How I learned to stop worrying and love the boat
May 8, 2009
(Rosemary Howard shares a story about living the military life with husband Navy Lt. John Howard, who is attending Naval Post-graduate School in Monterey, Calif., in Naval Station Norfolk for Military Spouse Day.)
My husband spends his days inside another woman. Figuratively, of course. Submarines, like surface ships, are referred to in the feminine. And in the past I have been more jealous of "Her", the submarine upon which he serves, than I have of any human female since my marriage began. It is not easy being envious of a machine. There are some major issues to contend with including: - She is bigger than me and would easily win in a fight. - She knows when to be quiet. - I can't hold my breath that long. That the submarine required so much attention was not the only thing with which I was taking issue. I was mad that my husband had to leave me. I was upset that we were stationed in such a humid climate. And I was most angry with myself. Why did I marry a man who I knew would leave me on a regular basis to go off and fight wars with which I did not agree' My attitude towards the burden and privilege of being a free American wore heavily on our relationship. Gratitude did not come easily or gracefully to me the first few months onboard. I was horribly insensitive to the needs of my husband and those serving with him. Selfishness seeped into every moment of my day. Then one day, while my husband was out to sea and I was bobbing in my own ocean of self-pity, I was reminded of something said by my mother. She said, "In life there are so many things that cannot be controlled, but the most important that can and must be tamed and cultivated is one's mind and attitude." I had to find a way to be grateful and at peace or I knew my unhappiness would consume me completely. This led to some soul-searching questions that I probably should have explored when I was in college and had access to mind altering substances. The focus of my inquiry included the questions: Who am I' Who do I want to be' What gives me the right to exist as I see fit' How can I be happy' I convinced myself to get involved with life in ways I would not have dared before. I can be painfully shy and putting myself "out there" gradually became more and more a part of my life. At times I consider myself fairly independent, and a bit of a free spirit. The idea that someone would be beholden to a machine built for war was not a concept with which I was totally at ease. But the freedom to be ungrateful (at first) and then to write these words (and misuse grammar) comes from the tremendous sacrifices made by people willing to serve this country - my husband among them. Thanks, Babe! I want to be a person that I would want to come home to for my husband and myself. So I shared him. I had no choice if I wanted to stay married. I spent the time I could onboard, bringing him meals and watching movies together when he had duty, sharing him with the machine that requires constant attention every hour of every day. And through this sharing I came to love my husband even more, and yes, I even learned to love the boat. Those times onboard, when the a/c was overwhelming and we froze so I had to wear his jacket, and the smell of diesel and amine seemed to overwhelm the senses, I keep those moments for when he is gone and I long for the chemical smell as a reminder of how close we are. I want her to work well, to keep him safe and silent in his travels and she does. They have a totally symbiotic and co-dependant relationship and in this instance, I am fine with that, mostly because I know it is temporary. We just have to take it one day at a time. I tend to think of the bees and their queen, the alligators and the birds that clean their teeth. Neither would survive without the other. I do not feel comfortable as part of that equation. Perhaps I am like the naturalist, studying the species that is the military from a connected but decidedly outside perspective. And I am okay with that. I don't care all that much for bugle music and I hate to get up early, so my actually joining is right out of the question. But my husband thrives on his career and it makes me almost disgustingly proud to know that he is happy in a job that he knows how to do well. And none of this would be possible without the other woman: the submarine. Yes, I know the jokes. 140 men go down, 70 couples come back up, har har, but I think it is more than that. 140 men go down and one relationship is the outcome, polyandrous though it may be - every man and the ship come back up as a unit. Those that care about their sailors are included in this relationship. It is a crazy hodgepodge family that, though sometimes dysfunctional, is still a pretty good deal with the right leadership. We were fortunate enough to have a captain that was sensitive to the needs of the families on land and that made a huge difference. Morale went up onboard and off. When all else failed, I reminded myself that this was just a temporary part of his career. I wept bitterly when he was gone and at the same time learned the importance of solitude and of just being able to be with myself and be okay with that. I also learned to lean on and be leaned on by other women in similar situations. It is okay to cry, to be alone, to ask for help, and to help in return. It was a remarkable opportunity for gratitude and spiritual growth and I admit I didn't always take advantage of it consciously. But deep down I think I knew that ultimately I had to be comfortable with myself and be able to rely on myself. I learned to be comfortable in my own skin. I also lost weight by working out, went to school, made great friends, got a job, cried until the endorphins kicked in, and ate whatever I felt like, whenever I felt like it. The fact that I love someone so deeply as to cry over missing him (and sleep in his clothes that still smell faintly of him) is a miracle, and though it was painful, I am glad that my heart was so full. The reunion was a bit of an adjustment to say the least. But it was a good experience and kind of fun to get to know this person I love so much all over again. What a strange concept: you know this person is the love of your life but you have to get to know them again. Seems kind of backwards. But life in the military can be backwards and chaotic and full of the reminders that we learned in kindergarten such as "Share, play nicely with others, and let the people you love know you care about them." And that is what makes a successful life - in or out of the military - worth the time and energy of living.