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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Am I crazy?

One week ago today we sent Zach off on his new voyage into the world of VMI. One week ago today, he gave me a wink and a smile as he marched off to begin Hell Week as a RAT. What the hell kind of mom wants her kid to be a rat? I must be crazy! As his crazy mom, my heart swelled with pride, at the same exact time it sank, when his wink and smile hit me. I knew exactly what he was headed into. I knew, without a doubt, it was going to be a week from Hell, with Zach being pushed beyond his limits physically, mentally and emotionally. And I willingly let him go. I willingly let him march into a barren set of barracks, which Lucas likened to a prison, knowing those big iron gates were going to be locked shut with my son inside waiting to be screamed at with 500 of his closest friends. Was I crazy?

I don't think I am. Ok, so maybe I'm a little crazy. But on this one thing, for my oldest child, I don't think I am. It never bothered me, really, to think about him being yelled at for his clothes being wrinkled, or standing the wrong way, or not having shiny enough shoes. It never really bothered me to know that he's going to be road marching, carrying a rifle, learning to shoot and rappelling down cliff sides. What did bother me, was saying, "Good-bye, see you soon, I love you, I'm proud of you," and watching him go. But I knew he was going to be more than OK. 

Zach is the fourth one back.
In the days after he left, I've had the opportunity to find pictures of Zach online. Parents of older kids post them. Photographers post them. VMI has webcams and videos for all of us to watch. Not to get involved, just to watch from the sidelines. I couldn't be more grateful to all of them for letting me have a little glimpse of life for Zach. The first ones I found were of him on Sunday morning. He doesn't look sad or scared or mad. He looks determined. Those pictures tell his story.
Zach is on the far right in the front.

Zach called on Wednesday. And it was the sweetest five minutes I've had in a long time. I got to listen to him to talk. Just listen. He wanted to tell me everything. He told me he's surviving. He told me it's the hardest thing he's ever done. He told me he's "strangely happy." On Wednesday I figured I must be crazy because all of those sentences were music to my ears. 

As Zach wound down it what he wanted to tell me, I got a chance to tell him a couple of things. Of course, I told him I was proud of him. But I also told him this is what he's always searched for ~ someone who pushed him and pushed him and pushed him. He looked for challenge in all of his coaches. He looked for the challenge from all of his teachers. He looked for the challenge in us. I told him that now he has the challenge in every single facet of his life. I also told him about the pictures I've found. The determination in his face is evident in every picture I see. I told him I see it. It's there. He knows it's there. He put it there. It's there because he is determined to not fail, to not give up, to live up to the challenges he's facing. 

So am I crazy for sending my oldest off into this crazy world of mind games and pushing the physical limits of  not only him, but every kid who walks through those gates? I don't think so. I think Zach is right where he belongs. I couldn't be more relieved, for him, for me and for his 500 Brother Rats, who will become his closest friends, and who chose to walk this same path.

Oh, for the love of the Rats... 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

What I Gained

It seems this year has been a year of losses for me. It seems I've been writing about heart wrenching/heart breaking bits and pieces of my life since the beginning of the year. From my dad's heart attacks, to his strokes and his death, to watching Zach graduate from high school and get ready to leave our nest, this year had proven to be a year of losses and "losses," but today I want to tell you about what I gained.

Today, we dropped Zach off at Virginia Military Institute. Last night was a night of revelry and tears. We spent the night with one of Zach's best friends and his parents at their house in Lexington, Virginia, who graciously invited us to stay so we could all have a relaxed morning getting our incoming cadets matriculated. As we reveled and shed our tears, Zach asked me to promise not to cry in front of him today. I told him I'd try my hardest.

Today, I kept my word. I didn't shed one tear he could see. And today I was rewarded for my strength. I got to see Zach do exactly what he wanted to do with smile on his face (albeit with nerves jangling and a pit in the bottom of his stomach). He joined the corps of cadets at VMI as a rat.

Today, I was rewarded with a big hug and a photo op as Zach prepared to sign the matriculation book.

I was rewarded with his smiles, hugs and sweetness. And I was rewarded well for keeping my emotions in check. But today wasn't really about being rewarded. Today was more about what I gained.

Today, I gained a son who is turning into a man. My man-child faded from view a little, which made  me a little sad, but the man I know he will become came bursting forth and made me smile with unbridled pride. 

Today I gained a little insight into what life is going to be like for Zach in the future. As we sat and listened to the speakers before all of the Rats were called to their companies, one of the colonels said something to this effect, "You are now entering the toughest university in the nation." (Zach shuddered and leaned over to me saying, "I really have to pee now."God love him for his sense of humor.) The colonel went on to say, "You all will rise to the challenges ahead of you and you will succeed. You are a reflection of your parents and they have set you on a good path. When they see you next they will see changes in you. You will not have changed as a person. The person you were will still be there but your sterling qualities will become more apparent." I took those words to heart. I know Zach took them to heart too. Today I gained the knowledge that Zach will rise to the challenge and he will succeed. Today I also gained the insight that I'll rise to this challenge of letting our kids go and I will succeed.

I've been rewarded a lot and gained even more, but there is one thing I gained today which is beyond priceless to me. As Zach marched off with his Brother Rats in Company H we stood on the sidelines and watched. He made sure to catch my eye and give me a wink and a smile. 

Today, I gained a son who understands what it means to not only be taken care of by your parents, but to take care of them as well. 

Oh, for the love of my children...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sometimes I wish you were a jerk

My dear Sweet Man-Child,

The time is almost here. The time I've been dreading but knew was coming is almost here. Tomorrow we pack up the car and head the next chapter in your life. I can't believe how quickly time has passed bringing us to this day. I think I blinked one too many times. The experienced moms who approached me when you were a newborn, telling me not to blink and that time would fly by, were right. They knew what I know now. Time passes too quickly when raising your kiddos.

As we all prepare to spend our last night together at home I want to share some things with you.

The first one is ~ sometimes I wish you were a first class jerk. No I don't really. I don't wish that at all. Well, maybe I wished it for a minute, because sometimes I wonder if it would make it easier to take you to school and drop you off. Would I be relieved to see you somewhere other than our house if you were a jerk? Would I be happy to see you and your belongings packed up in the back of the car if I didn't like you so much? I'm happy I won't ever know the answers to those questions.

Next, I want you to know how extremely proud I am of you. You are you. And you are one stellar young man. Not every kid could take on the challenge you asked for and accepted by applying to VMI. It's no ordinary college. You will thrive in that environment. Accepting the challenges they throw at you will not be easy. You know it won't but you will rise to the challenge and you will go far. I believe that with all of my heart.

A third thing I want you to know is how thrilled I am with the example you set for your brother and sister to follow. You took the role of big brother to heart and set the bar high. There is nothing Lucas and Claire can't achieve because of your example. I know that is a tremendous amount of responsiblity and I can't thank you enough for not only shouldering the responsiblity but making sure to set a wonderful example.

I want you to know, too, that I know these days, weeks and months ahead are going to be brutal for you. I know it's going to challenge you to your very core. I can't begin to imagine what must be going through your mind right now. Nor can imagine what you'll be going through during hell week and the rat line. I've told you time and time again that I think you're a stellar young man. That is truer now than ever, in my mind. But I know VMI is going to take you and make you a stellar leader in this life of yours. You will go far in this world with the lessons that will be drummed into you in the next four years. You will survive and you will thrive. I know you will. I believe in you.

One final thing I want you to know, Zach. I know you could never be a jerk, even though I wished it above, for just a minute. You don't have the ability to be a jerk, even though right now, right this minute I wish you were. I truly think it would make it easier to send you on your way. But I'll tell you the God's-honest truth. I'm so glad you're not a jerk. I'm so glad the tears will fall.  It means I'm proud of you. It means we've all done a great job in this family of ours. It means I know you can do whatever you want to do in life. And it means I love you.

So Saturday, when we're moving you into barracks, watching you sign the matriculation book and sending you off on your new adventure, I'll keep repeating to myself, "I'm happier for him than I'm sad for myself." Over and over and over again. I know the tears will fall but my heart will be bursting with pride.

With love ~

Oh, for the love of my children...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

3 Months Ago

Three months ago today we were in the midst of informing everyone about my father's passing. We were knee deep in planning a funeral and a celebration of his life. Three months ago today I was working on his obituary and writing his eulogy. 

Today I opened the most wonderful email from someone I've never met, but who took time out of her life to tell me a story about my dad's history. She touched me deeply with this very thoughtful message.

Hi JD – I write this with some trepidation, as I know it’s a somewhat strange message. I certainly hope you won’t be offended. If you are, my apologies – there’s no need to respond! ... I’m a writer in Webster Groves, Missouri. A few years ago my husband and I moved into a little house here built in 1925 (Tuxedo Blvd.), and since then I’ve been researching its history. I discovered that it belonged to the Combs family (your family, of course) through records, and that your father, Frank, and his siblings grew up here. I discovered yesterday through a Google search that you lost your father this past May – I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion, but I read about his life and his service on – he seemed like a wonderful man. I saw some of the pictures of the house on the site, and I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to know that a wonderful family lived here, especially as my husband and I prepare to start a family. There’s one photo of your father standing in the front yard with a small, thin, short tree behind him. I couldn’t believe my eyes – that tree is now taller than the house! I have comparison photos, but I thought I’d save them until I knew if you were open to seeing them. Again, I apologize if this message is upsetting to you, or if you feel that I've taken a step too far – I wrote only because I know how much it would mean to me if I was on the other side of it. If you don’t wish to respond, please just know that I’m proud to live in this house, my husband and I are taking good care of it, and my thoughts are with your family.

She and I have been emailing back and forth this morning and she sent two pictures of the little house on Tuxedo Blvd. 

The picture on top is the one of the tree, my dad and how it's grown. The picture on the bottom left is of the living room, complete with my mom and dad, two aunts and uncles and grandmothers. The one on the right is how it looks today.

Three months ago today we were in the throes of planning my dad's funeral. This morning, I opened  a thoughtful email from a stranger showing me that life keeps moving and changing, and history is woven into our lives to enhance the present, but only if we let it. I'm going to take this as a sign from above to remember how important little gestures are in life. I'm very thankful as I read, re-read and share this little note. I'll take the lessons I learned from this and make sure I pass them on to my kiddos so they can focus on the present, but appreciate the past and make sure to remember little gestures can have a big impact. I'm pretty sure my dad would agree.

Oh, for the love of my children...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ready to throw up

In July of 1999 Stan and I left the world of military life behind to embark on a new journey. We came home after living in Germany for three years and began to make Louisville, Kentucky our new  home. Stan went from being a military intelligence officer to being a drug rep with a small pharmaceutical company. His path in the civilian world began with a bang when the company offered us an all expense paid trip to Hawaii for a business meeting.

What a sweet reward for being with the company less than a year, I thought to myself. I was over-joyed, elated and ready for a little fun in the tropical paradise of Maui. And then reality hit. We had two little boys. Zach had turned four a couple of months earlier and Lucas was 18 months old. Taking them with us seemed like a practice in torture with a nine hour plane ride, a big time change, diapers, wipes, bottles and a pack and play all crammed into a hotel stay. But leaving them behind was going to take some major arranging and planning. The wind was knocked out of my sails a little.

My parents weren't equipped to handle two young, energetic boys; they lived in Kansas and my mom was still working so they were out of the equation. Stan's parents owned a grocery store in Maine where they ran every aspect of the operation and were there seven days a week, plus they still had two kids of their own at home so they, too, were out of contention for watching our two.

Luckily for us, one of our army friends stepped in. They were stationed at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, a mere three hour drive from our house. They had one daughter who was three weeks older than Zach and they were easy going and lovey.  It would be a simple drive there with the boys. Then we could get a flight out of Nashville and on to Hawaii.  It seemed like the perfect solution.

My excitement grew.  It was the first time Stan and I would have some time alone together since having the boys.  I packed, repacked, organized and got everyone ready for our trip. Finally the day arrived and we headed to Ft. Campbell.

We unloaded the car, set up the pack and play, gave the the boys' schedules and our cell phone numbers to our friends. We kissed the boys good-bye and went to leave. But I couldn't get myself out the door. Just one more kiss, I thought to myself. One more hug. One more round of baby giggles. Just one more of everything. Stan started pulling me out the door, my friends started pushing me out the door. "The boys will be fine," they all said. But I needed another hit of their baby-sweetness. I didn't want to leave.

They all persisted and I went glumly to the car. I opened the passenger door, saw their sweet faces stained with tears because we were leaving them. I almost went back for another round of kisses and good-byes, but Stan was unrelenting. It was time to head to Nashville. Stan put the car in reverse, backed out of the driveway and headed the car down the road.

We made it almost a block before I had Stan pull over. My face was hot. My palms were sweaty. Nausea bubbled up from the pit of my stomach. I was ready to throw up. I was leaving my babies and it made me physically ill to think of their tears and sadness because we were leaving them. I got out of the car, hung on to a street sign and gulped big breaths of air working to quell my roiling stomach. I was trying to pull myself together, but I was failing miserably. I didn't want to leave my boys. I did. But I really didn't want to.

This morning at 3:11 I woke up with that same sick, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was nauseated. My face was hot and my hair was sticky with sweat. I couldn't catch my breath. I couldn't get comfortable and I couldn't go back to sleep. My thoughts were swirling from the minute I jolted myself awake and my thoughts kept returning to the same thing...we're going to be leaving Zach soon. We're going to pack his clothes, towels, sheets, toiletries and his life in trunks. We're going to load up the car and drive him to college. We're going to leave him there and I'm going to want to go back for one more kiss, one more hug, one more round of anything I can get before I leave him. But this time it will be my tears, not his, that I'll be battling. Unfortunately in life, this is what we have to do. We have to say good-bye sometimes. We have to let our kiddos go sometimes. And we have to let them grow. But that doesn't mean I have to like it and it doesn't mean I still won't make Stan pull over to the side of the road when I'm ready to throw up.

Oh, for the love of my children....