FORT RILEY, Kan. — Five years ago, my new husband, David, swallowed his tears as he tried to find a way to say goodbye. He held our baby girl to his nose, inhaled her newborn scent and searched my eyes for understanding.
"You know I have to go, right?" he asked. I nodded, trying to understand his leaving, his sense of duty. I imagined that I did as I watched him walk out our kitchen door toward a war in Afghanistan, but I didn't.
We talked — sometimes twice a day — ignoring the popping and snapping on the line and the long delays between our voices on the webcam. And I fooled myself into believing a two-dimensional image could transmit and sustain a three-dimensional marriage. After all, I could see his eyes, hear his laughter. But he knew nothing of what I thought about our marriage, nothing of my postpartum depression and nothing of my anger at feeling lonely in a life that he chose.
How could I look at him on the webcam and tell his sad eyes that I felt abandoned? How would I live with myself if, God forbid, the last words he heard from me were painful truths? The pressure to keep our conversations light controlled me, and it brought our marriage to a halt. When he returned from Afghanistan, I almost left him.
When he began packing for his second deployment, this time to Iraq, when he held our second newborn — a son, Elijah — my chest constricted just thinking of what might happen to us. To him.
"Let's not make the same mistakes," he said. "No secrets this time."
I nodded, even though I knew full well that, faced with the webcam, I would again hide my fears and anger.
With our daughter, Amelia, now 2, the computer visits were more necessary than ever — she knew him now and longed for his attention. But they were harder than I could have imagined. Amelia would beg for days to see her daddy on the computer and then, when he appeared on the screen, ignore him. David pleaded with his eyes, but she walked away, defiantly, as only a toddler can do.
"She's just tired," I'd say. He'd look down, hiding his emotions. I tried to hide mine as well. I wanted to be delighted, to drop everything when the instant messenger paged me, when he gave up badly needed sleep to be with us. But sometimes I couldn't help being annoyed at the interference. I needed unbroken routines in order to be both a mother and father to my children. At times, I wished he wouldn't call.
And then we found salvation in letters. I had always kept a diary, but growing frustrated with my inability to really connect with David through the webcam and on the phone, I started sending him long letters from my journal. David responded with enthusiasm.
Writing allowed us to regain control of our marriage. On paper, our memories came to life. Through letters we could share our concerns without worrying that we'd be misinterpreted.
As I read David's words, I smelled his cologne, I heard him whistle while I cooked, I felt his hand on the small of my back. Amelia would stuff her daddy's letters into her pockets and take them with her to the playground. At night, she would beg me to read the letters again. Over and over until she felt content enough to sleep.
And the paintings that Amelia and Elijah sent to their dad allowed him to marvel at how his children were growing. He could run his calloused fingers over the bumps and grooves of their handprints. He could watch Amelia learn to form the letters in her name and guess what Elijah was eating from the bits of food that made their way onto the construction paper.
I know I'm not the first military spouse who has struggled to communicate with a loved one on deployment, and I know I won't be the last. For those who came before me, the burden to overcome was communicating without technology — waiting months for letters to arrive. For me and those still to come, it's learning to communicate despite technology.
And now my husband is packing again, for another deployment to Iraq. The only balm this time is that we can count on our letters to help heal our broken hearts.
Melissa Seligman is the author of The Day After He Left for Iraq and the host of Her War, a podcast for military wives.