“When I married my husband I knew I was vowing to love him; be that near or far, together or alone, such is the nature of a marriage in the military. The sacrifices that come with living a life made up of numerous separations is all worth the time we have together. A few years later, the vows we had made to each other now included our children. We were stationed where my husband would not have to deploy, and the luxury of being together was on our side.
As a photographer, I spend my time capturing memories for others. I know how an image can seem to stop time. And with every separation of my children from their father, I use photographs to document their lives. Showing him their small triumphs of everyday life and of growing up.
Although he may not always physically be there for birthdays and holidays, I make a point to include him in our celebrations. For Father’s Day I made a video interview with our daughter Izzy about him, asking her questions like why she loved him and her favorite things to do with him. It was honestly a tear jerker watching it back. That night, she started asking the questions about grief.
I had thought this goodbye would be an easier one for Isabel since she would understand more having been through a deployment before, but I was wrong. Her heart still hurt and she would ask, ‘Why did he have to leave?’ Never could I have prepared myself for explaining to her it is okay to be sad, it is okay to cry and to be mad. It is okay to feel what you are feeling. And it is okay that your heart hurts. She cried that night and I held her close until she fell asleep.
With the Fourth of July fast approaching I decided to take some pictures of the kids and their daddy doll. When I told Isabel she was so excited. I wanted these pictures to be fun and happy, showing my husband how much we loved and missed him.
In the same ways I prepared for deployment, I planned this shoot in my head. I picked this beautiful location thinking about the final outcome. She chose this blue dress she saw on a client’s daughter the previous day. Two sizes too big, she thought her daddy would love it. We curled her hair and put some sparkle makeup on her eyes. We started with the 3 of us; I was running back and forth to my camera because my remote decided not to work. Both kids thought it was hilarious.
I took my camera and turned to Izzy not expecting these raw, real emotions to come through. As soon as I started taking her picture, she broke down. Clutching her daddy doll to her chest she said, ‘I really miss my daddy. My heart just hurts mommy.’ I got a lump in my throat and my eyes started to water; our hearts hurt together.
The beauty and heartache of helping your child through deployment is that their emotions overtake them in the moment. As grownups we can push it to the side until we are alone with that slice of pie and a bottle of wine. But for my Izzy, in this moment, it was the hardest – despite her being her most prepared, all dressed up and hugging her favorite comfort object. This was the raw emotion of deployments that the innocence of our children shows us.
You see, when we first got married we were the lucky ones who didn’t have to deal with deployments. He worked nights and went on a few training exercises but that was the extent of us being apart. We decided it was time to have our daughter because he was home, and he was able to be there for all the milestones.
Isabel got to grow into her own with her dad by her side. She became his shadow. Anything he did she did too, anywhere he went she would follow. They were best friends. She is the epitome of a daddy’s girl. He gives her the world and is wrapped around her little finger. We were mid PSC when we had our son and their bond only grew stronger. While I was busy with our newest addition, she and her daddy were inseparable.
Then came our time to move to a new duty station. We were leaving behind this life of togetherness to one we knew deployments were inevitable. We had seven months to settle in before our first goodbye. Isabel’s world was turned upside down when she realized her dad was leaving.
Although he was gone, a friend helped Isabel keep him with her always with a daddy doll. She took this pint-sized version of him everywhere, bedtime included. It was a piece of him she could keep with her always. This doll became her comfort through the coming deployments. She still missed him immensely and would tell me how her ‘heart hurt’ and that she wished he didn’t have to leave. It was heartbreaking. She and I were one in the same when it came to missing him.
No matter how busy I tried to keep her, all she wanted to do was cuddle her daddy doll. As comforting as it might have been, this plush version of him couldn’t read her a bedtime story or sing the wrong words to her favorite songs like her dad could. Instead of drifting off to sleep in her dad’s arms, she and I held on to one another and cried ourselves to sleep more times than I’d like to admit.
Six months of ‘heart hurt’ later, the tides of homecoming had finally arrived. Isabel would tell everyone, whether they asked or not, about how she was getting her daddy back. She made sure to include that she was going to wear her Princess Belle dress so he would recognize her.
To her, he was her prince, and on that day she traded her daddy doll for the real thing. Holding a sign that proclaimed, ‘I’m here for my Beast’ she was swooped into his outstretched arms and he was home again. All the moments of hardship that had come and gone in the months of his absence were dashed away with the look of joy on Isabel’s face.
Back were the cuddles and games, their dynamic duo was back in action. It was almost like he had never left at all. But he had, and he would again.
Five months after they were reunited, the second goodbye came. It fell during a time I needed to get home to help my mom recover from surgery. With the return of separation came the return of daddy doll. Although we were surrounded by family, and she called her dad every day, taking her daddy doll along made her feel secure.
We came back shortly before my husband was to leave again. When it came time for his last day, he got one last bedtime, said his goodbyes and when we woke up, he was gone.
I honestly don’t know what deployments would be without her daddy doll. My husband might be thousands of miles away, but we carry his love with us always. The path in life the military has chosen for my family, for my children, might come at a cost; but nothing can change the foundation of love we have to stand on.
So now, I will continue to document our lives throughout the rest of this deployment. I will continue to comfort my kids as they ask about their dad for the hundredth time in the last hour. Together we will continue to wait, to trade our last goodbye for out next welcome home daddy.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Samantha Lynn of Samantha Byrd Photography in Kaneohe, Hawaii. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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