The following is a non-fiction essay written by Emily Garlington, the daughter of U.S. Navy Cmdr. Andrew Garlington. She describes her experience as a little girl while her father was deployed. President Obama declared November Military Family Month, a month-long celebration of military families and a commemoration of their extraordinary service and sacrifice.
The number of miles away my dad would be.
The number of days my dad would be gone.
The number of links on the paper chain that served as a five-year-old’s calendar.
180. His bags were packed, tossed in an uncontrollable jumble in the trunk of the car, only to be straightened into neat military rows by my mother. Oddly fitting, those rows: military precision for an officer in the Navy, off to do his duty, off for his deployment. The car engine grumbled to a start, a somber wife strapped a toddler, her son, into a dark car-seat (even the color matched the mood of that morning) and I, at five, hugged the only part of my uniformed father that I could reach: his knees. We pulled out of the driveway; the summer sun flashed early-morning rays in through the window. I squinted my eyes and twisted my body into odd contortions in a mad attempt to escape the glaring light. Then, suddenly: the dock, the ship, the snapping flag, the bleach-white officers’ covers. Had I slept? My eyes were bleary; I was hurried out of the car, short legs double-timing to keep up. The grey-metal hull loomed above, shadowing all below and seeming to blot out the sun. The bags that were once in formation now lay in disorder again, only this time on the dock. Swept into my father’s arms, my face was buried in his shoulder; his Old Spice after-shave filling my nose, and his ribbons pressed against my side. He set me back down on the deck: a kiss on the forehead for my brother, a hug and long kiss for my mother, a brief but heartfelt goodbye to all of us. Then gone. Him, his bags, his after-shave: up the ramp and into the belly of the monstrous ship. A bellowing, blaring horn blast, a groaning, creaking moan from the iron-hide, and, amongst the racket, the splashing and clicking of dolphins, whose skin matched the hue of the ship’s. Then the peace of the car and the painfully long ride home. No sleep this time.
126. Every day that passed was a link removed from the paper chain. It grew shorter, but the days still seemed countless, long, tedious. His after-shave was still fresh in my mind, and his picture was taped to my bedpost, wrinkled from the numerous passing my hand across the glossy surface, which was worn away to more of a dull shine. My mother read books to my brother and me to take our minds of the wait and my father’s absence.
I wondered if he missed me and looked at my mother fretfully.
“Yes he does, Emily; very, very much.” She soothed me every night.
97. I missed him so much. I missed him even more than he missed me, no matter how much my mother assured me of his great longing to be home with us. It seemed like every night I would count and re-count those brightly colored paper links on the chain that grew increasingly shorter. But it was still not short enough. So many days, so many links. His deployment was almost half-way over. The smell of his after-shave was fading from my memory. We were on Book Two.
I wondered how much longer was left.
“We’re half-way there, Emily.”
… So long…
“It will be ok.”
52. Less than two months. Only a third of the time left. The chain still seemed, to an impatient five year old, like it never ended. His after-shave no longer crossed my mind. It was gone, wisped away and ushered into the back of my mind. His picture was starting to tear and Book Three was coming to a close.
I wondered if he thought of me.
“All the time, Emily; all the time.”
I asked if she was sure.
21. There were only a few weeks left. The chain was painstakingly short, yet endlessly long. It hung limply from the ceiling fan, droopy and flat, with the colors faded and bleached by the scorching sun. The picture I had of my father had long since torn and, though there had been an attempt to tape in back together, the worn photo had been thrown out. I didn’t have a new one. His face was still clear in my mind, but I couldn’t remember how his voice sounded. We were halfway through Book 4.
I wondered if he would remember me.
“Of course, Emily.”
1. Tomorrow would be the day. After all the days, weeks, months, of waiting, I was suddenly scared. What if he didn’t remember me? What if he loved the ocean more and decided to never come home? What if we all showed up at the dock with our smiles ready and our arms open, and when every other little girl had her daddy, mine never showed? We had finished Book 5 last week and tonight there was nothing to take my mind off the worries of tomorrow. I didn’t rip the last link off the chain that night. I didn’t want tomorrow to come. I was terrified.
I was too terrified to bother my mother with my wonderings that night.
0. It was the day. No more links, no more days, or weeks, or months, no more waiting. I fidgeted nervously in the car, my young brother sound asleep in his car-seat, which was just as dark as that morning one hundred and eighty days ago. I was sure that he had forgotten me, and I buried my face into the seat. I did not want to go. I did not sleep in the car and the dock arrived faster than I wanted. Before I knew it we were in the shadow of the ship again; the flags were still as bright as the last time we were here. Then a stream of sailors flooded down the ramp, out of the belly of the vessel, and I saw my father headed towards our little group. He dropped his bags (they were never in order when he had “control” of them) and kissed my mother and brother. Then he swept a rather hesitant me into his arms once more and the scent of his Old Spice filled my nose again, but this time it was overshadowed by the smell of stale metal and fresh ocean air. He hadn’t forgotten me. He loved me just as much as the day he left.
He would always be my Daddy.
Emily is currently 17 years old and a cadet Commanding Officer of her NJROTC unit. She intends on becoming a Navy nurse.