My daughter, Staff Sergeant Daylena Gonzalez, is coming home. She’s been serving with the U.S. Air Force in Djibouti, Africa, for six months. Her husband, U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Ernesto Gonzalez, is still in Iraq, where he has been for the past year. Where am I? I am in Long Beach, California, serving as a sole caregiver for their son, my grandson, 2-year-old Marcus.
This morning, everything I do causes me to reflect that this is the last time I will do it. The last day that I will dress Marcus. The last time I will pack his lunch and his backpack before dropping him off at day care.
Marcus has become my confidant (even though he rarely knew what I was talking about, he always listened and acted like he did), my running mate, my baby and my touchstone (he was always there to comfort me, though he didn’t understand why I was sad).
Am I about to become just another relative?
I load Marcus in his car seat and look at his face in the rearview mirror. There were times when I thought I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t care for Marcus full-time. In those times, I talked to my mother in heaven and begged her to help me; if anyone could, it was she. And, as always, my mother, Grace Irene Smith, reminded me taht I am strong. “You’re my daughter, and you can do anything.” I always remind Daylena of the same thing.
Traffic is light this time of morning; I’m able to reminisce about when I took Marcus to the park. We stood at the edge of the pond, threw pieces of bread in the water and laughed as the ducks fought for the prize. Suddenly, close by, there was a loud quacking.
A flock was running toward us. “Marcus, run!” I screamed. “Drop the bread!” He ran toward me, away from them, but still with a whole piece of breat in his hand. “Drop the bread!” I repeated. These ducks were not about to stop, and his little legs couldn’t go fast enough. I snatched the bread, threw it at the charging flock, swooped Marcus into the stroller and, pushing him, took off running.
It is so early in the morning that the baggage claim area is like a ghost town. Marcus runs around and around the carousels, and I’m chasing him.
I check the “arrivals” screen: Daylena’s plane has landed. I am eager to see my baby girl – ecstatic that she’s coming home safely, for although there has not been a war raging in Djibouti, there have been violence and civil unrest.
Marcus and I walk toward the door she’ll be entering into the baggage claim area. I catch sight of Daylena’s face and wave. Marcus springs from my arms and runs into her open arms.
What a reunion! I’m so happy I could cry. But wait, I am crying. My daughter gives me a quick hug and kiss on the cheek before returning her gaze to her son.
We gather her luggage and leave LAX heading down the 405 freeway toward Long Beach for breakfast. While we eat, we chat about Daylena’s life in Africa. Marcus interrupts frequently, but only to talk to Daylena; Gramma no longer matters.
Just like that, I am not needed to cut up pancakes or help him with the syrup. Mommy is home.
At home, while Daylena takes a shower, Marcus lets himself out the back door to play. He isn’t able to get back in without the help of a grown-up, so when he is ready, he stands by the back door and yells, “Knock, knock!” as he always does. I open the back door. He pushes it closed. “No! No! I want my mommy to do it.”
A week later, we’re back at LAX. Daylena and Marcus are going home, to St. Louis.
I hold back the tears until I’ve pulled away from the curb.
At home, every fingerprint, every stain on the carpet reminds me of Marcus. Every broken Matchbox car I find brings a tear to my eye. I can’t take his toys out of the bin in my shower. For a short time, I can’t even take out the trash that holds his stinky diaper. I can’t let him go, but he’s already gone. My heart is officially broken, and the only bandages I have are decorated with dinosaurs.