A few weeks ago, my friend Cheryl came over for our weekly happy hour. Our kids immediately got to work dismantling the art corner, settling into the chaos that they call fun. Too tired to bother with organizing their mess, Cheryl flopped down across from where I lay on the playroom floor, head resting on a stuffed animal, equally spent. She filled me in on her day, tossing a miniature basketball from one hand to the other, and I smiled to myself. I was glad that our regular get-togethers had grown into visits comfortable enough to bypass small talk and social graces and dive right into conversation… and a glass or two of wine.
And that’s the point in an assignment, when you take a deep breath, appreciate good friendships that have developed, and feel at home… and then you get orders to move.
It’s that time again.
Yet again, the length of an assignment has been adjusted. We’ll be leaving a year sooner than expected, embarking upon our sixth move in ten years this summer. A 2,000-mile journey stands before us, from the competitive grind of Washington, DC, to the farthest corner of Texas, where they reportedly operate on “mañana time”: El Paso.
It’s time to stop buying items that the movers won’t pack, like jugs of Clorox or family-sized liquid Downy. It’s time to buy only sparingly other staples, like flour, vinegar, lotion, and shampoo. It’s time to think about purging items that aren’t worth taking, like over-the-door shower caddies that have lost their luster or toilet brushes that… well, that would just be disgusting to pack.
Inevitably, we’ll have a few boxes filled with spray bottles of 409 and unopened boxes of Swiffer Wet pads, half-filled Domino sugar bags and a never-enjoyed box of Bisquick. We’ll pass those items to neighbors, hoping they can use them. We might unload them with a disgruntled humph, annoyed by the wasted money, or we might hand them off with the immense relief felt by simply getting rid of stuff during a period of high-stress.
But what do we do with the friendships? Do we put them in a box, give them to a neighbor, and hope they can be useful? Do we unload them with a humph, a sigh of relief? Do we put a numbered sticker on their foreheads and load them on the truck? Gosh, I sure wish we could.
This is one of those parts of military life that is both a difficulty and a blessing. After saying goodbye to friends, I’ve shut the door and crumpled into a sobbing, pathetic mess many a time. My face has swelled to double its size and the redness around my eyes and cheeks could have been mistaken for an unfortunate skin condition. Mike has tried to comfort me, reminding me that no one has died, that no one has to go face the shark tanks. I have laughed through my tears but then wailed, “It’s just not faaair!”
And it’s not fair. But it is special.
Military friends are fast friends made fast. In just a few months time, you could conceivably stand back and realize you’re sharing deep feelings and quite personal information with someone who you’ve known for barely any time at all, but with whom you feel remarkably close. You trust her with just about everything. And she trusts you. And years later, even after you’ve parted ways, you can think with amazement that you only spent a couple years with someone, but she remains one of your closest friends.
Military friendships are those that spring into action at a moment’s notice. Without training or a guidebook or even much practice, military friends are prepared to implement what will look like a carefully devised plan of emotional and practical support, seamless communication, and, sometimes, protection from unwanted approaches. A group of people who have never met before could easily become an extraordinary network of warriors, able to coordinate sustained support for a common friend without missing a beat. They know exactly who to call and exactly what to do and exactly how to work with each other to get the job done. They are a force to be reckoned with.
Maybe saying goodbye seems so unfair because we weather extreme challenges together. We put down our guards quickly to get to know each other, and we raise our guards to stand in front of another when the time calls. I’m sure that, like me, many of you can think of times when you’ve been on either side of the friendship, and I’m sure you feel the same deep gratitude for and kinship with such remarkable friends.
And I bet, like me, you wish you could take those friends with you.
Saying goodbye is hard, but really, I think that in this life, what we really say is”until next time.” Because there will be a next time. We use the myriad modes of electronic communication at our disposal, and we punctuate them with a phone call, a post card, a care package, or a visit here and there. If we’re lucky, as I was here with Jill and Rose as well as Angela, we will be assigned together again in the future and experience the blessing of picking up where we left off.
We can’t pack our friends with us. And we might become a bit harmlessly jealous when we leave before they do, and they befriend someone new (perhaps a neighbor did find them useful). But the prize we leave with is the unique experience of sharing a friendship with them, one that might have taken just days to form, a year or two to enjoy, but a lifetime to treasure.