Data, Data Everywhere. . . There’s More to the Story Than You Think


I’m back.

It’s been awhile.  Ok, it has been a very long time, but I have been really, really busy.  Now, I am back and writing with force.  There is quite a bit to say and the first topic on the list is the Department of Defense’s Exceptional Family Member Program (aka EFMP).  My dog recently got out of the fight, but over the course of the last year, a number of issues and pieces of information have come to light and maybe it is just time to share them with other EFMP families.

Last fall, I had the good fortune to work with a good deal of really rich qualitative data focused on DoD families and their exceptional family members.

The Research

A little info about research and data analysis. . . .bear with me as my professor self emerges for a few seconds. . . .

Data can be qualitative or quantitative.  Responses can be elicited, evoked, provoked, prompted.  People who give their responses can be respondents or subjects, depending on the type of study being conducted.  Subjects are participants in controlled experiments, any other types of studies, such as ones that would measure attitudes, beliefs, feelings or attempt to describe behaviors, would involve respondents.  Respondents are those who are asked to answer questionnaires where the options are limited, possibly scaled (as in “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”) and no opportunity is offered for additional comments.  Their answers are “prompted” and the data being collected are “quantitative” data.  The researcher is absent, often in a double-blind scenario, which means that neither the researcher sees the person filling out the questionnaire nor does the respondent ever see the researcher.  Traits, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, all measured appropriately and collected as quantitative data can then be analyzed using statistical methods, allowing the researcher to draw conclusions, make recommendations leading to desired changes being implemented.

Qualitative data, while collected with vastly different methods, is equally exciting and can allow the researcher to gain deep insights into complex issues, even if the analytical methods lead to more tentative conclusions.  Instead of questionnaires, respondents can be observed, interviewed, engaged in discussion.  The researcher can be a part of the process or removed from it.  In the case of the EFMP data, the data collected was qualitative, using open-ended questions, a common method designed to gain access to respondents’ feelings, experiences, concerns,  or beliefs.  When a research analyst calls such data “rich,” she is suggesting that the data is filled with patterns of thought, new insights, words and phrases that bring to life the stories the respondents have to tell.  The job of the researcher is to apply an analytical technique called content analysis.  For the layperson, content analysis is an intensive process of reading each word of every response from each respondent multiple times, by multiple readers, identifying recurring themes, and determining the weight of those themes (how often they appear).  Ultimately, the goal is to take thousands of what appear to be unrelated responses to a finite set of questions, find some pattern in them that links them to each other.  Place these themes and patterns within a much larger context where their meaning can then be used to clarify the complexity and offer recommendations for improvement.

Further questions on both method and analysis can be sent to me at

The Data

For weeks, I culled through the data, reading through it over and over and, when the time came, commencing the gritty task of actually analyzing the data.

The task consumed me.  Sleep eluded me.  I forgot to eat.  All I could think about was the data.  The words of the families came to life, I could hear their voices, see their images and, all too often, felt their pain and struggles.

At one time in my life, we were an EFMP family.  It was difficult.  Five posts in eight years, all east of Interstate 81, allowed me plenty of time to get to know EFMP rules, regulations, policies and failures.  Jack was diagnosed at Fort Bragg in 2003 with autism, we left the Army recently out of Fort Myer EFMP.  Fort Bragg to Fort Drum to Carlisle Barracks to Fort Bragg to Fort Myer. . . .I look back at them now and remember each and every EFMP person.  Fort Bragg was the best the second time around (they still get my award for BEST EVER EVER EVER!). . . .Fort Drum. . .worst ever. . . Fort Myer. . . .first joint base. . . .Carlisle Barracks. . . .so small, made life so easy.  But, if I look at each one of them, we were at different points in our lives, too, and now, that is part of the story.  And, as I examined the data and began the process of placing it into context, I could see why those labels were so easy to assign.

In other words, as I performed the analysis, I could clearly see the multidimensionality of both sides of the EFMP problem is what makes it a nearly insurmountable challenge for DoD, for EFMP families and providers.

Services and the Exceptional Family Member Program

EFMP, believe it or not, is a service offered to all service members by the Department of Defense.  Being enrolled in EFMP is a bit like buying insurance. . . .turns out you might need it, but if you have to use it, the news is probably not good for you.  And that last part is what makes it an “undesirable” service for so many service members.  For a very long time, service members lived with the perception that enrolling a family member into the Exceptional Family Member Program meant that their military career was in jeopardy.  Given that an EFMP designation could possibly impact future assignments, PCS moves or promotions, service members viewed enrollment warily.  Unfortunately, if you or your child needed to be enrolled in order to receive necessary behavioral, educational or medical services, EFMP was a “mandated” option.

As a service, though, wanted or not, there are some principles in play that cannot be ignored.  First, services are intangible, inseparable, heterogeneous, and perishable.  In the world of EFMP, here is what those principles mean.

When you engage with anyone from EFMP, what do you get? And, when I ask you, “what do you get?” I mean, physically, what do you get?

1.  Paperwork:  lots and lots of paperwork.  Do you understand it?  Is it easy to read?  Do you know what to do with it?  Were directions provided?  Pictures?

2.  When you go to their office, is there a place to sit down?  If my experience with EFMP (or any agency on a military post or base, for that matter) is any indication, the chairs are uncomfortable, unmovable (as if I would even consider taking them with me), the coffee is cold, old and tasteless (if there at all), brochures offer little to no meaning, and the television is tuned to some channel with a sign indicating that the channel is not to be touched without assistance.  Am I close?

Intangibility is inevitable with services:  it exists along a continuum from absolutely no physicality present to physical goods accompanied by some level of service (simplest example is dinner at a restaurant: food with service attached).  But without a physical product, or some indication of it, how can you evaluate how well it is working?  What does this have to do with comfortable chairs, paperwork and ambience?  More than you would think.  People need physical contact with even the most intangible services.  Why do you think so many businesses give out pens, calendars, crazy stress balls with the names of their businesses stamped on them?  Tangibility.  I’m not suggesting that pens and calendars are the path to connecting with EFMP (although, stress relief balls may work), but there are many ways in which the first contact with the program can be more comfortable, welcoming, warm.  Because, chances are, if you are there, your life is already tough enough.  Tangibility becomes especially important because it is impossible to know if an intangible service is working.  But when it fails to work, you know it and you are mad.

Inseparability is the source of much that can go wrong with any service and EFMP is no different.  Unlike the IPhone I purchased this past weekend, with a service I am actually present in the production of the service.  Watching Jack and Ellie getting their hair cut this past weekend, I had to participate (as did they) by suggesting to the stylist how much should be cut.  In the case of Jack, I had to quickly train the stylist how to deal with an autistic boy who hates to have his hair cut.  I also had to teach my children how to engage with the stylist:  sit still, don’t argue over hair length (that would be Ellie), let her know if the water it too hot or too cold.

With EFMP, you are also part of the service production while simultaneously consuming the service.  How many times have you moved to a new post, arrived at EFMP to reset your respite care and found that you didn’t have the correct information, had somehow lost a referral or were told that you had zero chance of receiving ABA services in the next thirty days?  Retracing your steps, you remember that you did everything the same way you had at your previous post.  You knew the routine and had followed the blue print.  Still, you had come up empty-handed.

If this has happened to you, you can partially blame the service failure on the inseparability principle.  In order to arrive at a satisfactory solution encounter, both parties must participate equally in the production and the consumption of the service.  Lack of knowledge about how to participate sets the family up for failure.  One of the key themes from the data dealt with this problem.  Not only was there no consistency in the application of the EFMP policies across the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, active duty, guard and reserve units, but there was a clear lack of consistency between posts and bases, making things like PCSing a nightmare that seemed to have no end.

Heterogeneity is the third principle that comes into play when we look at the challenges we face with EFMP.  Anyone who has been touched by the military has argued against the “cookie cutter” approach so often taken by any type of programming available for families.  Even within the same offices, families enrolled in the problem often find it is difficult to get the same answer from more than two people twice.  Consistently, the heterogeneity of the EFMP employees, across services, posts/bases, and even within offices, showed through the data enough to suggest that most encounters were not only difficult, but acted in such a way as to create negative expectations for any future encounters.  Creating negative expectations had a profound effect on the interactions between families and service providers, often leading to a downward spiral where any possibility of service salvage went out the door.

Finally, all services are perishable.  They have zero shelf life.  Can’t use them today?  They can’t be saved until tomorrow.

At first look, the perishability of services seems less impactful on the entire EFMP program than the other principles.  Yet, the size of the enrollment at the larger posts (Bragg, Hood, Lewis, Schofield Barracks, Military District of Washington, all Army, but it’s my perspective. . . .happy to take insight about other services, see email address above) all mean that you have volumes of people needing access to a very finite number of EFMP employees.  Many types of service industries have ways to manage the perishability factor.  Airlines use yield management pricing:  fly off-peak hours, typically, fly cheaper.  Plan your flights far in advance, airfares are lower.  In other words, airlines can motivate you to commit to filling their seats by altering price, something they have determined to be important in your decision-making process.

But what about EFMP?  What control do they have over managing your demand for the finite number of hours they can provide?  Think about it this way:  when is EFMP busiest?  During PCS season.  When, typically, do most families PCS?  Spring, summer. . . .maybe early fall. . .sometimes over the holidays.  Is there anything EFMP can do to increase the hours of the day that they work?  No, but they could increase their man hours per day by having more of their employees focused on PCS types of activities or asking for their higher headquarters to staff them more heavily during those seasons.

What happens when you go to the EFMP office?  Your first signal is to “sign in.”  From my experience, I would rather have my eyes ripped out of my head than try to sit with my son waiting for ANY length of time for a meeting.  Could I possibly avoid this situation?  Sure, as part of the service production, I could leave him home. . .but, wait. . .I am new to the post, I know no one to watch my special needs child, my husband has already signed in to his unit and is already working and, oh yea, the whole reason I am AT the EFMP office is to set up respite care.  Is there any solution to this problem?  There is, but it takes an out of the box approach and the first step is acknowledging that perishability is the elephant in the room and how are you going to work around that.

In the end, the longer I wait, the more frustrated I become, the more likely my child will act out, the shorter my fuse.  Equate that with my counterpart with whom I am going to be meeting once I finally reach the hallowed halls of the EFMP office.  I am probably the fifth or sixth person to show up in the office today.  Chances are that I am missing at least one piece of my paperwork, not because I intended to do so, but I didn’t need it at my last post, so it never occurred to me that I would need it at this post.  The closer to lunch, give or take an hour, the EFMP rep is going to either be starving and I am the person standing between her and lunch or she has just come back and the phone call she received over lunch from the school where her OWN child attends has told her that her evening is going to be spent doing something other than taking care of herself.  She is in no mood to be berated, you are in no mood to be told “no” and, before you know it, what could have been a fairly good start to a working relationship has become a throw down with names and ranks being dropped everywhere in sight.  She has heard it before.  You have said it before.  You threaten to go to the chain of command.  She is already thinking about the phone call she is going to get from someone tomorrow.

After reading thousands of responses, I can readily tell you, this is how it starts.

I can also tell you that it doesn’t have to end that way.

The data I analyzed exposed many themes about the EFMP equation:  families, providers, leadership, challenges, outcomes.  Thanks to this data, I have a story to tell.  Thanks to twenty plus years of studying, researching and  teaching Marketing and Services at top universities across the United States, I have context in which to place this data that offers perspective and recommendations for a way to approach some of these challenges.  With my partners, a five-stage study program has been developed. . . . if the leadership is willing to listen.  They’ve been told.  This information and these recommendations were presented in December 2012 to military leadership in Washington, DC, so they have been told.  Whether they choose to listen is the question.

In the end, though, here is what came out. . . .after reading thousands of responses from over 500 respondents who came from all ranks (full disclosure:  no respondents in the study indicated that they held a rank of O7 or above), all services, posts and bases across the country, with different reasons for being enrolled in EFMP. . . who were Active Duty, Reservists, National Guard, retirees, caregivers, spouses, Service Members, or enrollees themselves, here is one general theme that emerged over and over and OVER again:

EFMP demonstrates no consistency across services, across posts/bases, across states, communities and ranks.  The vocabulary used to describe exceptional family members changes across the different services, the accessibility to programs are a function of the environment outside the control of the Department of Defense.  Reworking EFMP is going to need more than a change of resourcing, it is going to need a significant paradigm shift.  Until then, nothing can really change at all.

©LeslieKDrinkwine,Ph.D., 2013. All material by Leslie K. Drinkwine, Ph.D., and subsequent studies published under Education Research Consultants, LLC is the copyrighted property of the author.  Ideas presented in this material are the intellectual property of the author and are protected under federal laws of the United States of America.  Any use of this material must have the expressed written consent of the author.  The author can be contacted at


I’m More Than a Bird. . . . .But It’s Not Easy to Be Me

Five For Fighting’s song, Superman, has always reminded me of Jack.  From the time he was a baby, this song seemed to belong to him.  In the same way that Tiny Dancer was christened as Elle’s song, Superman seemed to capture Jack’s essence.  This morning, as I tell my latest story from the journey, it plays in the background. . . .reminding me that sometimes it is just difficult to be who we really are.  Autism makes it so much more difficult to tell the world who you are, what you believe, or how your will find your way in the world.  Like the Superman metaphor, sometimes we just expect so much from others that we forget to look closely at who they really are.

I love to write. . . make no question about that statement.  But, for today, words seem inadequate to tell you the story.  So,  I will use pictures.  Before you get there, though, let me give you the back story.

Both of my children are incredibly photogenic and I have spent endless hours attempting to translate their personalities into colorful photos.  As B’s deployments increased and lengthened, I felt the need to pull out the camera more and more frequently.  He missed so much of how they became who they are that, at the very least, I could send him pictures.  As they grew up, they both gravitated to the cameras.  Some were lost. . .others were broken. . . but not before I was able to see, through their eyes, what made up their world.

Of the two, oddly enough, Jack was my more prolific photographer.  As Elle became more verbal, her need to tell me things moved from the visual to the audible.  She was able to tell me what she wanted, when she wanted it, and what wasn’t working for her.

But, for Jack, pictures, movies and music became his method of sharing his thoughts.  Stealing my IPhone, with a glint in his eyes, he would zoom around the house photographing objects, things, people.

Right before Christmas, one of my lovely friends invited several old friends and me to accompany her on a tour of the East Wing of the White House to see the Christmas decorations.  While we had been told we couldn’t take pictures, I still took my IPhone.  Arriving there early on that December morning, we realized that pics were allowed.  Using my phone (which actually has better definition than my old Canon SLR) to capture the colors, feeling and memories of our time together, I filled the camera roll with special moments.  Intentions are always a good thing. . .even when other things happen to disrupt their movement into behavior.  Sometimes, that disruption looks alot like my Jack.

I had intended to make lovely memory books for each of them. . .using my photos.  Sitting down one evening to download the memories for printing, I realized that they were all missing.  Digging through the files on my design computer, I panicked.  They were missing. . .gone. . . completely (and, yes, my friends from that day. . .that is the reason your books are a tad late).

Someone had deleted my photos.

Skip forward to last night.  Over the weekend, I had refurbished some furniture, intending to post for friends who follow what happens in my studio.  Opening the camera roll to show my new friend the latest work out of Esmerelda Designs. . . . I discovered that, once again, my pictures were missing.  What I found, though, was much more enlightening. …and encouraging.

Jack has been reading Dr. Suess books the last couple of weeks.  Using my IPad, he can have the stories read to him and then he repeats the lines.  As a result, for the last several days, all of our discussions have been about Green Eggs and Ham.  Following me everywhere through the house, he asks me if I would eat them “here or there.”  After four days of these questions, I know the answers as well as he does.

As I said, I love to write. . . .but today, I am going to let Jack’s pictures tell you the rest of the story.  So, download Superman onto your IPod or whatever you use to listen to music. . . .sit back and enjoy some Green Eggs and Ham.

“Would you like them here or there?”

 “Would you like them in a house?”

 “Would you like them with a mouse?”

“Would you eat them in a box?”

“Would you eat them with a fox?”

“Would you? Could you? In a car?”

“You may like them in a tree!”

“Could you, would you, on a train?”

“In the dark?”

“Would you, could you, in the rain?”

“Could you, would you, with a goat?”

“Would you, could you, on a boat?”


Not Everything is What it Seems. .. . .

The other day, one of my favorite friends posted on Facebook the irony of liking the Disney show “Wizards of Waverly Place” almost as much as her daughter does.  Another mom chimed in with the words to the title song. . . .”nothing is quite what it seems. . .” I laughed because WoWP is also one of my favorite shows.  WoWP is this generation’s Bewitched. . .offering everyone the opportunity to believe, for just thirty minutes, that magic might be made.

It’s unusually spring-like today in DC.  End of the quarter teacher work days means that I’m home with Jack and Elle. . . .mediating as they denounce each other’s choices of shows, computer games, and overall activities.  Rather than listen to them complain this afternoon, I find myself tackling a project I’ve put off for exactly one year.

On my very first barn crawl last January, shortly after we had moved in and anxious to become the June Cleaver of my dreams, if not B’s, I found an old mantle in the #2 barn.  The barns have three levels:  barn #1 is where you will find creative, interesting things that have been restored or just need cosmetic changes, barn #2 is a bit more “rustic,” holding items where you have to crawl over things to find just what you want and barn #3 containing items that need flights of fancy, strong imagination and a lot of elbow grease.

The mantle is from barn #2 and I leave there feeling like I have found a diamond that just needs a bit of polish. Twelve months later, it is the last piece to be refurbished from the items I bought that day.  It’s old and decrepit.. . . and, as I sit today in the sunshine, beginning the long process of making it mine, humming the theme song from the Disney show, I am reminded that nothing is ever quite what it seems.

I pour the stripping solution over the weathered wood and watch the paint begin to loosen and bubble.  Like any rehab project, this mantle will take time, often requiring me to almost start over with each step.  There are layers of paint, souls from other lives, all that need to be scraped away until I can find my way back to its beginning.  To reach its inner wood and rebuild it to the point where it is mine.

But this is never an easy project. . . .

When I was very young, in a starter marriage that was a sham from the moment the minister asked us to vow our lives until “death do us part,” I met a women with whom my then-husband worked.  Visiting her apartment one day, I was enthralled by two huge canvases hanging in her living room.  They were both the same, paintings of endless ribbons that wove themselves through loops and valleys.  One was done in reds, while the other wall was filled with hues of blue.

“Those are amazing!” I tell her.  “Where did you get them?”

Becky, quietly, explains that she has done them herself.  Before she was a psychologist, she wanted to be an artist.

“Would you make one for me?” naively I ask her, envisioning a similar piece of artwork hanging over a similar couch in my future.  After all, I am ready for my real life to begin. . .the one I have imagined over the years: art work, dinner parties, grown-up things.

Becky doesn’t even entertain the thought.  Those paintings represent her life, broken relationships, exciting beginnings, different directions.  She can’t make one for me because she isn’t me.  I’ll have to create my own piece of art, I barely hear her say.

I have stopped listening, preferring instead to wonder if, maybe, she will make me two paintings.  I hear her briefly describe how she pinned different pieces of grosgrain ribbon to each other, in varying shades and hues, and dropped the entire length onto a board where she adhered it to where it lay.  Over the following weeks and months, she would return to the studio in the art building on campus, rearrange the light and paint for hours. . . .each stroke replaying a word, a thought, a memory of the composition of her life.

It is this memory that I replay this afternoon as I slowly scrape away the layers of paint on my mantle.  Five, six, seven layers of paint. . .all with stories, no one layer exactly what I thought I would find.  It will take time.

Joining me in the sunshine is Jack.  It is, at the very best, maybe 60 degrees today. . .maybe a bit warmer.  Jack is dressed in a swim suit, patiently waiting for me to join him in the hot tub (I won’t), while not so patiently waiting for the man in the brown truck to arrive with his latest quest:  Ook the Book from Amazon.  If he is cold, he doesn’t appear to realize it.

He and Elle have been playing a game of Ellie the Dog.  Ellie pretends to be a dog and Jack taunts her into chasing him.  When she won’t do it, he yells at her “bad dog, bad Ellie dog.”

Jack can read Ook the Book, but he can’t tell me he’s cold.  He can tell Ellie that she is acting like a “bad dog,” but he can’t comprehend what I mean when I ask him if we can have a dog.  Sometimes the answer is yes, but many times the answer is no.

Like the mantle I am refurbishing and the memory of those paintings from so long ago, I realize that Jack is my canvas, a work in progress, the piece of artwork I am creating.  Where I saw a colorful painting, Becky saw her past woven in the colors and strokes of her paintbrush.  When I look at my children, I hear songs from their childhood, I remember their births, and I accept that one may be a painting while the other is a mosaic.

Raising children is a bit like creating art.

In the future, as the world meets Elle, not unlike a hurricane coming in from the Gulf, it will be able to see and hear exactly what she means and who she is.  She will be my painting that I present to the world.

Still, raising an autistic child is much more like a creating a mosaic than a painting or a photograph.  Years from now, people will see a young man with blue eyes and quirky behaviors.  Sometimes, when we look at mosaics, it is difficult to see the entire picture because we are distracted by the disconnects between the tiles.  Meeting Jack, the world is more likely to see those disconnects he brings to the table. . . .the verbal challenges, the behavioral quirks, the occasional meltdowns.  But I, the artist, will remember the extraordinary effort it took to bring his mosaic to life. . . to see his whole self, instead of the sum of his parts.  You just have to know when to believe in the magic.

Because. . . .living with autism is never what it seems to the world outside.  Like the lives of the characters from the Wizards of Waverly Place, our magic is sometimes best kept inside.

This War is Over. . . . .

There are few places in my past that are as inviting as Houston’s Galleria.  For at least one year of my life, the Westin Galleria was, off and on, home base.  Dropping my car with the valet, I would head up to the room we all shared that year.  Hungry. . . call room service or head down to La Madeleine on the bottom floor.  Oddly enough, I never shopped in any of the stores other than Neiman Marcus.  It was the family-go-to store for all our needs.  It’s 1994 and I am in graduate school, but that is just one of part of my life.  If I want to really think about it, those ten guys in Baton Rouge were the needles and thread that held my life together for those years, especially that year when everything else had broken apart.  They gave me my structure, my purpose and I gave them what was left of my soul.

Walking into NM one afternoon, I head up to the women’s clothing area.  I know exactly what I want, that for which I am searching.  It came to me one day and I knew that I would recognize it when I saw it.  There it is. . . .hanging in the designer section.  A DKNY pantsuit.  It wants me as much as I want it.  Putting it on in the dressing room, the soft pleats are just pinched enough to give it form, while the tip of the trousers break nicely across my Cole-Haan shoes.  It is a standout piece. . . .wheat colored, it will become my battle uniform for the future.

This is the one.

I go to pay and, without blinking, charge the $1100 to my visa card.  It’s the only the second time that I will ever pay more than a thousand dollars for a suit and it isn’t the last.  This is just the beginning.

With that last task done, I get back in my car and head east. . . .to the bayou, the swamp, and LSU.  There, Worm Boy, the Princess and her past wait for me to come home.  Nothing has ever felt more like home to me than Cajun Country.  Nothing.  Even now, as I write this, my heart beats just a little bit faster, the landmarks along the way merging into the seasons, the bridge over the Mississippi calling to me.  For five years, I lived within a mile or two from the levees of the Mississippi and, like the river itself, Baton Rouge is where I have dumped all of the sediment of the previous 30+ years.  And, like the delta into which it flows, it stays and builds new islands and wetlands. . . a metaphor that richly captures the last ten years.

It has been more than ten years since I last saw the swamp. . . . tasted a real po-boy or felt the type of humidity that envelopes your body like a well-fitted designer suit.  It’s time to go back.  This war is over.

This past month, the public press tells us, the war in Iraq is over.  I listen to Melissa Etheridge plaintively sing, “this war is over, I’m coming home,” and I wonder about wars.  Of course, if it is in the newspapers, I am convinced, it must be true. . . .well, maybe not so true.

Exactly, for whom is this war over?  We still have troops in Iraq.  They are waiting in Kuwait.  Units still receive orders to go to Iraq.  The ring I placed on my husband’s finger a dozen years ago is still in Iraq.  This war is over?

It makes me think about the wars I’ve fought.  For sure, they have included Iraq and Afghanistan. . . ..even without ever having set foot in either country, I have been a part of that fighting force or, at the very least, my heart has been there.  Four times in seven years. . . . my husband came home, but for me, this war is not over.  And, if it isn’t over for me, what about those whose loved ones came home broken?  What about those for whom the welcome home took place on an airfield in Dover, Delaware?  And, Melissa’s voice continues. . . . .”tell them I’m alright, I am alone.”

Forever intertwined in my war with the War is my war with autism.  Is that too many wars in one sentence?  But, isn’t that what war really is. . . . a series of small wars, cloaked as battles, from which we cannot emerge unscathed?  The beginning of our time with the war began within days of the war with autism.  More than once, I have felt the autism battles have been every bit as physical as what B faced in Fallujah, Baghdad, Kandahar, Zabul. . . .Herat.  My fights have been over diagnoses, insurance coverage, finding the right doctors, and, surprisingly less often, schools.  Like those who have returned from locations far away, I have the invisible scars from the battles where I vehemently fought for my son’s rights, his place in the world.  In my world, Dover was a doctor’s office at Womack in 2004, where the dignified transfer of the remains of our hopes and dreams were delivered.  It was that day that the declaration of war was pronounced, even if there had been ten months of squirmishes and insurgent attacks leading up to that point.

But, like the war in Iraq, it feels as though the autism war is slowing down.  Yesterday, Jack and I went to the grocery store.  Throughout the store, he named all of the products from the assortment.  His battles with speech have produced a brief respite from the ravages of the war.  Using tools like Veggie Tales, Wallace and Gromit’s Curse of the Wererabbit, and Remy’s Ratatouille, he has learned from his battles using movies as his weapons of choice.  For the first time, in a very long time, I feel like maybe we had been at the Paris Peace Talks and we have finally agreed on the shape of the table at which we will plan the end of our war.  Tomorrow, we begin a new round of peace talks that will, hopefully, move us further along this journey.

Like the ghosts that appeared last month, it seems like a lot of the battles I have had to fight are dwindling down. . . . maybe the newspapers have gotten it right for once.

Jack is beginning to talk. . . .”take off my shield.”

For the first time in years, we are not looking at an upcoming deployment. . . .nor are we still recovering from one. . . .”Carry my sword. . . .I won’t need it anymore.”

I’m headed back to New Orleans this spring.  In the same way that she convinced me to be her friend twenty years ago, The Princess has made it impossible to not return this spring. . . . “Find me the sun, give me it whole. . . .melt all the chains in my soul.”

A year ago, I fought the war about being a stay at home mom.  It was one of the shorter ones. . . .”I won’t fight here anymore.”

Oh. . . .and the DKNY suit?  It still hangs in a closet with a plethora of her sisters. . . .Ellen Tracy, Tahari, St. John’s, Donna Karan. . . .remnants of a war-torn past.  They are both the trophies and the wounds of battles from long ago.  Grad school. . . .loss of loved ones. .. .cancelled friendships. . . .vetoed relationships. . . .forks in the road.  Today, my uniform is more likely to be Adidas running pants and a Life is Good t-shirt (not that I am running, but if I did, I would be appropriately attired), not designer suits.

But souvenirs are for tourists and, like the non-sticking magnet that reminds of us a trip we once took, today those old trophies are going in the trash.

“This war is over. . . .I’m coming home. . . .”

But then, isn’t that what they said in the newspaper?

PS:  words in quotes are from Melissa Etheridge’s song, “This War is Over”

All I Want For Christmas. . . .A Look into the Future

This morning, on Christmas Eve, I get to close out the ghost visits. . . .finally.  May they take a year long nap and get in better moods.

For me, the opening scene from the movie, Love Actually, is only surpassed by the opening of Pelican Brief.  I plan to watch both today, since I have, surprisingly accomplished most of what I set out to do to prepare for Christmas.  What I actually love about Love Actually is the anticipation of joy at Christmas time presented by those in the movie. . . . .some years, I can even get through the part where Laura Linney’s character consoles her brother without crying. . . but it usually hits a little too close to home.  Thank goodness for fast forwarding options.

That aside, when I want to get in a better mood, I crank of Mariah’s version of  “All I Want For Christmas,” a key element in the movie.   Today is no different.  Through the Christmas deployments, you could be sure to find Mariah singing, as loud as Lola’s speakers could push it out, reminding me that the only thing that I wanted for Christmas was to have my husband home, safe and sound.  Let me tell you, though. . . .it is easier to envision a North Pole castle filled with happy elves, hard at work building toys, than it is to wish for your husband to be home for Christmas during a deployment.

Even when he was home. . . .I let Mariah sing.  The song can make me cry, laugh, smile, sob. . . .it is a full-service song. . .something for everyone.

This morning. . . . .I have been thinking alot about what I want for Christmas.  The Ghost of Christmas Future visited last night. . .like the previous visitors, she (hey—if I have to have ghosts creeping around, you are going to be sure that I am going to pick the preferred gender, thus, all of mine are female. . . .like I need another male telling me what to do or where I have failed), offered insights. . . .I took notes. . . .some of which might be helpful in your new year as well.

Elle received her first “college” acceptance this past week.  🙂  Sure she is only eight, but when you are a Tiger Mom (a term of praise in my book, not criticism), you start early.  The University of Virginia offers enrichment programs in January and February for kids in grades K through 6th.  Delivered on Saturdays, the options ranged from learning how to write and illustrate a book to acting as an classroom archaeologist, combing through the layers of ancient Egypt.  Another class allowed students to study quilting as a form of communication.  Given her love of art and sewing, I was sure that would be her first choice, but she picked the “My Own Book” as her first.  Acceptance required teacher recommendations and applications.  We like that we are getting a head-start on learning to manage program applications.

Elle hopes to be published by the age of 10.  Girls with positive attitudes and who shoot for the stars usually end up doing pretty well.  Let the indoctrination begin.

Jack. . . .Jack. . . .Jack. . . . .

Let me tell you a few things about Jack’s future that you might want to consider when you reevaluate your financial portfolio.

Invest in Pepsico.  You will not lose, as long as Jack Drinkwine lives, by investing in Pepsico stock, specifically Frito-Lay and Pizza Hut.  Sometimes, I like to think about some category manager sitting in Dallas or Wichita, sifting through piles of data trying to figure out why sales of thin and crispy pizza, cheese, no sauce, have skyrocketed in Northern Virginia while falling dramatically in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Same thing with the brand manager of Doritos Nacho Cheese. . . I wonder if he or she appreciates the bonuses my child generates for him/her every year.

Poptarts:  put your bets on Strawberry Frosted.  You will win.

Strawberry Fruit 2.0 flavored water.  Despite having family members in the production and distribution of bottled water who say that flavored water is a fad, I like to think that we, just the four of us, are personally responsible for that brand staying afloat (no pun intended).

Fisher-Price products. . . . think they are limited to pre-schoolers?  In our house, serious play-acting requires Fisher Price little people or whatever they are called.  This past year, those products have allowed us to enjoy performances such as “The Toys that Saved Christmas,” circus acts and, of course, the inner workings of zoos.  Given the flexibility with which the plastic toys have been employed in our home, I look forward to such Shakespearean plays as “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “King Lear.” 

It is, with some sadness, that I suggest that any stock you bought related to Thomas the Tank Engine has, probably, tanked.  Sorry. . . we have just moved on from the Island of Sodor.

Spouting an entrepreunerial spirit?  Let me give some ideas. . . . .

In an earlier post, I wasn’t kidding about lojacking my kid.  What I had wrong earlier, though, is that Jack is not the  kid I am going to need to have microchipped.  If anything, his umbilical cord has not only been shortened this year, but it appears to have been wrapped in titanium. . . .he isn’t going anywhere.

No, the one I worry about is Elle.  With a strength of personal will that mimics the winds of a Category 5 hurricane, I am anticipating the future is going to be a test of patience, strength and, in some cases, all out war.  My war win column is usually pretty high, but I think she has what it takes to take me down a notch or two.  We are researching convents, along with prep schools and colleges. . . . we’ll keep you posted.

As for B and me. . . . .this year’s New Year’s Eve, we will celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary.  And they said it wouldn’t last.

Yep, we got married on 12/31/1999.  The band at our reception played Prince’s famous 1999 song at least three times that night.  As I remember the bar bill the next morning, I can we all lived up to the request to party like it was 1999.  Looking back at the couples who attended that night, the number of those who have divorced in the last 12 years is more than a little significant.  The ones who have found love since that time has been encouraging.  One couple actually got engaged at our wedding. . . . oddly enough, they also gave their kids the same names we gave ours. . . .coincidence??????  

As for Estelle. . . . the frumpy New Orleans school teacher who found herself naked in an Albemarle jail cell on New Year’s morning after having been arrested at my wedding. . .well, we don’t hear from her much anymore, but I am sure that she has moved on.  Maybe she has found a support group of former arrestees (is that a real word?) from that night.. . . in New Orleans, there has to be plenty of those types running around.

On that night, 12 years ago, Brian and I exchanged wedding bands each with an engraved line from Robert Browning.  Mine said “grow old along with me” while his was engraved with “the best is yet to be.”  I still have mine. . . . jumping out of airplanes and running through firefights in various corners of the world means that B is on his third or fourth version (segue. . . .anyone still left in Iraq. . .if you find a platinum wedding band with those words. . . you can send it back to us, we’ll reimburse you for the postage). 

The other day, one of my beloved readers noticed a picture on my refrigerator of me standing in my favorite spot to be photographed. . .L’Accademia Bridge in Venezia. . . wow, she said, were you 20?  I’m sure she was being kind.  However, while I am nearly 30 years older than 20, that picture was only 12 years ago.  War, Army, Autism. . . Army, Autism, War. . . no matter how you want to play with the words. . . they all add up to one thing:  advanced aging beyond what could be expected in 12 years.  Twisting my wedding ring around my finger, now too difficult to remove without hot water and lots of soap, I think about the words that are pushed against my age-spotted hands.  . . .

“Grow old along with me. .  . .”

For B and me, the Ghost of Christmas Future reminded me. . . .”the best is yet to be.”

Merry Christmas. . . .

The Ghost of Christmas Present: Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow. . . . .

The weather outside is frightful.

And. . it really is or isn’t. . .depending on your point of view.  Winter this year in Northern Virginia has been amazing.  Maybe karma realizes that so many of us have recently moved here from warmer climes, that she is taking it easy on us this year.  I really like being able to walk the kids to school in the morning without having to worry about coats, hats and gloves.

But tonight, frightful is best described as very wet and rainy.  The precipitation matches my mood. . . .a bit dark, fairly dreary. .  .downcast.  Agreeably, it is Christmas and I am grateful.  Believe me, I am grateful.  But I am waiting. . . . .

The recent visit from the Ghosts of Christmases Past has been exhausting.  Which, under the circumstances, is really not that bad.  For every year, as long as I can remember, the weeks leading up to Christmas were a fantasy dash through a lengthy to-do list that began with writing finals and ended with writing syllabi for the following semester.  Over the years, I would use the few days between finishing grades and Christmas to push everything out the door. . . . .tree up, let’s see. . . tree up. . . . I am beginning to feel like the GOP candidate who can’t remember the third agency he would cut.  What this really means is that, for as long as I can remember, getting the tree up was usually the one task that I could ever adequately accomplish during Christmas.  Presents for friends, usually a hit or miss. . . one year, I might . . .three years, I might not.  The once hand-created Christmas cards for 300 have now been replaced with an order to Tinyprints and a typed letter. 

Standing in the rain, I see that I have been joined by the Ghost of Christmas Present.  If the chicks from the past serenaded me with calls to wake me up when December ends, this peaceful presence gives voice to the Beatles’ Let It Be.

Let it Snow. . .Let it Be. . . 

“How are you?” her voice is kind.  I shiver and fail to answer.

Once again, she asks, “How are you?”  I have no answer.  There are no answers. 

She watches me warily and leans back against the wall.  Surprisingly, unlike what you see on television, ghosts don’t necessarily just seep through walls.  This one just stands there waiting for me to answer her.   When I don’t, she takes my hand.  Holding it for just a moment, she is determined. 

But I am very stubborn, very strong and very resilient.  I can outwait her patience. 

“I don’t have to answer you,” I tell her defiantly.  She laughs. . . .”well, of course, you don’t.  It’s why I am here.  Come on.”

 Let it Be. . . .whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

The lights shine throughout the house.  Every television in the house is turned on.  If it is at all possible, every outlet throughout this place is running electricity into some product, appliance, or device.  There are five Christmas trees of varying sizes, garland is hung everywhere and I see that I have even managed to place outdoor decorations around the front of the house.  We are prepped for Christmas.

Or, at least, I like to think that we are. 

“Lovely, isn’t it,” she asks me. 

All I can see is what isn’t done.  The presents, while purchased and currently residing at Stealth Santa’s house a few blocks away, are not wrapped.  The trees are up, but the big one, the one with all of the special ornaments is incomplete.  I keep intending to create the Christmas card, but something always diverts me.  In other words, it isn’t enough.  I haven’t done enough.  Overwhelmed is all that is left.

The Let it Be chick acknowledges all of this.  She reminds me of the time in graduate school when, seeking solace from my priest, he told me that I needed to be mindful.  To be present.  To stop living in the future.  Reminding me of the previous night’s visitors, she points out that living in the past will not do too much for you, either. 

“Stop,” she advises, “stop and look at what you have done.”

I look at Elle.  Eight years old and already worried about getting into the right high school.  Life is tough when your mom is a Tiger Mom.  But, she is so very happy.   A couple of months ago, Elle told me that she needed to have a serious discussion with me.  Watching her eyes fill with tears, we sat on the bed together while she asked me if Santa was real.  Not in the mood that day to deal in flights of fancy, I asked her if she was ready for the truth.  As the tears dribbled down her skinny face, she told me that she had to know.  No, I told her then, Santa is really mommy and daddy.  Her reaction is visceral.  She drops the questions for awhile.

Now, in December, she has announced that she is willing to suspend belief for just one more year.  She writes her letter to Santa and makes pretty pictures to entice him to fill each request.  She tells me that this year, we will not be leaving cookies for Santa, though.  We are going with carrots for the reindeer.  You know, she tells me, because sometimes it is fun to be different.

Yes, I tell the current visitor. . . .she is growing up. 

Let It Be chick takes me into the front room. . .the room for which we still don’t have a name.  It had, in the beginning, been where we had located the bar, but it overwhelmed me when I walked through the door, the furniture too big, too much for the small room.  I moved it all out and brought in smaller pieces. . . this is where the Nativity has been laid this year.

“Look at what she has done,” she says, pointing to the nativity.  Because of where I have placed it this year, I have to kneel down to see where she is pointing.  The Baby Jesus figure is missing from the manger.  I remember that Elle had moved the Baby Jesus earlier this week to another location in the room.  Looking across the carpet, I see that she has taken the small caramel-colored ceramic figure and placed it in front of one of my Christmas decorations, a small wooden block with the word “HOPE” spelled in block metal letters.  I want this to be like it is at church, Elle tells me when she makes this move.  Raising one eyebrow (to the best of my ability) in a silent request for clarification, she tells me that the manger is empty until Christmas morning.    

“See?”  Christmas Present Ghost asks.  “You are helping her soul to grow up, too.”  Suddenly, the unbaked cookies do not feel like such a big deal.

I take a deep breath. . . and we turn to see Jack.

For the past six months, Jack has watched every Christmas movie, on television, youtube, or dvd.  I have, approximately, seen The Polar Express well over 300 times this past month alone, I can recite the script to Frosty the Snowman and, probably most exciting, is that I have listened to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in more languages than I probably ever knew existed.  That youtube thing is really amazing.

Two months shy of his 10th birthday and Jack has put together the puzzle:  Christmas, trees, Santa, presents, Rudolph, snow.  We have had a Christmas tree up in the playroom since the middle of October.  He gave me his list of toys a month ago.  Just last week, he decided that if the weather wouldn’t cooperate, he would create his own snowstorm.  Amazing how much one piece of styrofoam can remain after it has been decimated.  Everyday, I vacuum.  Everyday there is more styrofoam to clean up. 

“This is the year that he has blossomed,” my guest whispers.  Watching him collect his toys and place them around the still unfinished Christmas tree, I nod.  This has been the year, his year.  We have used the concrete aspects of Christmas to teach Jack so many things this year.  Christmas has been a motivator, a reinforcer, a reward.  We have used it to help him figure out calendars, learn the days of the weeks, work on his patience.  If he isn’t quite ready for the abstraction that is the true meaning of Christmas, I am ok with that.  I look over at the Thief that resides in my house and, for once, I cut him some slack.  Autism:  the gift that keeps on giving.

I look across my studio and see that Jack has fallen asleep outside my door on the floor.  Two more days, I told him earlier.  No more school for awhile.  His anticipation has finally worn him out.  Wearing the same night clothes that he has used to act out a character in one of his many holiday movies, his fedora next to his face, he is racked out. 

My Ghost of Christmas Present leans over and lightly brushes my cheek with a kiss.  You did so well, she tells me.  These are such happy children.  From the other room, I hear Elle singing “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. . . .”

She’s gone, the visitor from the present.  Next to me, my IPod lets Paul sing. . . .”there will be an answer, let it be.”

I love my journey.



Wake Me Up When December Ends: A Christmas Carol

One thing you probably don’t know about me is that I can only write to music.  There has to be a song in my head to trigger the stories and then I have to listen to it for days as one part of the journey after another comes into focus.  One writer friend refers to that as “letting the story cook.”  Cooking or not, the soundtrack must be playing in the background before I can put out one word.

Last night, I was serenaded with Christmas carols by Elle. . . .in that little tiny squeaky voice that struggles to find the right pitch.  As she never stops making me play guessing games, I was supposed to pick out favorite carols.  Using my phone, she searches the internet for the lyrics and then launches into the song until she has sung every verse.  Last night we went with a secular theme. . . .she sang the entire version of “Let It Snow.”

“When you were my age,” she begins, “what was your favorite Christmas song?”  I try hard to think that far back.  Our music teacher, Mrs. Mary McCauley,  mother of Clare and Maureen and a whole cast of other girls with amazing good girl Catholic names, would wheel her piano into our classroom.  She’d be there for one period, prepping us for the Christmas recital that would take place in the Big Gym of our brand new school.  There we would stand up when our class was called, uncomfortably shuffling our dressed-up bodies onto three levels of “bleachers” to sing for the whole school.

I’m short, so I always had to stand in the front row.  Wearing tights that has crept into spaces not meant for fabric, I would squirm in discomfort, trying to not be embarrassed, hoping that just one move would alleviate the problem.

Christmases Past.

Like Scrooge, it feels like I have had a few visits from the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future, this week.  In fact, it seems like I have seen quite a few ghosts this year.  Some have been welcomed, others have come and gone.  Like the twisted tights of childhood, a few have stayed around just to make me squirm.  When Greenday’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” found its way onto the playlist of my IPod the other day, the doorbell rang all day long.  Like guests arriving for the holidays, they showed up, baggage in hand.  Some brought gifts, others just offered warm hugs and happy greetings.  A few, like Maleficent, the evil fairy who failed to receive an invitation to the party in honor of Princess Aurora (“Sleeping Beauty” to those of you for whom the days of Disney princesses have long passed), unexpectedly appeared, promising to render the entire holiday weekend a disaster.

Things are getting crowded around here.  Too often, Ghost Visitors, make their own plans.  They want to talk.  They want to reminisce.  They want you to remember the past.

Two groups have come together.  They are the Naive Ghosts of the 60s and 70s.  Like the Schnozz sisters of my childhood (sisters of an aunt from the Old Country, single and sporting noses for which rhinoplasties would have been blessings), these ghosts bring memories of huge family get-togethers.  Caught in the middle between two cultures, I looked forward to the exciting Chicago nights filled with Italian food, card playing, lots of drinking and smoke-filled living rooms.  Like a magician at a children’s birthday party, they were easily impressed by my sleight of hand.  One year, I informed them that I would, someday, earn a Ph.D., writing a dissertation focusing on the impact of the Vietnam War on women of my cohort.  As if I had just pulled a rabbit from my hat, they oohed, ahhed, and clapped with joy.  Standing there in a room of people where college degrees were scant, I climbed onto the offered pedestal, feeling the adulation grow.

The end of those Christmas weeks, though, were a stark contrast to the noisy Midnight Mass-attending crowds of Chicago.  In a tit for tat scenario, we would venture to the other side of the state where Christmas was a stuffy affair, the norms delivered by the white-haired quiet patriarch and enforced by his outspoken wife.  If those Chicago living rooms were raucous events, the other side were staid Scandinavian suppers.  Drinking took place behind closed doors, voices were well-modulated and, one by one, each member of the family found his or her way to the lap of the patriarch where he would take stock of the year’s accomplishments.  Speaking in a heavily accented voice, a dry, half-smoked cigar between his teeth, he would never fail to point out how different my sister and I were from the rest of the family.  We were being raised as Eastern Europeans and, amongst the reserved and reticent Swedes, it was clear as rain.  Years later, I learn that the Swedes were actually the wild ones.  Spouses came and went.  Some returned years after having been away, as if a little thing like a divorce was something that you just you erased from the memory book. Like the alcoholic beverages sipped elegantly behind closed doors, philandering and divorce were, apparently, more than just a spectator sports.

The Naive Ghosts then begin to launch into a contest of who wore the worst styles and I turn to look for the Ghosts of the 80s, remembering them as the Big Haired Girls.  They aren’t here this year.  No big deal.  Their memories are always the least interesting, the most conventional. . . the most boring.  Of course they wouldn’t show.  Every year there is another year or decade that upstages them to the point where they no longer even appear as true ghosts. . .more like wisps of memories.  They can’t compete.

“Remember when. . . .?” the Good Ghost of  the 1990s begins, as she lists happy days in New Orleans, filled with endless parties, anticipation of Twelfth Night, winters when all you needed to keep warm were the bright lights of City Park.  She is, as usual, not alone, accompanied by her mirror image of those years, her sister, the Ghost of Broken Hearts.

The Ghost of Broken Hearts interrupts her.  “Exactly how were those happy days?” she asks with narrowed eyes.  “What about the Divorced Years?” reminding me of the Christmas Eve of 1991, when I had pulled the plug on my first marriage a few weeks earlier.  She pushes on.  “How about the year that damn Grim Reaper showed up and stayed for the entire month of January?  You call that happy?”  Then, as if she wants to just watch me crumble, she plays her trump card.  “And,” she hisses, like the snake she is about to reference, “let’s talk about the Hannukah years. . . .” reminding me that, for a short time, there had been the suggestion that the only December lights in my house would be emanating from a Menorrah.

“Stop it,” the Good Ghost cries.  She is the only one with whom I am on a first name basis.  Her name is Isabel and she first came into my life as one of the three angels during my life in the mid to late 1990s.  Back then, she was a fence sitter, constantly whispering in my ear, “should I stay or should I go?” as I stood at the fork in my journey’s road, knowing that, like the Mary Englebreit drawing, choosing one path would immediately designate the other “no longer an option.”  When I finally made my decision in the latter years of the decade, she happily jumped off the fence, wiped her hands and said, “well, I am glad that THAT is finally over.”

“There were many happy times,” she says in a voice louder than that with which I am more familiar.  “There were puppies, friends, travel and. . . ” she turns to look at GoBH, “we won.  We found that person who finally changed your job description.”  I watch as the Ghost of Broken Hearts steps back into the shadows.  Isabel is right.  The Ghost of Broken Hearts will return in the future, but her job description would have changed radically.

Well, I think, that is over.  We have covered just about all of Christmases Past.  I am about to tidy up the room, do the dishes and shuffle off to bed.  As I turn out the lights on this little dinner party, a cold hand grips my shoulder.

“Not so fast,” a deeply resonant voice pronounces. “You haven’t let us speak.”  Emerging from the darkest corner of the room, I see that it is two groups melded into one.  They are, respectively, the Ghosts of the A’s:  Army, Autism, and Afghanistan.  Included, but not always vocal, is their subset, The Deployment Sisters.  All are, collectively, known to me as The Bitch Ghosts.  The room clears.  Ghosts from the previous decades scatter.  These are the BIG Ghosts.  These are the ones who never let a little thing like Christmas be their only reason for appearing.  They are comfortable in all seasons, arriving on their own, always without regard for how I might feel about them.  I immediately suspect that this visit will be no different, if not a little worse.  I have kept them away for most of this past year and they have a few things they want to say, I guess.

“Really,” I ask plaintively.  “Haven’t we had enough fun yet?”

Autism speaks first.  She reminds me of dashed dreams, sad silence, and hollowed out hopes.  Not unlike the time that I met the Thief himself, I feel every bit of the tongue lashing she delivers.  She moves aside.  It’s Army’s turn.

The relationship with the Ghost of the Army is a love-hate relationship.  Like Isabel and her sister, GoBH, my Army Christmas memories are filled with parties, gifts, intensely wonderful friendships, funny Christmas letters and, in a few isolated cases, all out pure joy and happiness.  But the hate part of the relationship is never far behind.  The Army Ghost likes to remind me of all that has been stolen from me.  The list is lengthy:  Christmases lost to drama, deployments, and, in all too many cases, death.  Four of those Christmases have taken place in dual locations:  Fallujah, Baghdad, Fort Drum (what we like to call a CONUS deployment because your husband is so busy that he might as well be deployed) and, worst of all, Helmand Province.

In seconds, Ghosts from those four locations emerge as separate beings.

The Ghost of Fallujah is first.  Joining her sister, Ghost of Autism, she reminds me of the year that B was in Iraq for our first Christmas apart.  Alone, the realization that my son was autistic was becoming painfully apparent.  But the Army never leaves well enough alone.  When CNN broadcast that 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was being extended beyond their initial deployment of six months in 2003, I told all of the FRG leaders that it must be wrong.  We would learn six days before Christmas that division leaders had told the press about the extension before the families had been notified.  Two weeks later, what had simply been a case of being apart would develop into something much more.  A deployment that had merely, at one time, just separated us by miles, turned into a separation of pain.  On 2 January 2004, while supporting one of my husband’s missions, a Kiowa pilot would be shot down.  Her name was Kim and she would have the distinction of being the first female 82nd paratrooper to be killed in action in the history of the division.  This experience would be only one of the first of many deaths that would tear at the fabric of our lives, our marriage, ourselves.

“You are done,” I tell the Fallujah chick.  “Move on.”

“Want to talk about me?” Baghdad woman asks.

“No,” I answer defiantly.  “You are old news.”  She evaporates in front of my eyes, morphing into the collective ghost bitches.

“How about me?” The Ghost Bitch of Fort Drum speaks, her threatening tone too much to handle.

“What about you?  Which one do you want to talk about?” I yell.  I am going to pick this topic.  It never leaves me and if, for once, I talk about it, I hope it goes away.  “Let’s talk 23 December 2006.  Now.”  I am going to take control of this memory.

Casualty notifications are always, always horrible.  Casualty notifications done badly are catastrophes.  Casualty notifications done badly at Christmas time are all-out Cluster Fucks.  This memory is the Queen of the Cluster Fucks.

“Remember the failure of the FRG that year?  Remember the uselessness of that damn ostrich of a wife whose hand I held for nearly ten years?” I am screaming now.  The events of that day are visceral.  The call had come in at 8am that a soldier had been killed in action.  By 2pm, there had not been confirmation of notification.  The silence of the phone spoke volumes.  “Maybe you should check on the process,” I ask B.  He is the rear chief of staff for the 10th Mountain Division and all calls of bad news come through him first.  He makes a call.  I can tell by the tension in features that something is not right.  They can’t find the soldier’s wife.  It is two days before Christmas and she is already a widow, but she doesn’t know yet.

I can’t do it.  I can’t make myself remember every detail as I stand before the Ghost of Fort Drum.

“Please go,” I beg.  But she isn’t finished.  She wants me to remember because it was the culminating event in my life that would alter how I saw the world forever after.  “Finish the story,” she demands.

Snippets of the 24 hours surrounding that day become clear.  There is an argument between B and me.  “Do something.” I implore him.  “What would you like me to do?” he asks.  “They don’t know where she is.  They are trying to find her.”  Later, I would be awakened in the middle of the night to my husband screaming into the phone at some hapless NCO in Arizona.  It was an unsettling sight.

They would find her.  They would find her at 6am on the morning of Christmas Eve in a hotel room on the other side of the country.  A casualty notification team would knock on her door, as her five year old daughter stood behind her, and begin those fateful words, “On behalf of the President of the United States, I am. . . . .”  Her life would be different from that moment on.

I take a heavy breath.  The Bitch Ghosts seem satisfied.  Their work here is done.  Except for one.  Like Maleficent, the Ghost of Afghanistan will have one last word.  She smolders like a fire that will never die down.

But I am beaten.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past have taken their toll.  While all of the ghosts of the last decade have played their own roles, the Ghost of Afghanistan represents everything all in one.  She will remind me of the hardest year of dealing with Jack’s autism, the year when my relationship with the Army was more hate than love.  She will remind me of the unrelenting notifications.  The babies left without fathers.  The parents left without sons.  The wives left without husbands.  For at least one, the insurance money will be enough. . .she demonstrated that sufficiently at the funeral.  For others, they will be forced to move ahead as they deliver the children they conceived before the deployment began.  But all of them will grieve.

Finally, I remind the Ghost of Afghanistan that I have won.  I really have.  She doesn’t own me, nor has she destroyed my life.  I rarely let her into my dreams anymore.  She is welcome to stop by again, but I tell her that I am so much stronger than anyone ever credited me.  Making this point to her in such a defiant manner seems to diminish her.  Taking one more deep breath, I blow out the flames, now no more than a small table candle.  With one blow, her fire ceases to exist.

The Ghosts of Christmases Past.

To paraphrase Greenday, wake me up when December ends. . . . .

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