On Monday, April 12, 1999, Sandy and her husband, Steve, were having lunch at the Officers Club at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. Sandy looked outside through the glass window, while she sipped some of her sweetened iced tea. She noticed how perfect and ideal the weather appeared—sunny, clear blue skies, and a gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the trees outside. Inside where she was, however, she thought the atmosphere was cold, gloomy, and stormy.
Even though there was plenty of activity around them—people walking past, others talking at their tables, silverware and plates clanking together—neither of them was talking. There was a palpable tension between them. Not even the delicious aroma of the different dishes mingling in the air could soothe nor diffuse the tension.
After a major argument a month ago, Sandy was determined to spend more time with Steve. She hoped that joining him for lunch, at least once a month would help get them better connected again.
At the moment, the painful, prolonged silence between them was just too much for Sandy to bear. So, she started talking. “Our lab’s new chemistry analyzers were delivered at work today.” She was forcing a smile and infusing some enthusiasm in her voice, trying to engage Steve in some form of conversation. “They look more streamlined than the ones we have now. They can do BMPs in fifteen minutes and CMPs in twenty-two minutes, which the E.R. doctors will definitely like.”
Sandy thought the topic would interest him, since he was a doctor. “The best thing about them is that they require very little maintenance,” she continued, all the while observing him for any signs of being the least bit receptive to her. What Sandy saw, instead, were Steve’s openly unresponsive and expressionless face and a general stiffness in his overall posture. He grudgingly uttered the absolute minimum of words in response to her statements, until they had finished with their lunch and were getting up to leave the club.
“By the way,” he said, “I’ll be a little late coming home today. The hospital commander has scheduled a meeting at seventeen hundred hours.”
“Don’t know. It’s probably our usual monthly meeting, except that we’re doing it today rather than on Friday.”
Sandy was suspicious, but she brushed it off. She was all too familiar with the unpredictable nature of military life.
Since Steve was going to be getting home a bit late, Sandy and the children went ahead and ate their dinner. It was almost 7 p.m. when she recognized the sound of Steve’s Toyota SR5 pickup in the carport outside, followed by the sudden silence of the engine. She heard the vehicle’s door open and close. As she looked toward the kitchen door, she saw the doorknob turn. The door opened slowly and Steve walked in.
“How did the meeting go?” Sandy said as she met him at the door. Steve didn’t answer right away. He looks distraught, Sandy thought. She hugged him. Steve didn’t hug her back, but he gave her his usual casual peck on the lips. Sandy had to be satisfied with those casual pecks on the lips nowadays. It seemed to Sandy that Steve was only going through the motions with her lately. Gone were the warm hugs and wet kisses he used to give her in the past. Oh, how I miss those loving and passionate moments we used to share with each other, she told herself.
Steve went to their bedroom without saying anything. Sandy followed him. Still waiting for his response, she faced him with a questioning look and demanded, “Well, are you just gonna ignore me?”
Steve heaved a sigh—the kind of sigh that told her he’d like to say something, but was finding it difficult to get it out. “You’re not gonna like what I’m gonna say,’’ he finally said, and then paused. More pause created a rigid pressure in the air. He removed his shoes and socks, and tossed his socks in the hamper. Sandy’s feelings changed from questioning to worrisome. “I hate to tell you this,” he said, and then stopped talking while making a swift change out of his uniform into his shorts and t-shirt.
Sandy’s heart jumped to her throat. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the rest of it. With the way Steve had been acting toward her within the last three years—becoming more aloof, unloving, and less caring, she was afraid the day had finally arrived for him to say they were through. She tried to prepare herself for the worst, but it wasn’t helping.
“But I’ve got orders to go to Kosovo this Saturday. That’s what the meeting was about. It’s not all a secret, but it’s not something we want to be advertising or necessarily be telling people about, either. NATO has agreed to get involved in Kosovo. My group and I’ll be assigned there for medical support.”
“What?” Sandy clasped her heart—even though she was relieved to know Steve wasn’t asking for a divorce. Panic soon followed with the realization Steve was going off to another country and would be leaving her and the children behind. She would die if something bad were to happen to him in Kosovo—or anywhere else in the world. “How long will you be gone,” she asked, when her nerves finally settled a bit.
“Don’t know for sure. I was told to get all my personal affairs in order before shipping out. One thing they assured me was that this deployment would be for at least twelve months.”
Hearing the news, Sandy didn’t know if she could survive without Steve that long. It would mean she had to do everything while he was away. They’d been married almost ten years and had never been apart for any length of time. After dinner, she cleared the table and started the dishwasher.
She took a shower, then sat on the sofa next to Steve and started massaging his neck and back. It was a routine she was always glad to do. Steve was more talkative and social this time, which made her elated. They talked and wondered how the kids would handle the news and whether she could manage work and the whole household by herself. She’d never asked her family for help before, but she decided to ask her sister, Carrie, and her mom for help this time.
“I’m sure Carrie doesn’t mind moving from the dorm to come live with us for a while until you come back,” Sandy said. “I’ll call her tonight, and also call Mom to see if she could come over to stay with us until Carrie comes back from Florida.”
“What’s Carrie doing in Florida again,” Steve asked.
“She and her class went to attend a two-week study of the Florida Everglades ecosystem.” After the massage, she scratched Steve’s back. His pleasant groaning expressed his appreciation to her.
“Oh, yeah, I remember now … thanks for the massage and scratch.”
She said goodnight to Steve and then to the children who were playing with their toys in Sheyenne’s bedroom. In bed, after she set her alarm clock, she made her calls to Carrie and to her mom. The news earlier had been as stunning and devastating as stepping on a land mine. She had a difficult time falling asleep, so she tossed and turned. Sleep finally came, but it was seemingly just in time for the alarm clock to sound off.
Taking her lunch break that night, she ordered a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich with a large-sized Coke. No matter what time of day or night it was, all shift workers at the hospital called their meal in the middle of their shifts, ‘lunch’. She took a seat and started to eat. Besides her, there were only two other people sitting and eating in the entire cafeteria. The three of them were seated alone, each to their own table. The other two were busy reading paperback books while they ate.
I wish the lighting here was brighter. Don’t like it being so dim like this, Sandy thought.
There was a spooky, ghostly feeling she experienced each time she ate there, but tonight she didn’t feel it. Her mind was preoccupied with thoughts of Steve going to Kosovo and about her and the kids getting by without him.
I’m thankful Carrie has agreed to move in with us until Steve comes back, she thought, and for Mom to come over for a short while. Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do.