But of course, we would never have missed Alex’s boot camp graduation (also known as Pass in Review “PIR”). That included his parents, his two siblings – the 9 year old who had coughed his way through the last two weeks, two doctors appointments, three prescriptions and an ED visit only to be told maybe he should see a therapist. The second sibling who failed middle school English (but passed Spanish), and had to attend middle school over the following summer. Do you think that Alex’s departure in the Navy might have had something to do with it? Oh, YOU BETCHA. His mama was a wreck, spending his first day in transit to Great Lakes with her own mama, at a day spa, wherein she wrecked her facial with a crying jag with the esthetician rendered helpless and my mama having to sedate me with an additional spa treatment. His dad was on auto pilot dealing with the kids and the mama. Granny seemed to have everything under control and you can bet your sweet ass she wasn’t missing the graduation either.
We flew out of SFO, unbeknownst to the three adults – we all had the Wizard of Oz movie stuck in our heads that we separately posted in our facebook feeds only to discover upon arrival that Chicago is actually known as the Emerald City. We are an interesting site, the 5 of us, filing through the airport, with carry on items such as a guitar case, a turkey stuffing sized Tupperware filled with chocolate chip cookies, a computer bag (alex’s), his cell phone (fully charged). Everything else went through checked baggage. We arrive in Chicago in time to check into the hotel, and join the Navy Mom’s planned dinner meeting all of the mom’s who I have bonded with over the last eight weeks. They all have had an equally tense couple of months. Mine paled in comparison to certain of their stories. One mom’s son, a strapping young lad easily twice Alex’s size, had fallen sick during boot camp, couldn’t past the water test due to pneumonia and still had to pass his battle stations. Another Navy girlfriend had given birth just a week earlier and came (under judgment from many) with her new born baby boy to see her own sailor. Some had deaths in the family, drama with their son’s baby mamas. Some of the sailors were “grab and go” which meant they did not get liberty for the entire weekend to visit with their sailors, but maybe 12 to 24 hours. Didn’t matter….The family came anyways. The list went on. Then there was Jayelynn, whose son had graduated from boot camp several months prior, but she flew in just to meet us and see our own sailor graduate. It’s not often you have two Jayelynn/Jaye Lynn’s in the same group and it made for interesting conversation at Starbucks.
We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning. While the PIR (pass in review) is performed EVERY Friday of the year, recruiting over 1,000 sailors each week, the directions on arrival are less than detailed. Against all odds (this is MY life), we make it on base, on time. The naval base looks like an old Ivy league college. Brick buildings abound with stone bridges over creeks with fall color everywhere. There are sailors everywhere. We shop the Navy gift shop buying all sorts of Navy wear because we are literally the Navy’s biggest fans (well, we are Alex’s biggest fans, but the two now go hand in hand). We take our seats in the bleachers, waving at those who we dined with the night before and spotting the new born child of a Navy sailor in his own little sailor suit. The pomp and circumstance begins with the Divisions marching their entrance to the large gymnasium. Steps in sync, heads straight forward, voices loud and proud. The formation flawless in our eyes. We finally spot our own. If I remember correctly, Anders found him first. As we watched the PIR through its entirety I was amazed by the little things. My son who didn’t sing out loud, who didn’t pray, who typically answered any question with “MMhm”, this man in uniform sang out right, his head snapped downward in prayer, his voice resonated loudly across the room as instructed by the Navy leaders. Confidence shined. As the ceremony came to a close and the flags were lowered, tears flowed down my face as we scrambled down the bleachers to find our son in the now mob of Navy blues. My 42 year old self literally catapulted over the bleacher rails only to be beaten to Alex by his own younger brother. Within seconds, Alex was surrounded by all of us. Granny had even hauled herself at faster than her normal pace on her bad feet. We were introduced to his new friends, Robert, Eddie, Trevor and Jayelynn’s son, Ryan.
We slowly made our way back to the outdoors and followed Alex across campus to check out for the weekend. It was a beautiful clear skied day only to be marred by a young man who has had rules literally brainwashed into him over the last few weeks. “Don’t walk on the grass.” “Don’t cut corners.” “Don’t walk on the running track.” “Wait here”, he says as he goes into his barracks to grab his things, turning directly to me in front of the Navy staff tending the desk, “Don’t talk to ANYONE.” He comes back minutes later and we head to our rental car. Next stop – the hotel room. While Alex has liberty for the weekend, he has not yet earned his right to wear civilian clothes in public. His first mission is to get to the hotel, get into his sweats (that we brought), unload his guitar, his phone, his computer, his baseball hat and become “normal” again. I don’t even think we went out to dinner that night. We ordered in, the six of us, talking, talking, talking. Granny was so proud of him. She was having a great time until I instigated a last minute, impromptu marshmallow fight. Who would have thought she would strain her neck ducking from a 2 inch by 2 inch white pillow. The poppy seed bread I brought for Alex (one of his favorites) remained untouched – another sign of intense training – he didn’t want to test positive for opium (known to be caused from poppy seeds). We got to sleep, all of us tucked into the same room, a luxury to be sure.
The next day we head into Chicago – we have never been. However, not before we have to make a trip back to the Naval base. Sr. Alex had forgotten his belt and was slightly terrified that, even in the hotel breakfast lobby, he would be found by a senior officer and duly flogged for being out of full uniform. In his nervousness, he gives an incorrrect salute to a senior officer on base only flustering himself more and cursing himself with “WHY DID YOU SALUTE WITH THE WRONG HAND?” Officially belted in full uniform, we hit the train into the city. Chicago is a lovely city, full of history, art and the famous deep dish pizza (which reminds me — that’s what we had for dinner the night before in our hotel room). We are surrounded on the train with other recent Navy grads, visible by their perfect uniforms with very little bling on them and attached with family or spouses or girlfriends, or all three. The affection between the sexes is, yes, tamed by the Navy teachings of respect and courtesy. You may hold hands, you may join arms, but there is not to be public displays of affection (i.e., no tonsil tennis). This is actually quite refreshing as I spot one of the navy girlfriends who is built like a brick shithouse, with her fake eyelashes, long legs and mane of black hair down to her back. While it may sound gaudy, she pulls it off like a movie star as her tall, stringy boyfriend with glasses is just happy to be there. Heck – we were all happy to be there. We go all day through the City, The Bean, Sears Tower, the museums, the food. Literally, a perfect perfect day only shadowed by the thought that tomorrow, Sunday, we would be dropping him back off at the Naval base for 1.5 years of training with no confirmed visits in the near future. The day goes much too fast and we are back to the hotel, back in his sweats, with his phone, his computer, his guitar. We sleep hard, exhausted by the day’s activities and the lingering of emotions that have led up to this weekend. As we drive him back to base the next morning, we make sure and hit the Navy store where our son gets us all discounts on even more naval apparel – after all, Christmas is only a month away! We go as far as we possibly can to shorten his trek back to his barracks with his arms loaded down with his personal goods that he can now keep with him on base. I am reminded of when I was a little girl and my summers would come to an end with my dad and we would drive silently to the airport from his apartment, all three of us looking out the window and not at each other. My dad always fell first, his tears would roll down his cheeks. Even though we appeared to not notice, we did, and then our own tears would fall. This was me, now, with my own son. In the car, my head turned to “look” out the side window, only to mask my own tears. By the time we were on Navy grounds, I was a sobbing mess, trying miserably hard to keep it together. We all take turns giving hugs – not a common display of affection for our oldest son, but he understands that this is our need and he complies. He hugs us equally hard back and thanks us for coming. It is only when I watch him turn around walking from us to his new world, in his dress khakis, his hat squarely on his head, with his black overcoat blowing in the wind, his overnight bag on one arm and his guitar case over his other that I realize he is no longer just mine. He is his own man. Whether he likes it or not, he will always need me, I know that. This continued to be proven to me over the next several weeks when I would get a random phone call with such questions like, “How do I do laundry?” or “I need to book my flight home for the holidays, what’s the best way to do it?”. The 4 of us head back towards the airport and board our flight. As we sit down, Aaron next to me, the tears are still shedding and Aaron starts to cough (the same cough that he had prior to our trip that kept him out of school for two weeks and suggested a therapist), I whipped my head towards him, to the horror of the gentleman sitting next to him, and morph into an evil mother, fangs bared, “You start that shit up again and so help me…..” Aaron’s big blue eyes grew even bigger as he stifled The Cough, thankfully never to be heard from again. Our trip home, uneventful. Unbeknown to us at the time, one of many last memorable experiences with our whole family intact, with my mama present and cancer free. All of us, whether enlisted or not, all a bit better, wiser and stronger through our time with the Navy.