by Lisa Stice (poet, Marine spouse)
For a long time the normal of our household was that Daddy was gone a lot. Our daughter heard his voice in utero a total of three months (if you put all the scattered days together). Just two weeks after our daughter was born, Daddy left for a five-week out-of-state training. And that’s just how things were for the next six months. Daddy was gone a lot.
Whether it was a non-disclosed place just miles away from home or a training on the east coast, Daddy spent far more days and nights away than at home. Then, he deployed, which didn’t seem all that different than the previous six months. I filled all that training (nothing predictable and often short notice) and deployment time up with lots of outings for baby and, whenever possible, dog. I came up with an easy routine of moving baby and dog in and out of the car and became a pro at managing them both in public. I even dressed both baby and dog up in costumes and took them to a Halloween party at the pup’s training school. I bought year pass for the Zoo and Safari Park, and baby and I alternated between the two each week.
Our daughter’s first word was Mama. She added dog, more, bye-bye, but not Dada. I really wanted her to learn it before he came home. Say Dada, I’d say. Dog, she’d say. For some reason, it made me feel bad. I felt guilty that I was the only witness to rolling over, sitting up, first words, and that the most common first word for most babies hadn’t been said yet. Emotions are sometimes so illogical. And really, she probably did have her own name for Daddy, but just lacked the motor skills to say it: That-Guy-Who-Used-to-Occasionally-Eat-Dinner-and-Stay-Overnight-with-Us.
Even when Daddy came back from deployment, he still was The-Guy-Who-Visits-from-Time-to-Time. Trainings took him away often, and he moved out east more than a month before the rest of us. The good thing about this new station, though, is that the new normal became Daddy is usually home for dinner and to say good-night, and he gets to spend most weekends with us. Our daughter starts saying Dada, and things are in a new flow. This station has more predictable training, and we all like this new normal.
Really, though, the only true normal in the military is that everything changes. I was already used to my husband being home more when he hit me with the news that he’d be gone half the week every three weeks and it would be a late-nighter one night a week every week and he’d miss every third weekend, I didn’t take it very well. But then, we get used to that. Our daughter adjusted quickly and never asked, Where Daddy, on the nights he didn’t come home. I didn’t feel guilty anymore.
Now, our daughter is three. Those first years of Daddy spending so much time somewhere else are blurry fragments in her memory, and what’s fresh in her mind is a Daddy who had a three-month break from a training cycle and from his weekly class. For three months, he was home every weekend, ate every dinner with us, and even came home early enough in the evenings to play for an hour or two before dinner. He even got two weeks leave for a family trip to grandparents in Nevada and adventures in Alaska. To a three-year-old, the most recent three months is the perspective on which to base everything. Open my juice together she’d request and smile as we one parent held the container and the other turned the cap. Daddy read this story, and Mommy read this story, she’d say before bed.
So yesterday, when the new training cycle started, my daughter (and dog) expected Daddy to come home. Daddy at work? and I said, Yes, and he’ll be at work all night. And so it began. First came a song. Where my daddy be? That was the chorus, refrain and verses. A dance accompanied this song that went on for nearly a half hour, then started up again after a milk break. I want Daddy open juice and I want Daddy cut my food, she said at dinner. I kissed her good-night, and she ran her hand over her mouth and wiped her hand on her pajama. No, I want Daddy.
Why did I ever feel guilty that it took so long for her to say Dada? It’s going to be a rough few weeks until she adapts to this new normal.
Lisa Stice is the author of the poetry collection Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016).
Recently, her three poems “Zelda,” “Downpour,” and “Rare and Used” have appeared in Moledro Magazine. Shantih Journal also recently published her poems “Such Is the Art of Warfare,” “The Dog Dreams,” and “The Box Maze Swallows a Birthday.” In June, five of her poems appeared in Escapism.
Stice currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. You can find out more about her and her publications at lisastice.wordpress.com and facebook.com/LisaSticePoet.