In the spring of 2012 I learned that my husband would be departing shipboard life a year early to head to Afghanistan for a boots on ground deployment. I’m pretty sure upon hearing the news I had an out of body experience.
I can still see so clearly, exactly where I was, what I said, and what was happening around us. We were driving in our CRV down a road we traveled every day, and a few helicopters flew overhead. My husband and I had been watching re-runs of the show “Brothers and Sisters” and the evening before we had watched the episode where Justin, the youngest brother, tells his mother, that even after all the pain and trauma he has experienced in war, he wants to go back. So as the helicopters flew overhead, I absently commented, “Wouldn’t it be weird to live in a place where helicopters flying over your head mean war. Can you imagine being in such a place?”
And then, “So, I found out while I was on travel, that someone from the waterfront has to fill an IA billet to Afghanistan. Apparently I’m that someone.”
Life slowed to a crawl as we passed the elementary school we passed each time we drove to or from our house. My brain tried to grasp what he was saying. I was making small talk about a fictional character on a TV show… not real life. And that’s when I stopped being in my body-this is not real life. This can’t be happening. How? Why? When? Why? You? Why? Though a thousand questions were circling around in my head, I don’t remember asking one of them. I remember turning back toward the window and watching the juxtaposition of the helicopters flying over the elementary school on a perfect spring day, thinking life as I know it is over.
As arrangements and orders were made, and loose ends were tied up-I began to concoct an escape plan. I was going to drive all over the southern united States visiting friends and family with my 2 boys, ages one and two and a half in tow. It sounded legit. I wasn’t working, they weren’t in real school, why not? I wanted no part of real life-of this reality-I wanted to run away.
In the end I chose not to road trip, instead I ran back to that magical refuge sparkling on the Orlando horizon. Walt Disney World, the place who’s website actually says, “Escape to a World like no other. That’s the power of Magic.” I was all in for escaping and magic. If it worked before, surely it would work again.
This time I used Disney to escape not once, not twice, but three times. Something I never looked at until now.
My first escape was exactly a month after I put my husband on a plane to Afghanistan. I flew to Orlando for a long weekend with my former roommates from my time living and working at Disney a decade earlier. That escape was good for the soul. It was during Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival. The World Showcase Pavilion was packed with additional food carts featuring dishes from Australia to France and everything in between. My trip also coincided with the “soft” opening of the new areas of Fantasy Land. It was a dream, wandering the streets of Belle’s provincial town and going under the sea with Ariel in an all-new Little Mermaid ride. Gone was the reality of war, in it’s place princesses, food, wine, and girl time. Magical indeed.
My second escape began almost 10 years to the day that I had run to Disney for refuge during the middle of my junior year in college. This time, I convinced my parents and sisters that going to Disney would be a great idea; that for Christmas, my boys would be gifted a trip to Disney World and shortly after the turn of the New Year we would all go.
If my first escape this deployment was good for the soul, this trip was good for the heart. There is nothing like seeing your babies look at everything with excitement and wonder while simultaneously watching your parents and sisters delight over the boys’ delight. My boys were enamored with EVERYTHING. It was magic indeed.
A few days after returning to Virginia from our escape-cation, my husband called to let me know he had been granted R&R (rest and relaxation) leave. He would be coming home the first of March for two weeks before returning to finish out his sandbox deployment. One would think that this announcement would bring delight and excitement. It did not. It brought a lot of fear and anxiety over what life would be like during those 2 weeks. I knew only one thing for sure, we could NOT do our regular life routine of preschool, playdates, and workouts.
Adding my husband into a routine was easy. It was extracting him from the routine that was difficult, so I told him, “when you come home we have to go somewhere. We were not staying home. Period.” His response, “let’s go to Disney World!”
I could not have been more shocked. I had literally just finished paying for the first family trip, the trip I had saved for and planned for, for months! He could not seriously think that I could pull off another family trip in just six weeks. He did, so I did. (a post on the planning of this trip: Perfect Timing)
The second week of March my husband, my boys, and I boarded the Magical Express at the Orlando airport and headed back to Walt Disney World in search of a magical family experience that was devoid of reality. We were not going to spend our short time together obsessing over the elephant in the room: deployment was not over; it was temporarily on hold. At the end of the month he was headed back to Afghanistan at the start of fighting season and had several months left before he would be able to come home for good. This vacation served 2 purposes: to mask the reality of the situation with magic and to provide many photo opportunities of a vacation spent together as a family of 4, in case there would not be any more. This was the haunting, sobering reality I was running from. This trip may be our family’s first and our last.
If the other escapes had been good for the soul and the heart, this trip was good for the mind. We engaged in so many “magical moments;” getting the boys’ hair cut at the Magic Kingdom’s barber shop, watching the fireworks at Cinderella’s castle, and eating many meals with our favorite characters, that we could not think of anything else. The elephant, at least for the moment, sat outside and did not squash our family’s fun.
Looking back is an interesting practice. Sometimes it’s hard to do without staring and despairing over all the heartache, hurt, and unmet expectations. Other times it’s hard to do because you do it so quickly you gloss over all the things that have caused pain. Today, I am so grateful for the magical place that has proven itself as a refuge time and time again. I have wonderful memories from each of my times there. I am also equally as grateful to be able to look at why I escaped in the first place and be gentle enough with myself to know it’s what I needed then and one day I may need it again. And there it will be, sparkling in the Orlando sun. Magic.