My wife Robin and I are blessed with four children; as she is fond of saying, we have “one of each.” In raising them, we have come to understand the true miracle of creation.
A beautiful Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin teaches that though God creates every human being from the seal of primordial Adam, no two people are the same. Every human being in unique. And so it is with children. As parents, we learn that despite the fact that our children all come from the same gene pool, each child that we bring into the world is destined to fashion a path in life all his/her own. Though we labor mightily to be the best parents we can be, in the end, we become onlookers– in the best case, beloved onlookers– in their lives.
Having just returned from a brief but wonderful long weekend with our son and daughter-in-law and two beautiful grandchildren in Orlando, we now prepare to welcome back to this country our daughter and son-in-law, and granddaughter, from a three-year Navy posting as a chaplain in Okinawa, Japan. They have already moved out of their apartment, and are beginning the long journey home (both literally and figuratively) on Sunday, baby and dog in tow.
As you might imagine, Robin and I are delighted that they are returning to the United States, and so proud that our son-in-law Yoni will be serving as the new Jewish chaplain at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Whenever people ask me how we’re feeling about their return, I place my hands out in front of me, palms up, like two sides of a scale, and say “let’s see… three-and-a half hour drive on two tanks of gas on the one hand, or seventeen hours of flying for close to $2000 on the other. I’ll take the drive!”
But, of course, the time and expense of keeping in close touch with Yoni and Leora is the least of the story of the past three years, for them and for us. In truth, today’s technology (Skype, Facetime, Vonage, etc.) has made it immeasurably easier for us to be intimately involved with their lives on a daily basis that it ever was for generations past of service families. Even thinking back to my own junior year of college, spent on the One Year Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1071-72, calls home were an expensive and inconvenient luxury that involved a trip to the post office. We lived in the world of aerograms (remember aerograms??), and waiting for the mail to come to hear from family and friends. No cellphones either! For us, the hardest part of speaking with our children these past three years has been negotiating the time difference (Okinawa in fourteen hours ahead of us here in the Northeast), and learning that saying Shabbat Shalom meant calling or skyping on Thursday night.
Over the three years of Yoni and Leora’s time in Okinawa, Robin and I have spent a good amount of time there– as much as our schedules would allow, and, when the baby was born in August, more still. But even when our stays were extended, we always, inevitably, went home. They stayed, we went home.
That’s never an easy thing to do, and it wasn’t easy for us, whether leaving Orlando or Okinawa. It always left me feeling like I had, inevitably, become my parents, who would come for the day or for a Shabbat to see the children, and then go home. I’m still more than a little befuddled by that transition– not exactly sure when it happened.
But in the case of Yoni and Leora’s departure, there are, for me, additional dimensions of emotional overlay to their finishing up this tour of duty.
It is certainly true that I never adequately appreciated the love of country that informs the lives of those in military service. Those men and women who, of their own volition, join the military and put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms are possessed of an appreciation of the blessings of America that we far too often lose sight of. They are brave beyond our understanding, and their pride in service has enabled me to far better understand and be concerned with how they are treated by our government, both during and after their service.
But what I have also learned—and this I had no idea of at all– is how very difficult it is to live your life in three-year units of time; what it does to your family, to your friendships, to your children. I remember Pug Henry, Herman Wouk’s memorable hero in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, comparing military families to tumbleweeds, blown from place to place, and I am only now realizing what he meant.
Whether or not you are happy with where you are posted, and Yoni and Leora were not at all enthused about being sent to Okinawa, the friendships that you make along the way are all that you have to sustain you. Robin and I were privileged to meet a lot of those friends, mostly Christian chaplain families, and they were, to a one, lovely, supportive of our children, and of each other. That’s the way it works in the military…. But then you leave. Sometimes, like tumbleweed, you get blown back into the lives of people that you’ve met along the way, but mostly not. From where I sit, that is sad indeed.
While in Okinawa, Yoni and Leora wrote a blog that chronicled their adventures. Robin and I loved it, as did many others. Here is the link to the final entry, written by Leora. It brought tears to my eyes, and it might to yours, but if nothing else, it will help you appreciate what it means to give real service to your country. I couldn’t be more proud of them.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.