On the Eve of Branch Night

Many of my sleepless nights can be blamed on a child.

I have spent countless pre-dawn hours rocking a hungry baby back to sleep, holding warm, pink hands through fevers and hugging away bad dreams. I have tip-toed noiselessly into darkened bedrooms just to plant one more kiss, straighten rumpled blankets and rescue favorite stuffed toys from the black depths of “under bed”.

I have lain awake at night listening for a breath or a cry or a cough through the sound waves of a baby monitor. I have blinked into the darkness and wondered if he is warm enough…if he is happy enough. I have made wishes on stars to grant dreams of fame and to ease the hardships of growing pains. I have lifted up silent prayers for safety and for acceptance and for guidance when he must follow his path alone.

In the silence of the smallest hours of the night, I think back on the Older One’s 21 years, and I have come to understand that parenting does not get easier. It only gets different.

I have moved from the challenge of deciphering a hold-me cry from a feed-me cry onto the agony of daycare drop-off and the hopeful coaching of friend-making. No sooner did I accept kindergarten independence than I was plunged into middle school anxiety and pre-teen awkwardness. Before I knew it, he became an adult faced with hard decisions, and suddenly, I am forced to step back, offer advice and hope he comes back for more.

I have gone from caregiver to counselor in the blink of an eye.

The coin the Older One received when he affirmed his oath to serve in the United States Army.

The coin the Older One received when he affirmed his oath to serve in the United States Army.

Tonight, we are on the eve of witnessing the result of one of the biggest decisions of his life.  Long before the day he was accepted into the Corps of Cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point, he has been evaluating the branches of the U.S. Army, trying to determine which one of them he would most like to make a part of his future. Infantry? Aviation? Armour?

In September, at the start of his senior year, he submitted a ranking of his preferences to the Army. Tomorrow night, the Army will tell him if it agrees. He’ll join the rest of the USMA Class of 2015 in an auditorium they have sat in countless times since Plebe year, but this event will be different. This is Branch Night, and it marks the beginning of their futures.

The cadets will sit among their friends, each holding the mystery of their fate in their hands–a sealed envelop containing an invitation to their assigned branch. A speaker will tell them how bright their futures are and draw out the anticipation of the evening’s climactic reveal. Finally, they will be given the order, and as a single unit, will break the seals of the envelops, eagerly looking for what they hope to be a ticket to the branch of their choice.

My wish to the stars tonight is that my son finds what he hopes to see inside that envelop. He has done everything possible to ensure a selection near the top of his list. I have listened to his plans and offered my advice. In this new role of parenting an adult, that’s the greatest thing I can offer. All we can do now is wait with equal parts anticipation and apprehension.

I predict that tonight will be another night of interrupted sleep. My child’s future will be determined tomorrow. I won’t sleep well until I know…until I know he’s happy…until I know he is content…until I know he well on his way to living the life he has dreamed.

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My Piece of America’s Future

Tonight, my oldest child will commit himself, his future, his life to the United States of America.

Plebe picture

The Older One’s official West Point portrait. I love that smile.

In a private ceremony on the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point, he will affirm his oath to serve his country to the best of his ability. He will stand with the rest of the Class of 2015 and take the next step in his career as a West Point cadet. Before this point, he could have said at any time he no longer wanted to continue at West Point and that the military life wasn’t for him. He could have parted ways with Uncle Sam without owing a dime for his first two years of education or without giving any time on active duty in return for the training he has received. With tonight’s affirmation, he is committed to finishing what he started and will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army in the spring of 2015. Following graduation, he will serve at least eight years in the Army and at least five of those on active duty.

Actually, this will be the third time he raises his hand and recites the Oath of Service.

“I, the Oldest Child of Stiletto Momma, do solemnly swear…”

The first time he said this, was a little more than two years ago when he was just minutes into Cadet Basic Training. He was probably still aching from the bone-crushing hug I gave him during that all too short 90-second good-bye. Along with a few dozen other new cadets, he uttered the phrases in an otherwise quiet room before embarking on six grueling weeks of training. I wonder if, amid the uncertainty of things to come, he even remembers saying them.

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He’s in there somewhere. I never found him, but he told me later that he found me and was watching me as he promised to bare allegiance.

I was present the second time he said them later that day during the Oath Ceremony. As the culminating event of an extremely emotional day, over 1,000 new cadets marched onto the Plain to announce their intentions once more. It was a show for the parents meant to demonstrate how quickly they were able to learn how to march and how to take orders. I remember the hot air ringing with their united voices, but I was too busy trying to catch one last glimpse of my child amid a sea of shaved heads and unfashionable government issue glasses to pay attention to what they were saying.

I am paying attention tonight, however, because I need to understand what it means and how we came to this point of selflessness and honor.

“…that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”

Over the years, I have been witness to the formation of this one desire–born at the sight of tiny green plastic Army men lined up in mock battle…and at the feet of the invincible GI Joe…and at the hands of a real-life evil played out on a battlefield no one expected on a sunny September day in 2001. At only eight years old, he watched the world change with the shock and awe delivered from brave men and women, and he started to dream of one day joining their ranks.

“…that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”

I have never known this child of mine to raise his voice or his hand in anger or violence unless provoked by a threat to his friends, family or team. His allegiance is solid and true.

“…that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion…”

This is where most of the Class of 2015 Mommas have been stuck for the past few months. “Are they sure?” has been a constant Facebook thread since May as we remind each other that the biggest decision of our children’s lives is theirs alone to make.

At first, I worried mine was choosing this path not for himself, but to follow in the footsteps of his father. Then, I heard him refer to West Point as “home”. He has thrived within its granite walls and grown into a man more than capable of making intelligent decisions to please no one but himself. I have asked him the question anyway, just to hear him say the answer out loud.

“Momma, I’m sure. I made my commitment on R-Day, and I haven’t changed my mind,” he says, referring to the first oath he swore two years ago.

“…and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.

So help me God.”

Soon he will take on the duties of an Army officer, so, God, please help me. These next years are the ones that will try me the most. I will call on You often to keep him safe, to help him through dark times, and to bring him home to me and those who love him. He has shared with me his aspirations for his Army career. He will do dangerous things in far away countries, and I will need to be Army strong.

I understand he does this not because he has to, but because he wants to. In his 20 short years, he has learned selflessness, integrity and honor, and he will use those qualities to make the world a better place. They are the qualities of a leader.

That is who he wants to be.

That is who I want him to be.

I am more than proud of the person my son has become and his decision to defend his country so that others may enjoy freedom and the pursuit of happiness. He is a piece of America’s future–my piece…and I am ready to share him, so help me God.

Days to Go

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.

Countdown

Days to Go…Days Done…

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.

“Yes.”

“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.

Stiletto Momma

With a Smile and a Wave

The Cadet went back to West Point this morning, and as with all goodbyes, it is time for reflection.

The Cadet and his little shadow, I mean sister, together again!

I had been prepared by my West Point mom friends to expect changes in my son the first time he came home from USMA. The experience, especially for a plebe (a freshman in civilian speak), is intense. Order, structure and rules are hammered and drilled into them every hour of every day. They walk with their hands cupped because they remember the time during basic training when they didn’t, and their lack of focus caused the entire squad to do pushups. They make their beds with square corners because the fear of returning to their room after a long day of training only to find what they thought was a neatly made bed, tossed into a heap on the floor is overwhelming. They learn the hard way that in this new world full of overachievers, they are average.

Upperclassmen moms start preparing the plebe moms early on to expect changes in their beloved children. Small changes like saying “sir” and “ma’am”, expecting everyone to not just be on time, but to be early; and to (gasp) make their beds. The bigger changes were more worrying…depression, sullenness, anger.

As I waited at the airport a few weeks ago, I was more than a little nervous about who would greet me there. We had seen him last in August when he graduated from basic training. As we hugged goodbye at the end of that way too short visit, he was quiet,and I knew he was more than a little worried.  His mind was full of unknowns–roommates he barely knew, classes that hadn’t started, and a mark on the football field that he hadn’t quite made yet.

As Winter Break finally arrived, I got a big hug and an even bigger smile at the airport, but I kept waiting to see the changes. He still played hide and seek with his little sister. He still decorated gingerbread men in gory depictions of decapitated mayhem. He watched football with his dad, and to my disappointment (and secret delight), he still left his room a disorganized array of dirty clothes and sweaty socks.

There was no anger, no resentment of the civilian life he left behind. There was no hint of desperation in his conversations about life at West Point. I saw no sadness, when the time to return drew closer. In fact, he slipped a few times, and called it “going home”.

For 16 days I’ve been waiting to see the “change”. I was even planning my post to say that those other moms were wrong, but then, as I watched him go through security, I saw it. There before me, was a young man full of self-confidence…and he had been with me since he walked off that plane more than two weeks ago.

He was there at the theater when he asked a high school acquaintance working the ticket booth if we could have a military discount. He was there at restaurants when he thanked the waitress and servers for doing a good job. He was there at Target when, two days before Christmas, he asked a scattered employee to help us find the one installment of the Harry Potter movies that we hadn’t seen together.

And finally, there he was with a smile and a wave from the other end of the security line.  My wonderful, confident son, who turned to head back to the place he calls home. West Point has turned my boy into a man, and I couldn’t be happier.

Keep your children close, and love them long,

Stiletto Momma