Our First Date
“He bought me shoes. Kiddingly, but it was a good start. He paid for lunch at a place called ‘Islands’ and then we went to the mall. We made out in an arcade, like teenagers who didn’t have a care in the world, and then he took me into a cute boutique… and that’s when he bought me the shoes. I declined, of course, but he insisted. They were black satin-finished heels with a ruffle on the outside of the foot. They were rounded at the toe, and they only had one size left—my size. As I slid my foot into them, they fit perfectly. I remember thinking at that moment, ‘I feel like Cinderella, and I think I’ve met my prince.’
We stopped for ice cream after and then he dropped me off. That was our first in-person date. Unconventional, to say the least, and unconventional in many ways it has remained. I met my husband in California in the early 2000s at a mutual friend’s house. I had just taken the biggest chance of my life. A single mom in her 20s, who only had $1000 in her savings account, I moved across the country from my small hometown in Connecticut to the bright sun and dancing palm trees of California after vacationing there to visit friends the year before.
I had cried on the plane on the way home and promised myself that in a year’s time, I would be far away from the suffocating town I called home, and breathing new life into myself and my daughter in California. A year later, almost to the day, we were on a plane to begin again. I had secured a job, as fate would have it, with a new startup company in San Diego, as an underwriter. You may be wondering how that happened since it was before Zoom, FaceTime, or any of the other social video software we have today. Like I said, though fate.
When I applied for the position, the owners were impressed with my resume and initial phone interview enough to offer me an in-person interview in New York City, where they happened to be traveling for business. CT to NYC is a quick train ride and a few walking blocks. I took my mom with me and remember her waiting outside of the multiple-story building, wishing me the best. I was beyond excited about this new opportunity and was offered the job on the spot. The job offer solidified my move to CA, and a few short months later, my daughter and I sold, packed, and purchased a new start.
My Intro To Military Life
After my husband and I initially met, we spoke for months by email only before we actually had our ‘first date,’ because he had to go, and as I would learn quickly, he was gone a lot. This ‘introduction,’ as I like to refer to it, into military life was a three-month sea period. The only way we could correspond was by tapping our fingers on a keyboard to ask all the questions people do when they are interested in each other, hitting send, then waiting a ridiculous amount of time for a response. Then, doing it all over again, a lot.
Internet back then was spotty at best on his ship, and he sometimes had to wait days before it was working again. We were way ahead of today’s ‘virtual dating’ in many ways. Although we didn’t look at it that way, or as the way of the future, that’s exactly what it was. When he finally returned, our first date felt more like a reunion with someone I had known much longer than someone I had newly met. Hundreds, if not thousands of email exchanges in those three months let me know how he thought and how he felt, but on that first date, it was finally time to see how he was.
So, how was he? He was charming yet quiet, and affectionate but slightly militant. He was definitely generous and attentive, and I could tell he loved his career. I remember sitting at a Dave & Buster’s one day after work for happy hour, and him telling me his career goals. He was a second class then. He was hoping to make first class soon and said he dreamed of being a Chief Petty Officer. The way his face lit up when he talked about being a ‘Chief,’ I can still see it. I listened but knew nothing… nothing at all about the military, his branch, the Navy, ranks, classifications, or acronyms.
Both of my grandfathers served, that was my extent of knowledge. I never heard any war stories or trials and tribulations from my grandmothers. My parents were both born way after their fathers were discharged from service. Even though I had no idea what I was getting into, I wanted to. I wanted to be there when he made Chief one day and watch his face light up the same way it did when he talked about it. I was sold. Meeting someone whose work ethic matched mine at that time in my life was like hitting the jackpot, and everything else was a bonus. Even though we were opposite in many ways, and still are, we made a match. Like peanut butter and jelly, we just go together.
An Unconventional Wedding
He will still say it was love at first sight. He was the one who said, ‘I love you’ first. He was never hesitant to put it all out there, even when I was. We didn’t have a traditional engagement. He definitely asked me to marry him several times though. I was waiting for him to drop to one knee, but instead, it happened on a mountain in California sitting in the car. He is not at all traditional like me, but love will make you do crazy things, and military love makes you do them fast. In time, we moved in together, and before our things were unpacked, he received orders to Virginia. Not only did he receive orders across the country, but he would also be deploying for 9 months shortly after he arrived there.
Remember I said fast? My mind was spinning. I had just started a new life in California! What did this mean for us? He was pretty settled about it. He had already been on multiple deployments overseas before we met, and this was nothing short of easy for him. He was also not a parent yet, so the needs of someone else were not something he ever had to consider before either. I didn’t know what to do, but I did what any 20-something-year-old would do when it comes to love—I closed my eyes and jumped. We got married by a Justice of the Peace in a quick courthouse wedding in June of 2007. I remember wearing a white sundress to mark the occasion.
There were so many other couples too, waiting for their turn to say ‘I do’ in the lobby with us. Most of them military also, confirmed by the grooms in uniform. I thought, ‘This just must be how it’s done.’ A room of at least 50 couples, half in white and the other half in uniform, waiting to tie the knot just to turn around and say goodbye to each other. My daughter was our only witness, and we flew to Vegas the following weekend for our ‘honeymoon.’ We vowed to have the big, traditional wedding when he returned, and a real honeymoon, too. Neither has happened because this life has yet to let it.
A month or so later, he flew to Virginia, and I wrapped up things in California. I decided to move back home to CT while he was deployed, and we agreed we would look for a home in VA when he returned. I was lucky enough to get rehired by my previous employer. My daughter re-enrolled in her previous school. Life looked much of the same as it had before we had met, but much of it was still different. I was married now, and I knew ‘home’ was a temporary stay. I mailed him packages and he sent me flowers. We emailed love notes and made plans for the future. We were excited to grow our family as soon as possible. I could not wait for him to return! It was a long 9 months, but I had my village, my family, and my friends. Being with your village helps immensely, as I would realize even more in the future when I was the entire village.
After that first deployment together as man and wife, a lot of things changed quickly. I got pregnant with our first child immediately, before we even had a chance to secure a home in VA. Don’t blink now because the next decade goes fast. We were ecstatic to learn we were pregnant! We found out the sex as soon as we could—a girl we would name Gianna. I had complications during the pregnancy, and as we would find out in my third trimester, Gianna had a very rare genetic condition called Edwards Syndrome. The doctors told us she would likely not survive the pregnancy, and if she did, she would have no quality of life. This part is an entire story itself, but it made for a rocky first year full of challenges.
Me still in CT, him in VA. Doctors and geneticists forcing decisions. Me pregnant and living with family, while he was living on a ship. Him flying in whenever he could for the many, many, many doctors’ appointments and ultimately the birth of our daughter. It was immensely difficult. Gianna was born in January of 2009 and did things her way. She survived birth but needed some NICU help. I remember the moment I knew what type of dad he was going to be when he would wake up every morning and bring his bible into the NICU to read to her.
This strong, straight-faced, militant man who would melt when they let him hold her skin to skin and cry when he had to leave her. She absolutely stole his heart, and I was happy to let her. Gianna lived for five beautiful months, and we are beyond blessed to have had her this long. We have pictures and memories that were made, and she remains alive in spirit, in our home. In those five short months, however, things were pretty intense and chaotic, even as life was falling into place. We finally moved into our home in Virginia and began making our long-awaited life together, but grief is not always immediate, and it is also not kind.
Moving to a new state was a fun adventure for the first month or so. It was almost like an extended vacation. I drove around getting acquainted with my new surroundings and my new grocery store. I searched for new doctors, hairstylists, and new restaurants. We decorated our new home, sunk into the new furnishings, and then when the newness of it all settled, I felt alone. All my friends, my sisters, my brothers, and my co-workers were back in CT. My husband’s sea duty schedule meant he was hardly home. I was also trying to keep my spirits high as my oldest daughter was adjusting to middle school, all places, and all the challenges that come with adolescence. I am completely comfortable calling this part of life ‘hell.’
About six months after Gianna passed away, the loneliness and grief kicked in full force. I remember sitting in her closet for hours, surrounded by her things, hysterically wondering, ‘How did life go from cloud 9 to feeling like 6 feet under in a single year?’ Clear as day, I can hear my husband coming in from work and running upstairs only to find me lying there in a mental mess. He scooped me up and held me for a long time. His big bear arms made me feel so safe when nothing else did. This is what he’s good at, saving me. When you’re grieving so many things, your brain is definitely not a safe haven. My thoughts were sad, dark, and even intrusive at times.
I needed an outlet and people. I had started nursing school before Gianna passed away. It was something I always had a passion for, and her life pushed me to pursue it. I took a hiatus after she passed, but returned soon after to prevent myself from sitting in the closet again. During this time, my husband was still constantly in and out of sea. In for two weeks, gone for three. Home for two days, and gone for 10. I did my best to stay busy, and my daughter and I were known on a whim to get in the car and drive the 8 hours it took to go back home to visit our village.
January 22, 2010, would have been Gianna’s first birthday. I remember sitting in nursing class when I began feeling dizzy and jittery. I had plans to bake a cake and get some balloons to celebrate her birthday that evening, so I decided to just leave early. Thinking perhaps I was just hungry, I pulled into a Wawa, ordered a sub, and devoured it before I left the parking lot. I ran over to the Dollar Tree for balloons and at check out, some instinct said to grab a pregnancy test that was staring me in the face. I drove home, baked her cake, and almost threw the pregnancy test out. When I collected it from the bag, I went straight to the bathroom. I must note this by saying my husband and I always wanted two children together, so we had never stopped trying, even after Gianna was born.
Pregnancy after Loss
I had gotten pregnant with Gianna so quickly, but it was not happening like that this time. I had done months of ovulation tests and we did ‘all the things’ you read and hear to conceive, but nothing. Big fat negatives every month. As fate would have it, on Gianna’s first birthday, her gift to us was a baby! We found out we were pregnant on a whim Dollar Tree test, and I could not believe it. Before my husband came home, I went to the drugstore for three ‘real’ tests, and they were all big fat positives. When he came home that day, I showed him the tests. We were so full of emotions. Happy, sad, endings, beginnings… it was a wave. A wave we stayed riding.
Another deployment started soon after, when I was five months pregnant. Hard is an understatement. When your spouse is gone through such a delicate time, there are no words to explain the strength it takes… you just do it. This pregnancy would be different. I was scared! What if this baby has the same genetic condition? I wanted to be prepared, so I had a lot of earlier testing. I knew from the moment I saw a positive pregnancy test it was a boy. I could just feel it and I was right. Due to the advanced testing I had in my first trimester, we were able to find out we were having a son, and all looked well.
Our son was born in September of 2010, before zoom and FaceTime were a thing. Luckily, my mother came to VA and was there for the birth and the first month to support me. My husband found out he was a daddy again via an American Red Cross message sent to his ship by telephone. I sent pictures, of course, and we would constantly email. Even though we had something, nothing can match being there though. To this day, I miss that for him. I know the bond he has with our children, I can tell, especially with our son. He’s always trying to make something up to him. I don’t think it’s a conscious thought, but I can tell. My husband met our son at homecoming on the coldest day in VA, I can remember. It was in December of 2010, and our son was three months old. They fell in love with each other instantly. I love what they have together. It really is something special.
When our son was 7 months old, we found out we were expecting again. We had another daughter in 2012 and our family was complete. This time my husband was there, just like he was with Gianna. I know his anxiety was high and his emotions were wavering. I could tell by the way his hands were sweating during delivery that he was hoping, praying, and trying to mentally prepare for the best. But having experienced the worst, it’s hard. I remember the moment she was born and the doctor saying, ‘She’s perfect.’ The weight of the world and a gallon of tears left my husband at the same time. He held her first, tears clouding his vision for sure. I wanted that so badly for him, I’m glad he got that first perfect moment. I absolutely adore the father he is to our children.
Life As A Military Family
Fast forward a decade, our kids are tweens, and we still wake up every day choosing each other. I’m sure some days we don’t even know why. I’m also sure there are many more when we do. He has served 23-year active duty in the military and has his heart set on seven more. I have been able to watch him rank up from a second class to a Master Chief, each promotion harder than the one before it. He has always been away more than he has been home.
The best part of the pandemic was us getting to keep him a little longer. His dedication to our country and his family is not a small mission, and yet he does both. Our dedication to his career and his absence is also not a small mission, but we adjust. When he is home, we know what we get. We get the same thing his job gets when he is there, commitment, honor, dedication, love, and stability—his best. We get him.
This lifestyle has not been easy at all. My husband has missed births, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, dance recitals, baseball games, weddings, and funerals. He has mostly missed moments though, the small moments that make up everyday life. The jokes, the game nights, the sibling bickering, the giggles, the lectures, the ice cream trips, the cries after a long day, the laundry, the home cooked meals, the sleepovers, even the simplicity of walking the dog. He’s missed so much, and will still miss so much more. Our home is gearing up for his 13th career deployment (yes, 13th) and it never gets easier. Transition, as I like to call it, is soon approaching. What is this? Transition is the period of time nobody likes to be in or talk about. This is usually the month before your spouse deploys and usually the first month or so when they return from being gone.
Personally, I hate these times equally. Fights are sure to ensue, emotions are high, and everyone is trying to hold on to or make as many memories as possible to either hold them over for the next 7-9 months or to make up for all those months lost. While homecoming is a beautiful day filled with happiness and tears, the aftershock of transitioning another person (even your spouse) back into routines you’ve had to create without them is challenging. Just as challenging as it was when you had to remove them from your routine when they left. When they are preparing to leave, you both are riddled with emotions and last-minute tasks, like him doing last minute house repairs so Murphy’s Law doesn’t happen (but undoubtedly, it will). There’s a cloud hovering and we all just want it gone, we want him gone… just so we can start counting down until his return.
It’s All About The Moments
This life is nothing of what I expected, but it also has provided so much more. Does it throw us challenges? Absolutely, all the time. I have put my professional career as a registered nurse on the back burner to raise our children. Many times I’m a solo parent. I have resented his job for taking him away so much and not allowing him to be here for the things that matter most. We don’t get those moments again and we can’t remake memories with him in them. This life is not for the faint of heart, instead it is for those full of love. Those of us who can feel all those feelings but feel love even more. Those of us that can comprehend quickly from the beginning that you are sharing your spouse with the actual world and his commitment is not only to you. Those of us that by doing all we do as spouses save the world too, just as much as he does… and sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, even more.
So, other than love, what keeps us going at the end of each day? It’s simple. The moments he’s here. The moments he doesn’t miss. The moments when he’s snuggling the kids at bedtime, sitting at an 8-hour dance competition, driving home from a 9 p.m. baseball practice, or hanging Christmas decorations. The moments he asks me for my laundry, clears my plate, makes the best Sunday breakfast, or pulls me close. The moments when he’s here we cherish a little more than most might, only because we know how many we all have already missed. The moments. It’s simply all the moments we get when he is home because home is him.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Tia Hawkins from Virginia Beach, VA. You can follow her journey on Facebook, Instagram and her blog. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more stories like this:
‘Some of the bravest warriors I know aren’t the ones in uniforms, they are the ones left behind on the home front. Yes, I’m talking about you, military spouse.’: Wife pens appreciation letter to veteran husband
Show your love for the active duty heroes, and the people who love them. SHARE this story on Facebook or Twitter.