The airplane touched down in North Carolina an hour ahead of schedule, but I knew they would already be waiting for me. I said goodbye to my partner, Kyle, knowing I would see him when Christmas was over and we had to go back.
That's the truth, isn't it? We always have to go back in the end.
My carry-on bag was the only thing I had brought with me, so I carefully pulled it from the overhead compartment before slowly making my way off of the plane and into the airport.
After four connecting flights and thirty hours of non-stop travel, my family was waiting for me at the end of the terminal. I glanced down at my green army uniform and saw my name, United States Sergeant Donovan Hughes, embroidered into the tough fabric. It wasn't until times like these when I realized how important my title was. I'm a sergeant, serving my country. That's the only reason why I have to leave them. I'm a sergeant. Now, I have the chance to put down the title and just be daddy for the week.
I hadn't spoken to my beautiful wife, Laura, or my six-year-old daughter, Riley, in almost a month, but I had no doubts that they would be here today. I made my way down the terminal, picking up the pace as I got closer to the end. It was the moment I'd been patiently waiting for. I carefully ran a hand through my barely-there hair, cut short for my time on duty. Laura would be shocked when she saw me because she hadn't seen it this short before. It was then that I realized how much had changed, how much I had changed, and how much my family had changed. Riley was four the last time I saw her in person, and now she had just passed her sixth birthday. What if she doesn't even recognize me anymore? If I'm not daddy, who am I?
The moment I stepped off of the terminal, I heard a loud scream that was at least two pitches above the rest, one that made me grin and drop to my knees with my arms outstretched. A speeding bullet of a little girl came pushing through the throng of people and running straight for me, wiping the fear from my heart as if she was an eraser.
"DADDY!" Riley yelled, launching herself into my embrace. I knew I would never forget this moment, not ever. All of my doubts had disappeared. I had my girl back in my arms at last.
I felt tears well at the corner of my eyes as I held Riley away from me to get a good look at her. She definitely wasn't my baby girl anymore. Her hair was longer and straighter now, and her little skinny frame was at least another inch taller. I knew she was mine though, because she had the same beautiful green eyes as her mother. I gently pressed a kiss to her forehead, knowing I wouldn't get another chance like this. She wouldn't be this little for very much longer.
"Riley, where's Mommy?" I asked, standing up to look around for Laura. Riley stood and pointed to Laura's parents, who were waving at us frantically. I waved back, letting them know we were on our way over to the far side of the crowd.
"Mommy had to go to the bathroom, so she told me to wait with Grandma and Grandpa," Riley explained. She grabbed my big hand in her little fist and pulled me over to her grandparents, who both greeted me with happy hugs.
"Welcome home, Donovan," her mother whispered in my ear. I had just let go of her hug when the ladies restroom door opened, and my wife of seven years stepped out. At last, she was within walking distance of me. She tried to smooth her bright auburn hair before she turned and saw me standing there, staring straight at her. A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth.
The surprise was unbelievable. Her hand flew up to her mouth and her purse dropped to the ground with a thud. I could see, even from the distance we were standing apart, the happy tears forming at the corners of her eyes. She completely ignored everyone else and came running into my arms. Her arms were tight and she knocked the breath out of me, but I squeezed right back with the same strength, burying my face in her hair. She smelled the same as she had when I left, like chocolate and flowers.
After a few minutes, she pulled back to stare at me. She let out a giggle. "Your hair is really short." She reached up to run her fingers through it.
"Do you hate it?" I asked, pressing my forehead to hers.
"Absolutely not," she said suddenly serious, looking up at me in wonder. "My handsome husband is finally home, where he belongs." Finally, after months of being away from home, I kissed my wife for the first time.
When Thanksgiving came to an end and it was time for me to return to Afghanistan, it was bittersweet. I had spent every waking moment with my wife and daughter, but it still wasn't enough. I wasn't ready to leave them again. I felt like I was standing on the edge of a small cliff- ready to fall and break into pieces with only a little shove.
The day came at last when it was time for me to get back on the plane and return to my duty. We only had two hours until my flight was scheduled for departure and we had yet to leave the house, but Laura wasn't downstairs.
"Laura?" I called up the staircase. "Are you almost ready?" After a few seconds with no response, I sighed and trudged up the stairs, turning towards the bedroom we shared.
I opened the door slowly, but I quickly wished I hadn't. Laura was sitting on the bed with her head in her hands, crying. Laura's tears always brought tears to my eyes, and I didn't want her to see me cry today. I sat down and wrapped my arms around her small frame. "Baby, don't cry." My pleas only seemed to make her shake harder.
"I don't want you to go," she managed between sobs. "You just got home. They shouldn't get to take you away again."
"I know. I know it's hard. We knew it was going to be hard, remember?" I rubbed slow circles on her back and she eventually began to breathe evenly again. She sat up and wiped her eyes, which were red-rimmed now.
"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I don't know what came over me. I've always been so strong, telling myself this is a sacrifice you have to make, too. If you can do it, I can do it, right?" Her big green eyes were so full of hope despite the situation, and I suddenly knew it was another reason why I loved her so much.
I gently took her face in my hands and touched my lips to hers. It was a whisper of a kiss, but filled with all the same passion as a full one. "I'll be home soon, I promise. I'll miss you every second that I'm away."
"I'm holding you to that," she whispered against my mouth, savoring our final moments together.
Twenty minutes later, Laura was in the passenger seat of the car, staring out the window as I drove us to the airport. Riley was in the back seat, fast asleep. I glanced in the rearview mirror at my only daughter. I can't believe I have to leave them again.
I reached over and held Laura's hand for comfort. "You won't miss me too much, will you?" I asked, teasing.
Laura smiled, knowing I was kidding. "Not at all, of course." I grinned, but we drove the rest of the drive in silence, lost in our own thoughts.
When we finally arrived at the airport and woke Riley from her nap, she started kicking and screaming violently. She knew what was coming, and she refused to cooperate. "No! I don't want Daddy to go!" I picked her up and threw her over my shoulder, but she pounded her tiny fists on my back as we walked towards the glass doors. "No! You can't take Daddy away!"
I glanced at Laura and saw the clear emotion written on her face. It hurt her to see her daughter in so much pain when she couldn't do anything about it. I took her hand and we walked inside together, all the way to the gate.
Riley had stopped struggling and I put her down. She was crying now. Her little voice made my knees shake. "Daddy, please don't leave me. Mommy and I need you."
I could feel my heart breaking as I pulled Riley into the fiercest of hugs. "Daddy will be back soon, Riley. I promise when I come back, we can go on ice cream dates every day. I love you so much." Riley sniffled but nodded, finally resigned to the fact that I was leaving even though I didn't want to.
When I managed to pull away, I stood up to say goodbye to Laura. I put my hand to her cheek. "I'm so sorry." I meant it, too. Leaving was the hardest thing in the world to do and it's not even forever. I was sorry because I know it hurts her just as much as it hurts me.
"Don't be sorry," she assured me, smiling through her tears. "We'll be okay until you come home. The United States needs you, too."
I pulled her into a hug, and I could feel her shaking again. "I love you, Laura Hughes. If something happens to me…"
Laura snapped her head back. "Don't say that, Donovan. You should know better by now." Her eyes turned to fire. "You're not allowed to leave me."
"Okay. I won't." I meant it. I would do everything in my power to come home safe to them. I finally pulled away from Laura and picked up my bag. "Bye, Riley."
Laura picked up Riley, who sat on her hip and waved sadly. "Bye bye Daddy." She blew me a kiss, and so did Laura. I watched them wave until I couldn't see them anymore, and then I boarded the plane.
During takeoff, I watched out the window and waved to them as they waved to me from the big window, even though I knew they probably couldn't see me. Riley blew me one last kiss and I put my head in my hands, silent tears rolling down my face and splashing onto the seat like rain. How old will she be next time I come back? Seven? Nine? Eleven?
After a few minutes, we were up in the air, and I left North Carolina behind.
When we touched down in Afghanistan, I finally pulled out my cell phone, eager to call home. I stared in shock when I discovered I had almost 10 missed calls. I waited until we exited the plane to actually sit down in a chair by the gate and start calling back before I had to go back on duty.
The last one was from Laura's mom, so I called her first. "Hey, Karen, I just touched down. What's going on?"
When Karen spoke again, my heart fell and fear rose in my veins. Her voice was rough, and she sounded almost like she was choking back sobs.
"Karen? Karen, I don't understand you, what's wrong? Put Beck on the phone."
Beck, Laura's father, was the next one to come on the phone. "Beck, what is happening? Is Riley okay?" I was panicking now, wringing my hands as I walked through the airport towards the ticket counter. I have to go back. I have to go back.
Back in North Carolina, Beck shook his head in sadness. "I'm really sorry to be the one to tell you this, Donovan. But there's been an accident."
"What accident?" I asked through clenched teeth. It was my worst nightmare coming true, only I definitely wasn't asleep. I was thousands of miles away. This isn't happening. God, please tell me this isn't happening.
"I can't tell you this over the phone, Donovan," Beck said, refusing me. "I think it's time for you to come on home."
TO BE CONTINUED...