The months building to his final excursion to Afghanistan, or at least what I hope will be the final travel, would pass more quickly if we weren’t enduring another long Wyoming winter. The time between his travels last spring and in October flew past, but these days move more slowly despite how short on daylight they appear. We hunker down against each winter storm, and the subsequent cold that follows, and sometimes a partial melt, and then the next storm, with a constant wind whistling through each day and night and the next day.
Winter stresses the branches and the structures and the roads and the bodies shuffling through errands and workdays and daily existence. This is winter in a state where the wind never dies. My heaviest coat still allows it to sneak into the spaces between my gloves and my sleeves. Multiple layers below my waist cannot stop the constant push of winter against my body from pinching me and forcing me to curl inwards against its thrashing. Inside, deep inside my skin and muscles, my ankle uses the long weeks of winter to continue to heal. I limp occasionally, and I take slower steps to protect myself from the ever-present threat of reinjury, but caution and care carry me through the winter and rebuild my body to its whole, solid self.
I dread Daniel’s pending departure, but the pile of months stacks like the wintry drifts building upon what the late autumn storms began. Meanwhile the wood pile from his summer efforts depletes gradually, matching the days on the calendar diminishing until he must again go back to Afghanistan. We don’t even speak the word in our home.
Daniel’s departure sneaks closer, and even as I am standing at the airport, saying my farewell, I am in awe that this day finally arrives. We spend the time effectively, preparing for the arrival of a baby and its mother, not only with the furnishings and household goods, but with mounds of government paperwork to enable us to sponsor this tiny family, half of which doesn’t even exist yet. I doubt our thoroughness has been adequate and I expect there could just as easily be additional drifts of bureaucracy that trip us up just when every box appears checked and every signature has been captured. We just don’t know entirely what to expect from the bureaucracy of moving an unborn child and a refugee, as much from her family as her country, to the United States.
Moving her halfway around the world takes reems of paper and mountains of red tape rivaling those reaching skyward outside Daniel’s office window. In contrast to how long winter feels as I trudge through each day, the mighty Bighorns just beyond our home, layered and rose and fractured over millions of millennia, making the effort we spend as we build our portfolio of authorizations and approvals and passports and permissions, mere months – a flicker in comparison to the epic creation literally in our own back yard. Yet the work Daniel and I accomplish through the State Department, the Afghani foreign affairs office, and every desk and department in between, certainly stack and wear us down, eroding us as much as the blowing wind bashes me with its continuity. Even in the last week before his departure, we still anxiously await final approvals on critical forms that he will need to carry with him overseas. We most likely print a forest worth of trees getting everything ready to welcome these two souls to our forest.
All this work gets tacked on top of the business requirements to wrap up the project that he and I never discuss, which, I deliberately must remind myself, is the primary purpose of his travel. The school construction presumably continues, nearing completion. As a result of everything ahead of him, I am aware that this trip could extend beyond two weeks. Simply preparing myself for that possibility, I am deeply hoping his excursions will come to an end sooner rather than later.
Parts of me wish away the winter, ready for this business endeavor to be behind him, elated for the time to be healing physically, and ready to open my home and my life to strangers. Just as many contrasting elements within me worry about Daniel’s approaching travel, the hiccups that could keep mother and child from joining us, and the risks that nothing in that country is guaranteed, I ache for more time to be certain everything is finalized.
I expected when I met Daniel the fear of the unknown would be a casualty of our relationship, and gratefully so. The strength I have developed, even thinking about the conflicts I face as part of my current responsibilities on the forest, almost make me feel like an entirely different person from the woman who cowered at the foot of that staircase years ago. Now I stand up for myself, and others, and the woods, and the resources, and every acre of beauty to which I am entrusted. I hope to be able to do the same for our new housemates when they join our lives. As anxious as I am for their arrival, by the time the slightly longer days ease us towards spring and the temperatures are merely cold rather than brutal, I will dread our goodbyes at the Billings terminal yet again.
“Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too,” I remind him in the loading and unloading zone. I know his focus will be on everyone and everything except himself. I try to encourage him to not neglect the most important person in this scenario. He is the center of my universe, standing tall and silent on this airport curb, the figurative leader of a massive international construction project, the diplomatic liaison between a pregnant woman and her unborn child and their future, and a veteran still scarred by the deaths of those who he fought to save. And now he heads out to save others in another war zone. It takes every bit of strength I possess to not allow my fear to be broadcast across my face as we say our public goodbyes.
“Don’t be afraid,” he admonishes me in my failure to disguise my worry, “nothing – not one thing – where I am going is more important to me than the one thing I am leaving here. I love you, Nat.”
With that, the tears escape and my bravery disappears.
“Oh Daniel, be safe. Please, whatever you do, be safe. Gawd, I love you.”
He kisses my forehead, he grasps my head in his massive palm, and pulls me in, leans down, and embraces me the way he heats me up and melts me inside. This gesture from him always reminds me of our first kiss and I feel an impulsive surge within me to grab him and forbid him to leave me.
I realize it is the powerful force of love that has exponentially grown from the first time his lips touched mine and I cannot fathom how little I loved him back then, at a time when I couldn’t imagine loving him more. Now here, today, on this curb, as I release my grip from his coat pocket, and watch him disappear behind the sliding doors, headed to change the lives of not just a woman and a child, but every young girl who will attend the school he is erecting, I am reminded that I barely knew how to love, much less only began to learn how to love him even when he went through those same doors last year.
I force myself to get into the car, and to pull away only because I can’t remain parked in the drop-off area, so I pull into the airport lot to let every ounce of fear and love and uncertainty and anticipation for his return gush into a crying mess that has no business tackling the interstate back to Wyoming.
I know I will survive his short time away, but from this spot, as the sun shines across the mid-morning illumination of the buttes around me, it feels as if I must wait for mountains to rise up and erode away until I see him again. To think I once collapsed similarly because of the hate forced upon me just five years ago, and now I live a life surrounded in love and devotion and loyalty and honesty, with coworkers who defend me and spectacular views that overwhelm me. And still, my heart hurts from his short-term absence.
NEXT: Proceeding Onward – Part 51