Quick messages, deep conversations, and long goodbyes

So we completed our first deployment and I say we purposefully because much like time at the Naval Academy, it is an experience for both parent and child. If it confirmed one thing, it is that I received applicable training as an Academy parent as did my son.

That training makes life as a Fleet parent easier but by no means does it make it easy. Inevitably, life as an Academy parent comes down to information and communication – What’s happening? What is my kid doing? Is my kid OK? Why haven’t they answered my text or email? Is the thing one parent posted on Facebook true?

When it comes to communication, there really wasn’t a whole lot of difference in him being a mere 150 miles away or halfway around the world and several hundred feet (or more … or less, who can really say?) underwater.

Another lesson from the Academy – you often won’t get what you want so you have to make the best of every opportunity. Really looking forward to the three of us actually being together but this was pretty good.

Much like his time at the Academy, communication on this deployment came sporadically and in bunches, often skipping over a few of the subjects we had been talking about previously. During Plebe Summer and the subsequent academic year, his first handful of messages were grim but not despondent, describing a non-stop pace where he was often drinking from a fire hose. A few phone calls happened, though unlike Plebe Summer when you knew exactly when they were scheduled, these came at random times and put me back in the habit of sleeping with my phone’s ringer on. The messages evolved, him responding to news on the homefront, talking logistics (like making sure his bills were paid) and making plans for when he returned.

I wish I could share his Christmas Day message in particular. Near the end of his deployment, he relayed his amazement at how despite a reputation for being socially awkward (go figure), some submariners never lack for something to say. So during one watch, he meticulously documented a conversation between two enlisted men while they were working. He noted the time the topic changed (about every four or five minutes) and, of course, the topic, which ranged from “rebuilding ancient civilizations” to “tapeworms.” When I tell you it made me laugh out loud, I mean tears were in my eyes and my sides ached. I shared it with my brother and a dear friend who both had similar reactions. 

There were the quick messages, which can often be the most important. After a Plebe Year that left him depleted, he spent a summer working hard to earn a spot on the sprint football team, something he failed to do during Plebe Summer. After a couple of anxious weeks of football camp, I received a three-word text that changed his trajectory at the Academy: “I made it.” Similarly, near the tail end of his deployment, he went silent (for reasons he would explain later but can’t be shared publicly in the name of OPSEC) for a few weeks. Finally, he called from a hotel room in Crete, saying he would be home soon, though he again could share the details. . Then a couple of days later, I received another short text – “Touchdown, state-side.”

As a writer, you often write sentence after sentence hoping you make an impact. Meanwhile, he wrote a total of five words across two text messages that spoke volumes. As Nietzsche famously said, “It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what others say in a whole book.”

But there were also in-depth conversations. While at the Academy, he would sometimes call or connect with me on Google chat and we’d go back and forth at length. The Google chats often happened late at night in the middle of the week as he was grinding out schoolwork, which meant the next work day required more than the usual amount of coffee, which I drank with joy.

His post-deployment leave saw him driving north and on the way back to the Philadelphia area and he decided to stop in for dinner with his oldest friend. On the way, he called for what I expected to be a brief update on his plans, which would eventually land him with me. For the next two-plus hours, we covered everything from investing to relationships (or lack thereof) to coaching football to road trips and a dozen other topics in between. It was the kind of conversation you always hope you will have with your adult children, a mix of reminiscing, fatherly advice, and just catching up.

Of course, the pinnacle was spending a precious two days with him. I know a lot of folks fill Facebook with a highlight reel of amazing experiences while their Mid or officer are home but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about both my kids, they really just want to hang out when they are off the clock. So that’s what we did. We had lunch with my brother and sister-in-law, who hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, had a three-person Instagram chat with his sister, took in a hockey game, and tinkered with the toys at the university’s media building (he is a huge geek when it comes to audio and video technology, which meshes well with his musicianship). All pretty low key.

Like all good things, it had to come to an end and he had to say goodbye.

For many folks, I know they say the goodbyes never get any easier but that hasn’t been my experience. The goodbyes have gotten easier but they still aren’t easy. The first goodbyes of I Day and Plebe Year were difficult mostly because of the unknowns – What would the next few weeks or months hold? Would he make it here? Would he want to make it here? As we fell into more of a routine, it was not easy to let him go, but it was easier. The first post-deployment goodbye was not easy, but having something of a handle of upcoming time frames and, at least in general, what to expect, made it easier. 

And so my post-graduate work continues and the goodbyes continue to be long.

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