The countdown to my son’s latest return from The United States Military Academy at West Point began about the same time he gave me a quick wave from the opposite end of airport security as he departed for his Cadet Field Training at the end of June.
For the remainder of that day, his little sister cried all the tears she could possibly shed, and I wandered the house looking for a chore that would not remind me of something we did together when he was home for this most recent visit.
I found myself standing in front of a set of glass jars that sit on the counter between the kitchen and the great room–the Army Black Knights logo on the top of one and the Army mule logo on the other.
The one on the right sat loaded to the top with black and gold marbles (the USMA school colors). The sign on its front read, “Days Done…” The jar on the left read, “Days to Go…”, and it had sat empty for the last 16 days.
As I stood looking at the jars, I heard a sad, little voice beside me ask, “When’s he coming home, Momma?”
“Well,” I sighed, “Let’s find out.”
Taking the full jar from the counter, I felt its weight in my hand, pulled the cap from the top, and dumped the marbles in a shiny black and gold pile on the coffee table. Together, the Young One and I counted out 28 marbles, being sure to have an even number of each color.
Twenty-eight days is the smallest number we have added to the jar since we started our countdown ritual, and it will probably be the last time we will mark such a short separation. Unlike students at civilian colleges, USMA cadets do not get a three-month summer break from their school. Instead, they spend the summer undergoing military and leadership training that prepares them for their future in the US Army.
While my daughter dropped the marbles into “Days to Go”, I returned the now empty “Days Done” to its spot on the counter, feeling sad that it was almost weightless compared to just a few minutes ago.
The Young One brought “Days to Go” back to sit next to its partner, and then she stood back to examine the two together.
“That’s all we have to do?”
I joined her, gave my own examination, and declared, “Yes, that’s all we have to do.”
“And each day at bedtime, I’m gonna put a marble in the other jar?”
“That’s right,” I nodded.
“Then he’ll be home?” she asked with the start of a smile lighting her teary eyes.
“YAY!” She raised her arms in victory and jumped up and down in the way I have come to learn means she is beyond excited. “Then I’m gonna give him the BIGGEST hug EVER and say, ‘I MISSED you!'”
“Me too!”, I exclaimed and pulled her into a hug, so we could bounce and dance around the room together.
I had made the two jars and started the bedtime tradition last March after my son had returned to West Point following his Spring Break. I thought this would be a good way for my daughter to mark the time between her big brother’s visits. At five years old, she does not fully understand that a month, or two months or (gulp) six months is not the same as “tomorrow” or “today”.
What I have come to realize, however, is that the marbles in the jar are not just another game meant to pacify a pre-schooler. They are a visual representation of challenge and accomplishment for a momma missing her son. If I was able to do 50 days last time, I can do 28 days this time, and next time I will be able to do 60, or 90, or 120. As long as I can keep moving marbles from one jar to the other, I can do as many days as it takes because it means I am one day closer to embracing my boy!
Tonight, the Young One took the last of the 28 marbles from “Days to Go” and dropped it with a happy tinkle into “Days Done”. Then she mounted the stairs to her room with a skip in her step and a smile on her face.
In 10 days, we will start all over again. I’m not looking forward to counting out enough marbles to take us from August 7 to December 22, but for tonight, “Days to Go” is empty, and I am brimming with excitement too.