I almost forgot to miss you today,
Amber Jensen writes in her memoir-in-progress, Breathing Through the Night (working title):
My stomach lifted up into my throat as I realized that Blake had become something far off. Something unpredictable. He had dissipated, slithered into the air in winding wafts of smoke. He had dissolved into memory and the dream of what a husband might be. In a month, he would begin his journey home from Iraq, but at that moment he was still drifting. I wanted to let go of the possibility of losing him, to start imagining what life would be like once he was home. But I couldn’t trust it.
Amber’s husband, Blake, served in the National Guard, deploying for a year to Iraq. She gave birth to their first child while Blake was in Kuwait: “So when I was traveling home from the hospital with our infant son,” she wrote me, “he was traveling into Iraq.”
Blake’s deployment was the first time, she said, that she “knew she needed” to write. She wrote her husband letters, as she describes below; she sent them in fat weekly packets to balance out the positive and negative, a brilliant move (tip of the hat from one mil spouse to another!) that kept any one packet of correspondence from falling too far into either category.
When Blake came home, Amber didn’t stop writing. She went on to receive her Master of Fine Arts, is an instructor at South Dakota State University, works with veterans’ writing programs, and is still writing–working on a memoir about her husband’s deployment and how their family has dealt with the aftermath. She shared a little of the memoir with me and I was struck by the beauty of her writing: it has a uniquely heartfelt quality, a cadence which is thoughtful even as the story pulls you along. Her insights are tough-but-tender, hard-earned. (I am still surprised how all this sneaks up on me, she writes.) Breathing Through the Night seems like the kind of memoir that will be good reading for anyone — and invaluable for military spouses or families who’ve dealt with deployment, redeployment, and finding a balance between military/civilian identities. I can’t wait to read the whole thing and to see it published someday.
I had the pleasure of asking Amber some questions about her writing; she answered them candidly and generously, and shared some photos of her lovely family, as well as a bit of her memoir, below. Thank you so much, Amber!
- Can you tell me a little bit about yourself – where you grew up, your path to becoming a writer and a military spouse, where you teach now?
Amber Jensen: My husband and I both grew up in Bryant, SD, and we now live just a few miles away, in De Smet, with our two children. I’ve always loved books, story-telling, and writing, so I suppose it’s fitting that we now live in Laura Ingalls Wilder territory =). The first time I felt like I had to write, though, was when Blake was deployed to Iraq with the SD Army National Guard. During his deployment, I strung together stories so that at the end of the week I could send one fat envelope. I always wanted those letters to sound conversational, to be able to imagine him laughing at something I said. And I would collect the stories, write the letters over days so that I could balance the sad moments with the funny ones. I think those letters were much more honest than our awkward, overseas phone calls. Ugh. Those could be painful! But when Blake got home, I found I still needed to write. There were these moments and conversations bouncing around in my head that I had to make sense of somehow, and writing was my way of doing that. Like watching him flip the switch from father back to soldier when his R&R was over, like hearing him tell what he called a “funny war story.” Things like that. I honestly think that my writing about these experiences has been crucial to our relationship, because writing has been my way of remembering what we’ve been through and reflecting on how much it continues to affect our family today.
- I know you’re writing a memoir that deals with your husband’s service and the effect it has had on your family. Can you tell me more about his deployment, the time that followed, and what this meant for your husband and your family?
Blake was deployed in 2005 with Charlie Battery, 147th Field Artillery Battalion out of Yankton, SD. We were recently married, expecting our first child, and they had a really rough deployment. Blake handled it all very well on the surface. We all did, because we had to, but also because we could see how fortunate we were. Blake made it home. So we were lucky. We were okay. But, my husband also came home with a back injury that caused severe chronic pain. That disability eventually led him to get out of the military, which was probably the first glimpse I had into how deep his identity as soldier really did run, when I saw how hard it was for him to make that choice to get out.
Since then, that identity has been further complicated by the frustrations that many veterans, unfortunately, are experiencing, watching much of their work in Iraq and Afghanistan unravel, some dealing with invisible, emotional effects of war, and some experiencing a lack of treatment or improper treatment in the VA medical system. We’ve gotten past much of that, gone outside the VA for treatment, and my husband is physically well. But I am still surprised how this all sneaks up on me. Blake was addicted to prescription pain killers during his treatment at the VA, and that doesn’t just go away. But there are more subtle ways it shows up, too. Sometimes it’s in Blake’s reactions to things, the way he can seem too blunt and almost heartless, like the time a student of mine had attempt suicide, and I was telling Blake about it, trying to process it, and he just said, “Yeah, kids are stupid. They do stupid things.” And I was just appalled. Until he started talking about his experiences with suicide in Iraq and how he just wished this kid who chose suicide would have reached out, said one word, so that someone would have helped him. There was a lot more to his reaction than I could read in his minimalistic, simple response. It might sound terrible, but it’s easy for me to forget, sometimes, that he’s had these experiences and that they still affect him emotionally and physically, maybe because it is so subtle most of the time.
And then there’s our children. I see them starting to ask questions, start to understand what it means that their dad was a soldier, that he is a veteran. Our son, especially, has a lot of his own story wrapped up in Blake’s military service. I want them to be able to make sense of the stories they hear, but also the things that we forget to talk about, and again, I think my writing is and will be an important part of this.
- When did you know that you wanted to write about your husband’s service (and the aftermath)? What have been some of the main challenges you’ve faced in writing your memoir, and how have you dealt with them?
As I mentioned, I guess I knew early on that I wanted to write about the experience. But I don’t think I knew why. Maybe that’s one of the biggest struggles I’ve faced: believing that my story mattered. When I was working on my MFA, I had the honor of being in Dinty Moore’s writing workshop in Edinburgh, Scottland, and when I introduced myself and my work, I said I was writing a memoir about my experiences as a “military wife.” I actually put air quotes around the term. And Dinty called me out on that. It was embarrassing, but he was absolutely right, because I did it out of insecurity—about my story, not my writing—because I wasn’t sure that my story mattered. I think I felt like I had been a terrible military wife. I didn’t understand the acronyms, barely knew Blake’s rank, and since Blake was in the National Guard, we really weren’t part of a military community. I still have only met a handful of the people he served with or their families.
So, maybe I was writing because I felt disconnected, in a way, felt like I was missing something. And in all honestly, I think I was. I hadn’t yet come to understand how deeply the military experience was embedded in my husband’s identity or how much it had affected me or would continue to affect our family. But writing has helped me to understand all that on a deeper level and to understand that National Guard soldiers might not identify themselves primarily as soldiers, because the military is only a small portion of their daily lives. National Guard spouses, like me, may have little to no contact with other military families, support networks, etc., so we might not define ourselves as military spouses, either. But deployment changes all of that. During deployment, we become soldiers and something-to-come-home-to. There are no questions during deployment, but then there is another extreme shift when those soldiers come home, when they eventually leave the military, etc. Writing has helped me discover and reflect on the complexity of those identities, so that’s been much of the challenge and the reward.
4. You lead a veterans’ writing workshop and are an instructor with Military Experience and the Arts. Can you tell me a little bit more about these programs?
South Dakota State University holds an annual literary conference, which in 2013 centered on the theme of war, literature, and healing. It was an amazing conference, and meeting people like Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Ron Capps, and Randy Brown expanded my understanding of how I could reach out with my writing. The conversations at that conference led to our Veteran’s Writing Workshop on campus, and it has been so great to have the support of our Veteran’s Resource Office on campus, the English Department, and our South Dakota Humanities Council. There really are many people and organizations willing to reach out to our military personnel and their families. I came across a call for workshops for the Military Experience and the Arts symposium while I was in the planning stages for our campus workshop, and I knew right away I had to attend. I wanted to see how others were supporting veterans and what other mediums veterans were embracing to work through their experiences.
The symposium just took place last month, and it was wonderful. I led two workshops about writing the homefront, but there were dance workshops, paper-making workshops, flute-making workshops, as well as painting and many other art mediums. Again, it is inspiring and reassuring to see how many people and organizations want to reach out to the military community and to see veterans expressing their experience in so many ways. A big thank you goes out to Jason Poudrier, Travis L. Martin, and David P. Ervine for all their hard work and for creating an amazing event and keeping it affordable and accessible to those who benefit most from it. I will definitely return for MEA3 if I have the chance.
I’d like to thank Amber for sharing this excerpt from her memoir, Breathing Through the Night.
As I curled into the third seat of my mom’s suburban, leather stuck to my skin, still rosy from a day in the sun, still damp with sunscreen and sweat. We’d spent our day posing for pictures with Santa, the seven dwarfs, and other characters at Storybook Land; we rode a magic carousel, walked through the enchanted forest and down the yellow brick road; and now my son, George, and his cousins had wilted into sleep in their car seats. My mom and sister chatted in the front seat. I slouched in the back, breathing slowly, nearing sleep. Until I thought of Blake. And it wasn’t a gentle, pleasant memory that coaxed a smile from me, but a sudden remembering that jolted me awake: it was the first time I had thought of him that day.
The sun was already dipping below the horizon of green, un-harvested corn fields before I finally thought about my husband, about how long it had been since I talked to him, about how long it might be before he’d be home from Iraq. I sank lower in the seat, closed my eyes again, and tried to find him, tried to transplant myself to another place where I could feel his presence. I imagined the dusty haze that lifted from the upholstery of his dad’s truck and found myself thirsty for the penetrating smell of smoke. I tried to drink it in, curling my fingers near my lips, imagining the smoldering taste of Blake’s skin, yellowed with the heat of cigarettes. I closed my eyes to inhale the smell of his uniform after a weekend of smoke breaks at drill, but my lungs filled with the disappointing chill of air-conditioning. I wanted to be somewhere with him—in the dugout after a baseball game, holding an Old Mil Light and huddling against him for warmth. I tried to summon him, but I couldn’t.
And so I found my niece’s travel desk, unrolled white paper from the pink plastic scroll, and began to write a letter I would never send. After a year’s worth of words chosen carefully to convey how much I missed him, how much I hated living without him, how much better life would be when he returned, I bounced over the broken pavement of highway 25 and wrote:
Dear Blake, I almost forgot to miss you today.
My stomach lifted up into my throat as I realized that Blake had become something far off. Something unpredictable. He had dissipated, slithered into the air in winding wafts of smoke. He had dissolved into memory and the dream of what a husband might be. In a month, he would begin his journey home from Iraq, but at that moment he was still drifting. I wanted to let go of the possibility of losing him, to start imagining what life would be like once he was home. But I couldn’t trust it. Another soldier from his unit—Greg Wagner—had died. So even though the end of Blake’s deployment was near, I knew he wasn’t any safer. His life was not like mine. I spent weekdays at my sister’s house, coloring with my niece, watching George and his cousin Tyson crawl and roll over the floor. On Sundays, I took George to Jensen family dinners and Bryant Bucs baseball games. At night, I pushed George’s stroller over the crumbling pavement of Bryant’s streets, lulling him to sleep. My life was predictable. Easy. Blake’s wasn’t.