Sunday, September 30, 2007

“Oh, It Hurts Me So To Watch My Baby Grow Up In Pictures”

Our youngest is one and a half. She’s an adorable baby, just like our other three children were. My wife sent me a picture recently of her all curled up and sleeping in a cardboard box she had been playing in. It reminded me of the few short days I spent with my family before the tearful goodbye at the airport. My wife and my oldest daughter had only sobbed one other time like that. It was the second time my angel-wife and innocent kids had to drop me off at the airport and send me off to the Middle East.

Anyway, since the Army Reserves was kind enough to give me two full weeks from the time they notified me that I was going to Iraq to the report date, I cherished every minute I could with my wife and children. At one point, after coddling my baby girl, I told my wife, “Of course I’ll miss you and each of the kids tremendously, but it’s like torture being away from my baby girl. I’ll be away from her at the greatest time. I can’t communicate well with our three-year-old son on the phone, and I can’t even speak with her at all.” And, then I added, “Can you put her in a box and ship her to me?”

A friend of mine from church back home, Trent, did one of the most charitable things ever. He gave me an ipod to take with me to Iraq—a really nice one. When I gratefully thanked him, he said something to the effect of, “well, consider it my small sacrifice for what all you soldiers are doing for us back here at home.” That ipod’s been a life saver, a real morale booster.

Since I’m not much of a computer-literate kind of guy, Trent and Doug loaded it full of songs and movies for me. Trent put my small music collection on it and added some of his personal collection.

I mostly listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and classical music. Since that musical selection isn’t too good for working out with in the dustiest, dirtiest, most incredible free-weight gym I’ve ever seen in the world!—and it’s right here in al Anbar, I might add—I put the mega-gigabyte ipod on song ‘shuffle’ during the limited times I get to pump iron.

So there I was listening to a wide selection and variety of musical genres, pumping 7, 8, 9 grueling repetitions on the inclined bench-press. I might admit here that since it’s an Average Joe’s gym, without frills, bells, whistles, or any working treadmills (blame that on the two-inches of Iraqi dust), or anyone to impress, I was ‘going light’ on the weights.

Okay, okay, here’s a bit of a history (and maybe an excuse or two). When I was younger, I used to work at a gym and help people with their personal fitness plans. I’ve been in good shape all my life. But I honestly can’t keep up with my very fit and buff younger brothers anymore. They’ve called me ‘old man’ and have referred to me as their dad; like that obscure camera lady at the photo studio did a few Christmases ago. The bad thing is my brothers were ribbing me for dressing like an old guy just hours before we went to get our group picture. Gosh, I’m not that old. But then again…

I bought a trampoline for the kids two days before I left to come here. After literally five bounces and a weak attempt at a unique trick I used to do well, I think I tore a back muscle and pulled a rib out of place. Seriously. Along with all this too-much, too-heavy body armor, which totally aggravates my back, I think I’m coming to the realization that I’m getting more refined and mature on the inside, but more less like I used to be on the outside. I quickly learned I’m a has-been and a used-to-be on the trampoline. My mind thought I could, but my body said it had other plans.

Oh, my aching back!

So there I was, pumping iron. I felt a bit decrepit, but tried to maintain a macho image in front of the few youthful, sinewy Marines. I had to fake it. I hoped, perhaps haplessly, on the fact that since all the weights were marked in kilograms, they probably would think that I was lifting more than I really was. It may have been pointless, though. Old ladies in swim class carry heavier weights than that. So, I did the next best thing any skilled military tactician would do. I used the corners of the door walls to my advantage and hid from their view. I think I fooled them.

Macho me huffing and puffing in a good way right after finishing a set (hidden, mind you), strutting about and sticking out my chest, when all of a sudden, a song I’d never heard before begun playing in the tiny headsets in my ears.

I had to look down to read who was playing. It was the country band Alabama. The song was ‘In Pictures.’

Here are the words:

I've got her photograph on a stand by my bed;
Two on the mantle and thousands in my head.
I can't believe how fast she's growing;
It ain't supposed to be like this.

Every time I look at her I see how much I've missed.

I missed her first steps, her first words;
And ‘I love you Daddy’ is something I seldom heard.
Oh it hurts me so to watch my girl grow up in pictures.

I send the money down, do my best to do my part;
But it can't compare to what I pay with my heart.
There's still one unanswered question
that weighs heavy on my mind:

Will she ever understand the reasons why?

I missed her first steps, her first words;
And ‘I love you Daddy’ is something I seldom heard.
Oh it hurts me so to watch my girl grow up in pictures.

It takes all I have to keep the tears inside.
What I wouldn't give if I could turn back time.

I missed her first steps, her first words;
And ‘I love you Daddy’ is something I seldom heard.
Oh it hurts me so to watch my baby grow up in pictures.

Several thoughts ran through my mind as I listened to the song over and over and over again. For one thing, I think the song was written about a dad estranged from his girl because of divorce. It sounds like he even mentions ‘child support.’ I thought it was interesting, then, that there would be so many parallels to my situation.

I’m a million miles away; half way across the earth. I’m not here by choice, per se. I’m here because I’m an American-loving solider who initially enlisted in the military nearly 12 years ago (as one of the older guys in boot camp, I might add). I joined after the first Gulf War, and way before 9/11 or this war. I’m here in Iraq because back then I took an oath to preserve the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic; and to follow my Commander and Chief. I’m devoted to that oath because I love America, and I love the Constitution and all it stands for.

Well, that aside, as I worked out in this rickety, dilapidated so-called gym, in the middle of a war zone, I thought the song was all about divorce and the pain of separation. Growing up for many years in a single-parent home, I have some insight on the pains associated with not having a dad around. Little boys long for a dad to play catch with and go fishing with. I did. Thankfully, my wonderful uncles and good church leaders stepped in and became surrogates at times when I needed positive role models and friendship most.

My biggest fears with this deployment is that my sons and my daughters—we have two of each—won’t understand. I’m not here because I can’t get along with my wife. I’m not here because we’re ‘separated’ or getting a divorce. I’m not sending money back home because I’m obligated by a court decision to do so. I’m not abandoning my children. I know how that feels and I don’t want to have my kids think that’s the way it is.

Cole told my wife last week, “I want dad come our house.” Again, tonight he told her, “I want him here.” I want to be there little buddy.

I wasn’t gone too long in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom when my wife anxiously told me about several words my daughter could say. On the phone she repeated what my wife would say, ‘Daddy,’ and ‘love you.’ Those tender words melted my heart. She couldn’t speak when I left. Now she knows two dozen words. She’s growing up so fast.

Back in the gym I heard the words:

I missed her first steps, her first words;
And ‘I love you Daddy’ is something I seldom heard.
Oh it hurts me so to watch my girl grow up in pictures.

It takes all I have to keep the tears inside.

I felt myself staring to get emotional, so I cut my work-out short and made a mad dash for the door instead of possibly crying in a tough guy’s gym in front of battle-hardened Marines. I got more exercise during the brisk walk to the exit than I did during the whole time in the gym, so the quick escape was good for something at least.

I hadn’t listened to that song since.

When my wife and I were Instant Messaging (IM) today, I plugged in my new recent purchase: a webcam. The image was grainy. It made me look really bald. I’m receding a little, but this was ridiculous. (Is that considered denial?)

Then it happened. The IM transcript read like this:

My Incredible Wife: Josslyn just saw you and smiled. (I smiled and blew a kiss into the camera.)

My Incredible Wife: She got all excited and said, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.

That made my day.

After exchanging many more smiles and blowing more air kisses, I quickly told my wife about the song ‘In Pictures.’ I grabbed my ipod and listened to the song several more times today.

I’m not ashamed. I’m a middle-aged man, and I cry. Why do I cry? Because I’m the luckiest husband and the most fortunate dad in the world.

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