The first goodbye was powerful. I remember some of it with painful detail while other parts are a blur.
I remember how the three older boys (“Older” being 6,5, and 3 years old) did not understand the gravity of it, or that this goodbye, with daddy preparing to deploy to Iraq, was different than all the other times he was gone for weeks or months, for deployment at Ground Zero or training anywhere else. They gave him a hug and a kiss and went back to playing Spongebob on TV so I could have a few minutes with Lou.
Jeremy was still very little. He was just a year and ½ old and he was happy in my arms, so I carried him with me as I walked Lou out to the car.
Together, we walked to our big tree in the front yard. I struggled to keep the nausea under control even as I felt my heart slamming against my chest. My palms were sweaty and my eyes burned as if I was cutting a dozen onions at once.
I balanced Jeremy on my hip to free up a hand, so I could help Lou tie a yellow ribbon around the tree. If Lou was struggling anywhere near as much as I was, he was hiding it well. I did my best to be strong for him as he gave Jeremy and I a hug and a quick kiss, told us he loved us, and walked confidently to the minivan.
Once he was safely down the street I let myself go, squeezing my son close to me as the tears raged in a silent storm down my cheeks.
Then the sound of an engine roaring up our quiet street caught my attention. I could hear loose gravel pinging off the tires and see the dust rising up around a vehicle it took a moment for me to recognize.
It was Lou.
Engine still running, driver’s door left open, Lou leapt out of the van and ran across our yard, pulling Jeremy and I into a hug I will never forget.
Now both of our tears poured down both of our faces, splashing Jeremy in their travels.
“I don’t know how I’m going to leave you guys,” Lou said, sounding as if the wind had been knocked out of him and the weight of the world was crushing his chest.
“I don’t want you to go, either,” I confessed, both relieved to be able to admit that and regretful that I’d caved.
He stayed for just a minute or two, and I sensed he was a little disappointed in himself for what he thought was not being strong.
I told him we’d be fine, and I would talk to him every day he was able to call or video chat. One more round of I love you’s, one more hug, and he was gone.
This time the van did not return.
The second goodbye was almost harder for me than the first.
Lou had received permission to come home from Fort Drum for one night on Mothers Day weekend. He spent one more night in our house and we had one more night as a family. I woke up on Mothers Day to find the kids up, fed, and playing. The kitchen was clean, diaper bags packed for a day at Lou’s parents’ house, and Lou pretended to be upset that I’d caught him wrapping up a case of my favorite wine for my gift.
He would be deploying in a couple weeks so this would really be the last time he’d be home. Remembering how painful the first goodbye was, and not wanting to go through that again, or for his family to have to see it, when the time came for him to leave I asked him to give me the chance to say goodbye privately.
I couldn’t bear watching him hug the boys goodbye again so instead, he walked me out to the van, gave me a hug and a kiss, and let me drive away before he made the round of goodbyes to our boys and his family.
I drove to the park we went to the night we met, climbed up on the monkey bars we’d sat on, and cried for about 20 minutes.
Then I got my shit together, went back to his house, scooped up the boys and drove home with as little conversation as possible.
I never wanted to have to say goodbye to him again. I was relieved that part was over and turned my thoughts to welcoming him home in 6 months.
But then he called me just before Memorial Day weekend.
“I want to see you one more time before I go,” he said.
Technically he was supposed to sleep in his assigned quarters. But he didn’t really care about that detail at the moment. If I drove up to Fort Drum, he said, we could have one more night together in a hotel on base. He could show me the favorite restaurant he ate at, and it would be fun.
I was pissed and excited at the same time. How many times, I wondered, was I going to have to say goodbye to this man, and go through that pain, and put myself back together?
“Please,” he said. He knew it was hard for me but he promised it would be worth it.
So that Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I drove one hour to my in-laws to drop the boys off, and then 5 hours up to Fort Drum, just shy of the Canadien border.
I remember the theme from “Magnum PI” bursting from my phone when Lou called me, telling me to hurry up and get my ass up there. I remember laughing and telling him “I’m coming!” before I hung upon him. Windows open, sun shining, my heart was light.
Just under 24 hours later I was reversing that trip. Windows closed, heart breaking, feeling as if a piece of me had been ripped away as I drove away from him one last time. My time there had been romantic, and sweet, and beautiful, but the goodbye had not. He was in a hurry to get back inside, knowing he’d take some heat for being gone. Plus, he had to go to the bathroom. Ha. Seriously. He was like… I can’t stay out here with you (in front of his building). We’re not supposed to show any PDAs and besides – I have to $h*t so bad.
Sigh. So the last time he kissed me- for real – was through the driver’s side window of our minivan. A little peck, and he spun around and bolted inside as I drove away playing the mixed CD he’d burned for me, sobbing my guts out while laughing at the absurdity of that stupid last kiss.
We’d just have to make up for that when he got home, I told myself.
He deployed the next day, Memorial Day 2005.
Three goodbyes, all powerful and painful in their own ways, but none of which prepared me for the final goodbye.
My husband Lou Allen was killed just 10 days after I left him at Fort Drum. We buried him a week later.
The “How and Why” part of his death were national news and written about in depth in my book, Front Toward Enemy.
As I sit here, 15 years later, looking back on myself saying those goodbyes and still not knowing what we were all about to endure, I am amazed I made it. I am thankful that my kids- now men- have forgiven me my mistakes and that they are now well into their own adventurous paths.
I hate that they have little or no memories of their dad.
I love that we all have the love of a man who is braver with his heart than he probably ever imagined he would be; It is not easy knowing you are sharing the heart of the woman you love. It takes trust, and confidence, and grace, and in our case, a wicked sense of humor to respect and even embrace that, and I’m grateful to whatever angels led him to me.
I’m in awe of the friends and family who have stood by me, and of the extraordinary people who have come into my life to push me into my potential.
I am in love with my life again. All of it. The messy parts, too, because those are where I learn so much about myself and the people around me.
This Memorial Day is a messy one for our country.
I’m not sure how people will honor it or how they will spend it. While I never necessarily had the strength to attend formal ceremonies or family barbeques or be in a crowd for which the true significance of the day never took hold, I hate that these events will not happen at all. Just because I can’t bring myself to attend does not mean I want to see anyone else denied the opportunity to do so.
So whatever you do this weekend, and on Memorial Day itself, I hope it still brings some comfort or joy to your hearts. For our veterans mourning the loss of those they loved and served with, know that you honor them by living each moment to the fullest, and making their sacrifice matter.
To the families like mine, for whom every day is truly Memorial Day, may you know your loss is not forgotten. And to the brave souls who accept the love of someone, for whom every day is Memorial Day, know that we love you deeper, and purer, and with the knowledge that there is a price that will be paid – so we intend to make sure you will not regret that price when it comes due.