Saturday, Dec. 1, Morning
It feels like Christmas, largely because the boys wake me up at an insanely early hour. They are bouncing on their knees at the end of the bed and screaming, "It's today, Mom! Dad comes home today!"
I quickly usher them away to burn off energy and spend the morning with their grandparents visiting from Seattle. With the house to myself on a weekend morning, for what feels like the first time in at least six months, I settle in to read the newspaper and catch up on Words with Friends.
Dustin sends me a message: "I'm boarding the plane in D.C. now. See you when I get home."
I putz around in my slippers and pajamas, trying to keep my mind off waiting. I feel like I'm going on a first date. At 10:10 a.m., our friend Brian texts me: "The plane will be 20 minutes early." He adds a big a smiley emoticon. I shriek and drop the phone on the chair. I haven't even gotten in the shower yet.
Saturday, Dec. 1, Afternoon
About 75 of our Dinner with the Smileys guests join us at the airport. They are waiting at the top of the escalator as I hold Lindell's hand and we ride to the second floor. Even R2-D2 (from Dinner #19) is there. The boys race to the window to see Dustin's plane land.
As Dustin comes through the terminal, I recognize his gait and his broad smile instantly. I let the boys greet him first. They pile on top of him. Lindell will not let him go. He hangs from his legs and arms.
Finally Dustin says, "I'm going to go see Mom now." When we hug, it's like he was never gone. Everything -- from his smell, to the way his arms fit around me -- is familiar. Then I watch him shake hands with everyone whose come to greet him, and I realize not everything is the same: Dustin seems skinnier. His hair has more grey. There are new lines around his eyes.
Saturday, Dec. 1, Evening
Dustin's first dinner at home. Lindell is melting down. He stays underneath the table and kicks at me. Dustin's eyes look tired. I know he is overwhelmed. Later, I fall asleep on the couch, listening to him read bedtime stories to the kids.
Monday, Dec. 3
I'm afraid to let Dustin go. I take him with me to work and to lunch and then to the grocery store. I look at him and say, "Wow, you're really here!"
Tuesday, Dec. 4
I automatically take out the trash, despite waiting 52 weeks for Dustin to reclaim this household chore. I'm still in deployment rhythm. I've forgotten how to let someone else help.
Wednesday, Dec. 5
Dustin is ironing Lindell's size 5T pants. I have never ironed anything that belongs to someone younger than 10. I wonder what Dustin would think if he saw the way the kids left the house many times this past year: with pants that are too short or too wrinkled or that have holes in the knees.
Owen walks in wearing brown khakis that look like they went through the dryer tied in a knot. They are wrinkled like old tissue paper.
"Does he usually wear his clothes like that?" Dustin asks.
"Only when I don't iron his pants," I joke, winking at Owen.
Thursday, Dec. 6
We are at Sam's Club, and I've forgotten what it's like shopping with Dustin. He compares prices, scratches his head and wonders aloud about the value of a product. I look at my watch and sigh. There was no time to stop and scratch my head when I was doing this alone for a year. I throw items into the basket and push forward. We leave the store with 300 plastic plates, 24 Sharpie pens and 3 pounds of oranges, because those were the "good deals."
Friday, Dec. 7
Dustin needs the password to our online banking. I can't remember it. He wants to know when was the last time I got the oil changed in the car. I can't remember. He asks where I keep the bills that need to be paid. I show him. He asks where I keep the bills that have already been paid. I point to the trashcan.
"What? You should file those," he says. "You've just been throwing them away for a year."
I nod. I'm busy packing the kids' lunches. Dustin and all his questions are interrupting our usual school-morning routine. I tell him we'll deal with it later. He rolls his eyes.
When I go upstairs to get dressed, I see he's left a pile of old receipts on his bedside table. I'm annoyed.
Saturday, Dec. 8
After letting me sleep in, Dustin hugs me and says he's just trying to fit back into our schedule. He tells me things will be complicated and difficult for a while as we all adjust. Then he assures me there's no other place he'd rather be than home.
You can see pictures of Dustin's homecoming at Facebook.com/DinnerWithTheSmileys