In the course of my being a military wife, I've missed many family weddings. I've missed more family birthdays than I have hairs on my head. Our family has missed so many Christmases and Thanksgivings that it no longer feels "normal" to join everyone at home for the season.
But the worst, the absolute worst, is not being there when someone I love dies.
AirForceGuy and I have already experienced this once - when hubby's step dad died suddenly in 1999 (after a prolonged period of incapacity) we were in the middle of a PCS. We got the news four days after leaving New Hampshire while at a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. There was no question of being able to make even the funeral - we had no house, no means of getting to California, and a school report date that was looming menacingly.
We just had to deal with it, and didn't even have the comforting thought that we had "made our peace" with the man our children called Opa. We weren't there.
In 2001, AirForceGuy managed to wrangle an assignment in California just a few hours from our family. We had been told by numerous doctors that neither his mother nor my grandfather were going to last much longer. Hubby was lucky in that there was an assignment perfect for him open just where we needed to be. Deployments aside, we were in California from January 2002 to December 2004. My grandfather and my MIL were still kicking, and there was no way we could extend further there.
We were able to be with the family when my niece died - and I am so grateful.
Two weeks ago I got a call from my family that my grandfather - the center upon which our family universe has turned since time immemorial - was deteriorating rapidly. At that point it became a waiting game as to what to do. Our family is moving October 31, and we have movers and check out procedures from base housing to manage. And Pop had been sick off and on for about two years - always managing to pull out of it. I would not forgive myself if I was unable to say good-bye; but by the same token, if I went when I was not needed and then could not afford to go when Pop really needed me to be there, it would crush me.
Our phone lines had to remain open - family was calling with updates several times a day. Finally, my cousin (who grew up in our house and is actually more of a sister) called me at 3:30 am to say that I needed plane reservations NOW.
My brother, who is active duty Army, had to juggle his schedule, too - but we both managed to get up to Pop's side. It was touch and go, the family wasn't sure that Pop would be able to hold on for the two days it took for my brother to get there and the three days it took for me to be able to fly in.
But Pop did.
My son and I rushed into Pop's hospital room at 11 pm Saturday night. My brother had made it in at 2 am the night before. As I walked in, my brother was holding Grandpa's hand and said, "Pop! It's Ruthie! Ruthie's here!"
My Pop squeezed my brother's hand and said, "Oh, Ruth!"
It was the last coherent word I heard my grandfather say.
Our family all managed to make it, there were tens of us crammed into Pop's hotel room having a party for him. We looked at pictures, told stories, ate pizza, and reminisced about growing up with a man whose personality was so big that he encompassed everyone and everything around him. Pop was the center of the party, just as he loved to be in younger days. He could no longer speak, but he squeezed our hand and made noises to interact with us.
I was not there when my grandfather died. I flew in on Saturday and had to fly out on a red-eye Monday night. Grandpa had been moved home for hospice care, and his loyal farm dog was planted firmly under Pop's bed, refusing to move from his side. I had called him just three hours before he passed, my cousin put me on speaker phone, to comply one last time with his hard and fast rule that we let him know as soon as we get home from a trip that all is safe.
But I am grateful that this time I was able to say good-bye. That's not a given in our lifestyle, where we are often scattered to the four corners of the world. We can't always make it, no matter how much we need to.
This time we did, though. This time we did.
RIP John R. "Ray" Longley
March 14, 1914 - October 9, 2007
Captain, US Army Air Corps 1941 - 1946/ Pacific Theater
Father of two, grandfather of four, great-grandfather of 12
"No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but a biography of great men."