Today I’ve been married for sixteen years. Here’s the card my husband greeted me with this morning. Isn’t it cute? He’s pretty funny, that one.
I’ve been thinking about writing a short memoir-y piece about these sixteen years. You might not guess, but most of them I’ve been what’s called a “military wife.” And I had a fiction writing instructor tell me I should write about it—that this was “my material.”
Is he right? Is this my material?
I didn’t intend to marry into that kind of life. In the 1980s, long before we met, my husband was signing on to protect democracy, and I was writing term papers slamming American policy in Latin America. It was my job (at twenty) to prove how bad our government was, how war-mongering, how imperialistically arrogant. I’d grown up in that kind of family, you see, the daughter of left-leaning teachers and do-gooders.
My husband’s story was different. The first thing I learned about him—way after college was over—was that he shared my love of literature. After that, I noticed he was cute, and had really nice legs. Soon after that I learned that his father had been a prisoner of war for six years in Vietnam. I was intrigued. In that sort of icky way that makes you want to look at pictures of a natural disaster. I think it was the fiction writer, the historian, in me. If nothing else, his life was different than mine, and I always loved a challenge.
He was different, and it wasn’t just his history. On our second or maybe third date he told me more of his story. His mother had had affairs when his father was in prison—with very high-ranking government men who made decisions that affected his father. When his father came home, broken, his mother divorced him. My husband had seen his father taken away from home in a straitjacket. And other things a young boy shouldn’t see.
He’d been six years old when his father’s airplane was shot down. He was twelve when his father returned. The youngest of three children, he was the only boy, and expected to be the “man” of the family at age six. When the father came home, his children barely recognized the changed, frightening person he’d become.
Many years later, shortly before I met him, my husband’s mother died of brain cancer. Long divorced from my father-in-law, she never remarried. She loved the arts, fine food, nice hotels, liberal politics. I feel an affinity to her even though I never met her. I think, uncomfortably, that we are also similar in temperament. I think my husband married his mother.
But this was all to come. When he told me about her death, over pizza one night, he said, “I’d wake up sometimes at night and my pillow would be damp. I told myself that was probably normal. Probably part of loss.” I sat rooted on the vinyl seat wondering how he could so understood the human psyche when I’d spent enough to finance a small country on self-help books and therapy to learn what he’d just said. He was unlike anyone I’d ever met.
His military career nagged at me, but in those days, nearly thirty and biological clock ticking, I looked for what I wanted to see. I found the crucial things: deep integrity; values; kindness.
Being a pilot seemed, at least, adventurous. He’d traveled the corners of the world (and he had the t-shirts to prove it). It mattered that he wasn’t the kind of pilot who bombs or shoots, but rather carried cargo—humanitarian as well as military.
I constructed an imaginary limbo-wire under which I slid him because he was this kind of military guy, and not that kind of military guy. It was a very naive test to use, and I came to regret it. I had no idea what marriage to any service member would be like.
Still, much later, after years of tears and anguish over issues of war and peace, and living rather miserably on an Air Force base, and having a baby there, and after two years’ separation for a war—after all that, I came to believe that if my country has to have an armed force, I would like people like my husband to run it.
If I’d known then what we were going to go through in sixteen years, I might well have faltered. But I’m sincerely glad I didn’t. If I wanted adventure, I got it. If I wanted to grow and mature, I got that opportunity too. Did I say I wanted a challenge? I got it. And I got love. We suffered a lot. But I think, maybe, that’s what love requires.