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In July 2009, my wife, Denice, found out that she was being called up from the U.S. Navy Reserve to active duty. She had joined the Reserve in 2002 as a nurse. She wanted to set an example for our three kids that they could tackle any challenge. She would leave for Afghanistan in less than a month and be gone through May. That meant she would miss their whole school year.
It was a lot to take on—even if I was Super Dad.
When she left, I was thrust into the role of both mom and dad. I was no stranger to kid duties—making dinner, shuttling them to sports practice and music lessons—so I thought I would be able to manage everything with ease. Turns out, I underestimated things. It was a lot to take on—even if I was Super Dad.
But what I struggled with most was witnessing how much our kids missed their mom. We all knew she was doing incredible work, and we were so proud of how brave she was to serve. But my son was only nine at the time and wished his mom would come home every night. Later, I learned that he leaned on his sisters a lot. Talking to them helped him cope.
And they helped me too. My older daughter was away at school, but my younger daughter was there for me at every turn. She pitched in with the home renovations we were doing, cooked dinner, and helped her brother with his schoolwork. Her self-motivation meant that she continued to succeed in school, even with these new responsibilities. She was my rock throughout that entire year.
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We decided it might help to include her in our festivities, even if she couldn’t be there physically.
When the holidays came around, we all missed Denice even more. As a family, we talked about ways to feel close to her. We decided it might help to include her in our festivities, even if she couldn’t be there physically. So I asked my kids to open their presents one at a time, and I filmed them. Then I sent the videos to my wife. We also gave ourselves permission to let go of traditions that just didn’t feel the same without her. For example, on New Year’s Eve, we do a puzzle to help keep us awake until midnight. My wife started the tradition—she loves puzzles. That year, without her at home, it didn’t feel right to carry on with this ritual. So none of us stayed up until midnight.
When I look back on that year, it seemed much longer than it actually was. What ultimately got me through Denice’s deployment and the holiday season we spent without her wasn’t just the support I got from the places I most expected it, like my big extended family and the people I work with. I got the greatest help from an unexpected source—my amazing children.
Image credit: Amanda Eatwell
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