Picture It: Graduation

I’ve mentioned before that the past few months have been a little crazy. I’ve had a perfect storm of life events, and I feel like I’ve broken some kind of mom code by not blogging about the greatest accomplishments of the Older One’s 22 years. After all, over the span of just three short days in May, he went from being a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point to being a college graduate to becoming an officer in the United States Army.

How does any self-respecting mom, let alone one with a blog, not at least post a picture about all that? Maybe it’s because I can’t find just one picture that sums it all up.

It could be that moment after the graduation parade when all the Firstie families flooded the parade field to congratulate their favorite cadets for coming so far in four short years….

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It could have been later that night when he donned my favorite West Point uniform to escort his favorite people to the graduation gala….

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Then again, it could have been when he finally collected his diploma from the General….

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Or when his father and I clipped his new 2nd Lieutenant bars to his shoulders…

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But maybe it was a few minutes later when he raised his hand to be commissioned into the Army….

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Or a few minutes after that when he received his first salute from the enlisted soldier who also happened to be his mentor…

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But as I think about it now, I’m pretty sure, the one picture that says it all, is the one that makes my heart swell with pride and a smile break across my face. It’s the one that says he’s brave and strong and selfless. It’s the one that shows me the man of character he has become…an officer in the United States Army.

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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.

My Hero Wears Camo

I never planned to be an Army wife, yet my husband wore dress blues in place of a tuxedo on our wedding day.

I said "I do" to the Hubs and to the Army.

I said “I do” to the Hubs and to the Army.

I never planned to be an Army mom, yet my son wears ACUs in his college classrooms as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

My favorite cadet on his way to class.

My favorite cadet on his way to class.

I never imagined the Star Spangled Banner would bring tears to my eyes or that I would be compelled to watch every homecoming video posted on my news feed…or shed tears for those joyous reunions that will never happen.

Since becoming a part of a military family, I feel my heart thump at the sight of an American flag flapping proudly in the breeze and a lump in my throat when it sails at half-mast.

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I found this flag on the beach last year.

I am humbled to know heroes fight for me every day. I see their pictures in my Facebook feed as my Army Mom network pledges to stay Army Strong. Some of the names I know and often the face is familiar as I read the pleas for prayers and support as a momma sends her child into harm’s way and asks for prayers for a safe return. But most days, the heroes who fight for me are strangers.

They are anonymous men and women who have raised their hands, and with words ringing of commitment and allegiance, they have entered the most honorable of professions. They leave their wives, their husbands, their children and their parents. They put their country above all else, and sometimes they make the greatest of sacrifices.

These are my heroes. They wear digitized camo. They have boots on the ground and courage in their hearts.

In return for their selflessness, I pray…keep them safe…keep them brave…bring them home.

Do you have a hero serving in the military? Give them a shout-out in the comments.

Five Minute Friday***This post was brought to you today by the Five Minute Friday and the word “Hero”. Join us for some frenzied blogging on Lisa-Jo Baker’s site every Friday.

A Fight for One Last

We have less than two days left.

Actually, it’s more like 42 hours.

Christmas morning quality time.

Christmas morning quality time.

But if you subtract out the girlfriend time, sleeping time and time for personal hygiene , it’s really only about 12 hours.

Twelve short hours left to spend with the Older One before he boards an airplane bound for the snowy north and the granite walls of the US Military Academy at West Point.

His clothes are clean and ready to be packed neatly in his plain black duffel bag. He’s visited with friends, exchanged gifts with family and enjoyed New Year’s Eve with his girl.

Now all that’s left for this momma is 12 hours…give or take.

And so, I start the fight. It won’t be a screaming, yelling, fist-throwing kind of fight, but more of a fight for more, more, more and a handful of one lasts.

The fight for one more game of hide and seek with his sister and one last meal cooked with love. Just one more conversation and another memory to hold on to for the next three months. One more workout with his dad. Another joke and a laugh. Even one last request for motherly advise.

I’ll fight for another stolen hug and an unaware smile.  I’ll fight for that last perfect ending to an all too short 15-day visit…even though it is the longest we’ve had for a while.

Last night, the Young One, whose big brother hero let her claim victory in a Nerf blaster war earlier that day, lost her fight against the tears. She cried herself to sleep wishing he didn’t have to go away again, and as I held her close for comfort, I lost my fight too.

Save travels, Sweet Boy. Come home again soon!

Five Minute Friday***This post is brought to you today by Five Minute Friday and the word “Fight”.

Daring to Fly

When the Young One was three, her pre-school teacher approached me on the playground as I waited for my child to work her way down from the top of the jungle gym. “She may be the smallest one in her class,” the teacher said with a shake of her head, “but she is our biggest daredevil!”

I laughed and nodded along. Yes, my youngest child has always had a desire to keep her feet off the ground. As a baby she wanted nothing more than to jump…and jump…and jump.

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I first learned about the Young One’s jumping joy in an orphanage in Russia.

Then she learned to climb, working her way up the tall ladder of our neighbor’s play set. Next came the monkey bars, even though she was too little to grab the bars herself.

My daughter is a daredevil.

So it came as no surprise when, as we watched the West Point jump team parachute into Michie Stadium two weeks ago, that she jumped to her feet as soon as she saw the tiny dots floating out of the helicopter.

Yayy!

Yayy!

Realizing the dots were people, she raised her arms in the air, jumped in circles, and exclaimed, “I want to do that! I want to do that!”

"I want to do that! I want to do that!"

“I want to do that! I want to do that!”

She watched with fascination as the jumpers swooped and looped. Her smiled widened when the colorful parachutes burst from their packs, and she didn’t take her eyes from her new heroes until they touched down on the football field to announce the beginning of the game.

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A safe landing.

Since leaving West Point, she talks of little but her new desire.  As I look through the pictures from that day, I can almost see the instant she decided she would one day fly through the sky.

A dream is born.

A dream is born.

And as I look at this smile, I want nothing more than to see her fly too.

Five Minute Friday***Today’s post was brought to you by Five Minute Friday and the word “fly”. If your fingers can fly across the keyboard at lightning speed and you have great stories to tell, join us on Lisa-Jo Baker’s site quick blogging fun.

My Duty is to Write

The goal of any momma is to see her children happy. My heart aches when my offspring are sad, and my temper flares when injustices make their lives more difficult.

Right now, I am a mad momma…a momma on the war path…a momma on a mission.

The government for which my oldest child has decided to serve is letting him down with its failure to agree. As a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he is directly affected by the shutdown of the government he has pledged to defend.

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The Older One will be able to take to the gridiron this weekend thanks to the Secretary of Defense.

One of the biggest news stories coming out of the service academies so far has been the uncertainty of Saturday football games. The Older One plays on the offensive line for the Army Black Knights, and in a football household like ours, the cancellation of a game is considered a disaster. The potential of such a rare event sent the Hubs and I on a frantic search of both traditional and social media for answers which finally came Wednesday night when the Secretary of Defense declared all service academy games are on as scheduled.

Yippee! We can watch football this weekend…. But that’s just a game. What about the rest of it?

What about the classes that are cancelled indefinitely because 30% of the teaching staff at West Point is made up of civilians now on unpaid furlough?

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My Cadet on the first day of class. I’m worried he could have his last day sooner than expected.

What about the assignments that just got more complicated because, while the library remains open, cadets can’t check out books with the facility now severely understaffed?

What about the added stress of keeping appearances up to military standards with the on-post barber shop and dry cleaners closed?

What if this shutdown doesn’t end soon? Will the USMA be forced to close completely like the Merchant Marine Academy already has?

It’s not fair! This is making my child unhappy! It is making me angry!

I want to drive the 13 hour trip to West Point to do his laundry, cut his hair, and teach his class.  No matter how much I want to be there to make this crisis better for him, I am realistic. I know I can’t do those things. It would embarrass him too much, and I’d be too tired by the time I got there any way.

There is one thing I can do, however.

I can write.

I can write to my congressman. I can write to my senators. I can write with a plea for compromise, a request for change, and a demand for common sense.  Keep our government open. Bring back the so-called “non-essential” employees. Stop cutting funding for programs and institutions that directly affect the lives of innocent people. Thank you for the football game, now let’s start talking about the bigger issues and end this dysfunction.

I can write. The Constitution of this great nation says I can express my opinions. I helped put these people in office so they could represent me. It is my duty to tell them how they can best do that, and right now, they can best do that by ending this shutdown.

That would make this momma extremely happy.

How are you affected by the government shutdown? Have you written your government officials?

Five Minute Friday***This post was brought to you today by Five Minute Friday and the word “Write”. After you write your letter to the government, head on over to Lisa-Jo Baker’s site and write about the experience.

My Piece of America’s Future

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

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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.

Welcome Home

Joy is coming to my home this weekend, and it’s bringing its friends Excitement and Peace along for the party.

Right now, as I type, they are preparing to make their journey home via bus, airplane and automobile….right after they play a football game.

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This is what Joy looks like!

Yes, the Older One is coming home for his Spring Break from the US Military Academy at West Point. Shortly after the final snap of the Black Knights’ spring football game, he will shed his shoulder pads, trade his cadet uniform for cotton and denim and board a bus bound for JFK International Airport in New York City.

Final destination: HOME!

Meanwhile, the preparations for his arrival began a week ago. His room, vacant since January 2, when he said goodbye after Winter Break, is dusted and vacuumed. His bathroom is as shiny as low quarter shoes during a SAMI (aka Saturday AM Inspection).  Menus have been planned and grocery lists compiled.

Tonight cupcakes will be baked and pups (both Furry and Fluffy) will be bathed as I anticipate the aromatic mix of buttery vanilla and wet dog.

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I pass my time waiting by doodling.

A number of countdowns have been underway since he last walked the floors of our home. The usual Days to Go jar is happily light, and the Young one has been practicing writing X’s as she crosses days off her calendar, as well as numbers as she counts the unmarked boxes to one where I’ve written “He’s Home!”

Across town, in my office, I’ve been doodling my own countdown on my dry erase board for the past 10 days. Today’s artwork reads, “1 day!”

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Our airport Welcome Home signs.

The sign is ready too–the one the Young One and I drew over a year ago to welcome our favorite person home. It travels to the airport with us every time we pile into the car for this much anticipated event.  Each time, the Young One insists on holding it…until we realize the Older One is making his way toward us, then she passes it to me, so she can run to him for the first hug.

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Finally…HOME!

We’re ready.

Soon my son will be home, bringing with him a much anticipated joy, an overwhelming sense of excitement, and a quietly beautiful peace.

How do you welcome a loved one home?

**Today’s post is brought to you by Five Minute Friday and the very appropriate word “Home”.

Giving Thanks for Stuffing

Thanksgiving has come and gone. I didn’t cook this year. Normally, I’m glued to Food Network the week prior to the biggest cooking holiday of the year, searching for that newest culinary creation to add to my menu. I clean the dining room, spread the special-occasion table cloth, lay the fancy silverware beside the good dishes and spend three days in the kitchen.

Me and the Older One back in the days when he enjoyed only boxed stuffing.

But this year, I didn’t do it. Not because I am not thankful. Not because I have more important things to do.

The reason I didn’t break out my inner Julia Child is because my oldest child wouldn’t be sitting across from me this year. He was sitting at someone else’s table hundreds of miles away, eating another momma’s turkey and mashed potatoes, while the Hubs, the Young One and I took in a buffet dinner at a local hotel. I’m saving my energy for a marathon Christmas cook-fest.

Holiday travel is notorious for inducing stress, so because the break is a relatively short one, the Older One decided he would take a short bus-trip to Boston with another West Point cadet instead of crossing his fingers that the air travel gods would smile on him and bring him to and from our Louisville home delay-free.

Of course, I thought of my boy repeatedly as we all declared what we were thankful for. I wondered if he was lonely. I wondered if he had enough to eat. I wondered if he felt comfortable in a home not his own.

His first text Wednesday helped ease my mind as he let me know he arrived safely.

The next one helped ease my heart as he declared with multiple exclamation points that his hosts were “really, really nice”.

On the phone after his Thanksgiving feast, he shared something that I am sure he said just to make me smile. “I ate ‘real’ stuffing, and it was good.” The boy who sits at my Thanksgiving table refuses any stuffing that does not come from a box and the stove top. Every year, I pledge to make a homemade version, and every year he convinces me, his holiday will be ruined if I follow though on the threat.

So, this year, the thing for which I am most thankful is the generosity of a family far away…for taking in a young man known for putting down five pounds of potatoes by himself…for giving him stress-free days…for introducing him to the world of “real stuffing”…and for filling in for his momma.

No, I didn’t cook this year, but I am thankful another momma with a warm home and a loving heart did.

Thank you!

*This is the Five Minute Friday Finale for 2012. Join us on Lisa-Jo Baker’s site in January for more Friday blogging fun!

West Point Style

West Point cadets continue to impress me. They are athletic, scholarly and honorable. This week, I have come to learn they are also extremely gifted in the arts, particularly those of dance, videography and lip syncing.

Since the Older One left the nest for the next phase of his life at the United States Military Academy at West Point, I am much less in touch with pop culture than I was when he lived at home. Prior to this week, I had no clue Gangnam Style was a song from South Korean rapper Psy. If you had asked me on Monday what it was, I probably would have said it was some type of fashion statement. These days, with only a five-year-old at home, I know more about Sponge Bob Square Pants than the latest dance craze.

I am, however, a social media guru (self-proclaimed, since my day-job requires that I Facebook, tweet and blog in a professional capacity), and I know a viral video when I see one. Gangnam Style, with almost 360 million views, is just about as viral as it gets. As testament to its viral nature, spoofs of the video are invading YouTube like soldiers on a battlefield, and the creative geniuses admitted to the US service academies are not to be excluded from this social media war.

Two weeks ago, the Naval Academy created a buzz with its Gangnam Style-inspired video, prompting CBSNews.com to challenge Navy’s biggest rival to a musical performance showdown. Yesterday, Army responded with resounding force when the Cadets posted their amazingly choreographed and edited rendition of Psy’s pop-culture hit.

Strobe lights!

On-location production numbers!

Child actors!

Horses!

The gauntlet has been thrown. The battle is on.

Navy’s version has received over five million views so far. Army fully intends to exceed that and is calling for a full-scale social media attack. This post is my contribution to the effort. Please watch Gangnam Style-West Point on YouTube, share it with all your friends, then tell me what you think.

Social media and traditional media alike are picking sides. I know which one I prefer. How about you?

GO ARMY! BEAT NAVY!

Stiletto Momma

*This post is part of WordPress’s Weekly Writing Challenge: Easy as Pie. Check it out and play along.