My dad came home early today, so I could run a few errands without having to drag the boys out in the cold. Earlier in the day when I’d taken the dog out, I was shocked at how it was quite literally freezing outside. Thankful for his help and a quiet hour by myself, I set out to grab a couple of things at the store and make a stop by the post office.
It was 3:30 when I walked in to what seemed a prematurely long line. Five days before Christmas, I would have expected the length, but nineteen days out, I was surprised to see the line snaking back and forth all the way to the front door. Ordinarily, I would have run through the automated machine or just come back another time, but I’d put off mailing a Christmas package to my husband long enough. Mail can take anywhere between ten days and a month to make it to him when he is deployed.
Begrudgingly, I asked the lady behind me to save my place while I grabbed a flat rate box to put my stack of “goodies from home” in. In the few seconds it took me to grab a box and get back in line, the line lengthened by ten people. I thought to myself how grateful I was to not have the boys with me. That time of day, late afternoon, is when we typically have much-needed mommy-mandated down time because otherwise, either one of them is capable of self-destructing. It’s never pretty when it happens in public.
I looked around to the front of the line to see if it was moving and realized there was a woman with a giant rolling bin of boxes at the front. Three different postal workers were working on getting her checked out. I mumbled something hateful under my breath and checked my watch.
The woman behind me had three children, a boy bundled from head-to-toe and carrying a plastic hanger from Walmart, a girl bundled into a stroller and snoozing peacefully, and a newborn bundled into a carrier. The mom was red-faced and frazzled, her hair pulled up in a loose ponytail, her post-pregnancy belly still very prominent. I found myself wanting to help her--carry the baby, entertain the four-year-old, build her a pile of blankets on the floor to take a nap. Something.
Behind her was an older woman in a wheelchair. She smelled of cigarettes and wore clothes too big for her small frame, a man’s stocking cap and puffy, kelly green mittens. The man who dropped her off stood just outside the door, smoking a cigarette while snow flurried around him.
As I filled out the customs form, I overheard the conversation behind me.
“How old are they?” the old woman asked.
With an indecipherable accent, the woman answered, “He’s four, and she’s eighteen months.” Lifting the blanket on the carrier to reveal a tiny pink hat, she continued, “This one’s just three weeks.”
The old woman laughed as if to herself, her eyes wide, “You’ve got your hands full.”
About that time, the little boy wandered over to a display of stationary and started tapping the wall quietly with his hanger. His mom explained to all of us, “He’s a pirate today. That’s his sword.”
I smiled to let her know I understood completely. Pirates, superheroes--we’ve all been there.
I’d moved ten feet in as many minutes. The woman with the giant rolling bin of boxes was still taking up the majority of the manpower behind the counter. The remaining worker seemed to be in no hurry. Several people walked in and turned right around to leave. I contemplated cutting my losses and heading to the store before I had to pick my mom up from work. But then, I thought about my husband having nothing to open on Christmas. It’s not like anything in the package was all that special, but this is our fourth deployment. I’ve come to learn that deployments have a way of making the little things matter so much more. I would wait.
The line started moving more quickly, as several people rolled their eyes and mumbled things like, “Not worth my time...” and “I’ll come back later...” as they headed out the door. I listened to the continuing conversation behind me. The mom was from Sweden. She had visited Florida as a child and jumped at the chance to move to the U. S. for college, where she met her husband. His job had moved them to Oklahoma three years ago. I listened carefully, while trying to not appear to be eavesdropping, as she described the cold as a blessing--how she missed home in Sweden so much when they had lived in Florida, a place without winter. The older lady in the wheelchair nodded in agreement. She had lived in Florida for two years but moved back to Oklahoma with her husband twenty years ago. She threw a thumb toward the door to point out the man outside. I wondered if he was still on the same cigarette, or if he was chain-smoking.
I reached the front and took my place next to the woman with the rolling bin. She was smallish with a bobbed haircut and nice clothes, and I noticed her eye make-up was smeared. For the first time, I was able to glance into the rolling bin at the stacks and stacks of boxes. Each box was uniform in size--flat rate boxes like mine. I read the side of one that was marked “4 of 25.” As the postal worker checked my customs form and stamped it appropriately, I took it upon myself to read the name of the addressee. All of these boxes, every single one of them, were marked to a “Chad.” The address was an APO/AE, similar to the address on mine. My eyes darted from box to box. Twenty-five boxes to a deployed service member. Chad.
The woman saw me staring at her mail and then noticed the copy of the completed customs form in my hand. She smiled, and her eyes filled with tears. “It’s my son. He’s in Afghanistan.”
I nodded, “My husband. He’s gone, too.”
I kept nodding. I didn’t know what else to do to keep from crying. She started talking hurriedly, wiping tears from her face, as she pulled out a picture of a child. I do mean a child. He was wearing Army fatigues and standing rigidly without a smile, but he was a child.
I kept nodding, and the moment was interrupted when the little girl who had been sleeping woke up and began to cry. Her brother was not helping things as he started poking her with his hanger. The older woman patted her lap and said loudly, “Oh, honey, hand me one of those babies.”
I stepped forward and took the carrier, while the mom said to the little boy in a hushed but firm voice, “Do not poke your sister, or I will take your sword away.”
The little girl continued to cry, her wails swelling enough to get the attention of everyone in the room. Her mother worked to get the seatbelt unfastened, while the woman with all the packages knelt down next to the little boy and asked him his name. Timidly, he answered her, his hanger sword limp at his side, “John. I’m a pirate.”
The mom had calmed the little girl down, and the murmur of people talking to one another in line or on their phones resumed. The moment was just that. Nothing more.
The mom motioned for me to hand the carrier back to her, and I did and then asked, “Can I do anything to help you?”
“Oh, no. We’re fine thanks,” she said automatically and then added, “Actually, would you mind grabbing our packages and taking them to the counter? And maybe scoot the stroller, too?”
I did what she asked, as the woman with all the packages helped the woman in the wheelchair move forward without knocking into anything. As they moved to the counter, the old woman removed her mittens and grabbed the mom’s jacket. Quietly, she told her, “I lost my only child thirty-one years ago. You never get over it.”
And then, we all did the only thing we could have done. The mom with the three young children, the mom with the grown child a million miles away, the mom in the wheelchair, and me. We cried. Right there in the lobby of the post office. We stared at each other and cried.
I caught as many tears as I could with the edge of my sleeve and started walking toward the exit. Then, without being able to control it, I turned and said, “You have a Merry Christmas.”
The wind took my breath away as I moved outside, and as I passed the smoking man, he nodded hello. I returned the nod and rushed to my car, to the warmth and comfort of a quiet place, and finished crying. I couldn’t get home fast enough. We had dinner to eat, baths to take, books to read. And phone calls from Daddy to wait on.