I have stared at this blank page for a solid thirteen minutes. Not because there are no words, but because there are almost too many words. Over the clicking of my keys I can hear the news humming in the background, " Bombing kills thirteen in Kabul." I physically feel ill as my mind traces back to all the memories of Zac's deployments to Afghanistan. I really didn't see it ending this way. Am I naive? This oddly feels so personal. I can't help but say to myself...What the hell is wrong with the world?
Several weeks ago, Zac mentioned that his former translator, Nassir, was still trying to get out of Afghanistan. This honestly surprised me as I knew this had been Nassir's desire for years, and that Zac had written countless letters to help him acquire a visa to America. Days after our conversation, another surprise, my inbox floods with questions, "Is that Zac was on ABC News?" The real answer was met with another question: why would Zac be on ABC News? It felt very Lifetime Movie for a moment, where the woman is married to the serial killer and has no idea. Fact is, I had to email Zac at work and ask him if he knew that Nassir had done a story, and that his own car salesman smile was plastered all over it. His response, "Oh yeah, I thought I told you." This is classic Zac, and will continue to be a theme in our journey.
I knew that things were growing increasingly bad for Zac's translators, and I knew that it weighed on him, but we had both assumed they would be given priority to get out of the country that was so dangerous for the people who had aided us. Zac and I had numerous conversations about the state of Afghanistan, and Zac had always remained adamant that the Taliban would eventually overtake it, be it publicly, or privately. That was not a shock. What he nor I would have ever guessed, is just how quickly that would happen, and how the fall would put into motion a series of events that would change the war in all our minds.
After the first news story gained traction, Zac and I were very hopeful that leaders had taken notice of the atmosphere in Afghanistan and things would start taking shape for an organized evacuation. Zac's continued friendships with three of his translators meant that in the evenings I could hear him keeping tabs on their movement and current location. As more news came, the atmosphere of our own house began to slowly change. Time together was time spent on our phones checking in with those Zac served with, or those that could possibly help. It felt like mission control in our living room. Here is where I'll be brutally honest, because I think a vast majority of American's believe military homes must be really different. Fun fact: they aren't. When Zac gets home, off comes his "Marine Hat" and he is just as silly and persnickety as the Zac I met in college. Even my own cousin once admitted, "When you said Zac is a Marine, I expected him to be a total asshole. Then I met him, and he's so kind and normal." I laughed for a solid few minutes because I had never even imagined what others thought about US from the outside. We are almost exactly who we were in our college town, we just traded our beer pong skills for parenting prowess and our shot glasses of cheap liquor for bigger glasses of much more acceptably priced alcohol. When I see Zac in his work element, dressed in boots and camis, he is a far cry from the guy that just wants to sip coffee and talk about woodworking in his oversized, brown, Pottery Barn robe. It's like I have two husbands at times. To be fair, it wasn't until the takeover of Afghanistan that I truly appreciated just how masterfully he separated work life from home life. Because this was the first time, in fourteen years... he couldn't make it look effortless.
Like a steady drip from the ceiling, as bad news came in, Zac would drop off at night, sending emails and making calls. Little drop, by little drop, I'd find he spent more time outside working on mindless tasks than inside with us. It was like I looked down, and my feet where soaking in a healthy sized puddle, but I wasn't yet worried. It was just a puddle, right? Sometimes, Zac just needs his space. After the kids were in bed, we would watch the news together and as I would ask for updates, I could see my questions pinged him, and he'd tense and say things like, "I finally got a live person on the phone today, so I'm hopeful" or "They have all gone into hiding but planes are still getting out. I'm just trying to find people there I can talk to..." Every day, for weeks, a steady drip of both information and frustration came seeping through. He grew more quiet, and I grew more resentful for his lack of communication. In the meantime, you know, life was still moving along and the kids had reached the end of summer and the start of school. We had planned to take them to meet their teachers together, which never happens because Zac is always so busy. I was overly elated for the kid's teachers to meet both myself, and Zac, at the same time because so often I worry they think my husband is a figment of my over-active imagination. After a full day of being "on" at the kid's school, something in us broke. I can't remember what the catalyst for the argument was, Lord knows, we probably still will not agree on who started it, but suddenly, like an avalanche, the roof burst wide open and we were both frantically paddling in the stress and emotions of what had been underlying. We had a major flood on our hands, and I thought it was him, and he thought it was me, but nobody thought about grabbing a life vest or paddle. We rode in awkward silence all the way home. Our kids quietly bobbing in the back thinking, "Mom and dad have officially lost it."
Here is where I am going to be so honest that it is going to make me look like an ass. For the past few weeks I had been angry that he had pulled away, and not been present while I had the kids home, and I struggled to juggle work calls and dinners and the running of our house. I was mad that he could escape to the garden while I sat with eyes watering from chopping onions, my ears ringing from virtual work meetings and my head pounding from attempting to not turn my kids into electronic-device-zombies. All while the world was on fire. My selfish, self-centered-suburbia-bubble was so thick I wasn't concerned about patching the leak, but more focused on internally complaining as I mopped up the watery mess. I had been so irritated by the symptoms, but not ready to deal with the problem. Moreover, my problems seemed much bigger, and therefore, more important. Not for a moment, had I thought about what it was like to be in his shoes. As we pulled into our driveway, I felt the sting of my faults and thought to myself..."Wow Baileigh, you are such a failure as his partner."
As we sat outside trying to mend things after the argument, and salvage what was left of a day with our kids, I finally saw the great battle inside my husband. He said, and I will never forget, "When I was deployed there, my mission was to help them, protect them. Now I am being asked to help get them out and all I can do is sit here and make phone calls to an answer machine, or send emails to some automatic response line. It's beyond frustrating... And then I'm just suppose to go in my house with my wife and kids and pretend like everything is normal? How can I do that when I know, I know, they may not make it out to safety. I never thought we would be in this position. I cannot do my job, do what I promised them we would do..."
Boom. There it was.
There it all was... the guilt, the hopelessness, the frustration, the insurmountable weight of being willing but unable to help in a desperate situation. There was a gapping hole in our ceiling. I had never drawn together all of the parallels of what was happening, and how Zac and I had such separate perspectives on that time in our lives when he was in Afghanistan and I was home raising two kids. You see, I so often get frustrated that Zac doesn't share with me. It's an ever present obstacle in our relationship, but not until this fight did I realize:
This is how he protects me.
For the first time, I felt I completely understood something about Zac as a Marine that I had always relegated as his greatest shortcoming. His silence. There are things he has seen, I will never see, and things he has witnessed, that I will never know about, and it is not from a lack of desire to share, but a greater desire to protect his family. All that he has compartmentalized: for me, for the kids, for the stability of our home has been a part of his sacrifice, and what has kept our roof from caving in every time he packs his bags and deploys. Most embarrassingly, it took the collapse of a country to make me see it. I had to take a moment and mourn all the ways I had overlooked this incredible act of love.
If you are what the kids call, "Woke", so was I.
Days later we received good news that one of the three translators had gotten on a flight. The next day, Nassir sent pictures of his family awaiting transport with the help of unlikely support. Finally, we got word from "Mike" that after waiting in waist deep waters he and his pregnant wife and child had made it on a plane headed for Australia. I cried from the relief, and then I wept at the thought of all those still desperate to get out. Then, out of the blue, I received a text from a fellow military spouse with the words, "3 Marines injured, they bombed the airport" Of course, now we all know, that was just the beginning. And by day's end, thirteen service members had paid the ultimate sacrifice. That entire day, I feel like I walked around in a fog. My thoughts pinging between those families waiting to receive word if it was their own brother, sister, husband, wife, son or daughter that would not be coming home as they had dreamed, and my own personal memories of how the war had effected me. Sitting alone on my living room floor, my mind effortlessly traveled back to those days when Zac had been on deployment in Afghanistan. To the time when I was working in the battalion office and a distraught wife came and parked her and her newborn outside our doors to find out who had been killed in latest attacks in Helmand Province. I had hugged her, gotten her a snack, and told her it would all be okay. It wasn't. I had no idea that waiting for her at home was an officer and priest to tell her her husband was in deed critically injured. I thought about when I had traveled to visit Zac's parents, and received word that during a convoy our boys had been ambushed, and the commander himself had been medovaced out due to shrapnel in his face and arms. All I could do at that time was sit and wait for a phone call... while the world acted like it was just another day. I began to feel my stomach churn, and my feet tingle from the cold floor. I snapped back, and as I watched the images of the airport bombings on the tv, I felt so distant in the safety of my living room, and yet, so emotionally tied to the situation. Why? How is this the final chapter? Yes, thirteen had died todat, but I couldn't help but think about how many parents, spouses, and children were staring at the same images that would undoubtedly reopen wounds that had never healed. This was big. Bigger than big. I let the flood of emotions overtake me. Like that scene in Titanic, when the weight of the waters begin to shatter the glass in the grand staircase, and the flood rushes in to sweep away all that was so important just a moment ago... it doesn't feel that important anymore. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is underwater, and hurting. I laid down with my face pressed against the floor and I cried.
So where do we go from here? Hell...I'm surely not any sort of expert. I wont be able to wrap this one up in a way that makes us all feel better, because you cant wrap a bow around pain and suffering and call it good. We are about to unpack YEARS of stuff. But I will take a jab at what will be my own personal first steps... I am going to focus on empathy.
Listen, empathy is really hard when you think about it, because in our heads, we are the center of the universe. Everything is happening to us. Am I right? How often are my prayers for myself or my kids before I begin to recite the laundry list of people I know need prayer far more than me. Real empathy is not easy, because it requires such a deeply unselfish thought process. I'm being very buck-naked-honest, it took a world event to make me see the cracks in Zac's armor and say to myself, Baileigh, where was your empathy? What is happening in the world is not simple, there is no clear enemy, and it's all built on layers of pain and loss from the present AND the past. This is the reality:
Families are having a homecoming today, with a flag covered casket... that is hard.
Some people are sitting in a hotel wondering how they are going to start over and never see their home again...that is hard.
Other people are still in hiding, wondering how they are going to live like this, or for how long can they live like this...that is hard.
Some are trying to rationalize their time spent in Afghanistan and what it all meant...that is hard.
And don't forget, some of the people that love them, are wondering how to reach them...that is hard.
Everyone is dealing with their own brand of hard, and we would be smart to take a breath and think about how we plan to navigate it. Hear my words... Start small, and internally. Work on your empathy and awareness of others. It does not mean to say, "I understand" when you don't, it means you have taken a moment to imagine yourself in their place and to register the differences. From that place, you ask, "how can I help you?" It may mean for a time it's just prayer, but really do that. Write their name down, share their name with others, check in on them and say, "I'm still praying for you." It may mean you give of your time or money. Do that. Do that with a grateful heart because how blessed are we to be a blessing to others? In the midst of all of it, DON'T miss what I missed. Don't overlook those that you share four walls with. While you are out there trying to make a difference, putting on the feelings of others, seeing through the eyes of others, and attempting to understand their walk, don't forget, to do that in your own home. Practice it SO much in your own home, that you become a professional in the time it takes you to work your way to the outside world. Now, after everything that has transpired, I try to imagine the load Zac carries. I think about what my kids must feel to witness the world's events, and what they must think to know their dad is very much a part of the story. I am so thankful that I have the eyes to see it now. It has better prepared me to walk it out with others.
Yes, this is all big, and sad, and overwhelming, BUT it is not over. It is not yet over. Take a breath, feel the flood, find your empathy and then start to be a part of the solution.
Love, hugs, tears and more hugs from London,
PS. Zac gave full approval of this post.
PSS. If you would like to donate to the Afghan Interpreters here is a link below: