
This is the life of a military spouse. Some days, some phases, and some deployments are easier or harder than others, but we never quite escape the fact that we exist on a razor’s edge.
One moment I can float off into happy oblivion, the next I can tumble backward into a pit of worry and uncertainty that will swallow me whole if I let it. It takes practice and patience to stay right in the middle, and every news headline, every article, and every tweet threatens to throw me off balance.
Yet somehow this feeling that tragedy could easily come knocking at my door makes every moment lived with that door closed more intense, more precious. I imagine it’s a feeling similar to that of a tightrope walker—in the moments when I realize this dangerous path I’ve chosen could lead either to ultimate happiness or to extreme peril, all my senses are heightened. Every muscle in my body is focused on the present, on trying to stay balanced and protected, and on remembering how magical it feels to be right here, right now.
I often imagine that I’m living my life with a woman standing over my shoulder who’s me in 20 years. I don’t know what she’s been through—what heartbreak, or survival, or relief—but I feel her soft presence telling me not to take even one second for granted, because any second, it could all change forever.
Kristin Bradley is often surprised she’s been an Army wife for more than 11 years now, though not surprised she loves her high school sweetheart more than ever.
She currently lives in North Carolina where her two wild little boys keep her busy during the day and too much coffee, a curious amount of laundry, and a good book typically keep her busy into the night. You can follow her on Instagram @leighbradley.