They give you restrictions; they give you rules.
Before a soldier from any branch of military can be released from active duty, he must undergo a series of counseling sessions and briefings and tests, some of which are meant to preserve the physical and emotional health of the soldier and keep him deployable for future tours of duty. There is a TB test. A thorough dental cleaning and examination. A legal briefing, a jobs briefing, a finance briefing, a battery of emotional tests. PowerPoint is heavily overused and the rooms stink with anxiety and many months of desert sweat.
Standing alone in its paired imprecision and regimentation -- never appropriate in all circumstances, carefully detailed and quantified, impossible to either enforce or drill for: the family re-entry briefing. Soldiers are given limits, expectations, and rules.
In the keeping is the homecoming. In the space before and after the rules, the re-entry.
Remember, you are a guest in your spouse's house. He walks in the door at 11:30 p.m. on this Thursday, jarred with exhaustion and relief. I have just taken the asparagus out of the oven, I have just reached in the fridge for organic mayonnaise, I am ready to slice blue cheese and to spread it on a plate as he no doubt wishes. A guest in my house, he kisses me and hugs me and smiles hello at his oldest son, waiting, rubbing eyes, for daddy. A guest in my house, he puts his things away in the basement and says goodbye to his friend who has given him a ride from the airport and washes his hands and takes off his boots. A guest in my house, he turns on the television.
I am hungry, ravenous really, having spent the past several hours cleaning so a guest would feel welcome. I have spent time moving and scrubbing and putting the younger boys to bed; cleaning and snapping the ends off asparagus spears and sprinkling things with Portuguese sea salt and drizzling organic California olive oil in a recycled green glass bottle. "I'm so happy to recycle again!" he says. "I'm so happy to be home!" Happy to be home, he buzzes with excitement, he cannot eat, he cannot sleep, he sees what I have done: the bathroom in progress, undergoing, finally, its major renovation that should have taken three weeks, but has taken more. His clothes, taken downstairs to save from the construction dust. The toaster oven, stored away in the basement. The filing project, never quite finished. He does not say anything, not this night. I eat and he does not, I sit on the neat and orderly couch watching a show we both like and he whirs around, up and down the stairs and on the phone and on Facebook and we stay up very late because, it is after all a celebration of this guest's arrival in our terribly humble home after oh-so-long.
Do not make any demands on your children or enforce rules for 72 hours. He tells me this again and again when he arrives. No demands, no rules. He tells me this in the morning when I awake, I have given Truman the day off school but I must notify the bus driver and I must get breakfast for the boys and I must try to keep them quiet for as long as possible so that he can sleep but of course I fail and he wakes up at 9 a.m. and he begins to wash the dishes. "Don't do that!" I say, meaning to keep this, this maintenance of the cleanliness I have so frantically established in a rush, wanting to be a good military wife, knowing that truly I am not. He pours the purple highly-scented brand name dishwashing liquid that his sister bought all over the dishes and I cringe. I push him, gently, out of the way; he does not want the cereal I have bought for him or the eggs I have gathered for him or the yogurt I have picked for the boys and he goes out to the convenience store for food.
Everett has been home-schooled for the past three months and it is really, if you want to be frank about it, un-schooling and I did this knowing that Jonathan would not ever be entirely o.k. with it, if he was ever even a little o.k. with it, and knowing that there was no other way. At 10 on this first morning home he asks me about Everett's lessons and when I laugh it off he asks me again at 10:15 and when I say, "there are no lessons, really," at 10:30 he demands an answer in a voice that is not modulated and is rather demanding, really. There are no lessons. Really, there are, but not with paper or pencil or quizzes. When Everett is on the back of my bike I teach him about satire (when we are reading satirical literature or he is watching Mad TV) or schadenfreude (when he is taking undue pleasure in the misfortunes of others) or, if he is bored, I make him add up the digits in license plates or figure out story problems in his head. On another day, he makes a wall with his french fries at Burgerville and we are making jokes about it so I teach him about the Berlin Wall. I show him how Reagan said, "tear down that wall!" and he and his friend nod sagely when I remind them of Hitler and explain communism in a soundbite. No, there are no lessons.
Integrate yourself into your spouse's life; respect existing schedules and commitments. I tell him, when he is in Georgia getting ready to receive his travel itinerary; I tell him, in Atlanta at the airport; I tell him, the morning after he arrives that I have promised this 5,000-word report on Monday and that, I must, I am sorry, work so very hard on it after I have organized a party for him and after I have helped him unpack his treasures and after the bed has been made and re-made and re-made three times. This will be my Sunday, my Monday: I will work and work and work, because I was born with this writerly habituation to doing things at the very last minute, and still believing they can be the best of all possible things. He says, "of course" and "I will support you in whatever you need," and "it will be different, I'm here for you" while he is elsewhere, while he is still receiving briefings and examinations, while he is waiting to fly home.
On Sunday, briefed and examined and home, he does not like my rules about what the boys should watch on television and he does not think he should, yet, be left responsible for little boys and he does not know if they will suddenly run out into the street (364 days without a boy in the street, I think to myself, not even chasing an overthrown ball -- they cried, they came to me for rescue -- ), and I have not properly prepared the food at the proper times and I walk, boys and me, to Starbucks together instead of going it alone and I am (I can admit this) bitter, and I have not yet cleaned out the fridge and this is becoming an enormous point of contention, and there is no room in my head to think and I cast about my brain wondering, 'where do I find my space,' it is not here.
I am two days late with my project; I rip time out of its family moorings and deliver, still; the bathroom project creeps and slows; I will spend a weekend cleaning the refrigerator and the closet, I will not make a lesson plan, I will keep sweeping madly, tearfully, throat closing with sickness, at the corners of my brain, making room, there has been a re-entry into my space and no one delivered to me a PowerPoint, no one briefed me with the regulations, I have lost the manual to my equilibrium and I am scrubbing, still, on hands and knees, if I only swipe madly enough I am sure I will find it, somewhere.