My adopted soldier “K” got home from Afghanistan and one week later he, his wife and 1-year-old son were on their way to visit me in NYC. It would be their first time in the Big Apple. Before they arrived, I seriously considered learning to cook. My food strategy up to that point had always been: date men who can cook. But then I remembered that pretty much every restaurant delivers so, I was saved.
As we planned the trip, both their friends and mine had concerns. My favorite was a half-kidding query from his wife’s Mom:
WIFE’S MOM: You’re visiting this lady in New York City? A stranger? Are you sure that’s safe? What if she murders you in your sleep and steals my grandchild?
WIFE: Mom, Gina asked me how much baby-proofing I want. She got outlet covers and wants to know about furniture bumpers. I think we’re okay.
FYI, her Mom and I are friends now.
Before K came home, I had no idea that troops had to “transition” back from deployment. I thought, you get off the plane….hugs, tears, hurray and we’re good. Nope. There are a whole lot of things they need to get used to again. From simple things like color to feeling at ease in crowds. They’ve just spent a long time in a heightened state of alert where crowds often mean danger. When K’s wife mentioned this, I was a little worried. I have over 8 million neighbors.
So going to the Statue of Liberty (long crowded lines) was scrapped in favor of a harbor cruise around Liberty Island. We’d skip Times Square. Dinners with my friends would be small groups. And we’d take a break from the city and spend 2 days in a suburb near the beach. I also enlisted many wonderful friends to help me carry out this plan. Some of them were the same people who had helped me with postcards and packages.
Meeting K & family at the airport
This part is hard to describe. I was “with” them during one of the most difficult times of their lives, yet we were strangers. I had worried for both of them. I had cried when he lost friends and prayed for the families. After all that, we were about to say “hello.”
I saw a family approach and my first thought was shock. K had lost 50 pounds during his deployment (hiking in the mountains in 120 degree heat with 100 pounds of gear will do that to you.) But the baby and wife looked just like their pictures so…it had to be them.
I felt like crying but I felt shy too. After some polite hugs we headed back to my place. We went up to the roof of my apartment building, had a few beers and snacks and started to relax. After dinner, we stayed up till 1:00 a.m. talking.
We did site-seeing and had great meals with awesome people. I can’t thank my friends enough for creating such a warm welcome. There were a lot of terrific moments but I’ll share three of my favorites:
1. My friend AB and his lovely wife Sarah hosted a b-b-que for them (among many other kind things they did.) K was playing “monkey in the middle” with some of the kids. This stood out to me because the previous week was Kyle’s 1st birthday. K had spent most of it in the house alone. He wasn’t ready yet to be around so many people. Yet here he was, relaxed and engaged with the group. He was just another Dad in the backyard having fun, but I felt it was a big step in his real journey home.
2. The nightly late-night talks. Besides sharing family stories, I got the details, good and bad, on different events when he was deployed. And I learned things like the toy I sent him once was technically a weapon. In my defense, “wrist rocket sling shot” sounded to me like something Opie Taylor would play with in Mayberry. At some point, we talked about 9/11. I told him about my day here and he told me that was the day he decided to join the Army.
3. USS Intrepid Museum. The random event that put me on this path occurred on this ship. So from being inspired to taking action to being there with them…I felt like I had come full circle. That I had truly honored the service of the WWII Vet that put this all in motion.
At the end of this amazing visit, I said good-bye to his wife with a big hug and a promise to visit them so they could “repay the kindness.” Then she started to strap baby Kyle into the car seat. K and I stood there a moment in silence. Then I said simply, “welcome home.” K replied warmly, “thank you for everything you have done for me and my family.” He gave me a big hug and when I looked in his eyes I understood that all the silly letters and crazy projects truly meant a great deal to him. And I realized in that moment that my family had just grown by three people.
Yes I have visited them. And last week I found out he will be deploying again. We’re hoping to get together before he leaves.
© Gina left the mall, 2013