On December 9, 2017 my middle son left for the Navy boot camp. He was 21 years old. He had no military parents, brothers, or hugely patriotic upbringing. I don’t even like the president. But my son Gabriel had talked about enlisting, off and on, for years, and the Navy was the branch where he wanted to serve.
His initial interest was more from a place of “I need to get my shit together,” since he had been struggling with purpose and his future. He never loved school. Gabe found college to be too distracting, thus performing poorly. He’s a creative type: crazy-talented, hilarious and a bit “out of the box.” School, especially where we lived, just wasn’t a great fit. My husband had said all along that the military would be a great place for him to grow up, get disciplined and learn some great life skills.
Gabe’s road had been one of folly and many sleepless nights for his daddy and I. My eyes were often so swollen from crying I just knew cosmetic surgery would be the only option for them to ever look normal again. There were countless meetings with teachers, each year. I spent hours on my knees, my faith tested. I held hope held close to my bosom, like my favorite teddy bear. Frustration was frequent for my husband and I…and my son. He wanted things to be different; he wanted to excel, to fit in. He was, and is, loyal to a fault – sometimes too loyal, to the wrong things and wrong people. I so wanted him to put that effort in friends and activities that deserved his fervent loyalty.
I love Gabriel’s qualities. I always believed — hoped — that he would grow into them, appreciate them, learn to embrace them, for the greater good. And when he figured this out, he would soar, I knew.
When my son decided to join the Navy, my husband was ecstatic. I felt confused. I was relieved that he finally had a direction, but apprehensive about his life now being owned by the government. The decision was all his. He had come to the end of himself: he was sick and tired of being sick and tired. He wanted a way out of that pattern. A plan. He wanted structure – though he hated it, he knew he needed it and it had to come from the outside. I began to feel hopeful for his future. This Momma was tired and she needed Uncle Sam to assist in the refining of this young man. I had tried everything, as did my husband. As they say, you can lead a horse to water but… what a mixed bag.
Boot camp loomed in the near future. There was nothing to do but wait for him to leave…and the dread was too much. The anticipation and the wait occupied much of my mental space. Every day, the reality crept up on me like a stalking cat. He would miss Christmas with us – my favorite holiday. I go all out at Christmas time, yet this year there would be a hole: a place setting untouched, empty. There would be less volume, a bed unmade. Ornaments with his name would hang on the tree, a reminder of his absence. We’d go through our traditions with one less person to celebrate. My heart was breaking. And though it was breaking, I was so proud of his courage, his grit, his determination. I was so proud of his choice to break a cycle that would lead to nowhere good.
After he left, there was nothing but crickets for 8 weeks. There were only a few letters sharing the hardships of boot camp, the frigid weather of Chicago, the few on his team that were mouthy often and cost the group, points, physical challenges, and added work. The whole group had to pay for a few fuck-ups. I longed to hear his voice, to hug him.
I became very depressed. I had spent years, time and energy, investing into my role as Momma. And now I was a bit lost in how to manage all of the emotions, surging through me.
I thought I needed antidepressants. I am a coach, a strong, muscular woman who has be sober 27 years. I lost a son in 1994. I know grief and I have persevered through great trauma. I know how to do hard! But this? Man, I just couldn’t shake the pain. I thought I was broken.
After several weeks of wallowing in my misery, someone mentioned that there were FB support groups for this boot camp experience where I could talk with other mommas struggling with their child being in boot camp, for the first time. I found out that I was normal. My pain lessened and even turned to excitement knowing our wayward son would be graduating from boot camp, in his Navy Blues! What elation it would be to see him participating in the pomp and circumstance for something he completed, he exceled in, and he showed up for. He was going to become a better version of himself when he graduated.
Gabriel is now stationed on an aircraft carrier near Iran. I haven’t talked to him in weeks. I thought he was just taking the ship around the world. Now he’s in troubled water. It’s interesting. Now, I don’t stress over this. The many years leading up to this point have been way scarier than my son living on an aircraft carrier now. He has prepared for this. He is almost 40 lbs heavier than when he left because he trains everyday. He has been able to experience new cultures, new people, new ways of being. Now he is disciplined, he thinks about the big picture more often than not and how the choices he makes today, will serve him later, good or bad. This stills my Momma spirit and boosts my hope as I watch this all play out. He is becoming an adult, physically and emotionally. Eight years of steady prayer, with my momma group, is now coming to fruition. There is a village that surrounds me, and him, in prayer and in support.
I have grown to appreciate the military service even more than I did before. I always loved servicemen and women and made a point to thank them any time I saw one of them, in uniform, or found out they served. Now I have a son doing this exact thing.
The gift in watching my son, who was so lost, become the man I had hoped him to be is worth the unknown that military life brings, at least today.
My normal has just had to become new: a new normal. It’s a season. It won’t last. And then I will have another new normal. I have had to learn to address my way of thinking and my perspective, and adapt what I focus on. Yes, I grieved the shit out of his decision, and that is ok! I believe that has helped me adjust to where I am now. My faith is my foundation. I need it. I crave it. I can find peace in the unknown because of it.
But that hole? It’s still there… alongside the pride I feel when I schlep around in my Navy warm-up pants. I walk a little taller and hope that someone will ask me about my pants with the Navy logo. That way I can begin to share and beam with great joy about my son — the one that kept me up many nights, when I thought he was safe in my home, under my watch. Now my sleep is restful, though he is off on some unknown order. Uncle Sam is just putting on the finishing touches. My son is growing into a courageous man, an asset to society. One that has chosen to give his time and life, for his Momma and the many others we don’t know. I am forever grateful for his heart and his willingness to sacrifice his comfort, his time, his family, his dogs, his freedom and yes, his life. I love you son.