At 7:55 am Monday morning, the base loudspeakers blared the five-minute warning, alerting us to the upcoming daily broadcast of our National Anthem. I cracked an eyelid, squinting at the bright sun blasting persistently through our closed blinds. With a mop of tangled hair stuck to one side of my forehead, I heaved my torso reluctantly upward and let one foot fall to the floor.
“Why am I so tired?” I thought. And then, it dawned on me, “Oh, yeah … Francis retired from the Navy over the weekend.”
I made my way to the kitchen for fresh-brewed sustenance, noting the evidence of the weekend events along the way: my husband’s formal white uniform hanging from a knob on his dresser, relatives sleeping in kids’ beds, kids sleeping on the floor, flowers, cards, and gifts. Opening the fridge in search of cream, I found it still packed with leftover food from all the parties over the last couple of days.
I slumped at our kitchen table, inhaled the steam from my cup, and tried to remember it all.
Relatives and friends arrived on Thursday, enough to occupy a 40-room block at the base hotel. On Friday, we buzzed like bees. Did Hayden shave? Is Lilly’s skirt too short? Did Grams take her insulin? Does Father Joe need a ride to the reception? Does Uncle Frank know where to park? Will the rain stop before the tent party? Are my Spanx in the dryer?
Miraculously, everyone arrived to Spruance Hall on time. After speeches, awards, and a tear-jerking flag ceremony, Francis took the podium, drawing laughs when he said that his square-jawed boss, Admiral P. Gardner Howe, had to contemplate some of the most significant leadership and ethics issues facing the Navy, but was never able to solve the unanswerable riddle, “With such a chiseled physique, why didn’t Francis ever become a SEAL like me?”
At the end of his remarks, I thought I heard Francis’ voice crack as he said, “…and so, in just a few moments, as I figuratively load Lisa and the kids into the jolly boat and make way to the near shore, we will look back at this magnificent vessel that is the United States Navy, the finest in our world’s history, and forever hold our heads high with pride, honored and humbled by the fact that were allowed to be part of its crew for nearly three decades.”
My damp eyes turned into a full-on ugly cry face, as the poetic words of The Watch were recited. “For twenty-eight years, this Sailor has stood the watch … Today, we are here to say … ’Shipmate, you stand relieved.’ We have the Watch.”
Before I could find a tissue in my purse, Father Joe gave the Benediction, the Orders were read, and, to the tune of the bosun’s whistle, Francis, the kids and I where whisked over the red carpet flanked by saluting sideboys — a ritual symbolizing being “piped ashore” for the last time.
Minutes later, we were caught in a whirlwind of guests, chatter, drinks and food that started at our reception, and continued on to a tent party for over 150 out-of-town guests, where we danced like fools until the wee hours. Running on less than four hours of sleep, we threw an afternoon tailgate party at a local polo match on Saturday, and everyone came back to our house for pizza until after midnight.
Somehow, by the grace of God and a sugar-free Red Bull, I made it to the 9:00 am mass Father Joe organized for everyone in our yard on Sunday morning, where we gathered one last time. At the end of his homily, Father Joe asked our backyard congregation of lingering family and friends the question posed by poet Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your wild and precious life?”
As I sipped my coffee on Monday morning, I realized that we have no idea what is in store for us next. After 28 years in the Navy, it’s hard to contemplate civilian life.
Like all things, it will take time. And meanwhile, we will find comfort in the “mal de débarquement” — the feeling that we are still on board the ship, swaying, rocking, sailing toward the endless horizon.