When my son Sam turned five, I needed a birthday party idea that fit with Sam’s high-energy, wacky personality, but I also needed something cheap that we could do at home.
Most of all, I needed something with enough bang to overcome the day’s biggest handicap: his dad’s absence. My husband Ross is a US Navy fighter pilot, and when his squadron announced the dates for its next month-long training detachment, our hearts sank because we both realized he would miss the birthday that Sam had been fantasizing about ever since the day he’d turned four.
All right, I thought, Plan B. I know how to do this.
An oil rigger’s daughter, I’m no stranger to the idea of a career that requires regular extended absences far from home.
Holidays and birthdays in my family were movable pieces on a calendar that tilted based on my dad’s schedule. I remember the illicit glee of the early Christmas, the muted triumph of a do-over birthday, and the rebel thrill of the year we almost shrugged off Thanksgiving entirely. The families I saw that were most like mine schedule-wise were the divorced ones, and that hurt in its own way because while my parents were still married, I knew all too well what it was like to grow up missing one, wishing we could all be together more when I knew we couldn’t.
Two celebrations, then. The first was a family trip to the beach to fly kites. Sam and his little brother both love the water, but when I tried to explain the celebration part, Sam’s eyes welled up and he said, “This is a fake birthday because Dad won’t be at my real one.” The next day they watched Ross pack and helped lug his duffel bag out to the pick-up—a ritual I actively avoid, pretending it’s father/sons time but really because it hurts in both present tense and memory—and then we all waved goodbye for the month.
The next two weeks were hard with lots of the small, household emergencies that always seem to wait to occur until Ross is gone. I sent out an email among the families we knew on base inviting them over for a small, low-key celebration—cupcakes, the usual neighborhood pack antics, no presents, please—but as the day got closer Sam kept asking what we were going to do. The day before the party, I sent out a hasty update: “Shaving Cream Battle. Come prepared to get messy.”
We started with 24 bottles of shaving cream, 12 toddlers, and six moms, many of them also solo parenting for varying stretches. Three hours later, half the neighborhood was frosted, and four kids were sidelined—one with a head bonk from sliding on the driveway and three more conscientiously objecting to the mess. Everyone’s teeth were stained blue from the Transformers cupcake icing and I caught a few wide-eyed looks from the moms I wasn’t sure how to interpret as I ran around dispensing towels. There was shaving cream in the toolbox, in the dog kennel, all over the street, and in elaborate designs about three feet up the street light pole.
As the drenched, half-naked partygoers retreated, I was upset that I’d so badly underestimated the potential for injuries and the extent of the mess, and composing an apology email in my head when one little boy, running over to hand me his towel said breathlessly, “This was the best day EVER!”
Inside, my fresh-smelling blue-toothed boy sighed, “That was awesome,” then added, “I wish Dad could have seen it.” He seemed OK, but suddenly I was not. I was alone, tapped out, with a huge mess to clean up and two more weeks of solo time to go, and mostly, I missed my husband. I missed our family as a complete entity. I kissed Sam goodnight, typed and sent the apology email, and retired to the wrecked garage to let the tears come, and that’s when I saw it—the thing that’s different about the life I’ve chosen even when so much else is the same.
My friends Cat and Jen, fellow Navy wives who lived close by on base and whose kids were also at the party, were picking up cupcake wrappers, laughing, and hosing shaving cream off the driveway. Jen showed me some of the beautiful candid shots she took with her camera while the kids were in full battle, moments I’d missed entirely in my panic over towels and head injuries and the unfolding chaos.
My immediate family of four is not always together. Our holidays—to say nothing of our homes—are mobile and uncertain things.
But my larger, ever-changing military family is always there.
We hold each up other, we help with the messes, and we remind each to stop and capture the beautiful moments before they pass us by.
Rachel Starnes is the author of the newly released memoir The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible) on the realities of military family life and postpartum depression.
This story was published on July 22, 2016. It has been updated.