Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas After Christmas

Early Friday morning, I drive to New Orleans airport, just as I do every four weeks. It may be three days after Christmas, but today is my Christmas Eve: I'll fly from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to San Francisco, then catch the commuter flight to Redding.

My flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco is delayed. My heart sinks. San Francisco doesn't meet the criteria for "simultaneous instrument approaches." Although SFO, like most big airports, has parallel runways to accommodate greater traffic, those runways aren't far enough apart to allow simultaneous approaches when the weather gets bad. I'm supposed to get home in the late afternoon, but now I just hope that I get home before my son goes to sleep.

I arrive in SFO, and thankfully, my commuter flight outbound is delayed as well. I'll be delayed by an hour instead of a few hours. I feel much better as the turboprop Brasilia lefts off. There is always the chance that Redding will be below landing minimums, but in the eight years I've been making this commute, following the close of PHI's Santa Barbara base, that's never happened.

I end up sitting across from a young guy in a Navy uniform. I ask him if he's going home for the holidays. "Yeah," he answers, "I'm heading home for the first time in a year-and-a-half. I'm really looking forward to spending nine days at home." It turns out that the young man is returning from the Middle East. I ask him what he's been doing. "Special Ops," he answers. If you've been in the military, you know that the "Special Ops" answer translates to, "I was in combat, and I can't tell you much about what I did." The guy looks young enough to be a junior in high school, except for his eyes. His eyes look much older.

He tells me that he grew up in Redding, and that when he gets out of the service, he plans to spend the rest of his life there. He plans to become a teacher, and thanks to the proliferation of non-traditional college courses, he's working on his teaching credential. He mentions his fiance'. I find myself thinking that twenty-one seems so young to get married. But then, the guy seems so grounded, so wise for his years. He and his girlfriend have been together for nine years. I find myself thinking about my friend Ren, who was a Navy Helldiver pilot near the end of World War II. He and his wife have been sweethearts since before they started high school, and they have great-grandchildren now. I smile, inwardly. "They'll make a go of it," I think to myself.

We land in Redding, disembark, and I watch as the young man's parents, girlfriend, grandparents, siblings, and cousins mob him. I walk out of the terminal with a smile on my face. At the same time, though, I feel a tinge of guilt. It's the sort of guilt I often feel after talking with military men and women returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, especially those with families. After all, I'm away for only two weeks at a time, and my wife doesn't have to worry about losing me to a bullet or a roadside bomb. When I compare my lot to those doing a tour over there, I think that I shouldn't feel sorry for myself. But as I start the car, I sweep that little feeling of guilt away. I'm going home.

The next morning, I enjoy the "real Christmas" with my wife and son. I'm touched by how Dylan is more concerned with watching me open my presents than opening his. He's getting older.

I suspect that most members of the Away-Dad Nation would admit that the first day or so at home isn't always instant nirvana. A certain reconnection process goes on between a returning dad and family. Sometimes, it's awkward, even painful. Thankfully, it doesn't last so long.

We open our gifts. Snow falls outside, but it doesn't stick for long. We decide to drive up to a higher elevation to play in the snow. We spend a couple of hours throwing snowballs and building a snowman. When we get home in the late afternoon, Dylan asks me to carry him from the car to the house, because he's taken his shoes off. I pick him up out of the car, hold him close, and kiss his head. I marvel at how heavy he's getting. I reflect that the day will come when he doesn't ask me to carry him anymore. I hug him a little tighter. He grunts. "Daddy, you're squishing me," he says.

It's been a wonderful Christmas after Christmas.

3 comments:

Roland said...

Merry Christmas!

Redlefty said...

Nice!

David said...

Smiling here, THAT's Christmas.