I’m completely disheartened that some of the local stores are closing. I get it and am tied to my Kindle and every other electronic device as the next gal. But still, there is nothing like a book store and a coffee shop…and when you have both, it’s heaven. B&N has a special place for me because it was my haven for when my spouse was deployed. Here are some excerpts from my journal during that time:
Journal 2/09 – 7/09:
So my love has been deployed for a few weeks and we were trying to get into a groove in our new location of North Carolina. My son had been quite sad since his daddy departed. My heart broke the first Sunday when he wouldn’t come inside the house, but hung out in the backyard just waiting for his dad to play with him as he always had. Thank God for great neighbors who lent me one of their children! He came by and played with my little guy. Little does that child know that he was God with skin to us that day.
Our family being separated was so difficult. With a 3 yr old and an 8 month old baby, a new location and away from friends and family was one of the most isolating times of my life. I just wanted to go somewhere safe, where the kids could be content and happy and where I could get a moment. Not sure what kind of moment I needed, but definitely know I needed one.
One day, I walked into the local Barnes & Noble for a gift purchase. The kids loved it and immediately went to the children’s section. And lo and behold, they had a train table! So on this Sunday afternoon, I found myself with a Chai latte sitting in front of the train table. It was peace for me.
Little did I know that it would become our regular hangout during that deployment for many reasons. It became our solace and other than with family and at church, it was a sort of sanctuary at times. My son lit up every time I took him to “Barns & Elbow” as he called it. When we walked in, all seems right with the crazy world we had been living in at the time…funny how a wooden table with trains can do that for a little boy, but it did. There were always some families there. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we didn’t. But when we did, I always felt changed by the interaction.
I’ve always found it fascinating how people can connect around the oddest of circumstances and this train table is no different. One day, I was sitting in one of the chairs, watching my son play at the table and holding my infant daughter. There were many children playing, but one boy in particular seemed really focused and seemed to be distressing his mother. I witnessed the mother getting frustrated by her son not listening to her and not wanting to leave. She said she’d give him a few more moments and sat down by me. I almost felt the air from her sigh as she sat down. We’ve all been there as parents. So I asked her if she was okay. She began to tell the rest of us parents that she thinks something may be wrong with her son. I found her vulnerability appealing since you don’t see that with us parents too often. She went on for awhile describing the issues. Many of us shared our own. And a fellow dad jumped in the conversation saying how his 9 yr old son was a challenge over the years. He went on to say that after a year, they noticed some developmental issues and after some time, he was diagnosed with Autism. He did it…he said the “A” word to a fellow parent….how could he? I think he said what many were thinking, but was brave enough to go there. He was also a fellow military member, had been deployed so I immediately connected with his story. He went on to talk about the challenges of parenthood with special needs children, what he felt was the cause and how they were combating the problem with diet and therapy. I saw the most amazing connection in watching the dynamic between him and the other mom. It was a cause to action for her to get her son evaluated and at the same time, it was also a gift of hope. The dad went on to say that his son was doing well, at his grade level and functioning normally. Not that all would have these results, but I noticed this mother take it all in. As she was leaving, having to drag her son who was kicking and screaming, which was out of the ordinary for a child that age, she asked our opinions. We agreed for her to get him tested and we rallied around her in support. After she left, I couldn’t believe what just happened. Did I witness an intervention among strangers? Did this very serious conversation on a sensitive topic just happen at this bookstore? And it didn’t get heated. There was no argument. It was like we had been friends for years. What a blessing I thought. Maybe it does take a stranger to speak into our lives.
This event was just the beginning of what I saw happen around this train table. The following months’ visits would forever change me as a parent, a military spouse and as a compassionate human being.
This one day, I began speaking with a woman there with her grandchild. She didn’t look much older than I was which was both complimentary of her and alarming for me. We began with small talk about our connection there in NC and not surprisingly both had a military connection as most people did in our location. She began to say that she was helping her daughter-n-law with her grandbaby while her son was deployed. I began to discuss how my family was also very supportive and involved and what a blessing that was to have that during a critical and often lonely time. But I was mistaken to think that I could possibly relate to her story as it began to unfold. She shared how she was active duty most of her adult life and had met her husband while he was active duty as well. They had both deployed and served in times of war. What bravery I thought and what a pioneer considering her time in the military did not have as many women as today. But as we talked about the military and children, she began to share that as difficult as life had been at times with her father serving, serving herself and sending her husband to war, nothing was as difficult as the day she sent her son to war. She said that nothing in her life as a soldier and as a mother could possibly compare to that moment. Her eyes filled with tears and I watched this strong female soldier, wife, mother and grandmother reveal the dinks in the armor. It appeared that she had been very strong and very much needed to release and share to me, a stranger. I turned to look my son playing at the train table, innocent, safe and happy. And I couldn’t even picture letting him go. It was yet another moment of perspective and learning as I looked around and realized that everyone has a story. And pain is pain, no matter how minor or major and no matter how experienced or strong we are. It’s been a long time since that chance meeting and I still think of her and her son’s family, wonder how they are doing and feel as if that meeting helped add to me as a wife and mother in my military world.
So the regular visits at the train table continued and my children became more and more comfortable in their new choice of places to play. It became a regular routine and as my son continued to say, “I want to go to Barns and Elbows”. And the encounters continued as well. Some were bringing tears to my eyes, some laughs and others insight. But sometimes, there was a little confrontation too. My son, who had been a little shy and hesitant at times, really surprised me one day. An older boy was adamantly telling him what he couldn’t do because he was a “baby”. My son didn’t miss a beat and immediately said, “I’m not a baby; I’m a big boy. I’m 3 yrs old” and went on to do what he wanted to do. The boy kept on saying various things, but my son didn’t seem fazed. He had said his peace. Up until that point, it was my proudest moment as a parent. I’m sure that is the tip of the iceberg when it came to bullying. But I saw a seed that my son would be able to stand his ground. And it was a proud moment.
I’ve always been the type who needs perspective. Maybe everyone does, but it seems like I need it more often than others at times. It was a day in which I particularly felt overwhelmed by my life. As a college graduate who had a successful career with a Fortune 500 company, I often wondered what happened to me…how I arrived here. So when I was a sudden stay-at-home mom with 2 kids 3 and under, in a state where I had no family or close friends and a husband – who brought me here in the first place – was stationed in Afghanistan, I had those moments often and it was normally coupled by spit up, dirty diapers or interrupted sleep. I had also let myself go a bit as I looked down and saw my mis-matched frumpy clothes along with the fact that I couldn’t remember when I had last bathed. It was a sad moment I thought. Until I arrived at the train table and took a seat to relax with my usual chai tea. I then struck up the usual conversation with a fellow parent. This time, the parent began to tell me how they treasured these moments with their children. I forced myself to agree and we continued talking about the kids, what brought us to the state, etc. She began to share about her painful separation and how she had to work full-time to pay the bills. She became teary-eyed when she talked about how she couldn’t stay home with her son as she had intended. I felt a pain in my chest as she spoke and poured out her heart. How did I get to this place? What had happened to me? I still become overwhelmed and frustrated on occassion, but it is definitely less often. I looked at my children and now purposed to see my time with them as a privilege and an opportunity. There are always two sides of the coin and you have to enjoy the side you’re on, whatever it may be.
I have to say that my experience over those months reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite movies Shall We Dance where Susan Sarandon says, ”We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean?…you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness’.” The same faith it took for me to believe my husband would come back to me is the same faith I have in God and the same faith it takes to really see people…not just the outside and not just how they relate to you. But truly see people and know their story because we all have one and it must be told.