I’d always viewed myself as a real, Americana, “Rosie the Riveter” kind of gal. Courageous, innovative, perseverant, optimistic, patriotic. Adaptable to whatever life threw my way. Comfortable in a wide variety of roles, adept at switching between them.
I hike, I bake, I can eyeball weather better than most meteorologists (thanks to my mom’s upbringing on a Montana ranch) and I’ve co-managed a winning political campaign. I feel as comfortable removing lice from hair as I do networking at a black-tie gala. I’m great in a medical emergency; I’m not bad with power tools.
Prior to marrying in my late twenties, I felt fairly well-rounded and capable, not easily maimed or inhibited.
So, while it wasn’t my plan, becoming “a military officer’s wife” didn’t seem like a terrible fit for me. I mean, I loathe moving, but I was quite sure I could manage. Deployments were dreaded-but-necessary evils we’d forge through with family/church support and intentional, disciplined, positive choices. Right? Right.
I had plans. They were good plans. I love plans. They give me hope, make me feel secure.
Which is why I just about lost my mind as a military wife, every single day.
Turns out, I was braced for the scheduled deployments, the biennial relocations, the innumerable rules, the constant saying-goodbyes.
I was not braced for the daily, hourly, unrelenting unknowns.
Suddenly, I didn’t know if I should cook the fish for dinner. Fish doesn’t reheat well – would he even be home tonight? I had no idea. Even at 5:57 p.m. when I texted him, my husband had no idea either.
I learned never to wash all his uniforms at once, because he could unexpectedly deploy at any time, within hours (unlikely, but continuously possible). And we were supposed to be stationed here for another year, they said, but that could change – we could move next month.
In the military, nearly everyone around you is tensed for constant, potential, life-changing loss.
That unthinkable knock on the door, the email that never gets answered, the unexpected orders that rip you away from aging parents and struggling siblings and the beloved church-where-your-kids-finally-made-friends. There’s this proud, enduring stereotype of infinite, military adaptability (“resilience” is the currently popular term). So, I tried to be dutifully flexible and chipper, that “good wife” who doesn’t have any needs that conflict with the Air Force’s.
But, each new “Plan A/B/C/D/E/F/G” frayed my soul a little further. Whenever my husband’s phone rang at 2:00 a.m., it could signal the start of World War III, a fellow airman’s suicide, a terrorist breaching the gates, or someone’s broken air conditioning unit. Impossible to know, and my adrenals didn’t even try.
When my husband got his first training assignment, they said I was going along with him. But wait, no – then I wasn’t, and then I was again, and by the time they decided, I had only a few days to quit my job and move 1,700 miles east.
Two months later, we moved again, eleven states to the northwest. Husband was promptly handed his first deployment orders. I wept uncontrollably and was stunned by my own emotion; I had intended to be such a brave dependant. I eventually stopped crying and started making new plans – but then, they cancelled that deployment.
All too soon, he got new orders to deploy (quite immediately this time). I was numb, both as we packed him to leave and also when (a day later) the Powers-That-Be called back and casually laughed, “Whoops, we double-booked this deployment. You’re not leaving after all. At least,” they added for good measure, “not at this time.”
Everything felt in question; anxiety became this constant, incessant, radio static in my brain.
Abruptly, involuntarily, I was living as this Functional-Agnostic, stuck in a subculture where you essentially “can’t know” anything. And I’m no agnostic. I thrive on learning, understanding, synthesizing, reorganizing, executing.
But now, not only did I have negligible control over my life, I had no (accurate) information from which to constantly re-plan my life, and no hope of ever gaining that kind of information.
It all felt terribly fatalistic.
Our marriage started to implode – not because of the military, although that did antagonize some of our issues and definitely limited our ability and time to address them properly. People encouraged us, “Go on more dates! Be sure to have fun together!” So, we obediently planned one, two, seven, thirty different dates, and nearly all got canceled, ever displaced by work projects that bled into each night and day “he was supposed to be off.” Some of them happened eventually, but it was always on the third or fourth or fifth attempt, and I grew increasingly bitter and emotionally exhausted, feeling endlessly jerked around and unmotivated to even try.
“Be sure to prioritize your marriage above anything else,” people warned, but my husband had sworn an oath to choose the military mission ahead of all else, including his marriage, whenever asked to – and he was asked to do so a lot more often than I’d planned on. And unlike a civilian, he couldn’t now opt to change jobs, or take a pay cut, or pass on a promotion to regain more family time. We both saw the realness of this dilemma, and neither of us knew how to balance the scales, and irritation morphed into deep despair.
I’ve never been omniscient. I never was able to predict the future, and I wouldn’t have claimed to. But, that tacit perception – that delusion – of thinking I knew approximately what was coming next, in my month or week or day, had always comforted me. But now, that false comfort was gone. And it crushed me.
My struggles aren’t unique to military life, I know.
Plenty of professionals travel and endure frequent family separations (truck drivers, sales people, pilots) or have long, unpredictable hours (surgeons, pastors, farmers, hotel managers) or are immersed in danger, trauma, and loss (first-responders, missionaries, social workers, journalists).
But, it’s been here among the green boots and armored gates that God has been refining me, gently teaching me that a stable, intentionally rooted, white-picket-fence life isn’t an inherently better life. That my goal shouldn’t be eventually escaping to a calmer future. That, in addition to the legitimate losses and struggles, this isn’t just a season of famine or hardship to beatifically endure. There is actual goodness here.
Some of my fear and disorientation has normalized, easing across time. We’re about to move to our sixth new state in eight years. We’ve experienced a lot in those eight years. My husband has deployed multiple times now, returning from one tour very altered, requiring a lot of professional help to recover emotionally and neurologically. Each deployment has been crazy hard for me; I’m not as tough as I once thought. Even “regular,” non-deployed assignments require a lot from our military members and their families. My five-year-old knows far too much about explosives and lost limbs, PTSD, human atrocities, and death. I feel deeply transition-weary.
There have been lots of non-military shapings along the way, too. We’ve birthed and gotten to keep two darling kiddos, wept and said unwilling goodbyes to others. We’ve been encircled by prairie fires and floods, fled from tornadoes and hurricanes. We’ve walked through funerals, lost dreams, damaged heirlooms, deep injustice, chasmic family losses, and navigated innumerable new freeways and grocery store aisles. Our marriage has grown, healed, re-broken, and healed again partially – probably still a bit crookedly. We’re learning how to combine our lives and souls much better practically, and have also discovered much deeper relationship dysfunctions than we ever imagined.
These sentences all feel so short, so unfairly clipped, so unrepresentative of the years and hours of gradual, unquantifiable softening – the bending, the accepting, the grieving.
I’m afraid to imply I’ve reached some kind of solution here, like the glowy conclusion of a Hallmark movie or tidy bottom line of a financial report. Truth is, I’m still in the thick of this struggle, mourning lost autonomy, wrestling reflexively for some kind of effect on my circumstances.
But, I’m starting to glimpse the edge of what God is redeeming in me, by keeping me in this place of perpetual unknowns.
Loss has taught me to live in the present, to seize “The Now” in a way that my planner self never, ever would otherwise. There’s a popular military mug/bumper sticker/t-shirt urging spouses to “Live every day like he deploys tomorrow.” I resented this sentiment at first. It simply piled more nerviness onto my already-depleted adrenal glands. But now, when my daughter remarks, “I wish I could go out to breakfast with Daddy again; I haven’t seen him much lately—” I genuinely evaluate if that dream can be forced into the next 48 hours.
We don’t procrastinate exploring anymore; we immediately try that new restaurant and hike that scenic vista the first day possible. We take photos of everything, even uneventful family trips to Costco and bedtime snuggles with Daddy, because he might soon vanish from them for another eight months. We introduce ourselves to new neighbors right away and forge past shallow conversations, however awkwardly, because Hi, we need community here, and probably you guys do, too, so let’s all just jump ahead to the part where we figure out if we can possibly be friends, yes?!
We splurge on spontaneous family trips to the waterpark or zoo because, “At least for today, we’re all here,” and we no longer presume we’ll have that tomorrow.
Idealism can be crippling, an excuse for never savoring the goodness of the present. But, military life requires you to grow roots rapidly – despite fatigue or disillusionment – or else you’ll emotionally shrivel, and this inescapable reality has healthily dented my perfectionism.
Loss has also taught me that only God can help me through fear and struggle, and no quantity of planning on my part can prevent or control my pain. During childhood, I went through a long series of subsequent, unexpected traumas. After half a decade of this, I became a masterful anticipator and preemptor of risk. I knew I couldn’t prevent all sorrow, but I thought I could decrease the depth of my pain if I wasn’t always so sideswiped by it. Sometimes, this worked. Long-term, it didn’t.
Turns out, there’s no amount of rehearsing that can spare us pain. You can certainly be more exhausted when tragedy comes (which is generally the route I took), or you can choose not to visualize all the what-if’s, all the time, and save yourself some energy. Obviously, planning ahead can be prudent and helpful, but it can also spin you into the false belief that I must ensure my own provision with constant, self-defensive preparation.
A wise friend pointed out to me, “Marian, you’re visualizing a future without God’s providential grace in it. Of course, that’s daunting! You can’t yet see how He will meet you there, at that time. But remember, there will be grace over there that you simply can’t see yet. And yes, staring at a grace-less vision of your future is terrifying.” Those words were etched into my soul that day.
Because, “Lord, YOU have assigned me my portion and my cup; YOU have made my lot secure.” (Psalm 16:5)
Because, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. HE will not let [my] foot slip.” (Psalm 121:2-3)
Because, “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there YOUR hand will guide me, YOUR right hand will hold me fast . . . . Even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.” (Psalm 139:9-12)
Because, “We know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building FROM GOD, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (II Corinthians 5:1)
Because, “MY GOD shall supply all [my] needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)
These are the incisive, healing truths that my soul tends to forget.
I’m still inconveniently sensitive to change, and our life continues to be filled with it. Last week, I swelled with resentment because the military base chopped down the purple tree in our front yard without warning.
“They didn’t even ask! I mean, I know it’s not ours – it’s theirs, of course – but, they didn’t even notify us!” I raged, tearily. “Shouldn’t they have at least told us?! I decorated that tree!”
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I was really crying because I’d just found out that we’ll be moving to yet another new, still-unknown location in early November, not next summer like we’d been planning.
Actually, to be precise, we had been planning on leaving the military life entirely next summer, moving to a one last “new” place, and then staying there indefinitely.
But, here we are. Things are different than I visualized, for the ten-thousandth time. We make our plans, and God redirects our steps. I’m slowly accepting that I just don’t know what is good like He does.
“Remember this, had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are, Divine Love would have put you there.”
I comfort myself by thinking that perhaps he was preaching to himself. I certainly am.
So far, I’ve found no replicatable formula for how to relax fully amidst rational fears of constant loss. It’s hard to blend my human hopes with eternal priorities even in my prayers, especially when pain is fresh, and I often fall hard on the promise that the Holy Spirit intercedes for me with much better words.
But, in the meantime, the cry of my soul often takes the form of this timeless, vintage refrain:
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him,
How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er;
Jesus, Jesus, Precious Jesus,
Oh, for grace to trust Him more.
(‘Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus, Louisa M. R. Stead, 1882)
I think it’s a pretty safe prayer for us all.
Photography: Life. Captured. Photography by Crystal