Single Dad Soliloquy

Just yesterday, it seems, I was in the middle of an 18-month deployment. And my life back home, and my family, went through drastic changes during that time. I felt that the pieces of everything I found familiar were being shattered apart like a busy marketplace during a suicide bombing or a thousand sparrows lifting off from a single tree.

These days my life is mostly defined by the fact that I am a single parent. After all, transitioning from a married man with two kids, to an active duty Army officer in Iraq, to suddenly fulfilling the roles of Dad, caretaker, cleaner, chef, protector, chauffeur, good guy, bad guy, breadwinner, tooth fairy, Santa Claus, birthday planner, shopper, medic, and mentor, does require a bit of an adjustment to the way I approach the days, my awareness of time passing, and to the overall pursuit of happiness and meaning.

All of the things I dreamed about in Iraq I have since experienced time and time again. I have sat beside a mountain stream, fishing, contemplating my place in the world like a character from one of Hemingway’s short stories. I have been reunited with family and friends, and spent countless hours with my kids. I’ve gone to restaurants, movies, and parks with them. I have had conversations with them and laughed out loud one million times.

So now I’ve swapped the cot for the couch, the M-16 for the microwave. I’ve changed from a company commander to a member of working class America. Bullets and beans, sand and carpet, HUMMV and S.U.V., day and night, marriage and divorce, helplessness and hopefulness, tears and laughter, thousands of miles of distance and now a hug from my kids each day – such are the glorious juxtapositions of the life I’m living.

And yet I think about Iraq often, mostly about those still fighting. I empathize.  I really can’t say how it’s all going to end, but I want it to, somehow.

I was gone for 520 days of a 544 day deployment. And I spent 11 and a half months landlocked on that base in the Sunni Triangle, leaving the wire only when I was called upon for combat missions or emergency leave. People often ask me about my experiences there, and I enjoy talking about it. I still use my digital photos from Iraq as a desktop background or screensaver sometimes, to remind me.

I live beside these Utah Mountains but sometimes send my thoughts back to the dark Atlantic, tracing my journey from the start. They travel below the surface of the water, looking imploringly up into the sky and stars. They leap out of the ocean and mingle with the dust in the air at Kuwait International Airport, dry and excited by the turbulence. They follow me into Iraq where I smoked a cigarette in the dark, praying alone before the attack helicopter flight that would finally land me in Ramadi. But then they race out ahead, arcing over the concertina wire and concrete barriers, over the homes of the Iraqis, and finally angling down into the base like a rocket’s projectile. But they won’t harm anyone. They’ll just slink and drift around the familiar base, a daydream waiting for me there, forever, like a loyal dog.

Here is the chapel. The chow hall. Charlie Med. My old room. The gym. The bunkers I crouched down in. The old BMW we confiscated and drove around base. The Internet café. The bridge of pallets across the vast muddy spaces. The room where I received a life transforming Red Cross message. The endless sandbags that created their own dirty geography. South Gate. Observation Post. The confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. The lonely palm trees praying for photosynthesis.

This concept we call time — this unstoppable momentum — has certainly begun to heal my invisible wounds since I’ve been home. The worst memories have gathered a light coat of dust. A mother lost during a deployment can now be watched on old home videos while the good kind of tears come, the kind that slow down on the crease of a smile.

I’ve witnessed the sun glinting off the windshield of my mechanically miraculous car as I drove through a canyon and found it just as fascinating and surreal as the play of wind on trees in summer, especially the sounds they make, and the way they look at dusk when light dies a beautiful symbolic death. I have become more grateful for my life than ever before.

A friend of mine has a tattoo on his back. It is a flaming yellow sun with the words “Time Heals Nothing” around it. He had it done months after a nasty divorce. He and I always disagreed about the word choice back then, but that was over ten years ago. I remember telling him that the word “nothing” should be replaced by “all.” And sitting here thinking about all that’s happened, I still feel the same way about his ink.

These deep etchings in the grain of my awareness, these phenomena of human interaction and growth and parenthood, quick cold breaths of remembrance, share the air with that distant desert now bleached with blood and baked by the convection oven star we call Sun. But I live in the present, not the past, and I can see my future reflected in the shine on the retinas of the two kids sitting in the backseat of my very existence and smiling with their eyes in the rear view mirror as I accelerate and merge across this big 16-lane interstate of a world. I turn on the blinker and smile back at them.


This essay originally ran on the New York Times blog Home Fires in 2007. After five years as a single parent, I married the most amazing woman in 2011 and now we are raising our three kids together.  What a mysterious and beautiful journey it has been and continues to be …