When your kid attends one of our military academies, it’s easy to become subsumed by their life. Their schedule becomes your schedule and at least in our case, your family calendar depends largely on the academy’s calendar.
By late October, we were eyeing up our son’s return from the Naval Academy – when could he leave The Yard? What’s the best way to get him home on some of the busiest travel days of the year? When does he have to go back? When will he return for Christmas?
By the time the snow started to melt into Spring, we began matching up the Spring Break schedules for USNA, our now-Basic Cadet’s high school, and the university where my wife and I teach, hoping for overlaps. And if you have a child at an academy, you know the drill for summer – which block can they come home? Can they come home between blocks? Do they have a third block Blocker (usually sports-related) that will have them back early?
Then there’s the emotional roller coaster, watching them navigate the highs and lows of their rigorous lives.
But as I write this, I’m at 27,000 feet, headed to Cleveland and marking time in quite a different way, though it’s still connected to my kids. I’m on my way to the funeral for my step-mother, the last of my three parents and I’m pondering these milestones and how they relate to both of my children.
My mother passed away when I was just a child myself. When people ask about the event that had the biggest impact on my life, it’s an easy call as her passing on an Easter Sunday forever changed my life’s path.
My father passed away before my kids really got to know him. My son was 8, my daughter 4 and while they had spent time with him (he lived in Florida, we live near Philadelphia), it wasn’t nearly enough for them to capture more than fleeting scraps of memories by the time they matured to adulthood.
The first major loss for them was their maternal grandfather. He was the Pop-pop they had vacationed with in the Poconos, who had been there for numerous football and softball games, gymnastics meets and concerts. He passed when my son was a Midshipman and my daughter in high school, both important milestones in their lives and much different places than when their other grandfather had passed. And, frankly, if I’m being honest, a much different place for me as a parent.
Now, their paternal grandmother was gone. Again, they didn’t have as many memories with her (though she holds a special place for Catie, as she and her other grandmother accompanied me on the trip to collect her from China), but they were more vivid than those they had with my father. They are also in different places than the previous loss, my son now a Naval Academy graduate, an ensign working his way through training before his first assignment in the submarine service. Of course, my daughter has just finished BCT at the Air Force Academy, beginning her four-year journey of challenges and adventures. As a parent, it’s also a much different place. Both kids are out of the house. And unlike the parents of most college-bound kids, we know our daughter won’t be coming back for any extended period of time, so we are empty-nesters, with the exception of their maternal grandmother who lives with us while on hospice care.
The services for my stepmother were filled with laughter from countless memories, smiles from timeless memories, and sadness, not for her, but for us and the void she left behind. As I looked through countless photos and the thoughtful video my niece produced, I once again saw the time marked by my kids … my son sitting on grandma’s lap at a baseball game in Ohio when he was still an only child, my daughter in an umbrella stroller next to grandma in Guangzhou, both of them stacked in a pyramid with a handful of other grandchildren, providing another photographic keepsake.
I returned home late the night of the funeral, with enough time to unpack and repack for the next day’s trip to Colorado for my daughter’s A(cceptance) Day at the Air Force Academy and grab some restless sleep.
We spent the night before A Day collecting last-minute items for our daughter, including an insulated bag for the Chick-Fil-A lunch she had requested. The A Day parade is what we’ve come to expect from such events, brimming with tradition and precision. But if I’m being honest, I was mostly focused on getting a chance to see my daughter for the first time since Induction Day.
That moment finally came was we made our way across the parade field to find her squadron performing the shoulder board ceremony, where upperclassmen add the shoulderboards to the now-Cadet’s uniform, marking the acceptance into the Cadet Wing. We went back to the stands for convocation, which allowed the faculty to officially mark the beginning of the academic year, but again, if I’m being honest, I was mostly thinking about getting back to the car so we could feed our daughter and get her gear in her hands.
Unfortunately, the whole thing ran long and my daughter had to move more quickly than we all would have liked. She inhaled her food and we drove her close to her dorm room so she could shuttle her gear to her room and quickly change. Then we dropped her as close as we could to the gym for the last of her cheerleading tryouts. As a competitive gymnast, she knew she was not up to the level of USAFA’s Division I team, but thought cheerleading offered her an opportunity to engage in a physical activity at a high level and leverage some of her developed skills. She anticipated knowing the results later that afternoon.
Since we had nothing better to do, we sat in a parking lot near that gym … for hours. Waiting. For a text. A phone call. An Instagram chat. Every 30 minutes, I’d text her “Still here. Hoping for good news!” Finally, when it was clear we needed to go, I called her a few times. No answer, of course. I looked at my wife and said, “one last call, then we gotta go.”
Miraculously, she answered, stunned we were still there. She had no cell service in the gym and had just looked at her phone the first time upon arriving in her room to see my call. She got changed and raced to the car.
The results now wouldn’t be known until tomorrow morning. So we took the time for her to recount her efforts and how she thought she did and generally just be together. Finally, we said our goodbyes then watched her walk up the steep sidewalk toward the dorm, then out of sight.
We spent the next morning packing and staring at our cell phone, waiting for word. There was none. The only word we had gotten was that our flight home was delayed, which seems to be status quo for Denver. Nonetheless, we did the heel-and-toe-brake-to-accelerator dance that is I-25 to make our way to the airport. As we sat eating a meal before boarding, I sent her a text, asking if she had gotten any word. As we settled the check and began heading to the gate, she texted her Mom, nearly 24 hours since we had left her. She was one of 10 girls selected. She didn’t know if she was simply an “alternate” or actually on the team but to her, it didn’t matter. She was in.
So now as I write this from 30,000 feet headed back to Philadelphia, I’m pondering timelines. We continue to be tethered to an academy schedule, of course, now peering down the road, wondering what Thanksgiving and Christmas break hold, but we are also returning to my mother-in-law. Only God knows how much time she has left with us and I wonder if it is in His plans for her to mark another phase of our lives, perhaps Catie commissioning in four years and heading to (we think) flight school and Noah completing his initial five-year Navy commitment and going who-knows-where. Time will tell. For now, it’s back to a timeline dictated by a military academy, trying to treasure the time we have, not wish it away.