The first time I saw a kid run up to a service member who wasn’t his daddy was in the commissary in the dry goods aisle. You know, the one with rice and beans and spaghetti and for some strange reason Hispanic food too? That one.
“Daddy!!!!!!” the well-meaning toddler shrieked with glee as his mom hustled to catch up. The kid had clearly climbed out of that grocery cart/firetruck apparatus that I imagine was designed solely to punish young mothers of boys.
The mom knelt down and explained to her son that no, this wasn’t Daddy. And, yes, Daddy is at work. And no, you won’t see him for another few months. And look! Isn’t the kind of cookies you like to eat?
That mom handled it like a pro.
Me? I was dumbstruck and it wasn't even my kid. I had tears streaming down my face as I put my canned corn in the basket. That poor kid! How heartbreaking! Daddy’s probably deployed and they won’t Skype until gosh knows when. How does this mother ever even come onto base knowing that she’s putting her kids into a potentially scarring Daddy Lookalike scenario??
I though I could never do that. Until I had to.
Now I have a young toddler son of my own. You know the kind--the boy who looks at Daddy as if he hung the moon. The boy whose daddy wears the special boots that sit by the door. The boy whose daddy wears those patches that are fun to rip off his uniform and teeth on. The boy whose daddy is big and strong and important....and gone.
That Daddy had a four month TDY while we were living on base. So even though every trip to the base features a Daddy Lookalike scenario, off to the commissary we must go.
“DADDY!” our son hollers at the first flight-suit-wearing-short-haired-male he sees. (Which, if your Air Force base is anything like mine, is every other person.)
So now I know that feeling. I know that I-am-your-mother-and-I-want-to-shield-you-from-any-and-all-pain feeling. I felt it coming up in my throat. My eyes got hot with tears. I froze.
This. This is what it’s like. Awful. Miserable. Heart wrenching and nauseating and NOT GOOD IN ANY WAY.
But I stuffed it back down. And calmly said, "Nope, that’s not Daddy, see? Whoopsies! Isn’t that silly? Look! It’s Mr. Sir! Say hi to Mr. Sir, can you?"
Daddy Lookalike was very good about playing along and waving hello and giving a high five.
What I’ve learned now from the reality of living in proximity to lots of potential Daddy Lookalikes is a lesson in resiliency. I mean, my heart sometimes still flutters when I see someone looking like my husband in uniform, so I can’t imagine what is going through my kid’s mind and heart.
The reality of modern military service dictates that separation is simply part of the deal. No one and nothing can prepare a family for how we’ll react when faced with this reality. The unfairness is real. The bad timing is real. The bitterness of goodbye and the relief at reunification is real.
Resiliency is how we get through it. Personally, I like the lesson that it has taught my son. Now, instead of associating the uniform with Daddy, he now understands that lots of people wear outfits like his. There are lots of patches and boots and short hair. But no one is just like his Daddy. There is only one.
The military is only one part of his daddy that makes him unique and special. Likewise, the military makes lots of people special.
Now instead of fearing the Daddy Lookalike encounter, I’m simply hopeful for more of the friendly, high-fiving Daddy Lookalikes who understand what it means for a dad to be far away from his little boy.
Why Didn’t You Tell Me is a weekly feature that gives our readers a space to tell their own story. If you have a story for us, please submit using the contact button above. All stories must be original and unpublished.
Sarah writes about life in the US Air Force, raising a Jewish family and interfaith marriage. She lives in the southwest with her husband, son and daughter. Her idea of perfection is walking her dog, reading in a hammock and eating breakfast tacos.