The Secret to Southern Charm
Time had lost its meaning. I only realized it was night because the water outside my bedroom window at my mother’s home in Peachtree Bluff, Georgia, wasn’t blue anymore. It was black and shining like fresh-paved asphalt. But inside, in my room, on my TV, it wasn’t night. It was Saturday morning, the third precious birthday of my son Adam, Jr., or AJ, as we called him. My strong, national hero of a husband, in his off-duty khaki shorts and collared shirt, was holding our other son, six-month-old Taylor, in one arm. I was behind the camera cooing, “Smile for Daddy one more time. Can you smile for Daddy?” Taylor smiled. Who wouldn’t smile for the handsome man holding him?
It was almost funny to see that six-foot-three soldier with his big, sculpted arms and huge hands made for protecting holding that tiny baby. But Adam wasn’t just a strong and loyal soldier. He was my husband. He was my boys’ father. He was my home.
His arms were the only place I had truly felt safe, special, and loved. His smile was the one that changed my life, had convinced me to marry, to have children, to put myself out there and love this big. His heart was the one that, after a decade of feeling so terrorized by my father’s death, had made me feel safe again. Adam had changed absolutely everything.
His dark hair, peppered with gray, was buzzed short. His kind brown eyes twinkled at me through the camera as he said, “Three, Sloane. Can you believe he’s three?”
We were in front of our town house on post in North Carolina. Adam liked the idea of us being in a town home, of having other families close by. He didn’t say it, but he liked the idea of other families being close by because he wouldn’t always be around. It was inevitable. He felt like we were safe here when he was away.
The video panned over our house, a sweet Carolina blue with a front porch on a street, like all the streets on post, named after a World War II battle campaign. My mother had decorated the generic four-bedroom interior, converting one of the bedrooms into a playroom and sparing no expense on the open-floor-plan living room, dining room, and kitchen downstairs. It was almost embarrassingly beautiful.
We shared a driveway with my friend Maryanne and her husband, Tom, who was a part of Adam’s unit, and their four kids. Tom called, “Hey, Sarge!” and gave Adam a double thumbs-up. We were all still basking in the glow of Adam’s promotion to sergeant first class. There were a lot of perks that came with the job.
But hands down the perk that meant the most to Adam
was the respect, the feeling of a job well done. Junior enlisted soldiers would come to him, asking for advice, wanting his opinion. He always said he was raising men, and he didn’t just mean his sons. Those boys were his now, even though he wasn’t much older than some of them. It was his job to protect them, to instill in them morals, values, and a sense of pride in their country and in themselves.
Adam was an imposing man, a strong leader, but he also had a kind heart. Maybe the Army didn’t care about that. But I had to think his empathetic nature was a factor in his promotion.
We loved living there, surrounded by other military families, the only ones who could truly understand the life we had chosen.
Four of our favorite couples and their small children were scattered around our postage-stamp front yard, each of them, from the largest officer to Maryanne’s newborn baby, wearing a Mickey Mouse party hat. AJ was attempting to ride his new mini scooter through the grass, the red Keds and white Jon Jon with the red fire truck Mom had sent him for his birthday seeming more than a little out of place amidst the other children in their shorts and T-shirts.
My husband had protested the outfit, but I had simply kissed him and said, “Oh, sweetheart, he’s only little once. Let me have this.”
Adam had pulled me to him then, kissed me longer, and said, teasingly, “If you get the girly outfits, I get buying him a BB gun for his sixth birthday.”
This was a common joke between us. I was, ironically, very anti-gun. He was a soldier, a card-carrying member of the NRA, a proud Second Amendment supporter. We would never agree on this. We would never agree, in fact, on a number of things. But that’s what made us work.
Back on the screen we were all singing, “Happy birthday, dear AJ! Happy birthday to you!”
We cheered as it took him not one, not two, but three tries to blow out the three candles on his cake.
“Third time’s the charm?” Adam asked me, looking into the camera.
We both laughed, sharing that private moment, my favorite man in all the world holding one of our sons, his arm around the other.
Adam smiled into the camera, that special smile he reserved just for me, a secret we would never let the rest of the world in on. I hit pause on my sticky remote. Sticky from what I couldn’t say. Popsicle? Go-gurt?
I pulled the two down comforters I had wrapped around me up closer to my chin, trying to soothe the perceptible chill that ran through me as my mind pulled out of that world, where Adam was here and we were happy, and back into the present, the real world where life was bleak, empty, and so cold it felt like the depths of the arctic instead of a seventy-eight-degree night in Georgia.
My bed was covered with letters Adam had written me over the years, the ones I carried in a leather portfolio my mom had gotten me when I was accepted into art school. Whenever I
traveled, it was the first thing that went into my suitcase. This trip to Peachtree had been no exception. A few of the letters fluttered when I disturbed the comforter.
I glanced over at the nightstand to see my dinner untouched on its tray. My mom was trying, bless her heart. I almost smiled because nothing ever changed, not really. I did the same thing with my sons now, putting the broccoli on their plates even if I knew they wouldn’t take a single bite.
The mere thought of eating turned my stomach, made bile rise up the back of my throat. I couldn’t remember the last time I had even gotten out of this bed or had a sip of water. I certainly hadn’t bathed in far too long. How long had it been since I heard Adam was MIA? Two days, a week, a month? It terrified me. Who had been taking care of my children? Even if I couldn’t eat, I would bathe tomorrow. I would face my boys. But this was something I thought every day.
I looked back at the TV, studying Adam’s smiling face, so joyful and alive. He was my home. He was my everything. I sank even deeper into the covers, and the sobs, so powerful they seemed like they were in danger of stealing the very life from me, overtook me as I realized it: I may never be home again.